St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

It is fun finding specialty zoos while traveling and St. Augustine has a rather unusual one devoted to alligators. The zoo was founded in 1893, starting off as a small exhibition of Florida reptiles. It continued to grow and has been at its current site on Anastasia Island since 1920. Anastasia is actually a barrier island off the Atlantic Ocean east of St. Augustine. Besides alligators, the zoo also has all the crocodile species (24) from around the world, a bird rookery and exhibits of African birds and other reptiles.

I enjoy visiting zoos and thought this one was well laid out and interesting to visit – plus I do really like seeing alligators, both in the wild and in captivity. The zoo has several shows during the day including ones where visitors can learn interesting facts and observe alligators being trained and fed. When it was feeding time at “Alligator Lagoon,” the gators came charging through the water to get their share, quite a spectacle of huge open mouths and snapping jaws.

Alligator training demonstration
Feeding demonstration

On a series of wooden platforms I walked through the native swamp filled with alligators and crocodiles swimming and lounging. Near the pools is also the wading bird rookery which was for me a highlight. The birds are completely wild and are not fed or interacted with by zoo staff. They are free to come and go as they wish. Since there were so many birds it appears they find this zoo appealing, even though there is a throng of alligators lurking below their tree habitat.

Native swamp with bird rookery
Wood Stork
Wood Stork in flight

Most of the birds I saw were Herons, Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. Some of them seemed to be busy building nests as they were carrying branches and twigs.

Great Egret carrying a branch
Great Egrets and a Wood Stork on the tree top
Great Egrets and Wood Storks high in the tree tops
Roseate Spoonbill – An interesting fact is these birds get their pink coloring from the food they eat

Another interesting bird area was “Birds of Africa,” which are not free to come and go. Below is a photo of the Marabou Stork, one of the largest flying birds in the world with a nine foot wing span. It has a long pink air sac hanging from its throat which can be inflated or deflated like a balloon. It is used for display to either attract a mate or defend their territory.

Marabou Stork

Cape Griffon Vultures are one of the largest vultures in Africa and feed solely on dead animals the size of an antelope or larger. These vultures are hunted because locals believe if they eat their eyes they will obtain the bird’s clairvoyant abilities and become successful in gambling. When I visited, two adults were taking turns sitting on a nest with eggs.

Cape Griffon Vulture on nest

The zoo has a collection of albino alligators that come from the Louisiana Bayou. These alligators wouldn’t last long in the wild because their coloring would not allow them to blend into the surroundings. Being pale also means they are in danger of skin and eye damage from the sun. Apparently it is a good idea to take a long look at these unusual gators 😊. Legend says those who gaze upon these beautiful reptiles will receive good fortune.

Albino Alligators
Baby Albino

One of the largest crocodiles to have ever lived at a zoo has been preserved here. Gomek once lived in the waters of New Guinea where he terrorized and killed local villagers. After being captured, he eventually came to live at the St. Augustine Zoo where he died in 1997 at about 80 years of age. He is now displayed in a room surrounded by beautiful hand carved Papua New Guinea art.

Gomek – He was almost 18 feet long and nearly 2,000 pounds – amazing to think of a crocodile weighing close to a ton!

Since the St. Augustine Light Station is also located on Anastasia Island and near the Alligator Farm I thought I would include a few photos. Visitors can tour the museum there and go to the top of the tower.

Built in 1874 the light from the 165 foot tower still shines

Thanks for checking in – more to come, stay tuned!

Exploring History in St. Augustine, Florida

A beautiful avenue of oak trees near the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park

St. Augustine is all about history and very old buildings which suits me well since I love both of those things. In this blog I wanted to talk about several historical sites I explored beginning with the spot where the city first began, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It was on this site that Don Pedro Mendez de Aviles came ashore in 1565 to claim Florida for Spain and establish the St. Augustine settlement. At the time, the Timucuan Indians had lived here for generations. Archaeological discoveries have been ongoing in this park for years with artifacts from Native Americans as well as early European settlers.

