Cameras in hand, we're prowling the streets of historic St. Augustine on a ghost tour one moonlit night when a thought occurs: Can you focus on an apparition, or are ghosts just inherently blurry?
As I ponder the technical aspects of photographing the disembodied, a lantern-toting guide leads our group of paranormal paparazzi along the narrow, hushed corridors of the nation's oldest city. On St. Francis Street, our leader—a glib young man in formal clothing—pauses to spin a tale of intrigue beside a garden wall pockmarked with age. Overhanging the wall's weathered bricks, the branches of a moss-swathed live oak seem to bend nearer, eavesdropping on a story the old tree has probably heard countless times in this venerable city on Florida's northeast coast.
We've been given ghost-hunting devices (a.k.a. electromagnetic field detectors), handheld plastic gizmos with a five-color array of LEDs straight out of Homeland Security. If the lights register above yellow/elevated, we're at high risk of an otherworldly photo opportunity. Click, pop. Shutters are pressed and flashes flicker. Swept up in St. Augustine's aura of mystery, we're snapping away at anything the LEDs alert us to: a monastery-turned-military barracks, a Mansard-roofed former boarding house, the forlorn Huguenot Cemetery, the broad sea wall bordering the Matanzas River (known locally as Matanzas Bay).
Should I feel foolish or ghoulish, I wonder, stalking the specters of St. Augustine's checkered past: soldiers and pirates, ill-fated lovers and broken-hearted widows, yellow fever victims and shackled prisoners, Gilded Age high-rollers and a judge in eternal quest of his purloined gold teeth. Neither sentiment is appropriate, really, as I'll come to discover on my first Oldest City visit. Ghost stories are simply part of the heritage of this romantic place that conjures more of the Old World than the New with its red tile roofs, gleaming church spires, gated gardens, and sounds of horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping down brick streets.
Founded by Spain in 1565, St. Augustine peaceably alternated allegiances three times over the centuries while violently resisting regime change on other occasions. Under Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Spanish forces arrived to block French Huguenot settlers from claiming the territory long before the English settled the New World. Spanish colonists fought off repeated British attempts to capture the city before the first Treaty of Paris in 1763 accomplished the deed with only ink shed. Two more treaties handed St. Augustine back to Spain and then eventually the United States in 1821. In the late 19th century, industrialist Henry Flagler staked his claim to the city on behalf of the East Coast elite and St. Augustine has remained a popular destination for visitors ever since.
Maybe it's the water in Ponce de Leon's fabled Fountain of Youth (enshrined at one of a clutch of Old Florida tourist attractions at the north edge of town), but St. Augustine wears its four-plus centuries well. And the arrival of cigar bars, bistros, and a four-diamond hotel heralds a resurgence in upscale cachet not seen since Flagler's titans of capitalism wintered here more than a century ago.
What to See
To appreciate St. Augustine's turbulent history, begin your explorations at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (1 South Castillo Drive, 904-829-6506, nps.gov/casa), the imposing 17th century bayside fortress built by the Spanish to thwart attacks by land or sea. Frequently besieged by the British (once for 50 days), it never fell to the enemy. On self-guided or National Park Service tours, you'll see messages scrawled centuries ago by Spanish guards on the walls of their quarters, enjoy spectacular views of the city and Matanzas Bay from the fort's bastions, and learn the buzzword of local architecture: coquina (ko-KEE-na). Quarried across the bay on Anastasia Island, this shellstone was used not only in the Castillo's stout walls—where the porous material reportedly absorbed cannon shot—but many of the city's colonial era structures as well.
Don't miss: Musket and cannon demonstrations Friday through Sunday.
You're likely to encounter St. Augustinians in period costume almost anywhere (my husband and I watched a band of buccaneers "sack" the shopping district one evening), but their highest concentration can be found in the Colonial Spanish Quarter on lower St. George Street, a brick-paved pedestrian thoroughfare. Interpreters ply traditional 18th century trades and contemporary shopkeepers do a brisk business in everything from Birkenstocks to fresh-baked breads in this living history enclave. Savor homemade empanadas straight from the wood-fired oven at the Spanish Bakery (42 1/2 St. George Street, 904-471-3046), where locals munch lunch at tree-shaded picnic tables.
Don't miss: The Spanish Quarter's hottest act, the Bilge Rats, sea chantey singers performing Saturday nights (and some Fridays) at the low-ceilinged, candle-lit Taberna del Gallo public house (35 St. George Street).
Not all of St. Augustine's preserved glory traces to Ponce de Leon and colonial publicans. Flagler, an oil baron and railroad tycoon bent on transforming the sleepy city into "the Newport of the South," operated a trio of grand hotels here beginning in the late 1800's. The first and most exclusive, Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in 1887, was a masterpiece of Spanish Renaissance architecture featuring soaring red-roofed towers, shaded loggias, and a massive fountain emulating de Leon's. Flagler's former Gilded Age resort has been restored and is now part of Flagler College (74 King Street), which offers one-hour student-led tours of the opulent halls where Astors, Rockefellers, and Roosevelts once swaggered (call 904-823-3378 for information). Highlights include the rotunda's soaring gilt ceiling and Thomas Edison-designed clock as well as the dining hall's banks of original Tiffany stained glass windows.
