History and beaches abound in St. Augustine


Visitors may enjoy a carriage ride in the historic district.

By Victor Block

In 1607, a small band of settlers founded the first permanent English outpost in the Americas, Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia. At that time, another town had existed since 1565 in a different part of the New World.

Last year, St. Augustine, Fla., which traces its roots to that 16th-century settlement, celebrated its 450th anniversary, making it the oldest continuously occupied European community in the country.

Given its history, St. Augustine offers visitors a setting which captures both the stories and an authentic atmosphere of its colorful past.

The Colonial Quarter is a good place to begin exploring. The neighborhood is a living history museum, with emphasis on the first word. A blacksmith, carpenter and other costumed historic interpreters combine facts with fun as they help onlookers relive the way things were over the centuries.

They recall the expedition led by Don Pedro Menendez-de Aviles, a Spanish admiral, who arrived in 1565 and set up an encampment near a Timucuan Indian village.

Menendez wasn’t the first Spanish explorer to come ashore in the region. In 1513, Ponce de Leon led an expedition seeking to find uncolonized islands, a journey that gave birth to the legend of the Fountain of Youth. A fable about vitality-restoring waters was familiar at the time, but there is no evidence that de Leon was searching for the potion. Somehow accounts of his supposed quest found their way into history books after his death and the story stuck.

The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park occupies the place where Menendez encountered the friendly Timucua people and established the settlement which evolved into present-day St. Augustine. Attractions include a reconstructed portion of the Indian village, ship-building and other exhibits, and cannon and weapons demonstrations.

Other than a brief interlude, St. Augustine remained under Spain’s rule until the United States gained possession by treaty in 1821. That accounts for the Mediterranean architecture and other reminders of Spanish influence.

Reminders of those early years abound. The Gonzalez-Alvarez house, aka “The Oldest House,” was constructed in 1720s. It’s part of a small museum complex that traces 400 years of life in St. Augustine.

Records date the Oldest Wooden School House to 1716. Speaking animatronic figures of the schoolmaster and pupils introduce themselves and describe a typical day of classes. One boy is wearing a dunce cap, the penalty for not knowing his lesson.

Visitors encounter ghosts, or at least tales about them, at the Old Jail. This historic Victorian-style building housed criminals from 1891 to 1953. The gallows in back were used to administer capital punishment, and explain why the property is one among many in town that is said to be haunted by spirits.

Because of its role at a time of exploration and conflict in the New World, St. Augustine has its share of forts. Most imposing is the Castillo de San Marcos, a massive 17th-century stronghold built by the Spanish to defend the Florida coastline. Some rooms surrounding the central courtyard are furnished to reflect garrison life, while others contain exhibits about military history.

A different story comes to light at the site of Fort Mose (Moh-say). In 1738, a group of slaves who had escaped from British colonies built a log fortress and founded the first free community of ex-slaves. While the original structure is long gone, a small museum describes the events by videos, exhibits and objects found during archaeological digs.

St. Augustine is an archaeologist’s dream location. A wealth of artifacts has been uncovered and many more remain buried beneath its streets and buildings.

Some 100,000 artifacts have been unearthed at the Fountain of Youth Park including Indian pottery, carved beads and shell tools. Evidence of the Spanish settlement ranges from religious amulets to olive jars. There’s often a dig under way somewhere in the city which interested visitors may observe.

While historic sites are the main reason why most people visit St. Augustine, it also manages to keep one foot planted firmly in the present. Sun worshippers find a choice of inviting beaches that stretch some 40 miles north.

The two-mile long beach at Anastasia State Park consists of gleaming white quartz sand. A statue of Ponce de Leon guards the towering dunes and shell-laden shore of Ponte Vedra Beach, which he spotted during his 1513 journey.

A beach watched over by Ponce de Leon makes a fitting symbol for what awaits visitors to St. Augustine. While history is the biggest draw, the oldest city in the country is home to enough variety to appeal to people of all ages and many interests.

For more information, call 800- 653-2489 or visit floridashistoriccoast.com.