Recreated home from the Timucuan tribe

Many people have heard about the legend of Ponce de Leon searching for the “fountain of youth.” Although it hasn’t been proven for certain that he actually searched for or drank these waters, the spring has been flowing in this park since the days when he arrived in 1513 leading the first official European expedition to Florida. If he did drink the water, it didn’t seem to help his longevity as he died at the age of 46. In the early 1900’s, the landowners created a roadside attraction selling the magical water for ten cents a glass. The park considers this to be Florida’s oldest attraction based on guest books signed from 1868 (everywhere seems to claim they have the oldest something 😊). Visitors can still take a sip in the 60 year old spring house, drinking water that supposedly contains over 30 minerals.

Entrance to the spring house

I did my duty and had a cup. I found it amusing that a day or two after my visit, I came down with one of the worst upper respiratory viruses of our RV traveling. We had left St. Augustine for our next location at Jekyll Island, Georgia. We were too sick to do the activities I had hoped like biking the island, visiting the turtle hospital, etc. So, the healing water didn’t do me much good although I had little expectation in the first place 😊 .

The park has a variety of other activities including a planetarium, excavation and other historical sites, a Native American village and weapon demonstrations.

Demonstration of a Spanish cannon
Lots of old cannons lying about

St. Augustine has the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States – Castillo de San Marcos located on the shore of Matanzas Bay. It is operated by the National Park Service and visitors are welcome to walk all around the inside courtyard as well as on top of the walls. Some of the rooms can be viewed including storerooms, a chapel, and barracks set up with furnishings and artifacts. It is really a beautiful fort in amazing condition, although not my favorite of our travels. That goes to Fort Morgan located at the end of a peninsula near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Fort Morgan was so atmospheric and fun to explore with lots of rooms and passageways. The Castillo had so many visitors and a less mysterious and adventurous feel about it.

Looking down at visitors walking to the Fort’s entrance
Looking back at the entrance to the Fort

The Fort is built in a star shaped design called “bastion” and has thick walls, battlements, towers and a moat. The star design made it effective for mounting cannons and to withstand attacks from cannon projectiles. The Fort has stood for so many years thanks to the material it was made from – a rare type of limestone called “Coquina” which is found in the area. Because the rock is porous and light it doesn’t shatter like granite or brick and therefore cannon balls would just lodge in the walls.

The Fort sits on a beautiful location next to the Bay
Looking down on the courtyard

The main part of the Fort was completed in 1695 and it remained in military service for 251 years before being deactivated in 1933 and turned over to the National Park Service. Possession of the Fort changed six times among four different governments: Spain, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States.

Weapons demonstration
Entrance to the chapel

St. Augustine claims to have the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States. It was built before 1763 during the first Spanish occupation and has never been reconstructed. It was handmade from bald cypress and red cedar logs bound with wooden pins and iron spikes. The first students were immigrants from Minorca, an island owned by Spain located in the Mediterranean Sea. They came to the school to learn English and it cost 12-1/2 cents a day to attend. If they had no money, they paid by bringing food or wood for the teacher. The schoolmaster lived with his family upstairs from the classroom. A kitchen was located in a separate building out in the courtyard.

Inside the building, a photograph and news clipping shows the class of 1864 having a reunion in 1931. There were nine students present and their combined ages totaled 708 years! At the reunion, the former students arranged the classroom as they remembered and this is the way visitors continue to see it today.

Visitors listen to a recording from the animatronic teacher and a student

Some times misbehaving students got sent to the dungeon located under the stairwell. Life was a little harsher for students during those days.

My favorite part of the school building was the floor. It was made from “tabby,” a type of concrete popular during the time period. The concrete was made by combining water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. I thought it was neat to see a floor filled with shells.

The tabby floor

Since St. Augustine has so much old, there has to be the oldest house to visit. It is called the Gonzalez-Alvarez House and was built about 1723. The house really did look and feel old when I stepped inside and toured the rooms. Many different families lived here until 1918, when it was turned over to the St. Augustine Historical Society who did some renovations and made it into a museum.

Gonzalez – Alvarez House with flags from Great Britain, Spain and the U.S.
A view of the back of the house

I loved all the old walls around St. Augustine and most are made from Coquina – a type of rock filled with shell fragments. I will close with a photo of one of the walls.

Stay tuned for more exploring in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S.

