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22 Nov 2014

St. Augustine, “A License to Explore”

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November 22, 2014 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Castillo View

By Renée S. Gordon

King Ferdinand granted Juan Ponce de Leon a license to explore the area of the New World west of Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513. He, accompanied by three ships, landed on the eastern shore of Florida on Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513 and established Spain’s claim to the land he named “Pasqua Florida,” “feast of flowers.” The Spanish Colonial Era dates from this event and continued until 1821 when Florida became a United States territory. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was seeking the fabled Fountain of Youth, but what he found instead was what visitors have continued to find, a wonderful climate, vibrant and abundant flora and fauna and outdoor recreational opportunities. Modern visitors to St. Augustine can add to the list a colorful multicultural history, architecture, savory cuisine and a wide array of accommodations.     

Ponce de Leon was, in actuality, seeking to enslave natives as a much needed labor force and suppliers of food and gold. He wanted to locate springs because conquistadors knew that native settlements were always near an abundant water supply. It is estimated that there were approximately 125,000 indigenous people in the area when he landed and less than 100 by 1821. An Indian Heritage Trail Guide of locations in Florida that interpret this history is available on line.

Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is situated on 15-acres where St. Augustine began. The site was then a Timucua village called Seloy where the natives had resided for thousands of years. Stops on the tour include an archeological excavation, the First Encounters Exhibit, a 600-ft. long observation deck with spectacular views and the Spring House. Visitors can take a drink from the same spring that Ponce de Leon and his men drew water from when they landed. You can decide if you look or feel more youthful. The park’s outdoor exhibits include a Timucua Village Experience and the place of several Timucua Burials. This is Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, after all, Ponce de Leon was just visiting.

Spanish colonization was attempted in 1526, 28, 39, 49 and 1559 before the first permanent European settlement in North America was established in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Menéndez was granted an asiento on March 20, 1565 to explore and settle Spain’s new territory, but before he could embark King Philip II learned that French Huguenots had established Fort Caroline near modern day Jacksonville and charged Menéndez with driving them out. The parameters of his mission included the privilege of taking 500 black slaves from the Cape de Verde Islands, Guinea, Portugal and Spain, 33 percent were to be female, for use in construction and agriculture. He was warned that there should be no religious contamination therefore no Jews or Moors were to be included. Five ships with 500 soldiers and 300 civilians, including women and children, arrived in Florida after a difficult journey.

Unable to sail directly to the fort Menéndez began building a fort south of Fort Caroline. Two days later the French, led by Jean Ribault, took this opportunity to attack the Spanish. Unfortunately his four ships were destroyed by storms and Menéndez, in turn, attacked Fort Caroline. The Spanish took the fort and renamed it Fort Mateo. The women, children and soldiers who said they were Catholic were allowed to sail back to France. All the other soldiers were killed. 

 On Saturday, September 8, 1565 Menéndez named the place he established his fort San Augustin after the African priest, bishop and religious philosopher on whose Feast Day, August 28th, he first sighted the shore. Menéndez landed in St. Augustine and came ashore at Nombre de Dios where Father Lopez de Mendoza Grajales greeted him bearing a cross. Menéndez fell upon his knees kissed the wooden cross and claimed the region for the Spanish King. 

A 200-ft. stainless steel cross stands today on the grounds of the still active Mission Nombre de Dios and Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche. A tour of the mission consists of 10 sites and a museum. Museum highlights include a documentary film on the founding of St. Augustine and Avilés’ original casket. Visitors should be aware that this is the first Catholic shrine and the first mission north of Mexico in North America as well as the location of the first parish mass. Black mariners and Native American Indians were present at the founding so this country was multicultural from the beginning. After the celebration of the mass everyone sat down and shared a meal in what was the really the first Thanksgiving. 

Menéndez had failed to bring the stated quota of slaves to Florida, there were not enough Europeans to work and as a result the colony was not self-sustaining. Indians were used as a labor force but disease wiped them out. Priests arrived from Spain on every ship to begin the conversion of the natives to the Catholic faith and to establish Spanish missions. The Mission Era lasted from 1566-87.

The Spanish Main is generally accepted to be the coastal region of the Americas encompassing the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. This area included the eastern coast of Florida and was on the route the Spanish used to send the annual Spanish plate fleet, from the 1500s to the 1700s, bearing the riches of the New World, to Spain. A military escort accompanied the fleet but it still fell prey to pirates and bad weather. One of the last raiders was Black Caesar, an African pirate captain who also sailed with Blackbeard.  All pirates were not driven from the US coast until the 1820s.

For me, Philadelphia’s 76ers ownerPat Croce is the owner of the world’s largest collection of pirate artifacts and the 5,000-sq. ft.  St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. The museum is interactive and visitors can touch, feel, experience and channel your inner pirate. Highlights include one of only two Jolly Roger flags in existence, an authentic pirate chest and the world’s oldest wanted poster. Plan to spend several hours here.

travel_11-23-14a_SM01PHOTO:  Lightner Museum

One of the most iconic structures in St. Augustine is the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fortress in the country. It replaced a smaller wooden fort when the colonists realized that they needed greater protection from pirates and invasion. Indians, slaves and soldiers constructed the 320-ft. perimeter Castillo between 1672 and 1695. The Spanish military designed fortress was constructed of coquina, a porous limestone made of compressed seashells, in the shape of a four-pointed star. There are 20 rooms, a 40-ft wide dry moat and walls that are 30-ft. high and vary in width from 12 to 17-ft at the base. Originally it was white on the exterior. Every cannon could fire at least 1.5-miles and larger cannons had a range of three miles. The fort was never taken in battle. Self-guided tours are available daily.

