St. Augustine, Florida: not just a beach vacation

We did a quick getaway to St. Augustine, Florida back in January of this year (seems a lifetime ago already!) We had hoped we would get some decent weather, but as it turned out it was pretty cold. Fortunately, this is a great town to do sightseeing.

Despite the gloomy weather, we’d start our day with a beach walk. We were staying in the Vilano Beach area and unfortunately its beach is not as nice as St. Augustine Beach due to beach erosion due to a hurricane and the current restoration project. But we still got to get walk it the first two mornings. On the third morning we drove over to Anatasia Island State Park and hiked the beach on Bird Island, just north of St. Augustine Beach. Wow! Great beach. If you like long flat beach walks (or runs) it’s definitely better over on this side. Plus we finally had sunny weather.

So after our beach walks we’d head into town and do a little exploring and sight-seeing. On the first day we checked on the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. This is a privately run park and charges a $18 entrance fee. Typically, I stay away from places like this, but you can blame it on the peacocks roaming the grounds freely. This were definitely worth the entrance fee and the rest of the park wasn’t bad either. I did learn about the early colonial history of St. Augustine, first explored by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 and settled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, even before the Pilgrims came to North America. The walk around the grounds is beautiful and you can see various exhibits such as the canon firing and Timucuan Village, a replica of the village of the native people that lived here when the Spaniards first arrived. And of course, I drank from the fountain of youth.

We next headed Castillo de San Marcos, which is the oldest masonry fort in the US, constructed by the Spanish, with considerable help from local natives, in 1672. It’s been occupied twice by the Spanish, twice by the British, had two periods of US occupation, and also briefly occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War. It was finally taken over by the US Park Service in 1933, having been using for nearly 250 years. Unfortunately, we could not go inside because of Covid 19 (only open on Wednesdays currently) but having seen a similar fort in Puerto Rico, we weren’t overly disappointed. We enjoyed walking the grounds and checking out the unique stone used to build the fort. It’s called stone called coquina (Spanish for “small shells”), which consists of ancient shells that have bonded together to form a rock similar to limestone.

The next afternoon was dedicated to exploring the historical district of Saint Augustine. It’s truly a beautiful town and while there is a hop-on trolley, it’s easily done on foot. Our first stop was historic Flagler College. While the college is only 53 years old, the main structure is over a 100 years old, constructed in 1888 as the Ponce de Leon Hotel for industrialist Henry Flagler.

Right down the street from Flagler College we saw another Flagler-commissioned building. Also built in 1888, this building was originally the the Alcazar Hotel. It closed during the depression and was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago publisher, who then turned it into a museum that housed his extensive collection of decorative and fine arts. It also serves as a city administrative office building. We didn’t have time to tour the museum (my husband spends way too much time when he goes in one) but we did enjoy its beautiful courtyard. Finally, we closed out the afternoon by walking up past Plaza de la Consitucion, Cathedral Basilica, and doing a little shopping on the touristy St. George Street. After all that, we needed a little refreshment, so we drove to the nearby St. Augustine Distillery!

We wrapped up our visit of St. Augustine on our final day by visiting the lighthouse on Anatasia Island. This 165-foot lighthouse with 219 steps was constructed between 1871 and 1874. However, a watchtower was originally built here in 1589 and went through several renditions before funding for the present lighthouse was approved by Congress during the Florida Reconstruction period. It’s actually the first lighthouse I’ve climbed up and it wasn’t difficult for me, but it could be some as it is a tight space. Fortunately, it was a cool Florida winter day so it was quite pleasant and there weren’t many people due to Covid.

In closing here are pics of the wonderful Christmas lights in St. Augustine that were still up in January as a part of their Night of Lights display.

Please check out my other blog posts on St. Augustine here and here.

A wonderful Florida beach vacation that’s a bit different than the others: St. Augustine

Ever since we moved out to Colorado from California 14 years ago, we’ve been trying to make it to Florida every 2-3 years. Although some of those vacations included time in Miami and Orlando, our favorite spots were beach destinations including Marco Island, Key Largo, St. Pete Beach, and Boynton Beach. But I have to say our favorite so far has been the St. Augustine area. It’s not just your typical sun and sand destination (and I have to say we didn’t get much of the sun when we were there). Rather, it’s more of a historical destination, billing itself as the oldest city in the United States, with a vibe somewhat along the lines of Key Largo. But don’t worry, it’s got great beaches, too!

Accomodations

St. Augustine is located at the junction of the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers, just west of the Saint Augustine inlet, so it is not directly facing the Atlantic Ocean. However, there are a lot of nice hotels in its downtown area, with lots of dining options which makes it a great spot for those who are just there for shopping and sightseeing of the historical sights.

