Note: When visiting a hot climate, never leave a perfect hat in the back window of a parked car in full sun.
We flitted off to St. Augustine, Florida last weekend, flying into Jacksonville Friday evening. JAX is quite a hospitable airport despite the young TSA gentleman who needed either some time off or a beer or both. The airport signage inside and out is bold and clear and the airport has straightforward ingress and egress. We motored off in our rental car with me reveling in the flat, straight, fast Florida roadways lined with familiar plants: palms, plumbago, ornamental grasses, red sisters, shefflera. The road to St. Augustine took us along Jacksonville’s edge and the panorama of its tall buildings glowing in the night started a smile for me that lasted all weekend. It was all so much like home.
We base-camped near the St. Augustine’s historical district and walked the easy mile to its center despite the strong suggestion of rain. The gusty wind that chased off the rain also restyled my hair into a baseball hat bob. After wandering into the wrong visitor center where a man resembling a used car salesman tried to hustle us into a timeshare presentation, we continued toward the water and our primary destination, the Castillo de San Marcos. “National Go Outdoors Day” got us in free, lucky for us since I managed to forget our National Parks Pass. This star-shaped fort on the water’s edge, surrounded by a (dry) moat, is the city’s oldest structure and displays some impressive, and surprisingly lovely, green mortars. Through a well-choreographed artillery waltz, a gun crew garbed in bright blue and red wool uniforms and heavyweight felt tricorn hats demonstrated the resident cannons’ capabilities. (The locals can probably tell time by the scheduled firings.) The Castillo’s reenactors were some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic we’ve encountered at the many historical sites we’ve visited, especially in their engagement of the younger crowd. I’m thinking about becoming a Junior Ranger myself.
Across the street from the fort, the old city of Saint Augustine lies compact and perfectly picturesque with streets lined by brightly painted wood and stucco buildings. Art galleries connect to restaurants that connect to coffee shops that connect to churches. My current quest for color and crazy sent me oohing and aaahing through souvenir shops. Most of the merchandise was identical throughout them, but it was some of the most charming and fun kitsch I’ve seen during our travels. Pirates are still toting treasure, this time in the form of themed shirts, shot glasses, tiny ships, and (mostly) benign swords. We had our choice of food from French to Greek to ice cream to chocolate to french fries in a paper cone. Colorful beachwear hung in many windows. Trolleys towed tourists through the narrow passages.
We hoofed from the old city to the Fountain of Youth, with a stroll through the very pretty grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios on the way. The great travel writer, Mr. Frommer, pans the Fountain park, calling it a waste of time. I think Mr. Frommer needs a vacation from vacationing. The park was a bit expensive for admission, but we had walked a fair piece to get there and it is part of our American folklore, so I ponied up the price. It was a lovely little place with a welcoming archway and shady areas to walk.We skipped the planetarium, opting instead to remain outside in such favorable weather. The fountain itself is housed and the young attendant was well versed in his subject. And in a final nose-thumbing at Frommer, the water from the fountain was not at all sulphurous. There were peacocks posing on the grounds, two of which were stationed on gun carriages once belonging to the USS Constitution. The ubiquitous gift shop had the now familiar assortment of geegaws and doodads, with the addition of vials and bottles of Fountain of Youth water, and a 2 ft. wide sparkly lighted peacock, which I longed for without shame. One advantage to airplane travel is the limited capacity for hauling detritus at departure. My new and highly useful St. Augustine shot glass fit in my bag, not so the gleaming bird.
Rain finally caught us when we went for dinner Saturday night, limiting our dinner choices to the closest doorway to get out of the downpour. That refuge turned out to be a tiny table at Bistro de Leon for bold French food. Another couple shoehorned in beside us after we had ordered, and the four of us shared our experiences (and our excellent food!) together amiably.
We took ourselves across the street from our hotel to City Coffee Sunday morning. What a surprise that was! I had one of the best latte’s ever, made with almond and which had what I can only describe as a smoky finish — not the burnt taste of Starbucks. We sipped our tasty cups of wake-up as we drove across the lion-flanked draw bridge to Anastasia Island to climb the stairs of the striped lighthouse. My debilitating fear of heights had me mentally repeating my mantra and plastered to the outside wall at the top, but I got there and had a high-level view across the water at all we’d seen close up the previous day.
Mike clearly thought my wish to go to the Alligator Farm was strange, but in his defense he did have a close encounter with a gator while kayaking some years back. The farm is almost across the street from the lighthouse, so we did go, and what an interesting place it is. It’s not an amusement park, but there are various “shows” at times, and we arrived just at noon feeding. I admit to feeling a bit sad for the gators that they mostly eat pelletized food, but when the trainer (who goes amongst the hulking eating machines carrying something like a glorified toothpick to keep them at bay) brought out a container of dead rats, I was comforted. There is a zip line that goes over the gator enclosures, so perhaps they can at least dream of another diet. A rookery fairly jammed with various birds probably provides chick hors d’oeuvres occasionally. The farm also has (creepy) white alligators, small monkeys, slow motion Galapagos tortoises, toucans and parrots. The small Komodo dragon paced incessantly along the eye level window of its enclosure, looking for — what? And for anyone who wants to have their photo made with a live, smiling gator, that can be done. I opted for taking our photo with the outsized manmade alligator in the parking lot (and held my breath as a car nearly drove over the camera on the ground with the timer set).
Sunday afternoon found us on the balcony of a wine bar with tall, iced drinks and cheeses and humus all around. We spent our last free hours in St. Augustine there, watching tourists pass by in the sunlit street below. Mike then went off to battle insects in the peanut country of Georgia, and I flitted away by airplane.
Nice place, St. Augustine. I’m thinking we’ll return.