Of Flagler's other hotels, the Alcazar (1889) now houses City Hall and the Lightner Museum (75 King Street, 904-824-2874, lightnermuseum.org) with its glittering Victorian decorative arts collection, while the Cordova (1888) lived several existences before its modern reincarnation as the deluxe Casa Monica Hotel (more on this gem of a hotel later).
Don't miss: Another elaborate Flagler-commissioned edifice, Memorial Presbyterian Church (32 Sevilla Street), modeled after St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice and dedicated to Flagler's daughter, who died while giving birth.
The city's landmark Bridge of Lions is undergoing repairs after a half century of service spanning the river, so you'll need to take its temporary replacement to Anastasia Island's prime attractions, the 1874 St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum (81 Lighthouse Avenue, 904-829-0745, staugustinelighthouse.com), a 165-foot beacon open for climbing, and the nearly as historic St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park (999 Anastasia Boulevard, 904-824-3337, alligatorfarm.com), whose toothy denizens have been delighting/frightening tourists since before the Roosevelt administration (Teddy's).
Don't miss: Two natural rarities—endangered northern right whales, which cruise their offshore calving grounds from late November to March (watch from atop the lighthouse for their paddle-like flippers and V-shaped spray), and the zoo's ghostly, rosy-eyed albino alligators, imports from Louisiana.
What to Do
One of the most romantic seasons to visit the city is winter. From mid-November (starting November 17 this year) through January, the Nights of Lights celebration sets downtown St. Augustine atwinkle as two million tiny white lights outline roofs, railings, balconies, archways, spires, dormers, trees, hedgerows, even anchored boats. It's the city's multi-watt homage to the Spanish custom of displaying lighted white candles for the holidays.
With its pedestrian-friendly streets, St. Augustine is made for nighttime strolling to admire this luminous display. Follow one of these walks we enjoyed during our visit—all beginning at the city's park-like public square, Plaza de la Constitucion—or blaze your own trail.
Café/Club Circuit: North on Charlotte Street, left on Hypolita Street (mini loop) or Cuna Street (full loop), then left on St. George Street to the plaza. Sights: Stone houses with rough-hewn wooden balconies; cafes featuring walled courtyards and splashing fountains.
Waterfront Promenade: East on Cathedral Place past the statue of Ponce de Leon to the promenade (sea wall) and south to Castillo de San Marcos. Retrace your steps or return via the parallel Avenida Menendez. Sights: Matanzas Bay and the lights of Anastasia Island, the Bridge of Lions, and the eerily floodlit fort.
Flagler Foray: West on King Street, right on Sevilla Street, right on Carrera Street, right on Cordova Street to return to King. Sights: the Gilded Age splendor of Casa Monica Hotel, Flagler College, and the Lightner Museum; several of St. Augustine's most beautiful churches.
Tip your tricorn to the city's British heritage December 1 at the Night Watch Parade (formerly the Grande Illumination), when costumed "troops" lead a lighted procession from the plaza to the old City Gate. After a return trip and celebratory round of musket fire (the "volley of joy") caroling commences at the plaza.
Admire more than two dozen festively decorated inns during the St. Augustine Historic Inns Annual Holiday Tour December 8 and 9. There are 26 member inns in this B&B consortium and each opens its doors for this popular fundraiser which also features treats prepared by the city's leading restaurants.
Get into the spirits of St. Augustine by taking one of the numerous ghost tours that represent something of a cottage industry here. Walk, ride a hearse or trolley, even pub crawl in search of ghoulies. We boarded the jet-black Ghost Train operated by Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum (170 San Marco Avenue, 904-824-1606, redtrains.com) for an adventure that concluded with an after-hours tour of the darkened museum/castle once owned by novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Imagine yourself aboard the Black Pearl while taking a one-hour schooner tour of Matanzas Bay (which takes its name from the Spanish word for massacres) in pursuit of "Ghosts of the Matanzas." Reservations required (904-461-1009, ghosttoursofstaugustine.com).
Where to Stay
Lodging ranges from the gracious grandeur of the Moorish Revival Casa Monica Hotel (95 Cordova Street, 800-648-1888, casamonica.com) with its multistory tower suites and luxury linens, to the funky frugality of the Pirate Haus Inn (32 Treasury Street, 904-808-1999, piratehaus.com), a hostel with pirate flags for window curtains and bunkbed or private rooms starting at under $20 per night.
The king and queen of Spain were among the early guests at the painstakingly restored Casa Monica when it opened under the management of the Kessler Group in 1999. The AAA four-diamond hotel is the crème de la crème of St. Augustine accommodations—the Hotel Ponce de Leon of its era.
