Grand Buildings and Pirates in St. Augustine

View of Flagler College from across the street

I wanted to do one last post on St. Augustine because there are some pretty neat buildings I have not yet shared. St. Augustine is a lot about Spanish architecture and several buildings showcase this very well and definitely deserve a look. Perhaps the most well known is Flagler College, a place that would be great to attend just to be surrounded by such elegance. Built in 1887 by Henry Flagler the founder of Standard Oil, students live in a building designed to be an exclusive resort once known as the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Entrance to Flagler College courtyard

It became a private liberal arts college in 1968 and today students actually give architectural tours of the building which I joined one morning. We toured the courtyard, lobby, dining room and Flagler Room which was formerly called the Grand Parlor. Below is a photo of the lobby and rotunda which has fancy carved woodwork, a mosaic tile floor, murals and a domed ceiling.

View of the lobby
Domed ceiling in the rotunda

The dining room was the most interesting as the design led me to feel I had been transported to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. The heavy looking wooden chairs were hand carved with cherubs. Supposedly the seats were originally padded with Spanish moss but chiggers would bite the dining guests (yikes 😳), so Flager had the chairs stuffed instead with horse hair. The high ceilinged walls are adorned with many murals, but the most remarkable sight are the 79 original Louis Tiffany windows. Tiffany was given the task of designing the interior spaces in the hotel.

View of the dining room
Dining area with original Tiffany stained glass windows

The Flagler Room looked to me like a fancy ballroom with Austrian crystal chandeliers and a fire place with an original Thomas Edison clock inlaid into the largest piece of white onyx in the Western Hemisphere. Edison wired the hotel for electricity, one of the first buildings in the U.S. to have it. Hotel staff would turn the lights on and off in the rooms because guests were often afraid to flip the switches themselves.

Flagler Room
Original Thomas Edison clock

Across the street from the College, Mr. Flagler designed another former hotel built in 1888 called the “Alcazar.” The building closed during the depression and in 1948 it was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago magazine publisher who converted it into a museum for his large collection of fine art. The building also now houses city government offices. There is so much to see and do in St. Augustine that I didn’t get around to touring this museum, but I did spend some time walking around the inner courtyard of the magnificent building which once held the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, now dry.

When I visited it was the 498th birthday of St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menendez de Avila, so a wreath of fresh flowers had been placed in front of his statue.
The courtyard of the former Alcazar Hotel

I did take a tour of another grand building called the Villa Zorayda Museum which was built in 1883 as a winter residence for Franklin Webster Smith. In his design, he replicated the architectural details of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The subsequent owner opened the building as a museum in 1933 with a collection of many historic pieces of furniture, antiques and art collected by both owners from around the world. The most well known piece is the sacred cat rug which is reported to be over 2400 years old and made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River.

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum which was a shame as the interior was beautifully designed and made me feel like I had stepped inside a moorish castle. The tour involved using an audio wand that explained all the different exhibits as I walked the two floors of the building.

Entrance to the Villa Zorayda Museum

Ahoy Matey! I visited the first pirate museum of our travels here in St. Augustine. Although it is not housed in a grand building like the three others above, it had interesting displays and information and is reported to have one of the largest collections of pirate artifacts in the world. Historically, pirates were alleged to have hung out in St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos fort located across the street from the museum.

The museum has information about famous pirates and the laws and punishments against piracy. There is a replica gun deck of a pirate ship and a variety of artifacts including gold and silver bars, gold coins owned by the pirate Blackbeard, sunken treasure, weapons and personal effects like Captain Kidd’s family bible. There are also interactive exhibits and animatronic pirates. Below is a photo of an original Jolly Roger flag, one of only two remaining pirate flags in the world. Although it is called “jolly,” the flag actually was designed to strike terror in the hearts of people.

The museum features the only known authentic pirate treasure chest that is 400 years old and made of metal. It was owned by Thomas Tew who made an enormous fortune raiding ships in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Thomas Tew’s Chest

The treasure in the next photo is called the “Taj Mahal Sunken Treasure” as the son of the builder of this great mausoleum ordered these coins to be minted. Bound for the orient several hundred years ago, the ship was caught by a typhoon and sunk. The shipwreck was discovered in 1963 during an underwater movie scouting expedition and the coin clump removed.

I thought I would close with a photo of a quiet street in the old part of St. Augustine, a city that certainly captured my heart. In the next blog I journey back in time to our visit to Wakulla Springs State Park in Florida.

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!