Camping at St. Augustine – Birds, Beaches and Shells

Entrance road at North Beach Camp Resort
Our site at North Beach Camp Resort

Camping at North Beach Camp Resort in St. Augustine was definitely a plus. This turned out to be one of my favorite campgrounds of our RV travels. The location was perfect – sandwiched between the beach and the intracoastal waterway. It was also close (about 5 miles) to the historic old town of St. Augustine. We stayed here for two weeks in February of 2018. I wrote in my previous blog that I was going back in time to write about a place I hadn’t had time to cover. I have lots more to say about the town itself, but for this blog I wanted to write about our time enjoying our campsite and nature.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal

Our site was surrounded by live oaks with hanging moss and palmettos. We had lots of bird visitors with about twelve different species coming to our feeders. At that time in our travels, this was the first place where we had birds coming to our site. Since I love to sightsee, I usually wanted to go exploring some where each day. But here, I was content for a few days to just sit outside and watch the parade of birds coming to visit.

Blue Jay
Tufted Titmouse

Besides birds, my other favorite interest was collecting shells. The first time I went to see the Atlantic Ocean and beach across the road from our campground I was a little disappointed by all the brown sand. I was used to seeing the bright white sand and turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico and this was a definite change. But the masses of seashells all over the beach made up for it. I had a great time collecting and learning about them such as cockle, coquina, calico scallop, whelk and auger.

Masses of seashells covered the beach
My seashell collection

While the beach was a great place to take walks and collect seashells, the Tolomoto River which is also the intracoastal waterway was the best place to watch the sunset. The waterway was just a few steps from our campsite and featured a small dock/pier and Aunt Kate’s Restaurant where we ate dinner one night. From the dock we watched boats go by and pelicans darting around looking for a bite to eat.

Mark enjoying the sunset on the pier. To his right is Kate’s Restaurant

During our travels, Mark and I have enjoyed visiting area wildlife refuges to see the local plant, bird and animal life. We were fortunate to be fairly close to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve that has a variety of trails. It is located north of St. Augustine and south of Jacksonville. We went there a few times for exploring and really enjoyed the scenery. We hiked through forests of live oaks and saw palmettos; on boardwalks and bridges over salt marshes and through savanna grassland. The most exciting animal sighting was an armadillo digging in the dirt with his snout near the trail.

Although not blind, armadillos have very poor eyesight and rely on their strong sense of smell to hunt.

I had never had a good look at one before and this guy was in no hurry to leave as we approached. Armadillos are the only living mammals that have armor – bony plates covering the back, head, legs and tail. Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one.” Here is an interesting fact about armadillos that I just recently learned. They are the only animal that carries leprosy and so it is recommended that people don’t touch them or eat their meat 🤢.

We also spotted an alligator or two!

Here are some photos from our treks through the preserve, one of our favorite walking and nature experiences during our time in Florida.

Great Egret in flight

Thanks for checking in and hope you enjoyed a look at some nature around St. Augustine. In this post I am also including a gallery with more bird photos. Until next time!

Looking Back: Exploring St. Augustine, Florida in February 2018

While planning our travels through the Florida Panhandle in the winter of 2018, I knew I wanted to spend time in St. Augustine which is located on the Atlantic Coast of Northern Florida. The draw was visiting the oldest city in the United States with many sights to see and learn about. We were able to find a great RV park near the coast and booked a stay for two weeks. I am glad we stayed for that long as there was enough to keep us busy. St. Augustine definitely won my heart, becoming one of my all time favorite cities during our RV travels.

So you might wonder why I am writing about our time in St. Augustine two years after our visit. At the time, I was trying to catch up on my blogs and make them more current, so I made the decision to write about this city later. Especially since there was so much to write about! Now seems to be a good time as we are staying a little longer in California before continuing our travels. It will be fun to revisit our time there and hope you enjoy the journey as well.

Old Town Trolley Tour passing the famous Flagler College building

St. Augustine has many facets. It is a city with a lot of tourist attractions that draw a crowd and also full of historical buildings and artifacts. In this post I thought I would write about three great ways to explore: 1) trolley, 2) cruise boat and 3) on foot. We decided to start out with the Old Town Trolley tour that gave a general overview with 23 stops along the way. Since it is one of those hop on hop off trams, it was easy to spend time in various locations and then catch another one and move on. The trolley went past a number of historic buildings including Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. (More to come on this fort in a future blog post).