Another lodging option is one of the city's historic inns. Contentment marked our stay at the Inn on Charlotte (52 Charlotte Street, 800-355-5508, innoncharlotte.com), a romantic, antiques-filled 1918 residence once owned by the mayor. Over glasses of wine on the porch one afternoon, we watched two cats in deep siesta on a neighborhood balcony and reveled in our proximity to things we hold dear: a coffee bar, a chocolate shop, al fresco dining, and a locals' spot that serves a mean molé sauce. The inn offers eight rooms (seven with whirlpool tubs), nourishing breakfasts, and special events such as cooking classes and book signings. (Ruxton native and aviatrix Janet Lee Simpson was autographing copies of her memoir Heart of a Lion during our stay.)
The city's oldest continuously operating inn (dating to 1791), the St. Francis Inn (279 St. George Street, 800-824-6062, stfrancisinn.com) offers 14 rooms and amenities that include whirlpool tubs, fireplaces, and balconies overlooking a courtyard blooming with bougainvillea. It is also perhaps the only local B&B that advises guests to "let the innkeepers know if you have a paranormal experience." Bizarre occurrences have been reported in one third-floor room with a tragic past.
You might mistake it for a B&B, but the 72-roomHilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront (32 Avenida Menendez, 904-829-2277, staugustinehistoricbayfront.hilton.com) is in truth the smallest member of that international hotel chain. Embellished with Spanish Colonial-style balconies, the hotel boasts unbeatable views of Matanzas Bay from its waterside rooms and deluxe rooms.
Where to Eat
The rich fabrics, beaded lights, and soaring archways in the Casa Monica's acclaimed 95 Cordova (904-810-6810, 95cordova.com), made us believe we were dining with sultans. So did the decadent olive and blue cheese-crusted filet mignon. The restaurant's eclectic menu reflects Moroccan, Mediterranean, Asian, and American influences with an emphasis on fresh seafood.
Challenging 95 Cordova's culinary status is upstart neighbor Opus 39 (39 Cordova Street, 904-824-0402, opus39.com), which inhabits a former art gallery down the street. By the looks of the standing-room crowd awaiting tables one Saturday night, this sleek bistro—whose contemporary artworks reflect its past life—has wooed a legion of faithful foodies. Happily, if you must wait you can do so in the adjacent wine room, sipping prospective pairings for the monchong (similar to snapper), bison, ostrich, and other exotic entrees that tend to appear on the prix fixe menu.
Seek a sightseeing respite with a pitcher of minty mojitos (prepared tableside) and plates of savory tapas at Columbia Restaurant (98 St. George Street, 800-227-1905, columbiarestaurant.com), a Florida institution for Cuban/Spanish fare. Use hunks of crusty Cuban bread—which arrive wrapped in tissue-thin white paper—to soak up such delectable leftovers as the garlicky wine broth from a plate of delicately broiled scallops.
The appeal of St. Augustine includes finding your own special places. We managed to forage quite nicely within a block of our Charlotte Street lodgings: on a leek, asparagus, and chorizo frittata under a canvas umbrella in the courtyard of La Pentola (58 Charlotte Street, 904-824-3282, lapentolarestaurant.com); on fried eggs smothered in homemade poblano-mole sauce at Casa Maya (17 Hypolita Street, 904-823-1739), a vegetarian cafe; and on handmade coconut, fresh ginger, and chili-spiced Belgian chocolates at Claude's Chocolate (15 Hypolita Street, 904-808-8395, claudeschocolate.com).
There's good eating to be had outside the city too. After touring the Alligator Farm, we had no qualms sampling deep-fried gator tail at the Beachcomber Restaurant (2 A Street off U.S. A1A, 904-471-3744), an oceanside surfers' hangout nearly one with the dunes. If you'd prefer not to eat what you've just photographed, opt for other St. Augustine delicacies such as Minorcan clam chowder (spiced with native datil peppers) or the lightly breaded fried shrimp.
For sweeping views of the Intracoastal Waterway, try Cap's On the Water (4325 Myrtle Street, 904-824-8794, capsonthewater.com) or Kingfish Grill (252 Yacht Club Drive, 904-824-2111, kingfishgrill.com). The former is a 1920's vintage fish camp-turned-restaurant in reach of the bay near Vilano Beach, the latter an up-and-coming seafood grill launched at a local marina by restaurateurs from New England.
With its rambling wooden deck built enveloping huge live oaks, Cap's retains its "campy" ambience, but has gone a bit more upscale with its menu. If you're hankering for Floridian authenticity, try the Mayport shrimp, harvested up the coast near Jacksonville.
Vividly colored walls, floor to ceiling windows, and a playful atmosphere give Kingfish its relaxed charm—not what you might expect from a yacht club setting (the burgee crowd has moved on). The chef loves to experiment with smoked foods—there's a large smoker on the premises—but we'd also give a big thumbs-up to his horseradish-encrusted grouper.
St. Augustine is a straight 800-mile shot down Interstate 95, roughly a 12-hour drive if you can resist such entertaining interludes as a visit to Pedro at South of the Border.
Several major carriers serve Jacksonville International Airport, the closest major hub to the Oldest City (about a one-hour drive), but Southwest Airlines offers the only daily nonstop service from BWI. Flight time is just over two hours. AirTran Airways offers non-stop flights to Orlando, about a two-hour drive from St. Augustine.