However, if you want a beachfront property, you can check out either St. Augustine Beach to the south, or Vilano Beach to the north. Both are just minutes away on barrier islands, but have different pros and cons. Vilano Beach has more houses and less of the typical Florida condos. It’s also very accessible in that it does not have a drawbridge like the Bridge of Lions which you have to cross to get to St. Augustine Beach. If you’ve spent much time in Florida, you know those drawbridges out to the barrier islands can drive you nuts as they get really backed up at times. That said, St. Augustine Beach is much nicer. Vilano Beach was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew back in 2016. Yes, there is beach there, but it’s not as flat and walkable. They are currently in the middle of a restoration project which is pumping in sand through a large pipe which is submerged in some areas and exposed in other areas.

Fortunately, we did not see the pipe from the condo we chose to stay at. I was very pleased with our choice as it was quiet, with a beautiful view, and very close to Publix grocery store. As we were there in January 2021 during the Pandemic, we wanted to stay in a place with few people and this fit the bill. The owner had remodeled it within the last year, so it had a fresh, new feeling.

There are several restaurants in downtown Vilano Beach. The first night we ate at the Beaches at Vilano Restaurant. They had patio dining, which we did every time we ate out while we there. We usually tried to eat lunch out and cook breakfast and dinner at the condo, as it was pretty chilly (60 and below) by the time sun set.

In my next post I’ll talk more about what to see in St. Augustine. But in the meantime, enjoy these beautiful views!

Sunrise from Seawatch Condos
Some mornings it was cloudy but who cares?
Relaxation at Vilano Beach
Condos from the beach
Sunset out our front door, looking toward Francis and Mary Usina Bridge
The Vilano Beach Pier at night
yummy key lime pie at the Beaches at Vilano Restaurant

Traveling in Florida during the Pandemic

My husband and I often do a January getaway to celebrate his birthday. Several months ago we decided to go to St. Augustine. While we knew it probably would be chilly as it is further north (it was!), we felt it was a bit safer than some other spots in Florida.

The plan was to fly directly to Jacksonville, the closest major city to St. Augustine, but sadly Southwest canceled our direct flight and put us on a route that went through Atlanta. Changing planes and being exposed to more people didn’t seem like a good plan. So we decided to fly to Orlando and do a 2-hour drive up to St. Augustine.

Thankfully, our flight to Orlando was not full, so we did have some spacing between us. However, the return was packed. It looked like a lot of people were returning home from Disneyworld. But people were all masked up and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. We flew in October on another packed flight to Tennessee and did fine. However, Florida is more of a hot spot now than Tennessee was then. Nonetheless, I am lying low since my return (which is pretty much all I do now anyhow) and limiting contact.

My first observation when I got to Florida is that people in the airport were generally good about mask wearing and social distancing. However, once outside, that seemed to change. As a resident of Colorado (more specifically, the very left-leaning county of Boulder) I am used to seeing people wearing masks pretty much everywhere. Even outdoors, many people wear them or will pull them up if they see people coming toward them on the walking paths or sidewalk.

But that was not the case in Florida. We stayed in a condo that we rented out through AirBNB. I was surprised that our property owner actually did an in-person check-in. Nowadays that’s pretty rare here in the US it seems. (AirBNB encourages property owners to allow self check-ins, although it’s not required.) The issue I had was that he did not wear a mask when he met us at the condo. Wow! That was very strange.

When we were out sightseeing it seems that people did comply with mask-wearing rules at attractions with paid entry. However, it was hit or miss at stores. Signs were posted that mask wearing was mandatory, but I saw people in stores without them. In grocery stores all the clerks wore them, but some customers did not. Back in Colorado they would be asked to leave or put one on. On St. George Street in St. Augustine (a popular tourist area) only about 50% of the people wore masks. What I found most astounding was that some shopkeepers had signs up about wearing masks, yet they did not wear one themselves. Okaaay! I also had clerks standing outside with samples approach me, sans mask. Talk about unacceptable! No wonder Florida is having problems. It’s like they are living in an alternate universe.

As for restaurants, all the servers I saw wore them. Like in Colorado you are asked to wear masks at your table until you order (although compliance there is not always observed) and if you get up to go to bathroom. We ate out only once per day at lunch since we wanted to do patio dining and it was a bit chilly, even with heat lamps. It seems like that was a popular choice with most people, although I did observe a large group of senior citizens (at least 30) eating inside at one restaurant. They were all seated closely and at the time had no masks on and no food in front of them (I don’t know if they had finished or had just ordered, but I would have thrown a mask on in that situation). I did observe at one coffee shop in St. Augustine, City Perks, that the baristas did not have on masks. That would be a big no-no in Colorado.

For the record there are roughly 4.5 million seniors in Florida. From what I saw in St. Augustine they were some of the worst offenders. Most of the younger tourists wore masks. I also was very impressed one day when I walking on the beach where they were doing some beach restoration work when the young construction worker pulled up his mask to talk to me to tell I couldn’t pass at that time. Good for him. I wish all of the residents in Florida would adopt this attitude. I love this state and I have traveled here many times, but some folks still seem to be in denial.