An original section of St. Augustine’s 1844 seawall still exists intact south of the Bridge of Lions. It has been designated a Florida Heritage Site and is the final slave labor project completed in the city.

The first buildings constructed were thatched roof wooden structures because coquina did not come into use until the late 17th-century. The earliest remaining structures are situated in the Old Town. A good place to begin a tour is on Aviles Street, the oldest mapped street in the US, originally Calle del Hospital. 

The Spanish Military Hospital stood here from 1783-1821 and today 400 centuries of medical history is interpreted in a museum. The Spanish hospital had an astonishing cure rate of 70 percent using a combination of African and European techniques. Operations were performed outside and the rooms were cleaned daily.

Further along the street you will come to the coquina Spanish colonial Ximenez-Fatio House Museum. The house dates from 1798, but excavations have shown the site contained an earlier structure. The house is furnished and interprets the period from 1850-60.

Leaving Aviles Street you come to the Gonzalez-Alvarez House. It is a National Historic Landmark (NHL) and part of the Oldest House Museum Complex that also includes a garden and two museums. The site was originally occupied in the 1600s but the existing house dates from the early 1700s. The original owner was a sailor who left the settlement when the British took command. The lower level interprets the Spanish period and the British on the upper level.

Constructed around 1750 by order of the King, the Pena-Peck House was the residence of the royal treasurer, Juan de Pena. The house was headquarters for the British governor during their period of command and in 1837 the Peck family purchased it and lived there until 1931. Guided tours are available.

Nearly hidden, the Dow Museum of Historic Houses is situated on Cordova Street. Kenneth Dow collected these nine historic homes dating from 1790 to 1910. The houses are original to the site and are decorated with period furnishings and tours are regularly scheduled. This is the largest collection of historic homes in the southwest.

The oldest Catholic parish in the country is located in the Cathedral Basilica at Cathedral Place. The Basilica was constructed in 1797 with the most recent addition in 1965. Documents trace parish history to the late 1500s.

Multi-millionaire Henry Morrison Flagler was a founder of Standard Oil and an architect of Florida tourism. In 1879, he and his first wife visited Jacksonville for her health. She died in 1881, Flagler wed again and made the trip to St. Augustine. Flagler felt there were no accommodations befitting his station and that of his friends so he set out to build the Ponce de León Hotel. The Spanish Renaissance hotel was completed in 1888 at a cost of $1.5-million. Thomas Edison completed the original wiring and there was a servant to turn the lights on and off because people were wary of this new technology. Five US presidents were guests as were a host of other members of the upper echelon.

The hotel is now Flagler College and Legacy Tours are offered that allow you to glimpse the glory of the Ponce de León. Highlights of the tour are the 79 Tiffany stained glass windows that have been judged to be priceless by Antiques Roadshow, two Edison clocks, artworks and a dining hall that must be seen to be believed.

Henry Flagler constructed a second Spanish Renaissance hotel, the Alcazar, in 1888. The Alcazar was also a luxury hotel and boasted the largest indoor swimming pool, 120-ft. long by 50-ft. wide, in the world and a bicycle academy. In 1946, Otto Lightner purchased it and in 1948 it became the Lightner Museum with his personal collection making up more than 75 percent of the exhibits. The three story museum displays the Lightner Collection in a series of themed galleries. Highlights of this eclectic showcase include Tiffany objects, the 1,800-lb. Dick Whittington clock and a superb 19th-century gilded rocking chair.

St. Augustine has been an art destination since Henry Flagler invited artists from the North to the Ponce de León to paint for the guests. In keeping with the tradition of nurturing the arts the 3500-sq. ft. St. Augustine Art Association was founded in 1924. The association is dedicated to advancing the arts through juried and themed monthly exhibits.

The Butterfield Garage Art Gallery opened in 1999 in what was a service station. The gallery is run by and represents 33 artists. A complete list of exhibitions and events is available online.

There are several ways to experience St. Augustine. Tour St. Augustine departs from downtown daily and offers a mind-boggling variety of thematic walks. The guides are excellent, the information is thorough and the pace is such that everyone can participate. The tours are award winning and I cannot recommend them highly enough. Reservations are mandatory. 

Ancient City Walking Tours are self-guided tours that cover 400-years of history with the use a map and an audio player. The map is colorful and the audio guide is yours to keep as a souvenir.

Ponte Vedra is a beach resort community located 30 minutes north of St. Augustine. It has the state’s highest sand dunes, pristine beaches, unparalleled sea views and world-class accommodations. The Ponte Vedra Concert Hall offers terrific entertainment opportunities, including some of the biggest performers in a smaller setting.

In the 1780s, Francisco Marin purchased land for a home. Approximately 100-years later, Captain Henry Belknap purchased two homes and connected them to the Marin House as a single, block long, family home. In 2003 this historic building became the Bayfront Marin House B&B. These luxury accommodations are ideally situated for a visit to St. Augustine. Each room is an oasis of serenity and romance with combinations of double Jacuzzis, fireplaces, designer linens, full modern amenities, daily happy hour and great views.

Start planning your winter getaway now. Flights are offered from Trenton Airport to St. Augustine with fares as low as $68.00 each way.

I wish you smooth travels!

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