If you walk down 14 Francis St. in St Augustine, Florida, you will see a charming, two-storeyed white house, with an olive green door, a sloping tiled roof and a black iron gate that manages to look sturdy and ornate at the same time. The garden adjacent to this house is slightly unruly and wild, but in a way that’s deliberate and only adds to its charm. This garden is usually hard at work, like today; it’s in the midst of hosting a wedding, an important event for any couple, elevated only by the fact that it’s taking place in the Oldest House in Florida.
St Augustine, which turns 450 today, is a historic city in Florida, USA; the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in what would later come to be known as the continental United States. Most Indians will skip this city on their travels to Florida, which is understandable; there are brilliant amusement parks to visit, scenic beaches to tan at and gators to go watch in the rest of the state. But if your interests go beyond the tourist spots, if you enjoy history, a journey that allows you to immerse yourself in tracing a civilisation’s roots, St Augustine is a delicious choice, one that is also rapidly becoming known as a wedding destination. According to a local guide, it averages 100 weddings a month, a surprising 75 per cent of which are destination weddings. The Oldest House and the archaeological park are booked months in advance.
I can see the allure. St Augustine is what every travel writer says about a destination at some point (usually incorrectly): quaint. It’s also small, sits by the water and is not crowded. Most houses look like they’re part of a Wes Anderson film and it has a past that it wears on its sleeve. At the experienced age of 450, the city will not allow you to walk two steps without bumping into “the oldest”, “first-ever” or “A hundred and fifty years ago” something. The incredibly striking Oldest House, where public and private events often take place, is actually called so, and the parking lot next to it goes, appropriately, by the name of “The Oldest House Parking Lot”. Each historic landmark in the city tells you in its own way how Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leóne led a European expedition to Florida in the 1513, in his quest to find the Fountain of Youth, a spring that was believed to restore youth to anyone who drank or bathed in it. It was this search that led the explorer to Florida’s shores. The place he landed at is now known as The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where excavations have revealed signs of Spanish settlements. New scholarship suggests that de León was never in search of the Fountain of Youth but rather was on a political agenda, but tourism remains in favour of the romance of the tale of infinite youth.
Later, in 1565, on September 8, Spanish admiral and the first governer of Florida, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed here and set up a permanent settlement, calling it San Augustin, and according to some reports, a commercial empire. After that, Florida went through five different occupations, and some fairly troubled times. The locals are visibly proud of the history, particularly in relation with other historic sites in the USA. Speaking of the 450th anniversary of the city this year, historian Dana Ste. Claire said, “When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Rock, St. Augustine was already up for urban renewal.” Later in the same trip, a park ranger at the historic Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in continental USA (which also changed names under different reigns) said with more than a hint of pride, “We are 42 years older than Jamestown and we are not going to let anyone forget it.” The Oldest House, and most of the historic structures in the city, like the Flagler College (originally the Ponce De Leon Hotel), the Colonial Quarter or the St Augustine Lighthouse, tell stories of their past in many ways, through walking tours and live shows but most importantly, through their architecture. The Oldest House, built in 1702 after the English burned the city to the ground, adapted under different rulers and tastes. As Florida changed from Spanish and British to American occupation, the house added layers to fit in – Spanish archways at one time, a wooden second storey added at another, and in the end, an off-street porch.That layering is evident throughout the city. Today, the city still undergoes changes, but to restore its past. Part of the Jacksonville Metropolitan Area, many historic structures have been restored, while new modern ones have come up. The past and present coexist seamlessly here with the older stories retold and newer ones brought in.
A place that enacts and celebrates its history also has its share of ghosts. Notoriously counted as one of the most haunted cities in the world, just like its violent and turbulent history, St Augustine has welcomed, even embraced this part of its culture. Ghost tours are extremely popular; I was on one as well, and given my inclination to anything remotely paranormal, I was interested in a walk that revealed the basis of St Augustine’s eerie reputation. We started the tour at a graveyard, where thousands of victims of the yellow fever epidemic in the city were buried. What was truly morbid was the fact that a lot of patients fell into comas, only to be presumed dead and buried. This happened so often that families started to tie a string around the dead person’s finger, which was attached to a bell above the grave, so they could be rescued if they revived after burial. This act, of ringing the bell to save themselves, gave rise to the phrase, “saved by the bell”.
