ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — While this historic old town in the northern part of the state is widely acknowledged as the nation's oldest, there's nothing staid or slow-moving about its environment.
St. Augustine pulsates with activity. More than 1 million visitors flock yearly to this vibrant seacoast community that blends more than 400 years of Spanish, English and American heritage.
Although the Spaniards didn't find the gold they sought in 1565, today's visitors are discovering other treasures--fortresses, restored homes, museums and 43 miles of white sand beaches.
Fifty-five years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, one of Spain's most brilliant commanders, set foot on Florida's shore (Sept. 8, 1565) and proclaimed the land St. Augustine.
The name was in honor of the saint on whose feast day Menendez first sighted land.
Who's the Boss?
The Spaniards governed St. Augustine until 1763, when a treaty gave it to the British. After 20 years, Spain regained control until the Americans took over permanently in 1821.
Today's first-time visitor to St. Augustine can quickly acquire a sense of history with a stroll along St. George Street, main thoroughfare of the early colony. This is where the restoration process began--a program as vital to the livelihood of the city as tourism.
St. George Street originates at the massive city gate that was locked nightly to protect the townspeople from their enemies. Today, the street is closed to traffic.
The narrow path is lined with Spanish-style houses, many of which bear the brass nameplate of the original owner and feature brightly colored flags that wave in the breeze from second-story balconies.
As you walk along the tree-shaded route, your eye is drawn to displays in gift-shop windows while your nose picks up the spicy aroma of hot, Cuban bread wafting from a Spanish bakery.
Unique among the restaurants scattered along the way is Monk's Vineyard, 56 St. George St., with its church-like decor and waiters clad in monk's robes.
The restaurant offers burgers, sandwiches and salads ($3.25 to $4.96) and specialties such as quiche, shrimp and a vegetable platter ($3.75 to $5.50) for lunch. Dinner entrees posted daily include seafood, poultry and steaks starting at $6.95.
Newest and most elegant eatery in this historic section is the Columbia, 98 St. George St., which is open everyday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Chicken and steak dishes cost from $8.50 to $14.95 and Florida seafood, such as paella Valenciana, shrimp and scallops Marbella, cost $10.95 to $14.95.
The restaurant is housed in a Spanish hacienda, where a two-story, plant-filled atrium and a fountain sculpted of stone provide a serene backdrop for diners.
The Raintree Restaurant, 102 San Marco Ave., offers dining in a 100-year-old Victorian home.
Beef, veal and poultry entrees cost $11.50 to $24.95, while seafood and Creole specialties such as shrimp scampi, blackened fish and Bourbon Street lobster cost $12.95 to $33.95. Dinner is served from 5 p.m.
A favorite stop for most St. George Street visitors is the oldest wooden schoolhouse and one of the oldest wooden structures in the city.
A replica of an early classroom is peopled with life-size mannequins in period dress, including a schoolmaster, his pupils and a dunce-capped student sitting on a stool in a corner.
A tour of the schoolhouse costs $1 for adults and 50 cents for youths 6 to 12. Children under 6 are admitted free.
If you'd like a nostalgic look at a 250-year-old Spanish colonial village, visit St. George Street's San Agustin Antiguo, which is marked by a red-and-white Spanish flag.
A costumed guide in long black skirt, white blouse and ruffled cap led us to a weathered wooden house just inside the fenced complex.
"This was originally a garrison town," the guide said, "and the Spanish soldiers lived with their families in barrios or neighborhoods similar to this one. Besides the soldiers, there were blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors, weavers and other craftsmen."
Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1.25 for students and $5 for a family ticket.
Fortress Stands Guard
Within easy walking distance of San Agustin Antiguo is perhaps the most impressive sight in St. Augustine, certainly one of the oldest. It's the forbidding fortress, Castillo de San Marcos, which stands guard over the approach to the city by water.
Built by the Spaniards from 1672 to 1695, the fort was constructed of native coquina, a rock-like substance of sand and seashells. The crenelated walls soar 30 feet into the air and are 16 feet thick at the base. Adults pay $1 for admission and children under 13 are free when accompanied by an adult.