Castillo de San Marcos

We also passed several historic churches with my favorite the Memorial Presbyterian Church, one of the most stunning churches I have seen on our travels. The building was completed in 1830 and worship services have been held here ever since except when the Union Army occupied it during the Civil War using it for military purposes. One afternoon I attended an organ concert here and it was magnificent.

Memorial Presbyterian Church
Memorial Presbyterian Church entrance
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine – The building was completed in 1797 but the congregation began in 1565 making it the oldest Christian congregation in the U.S.

The trolley took us along the historic sea wall next to Matanzas Bay. St. Augustine is known for beautiful water views. Two marble lions, copies of the Medici lions in Florence Italy guard the Bridge of Lions 🦁 that crosses the bay and intracoastal waterway.

When the Spanish occupied St. Augustine they built a stone wall around the city to fend off attacks by English invaders in 1702. A reminder from this time period is the City Gate which we drove past. It opened in 1739 as the only access through the defense line in the north side of the city.

Historic City Gate with stone pillars from 1808

As the trolley wound its way through the city making its stops, Mark and I had to chuckle when we arrived at the St. Augustine Distillery and everyone emptied the tram! The Distillery offers an excellent free tour and we decided to be part of the mass exodus. Although I don’t favor hard liquor and Mark has minimal interest, we liked learning about the Distillery’s history and seeing the big copper stills where they make their spirits. In the tasting room, our tour guide also concocted two different drinks of the day, the “Florida Mule” and “Rum Tiki Cocktail” and then gave everyone a taste of each. Then it was on to the gift shop with more tastings available prepared by several staff members.

Back on the trolley we stopped for another tour at the Whetstone Chocolate Company where we donned hair nets and for Mark, a beard net.

Mark all ready for the chocolate tour

As a chocoholic, it is hard to pass up this kind of tour and it was a fun journey to learn about the history and process of making chocolate. We had tastings of different kinds of bars as well as cocoa nibs. We walked through the factory watching chocolates being processed like the hearts wrapped in red paper pictured below.

St. Augustine is one of the nicest cities for walking and I spent several days exploring historic streets, buildings and museums. We found the best breakfast place to fuel up for some exploring – Maple Street Biscuit Company. They specialize in freshly baked buttery biscuits crafted into all kinds of sandwiches. My favorite was the “Sticky Maple” which consisted of a fried chicken breast with smoked bacon sitting in a pool of real maple syrup. Oh my, I thought about that biscuit meal for a long time after, it was that good.

The cafe has a unique way of identifying your order which is taken at the counter. Each day they have a different question on the board and your answer is what they will call out when your meal is ready.

“A book, your biscuit is ready!”

The main thoroughfare in the historic district is the narrow, pedestrian St. George Street that is filled with boutiques, bistros, gift shops, galleries and historic homes. It is quaint and atmospheric and gave me a feeling of being transported to a different time and place. Side streets off the main thoroughfare lead to interesting shops like the Casual Warrior’s Kimono-Ya which carried kimonos and accessories for women and men. For those that want to dress up like a pirate, clothing and accessories could be found at the Skull and Crossbones Pirate Store. Then there was the St. Augustine Textiles which specialized in colonial clothing for reenactments.

Shiver me timbers, it’s a pirate store

In one shop we found a cigar maker busily rolling tobacco leaves. Mark bought a cigar but now is unsure whatever happened to it. I think I remember him smoking it at our campsite, but it might have been his intention that never really happened. Perhaps one day the cigar will turn up in some hidden location in our tiny abode.

JC – the Cuban Roller of Cigars

Cobblestoned Aviles Street is considered the oldest street in the U.S. and also has shops, restaurants, galleries and several museums like the 18th century Spanish Military Hospital Museum. I took a tour to learn about colonial herbs used in medicines and observed demonstrations of some scary looking medical equipment.

Entrance to the oldest street in the U.S.
Aviles Street with the Spanish Military Hospital Museum
Touring Aviles Street in style

One afternoon I took the St. Augustine Scenic Cruise on Matanzas Bay to see the city from a different vantage point. I have said this before during our travels that when some kind of boat tour is available I will definitely be on board. This was a relaxing and lovely time on the water.

Cruising under the Bridge of Lions

We passed the Castillo de San Marcos fort as well as other landmarks like the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

View of Castillo de San Marcos from the boat

I hope you enjoyed a look at a little of what St. Augustine offers. Stay tuned for more on exploring this magical place!