We walked around the town armed with EMF meters, usually used by paranormal investigators to measure electromagnetic fields and detect the presence of spirits, which remained decidedly quiet even at the Castillo de San Marcos. This fort at the waterfront, is a truly striking stone building, and holds a periodic re-enactment of a live canon blast into the water. At night, even this site of war and battle and death – and hence of ghosts – did nothing for our EMF meters. Nothing. Not even a beep. But the moment our group hit the pubs for the night, our meters started to go crazy. They didn’t stop for the rest of the night. Well, at least now I knew what the ghosts of St Augustine liked to do for fun. I didn’t blame them. In the day, you’re surrounded by history and taking in the slightly overwhelming amount of detail about the occupations and legends. But come dusk, you’re treated to a St Augustine dressed up for a night out. Happy crowds lined the street, music played from every restaurant and the occasional street musician, and fairy lights curled around little bistro gates and doors.
I came to St Augustine after stopping by Orlando, still reeling from the many delights of Universal Studios and Walt Disney and Harry Potter. I did not expect St Augustine to match up. I did not expect the old-fashioned beauty of the houses, the lanes that are lined with gardens with colourful flowers, and the waterfront just two minutes from my beautiful B&B inn (St Francis Inn, built, obviously, back in the 1700s and located where else but in the oldest quarter) with boats bobbing peacefully through the night. Like I said, if you enjoy history, put it in your itineraries and let it surprise you.
Jaybird’s Inn A boutique hotel on the waterfront, the inn provides an active stay, with bike tours and walks. (www.jaybirdsinn.com)
St Francis Inn Built in 1791, located in the oldest part of St Augustine, this inn’s old world charm is a great backdrop for your trip. (www.StFrancisInn.com)
Bayfront Marin House As the name suggests, another waterfront boutique hotel with beautiful views. (www.bayfrontmarinhouse.com)
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park This is Juan Ponce de León’s quest for the Fountain of Youth. Live excavations are still underway here, so watch out for those on your tour. (www.FountainofYouthFlorida.com)
St Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum The lighthouse is the city’s oldest surviving brick structure, 165ft above sea level; you can climb 219 steps for some great views. The Maritime Museum conducts maritime archaeological research and is dedicated to preserve historic property. (www.StAugustineLighthouse.org)
St Augustine Visitor Centre An informative guide to the very start of the nation’s history. There’s also an exhibition marking the 450th anniversary celebrations, titled Tapestry: The Cultural Threads of First America. (www.staugustine-450.com)
Flagler College The Ponce De Leon Hotel, now converted into a stunning educational institute attracting students from all over America. (legacy.flagler.edu)
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument The oldest masonry fort in continental USA. (www.nps/gov/casa)
St Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum Some of the most notorious pirates have passed through and plundered through this region. Know all about them at this detailed museum. (thepiratemuseum.com)
The Colonial Quarter Do not leave St Augustine without this one tour that explains all you need to know in the most entertaining way possible. Make sure you sign up for the tour with a guide called Grimm. Here’s a preview: colonialquarter.com/visit/public-tours/
Food Tour Eat your way through a seven-course meal, starting with wine and ending with dessert (don’t miss The Chocolate Turtle), with a local food tour. (www.staugustinehistorictours.com/st-augustine-food-tour)
Haunted Pub Crawl & Paranormal Investigation Let the paranormal tours take you on a fun exploration of the city’s nightlife. (www.ghosttoursofstaugustine.net)
Barnacle Bill’s Restaurant Winner of various awards, this is a great place for families to enjoy a good meal and some local food. (www.barnaclebillsonline.com)
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.