Where youth and history co-exist
"The oldest city in the U.S." may sound stodgy, but St. Augustine, Fla., is anything but. The higher the temperatures soar, the friendlier the residents become, and the more there is to do on both land and sea. (Warning: once you've seen it, you'll understand why St. Augustine is also known for romantic getaways, destination weddings and honeymoons.)
Make reservations at the spectacular Casa Monica, the city's only AAA Four Diamond Hotel in the epicenter of the historic district. To take full advantage of the city's Spanish vibe, request a room overlooking the Lightner Museum with views of gorgeous Flagler College.
Before dinner in the AAA Four Diamond 95 Cordova or Cordova Café in the hotel, enjoy owner Richard Kessler's signature art gallery in the lobby. All co-exist beautifully with the intricate details of the Moorish décor, and many were commissioned especially for the property. After dinner, stroll down to the wharf or enjoy a moonlit swim in the rooftop pool.
No time to lollygag in bed if you want to see and all the sights. Grab breakfast, then purchase tickets for the Old Town Trolleys and enjoy and hour-and-a-half of "transportainment" while getting an overview of the city. Pick three or four of your favorite sites, and since the tickets are good for the three days of unlimited use, you can stay onboard for the full tour, or hop off at will. Simply catch another trolley when you emerge.
• The star-shaped Castillo de San Marcos built in 1672 is known as "the fort" by locals. Because it was built from coquina, a rare form of limestone and soft shells with small air pockets that absorbed shells rather than shattering, it is the oldest fort of its kind that was never breached. Kids gleefully scramble up the steps to the turrets and wander through the rooms around the periphery of the courtyard that also provided refuge for townspeople when the city was under attack. Strategically located to guard the entrance to the walled city and Matanzas Bay from invaders, the Castillo did its job well.
• Directly across the street, the new St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum combines Disney-esque kitch, history and 21st century technology. It relives the golden age of piracy with artifacts - such as one of only two surviving Jolly Roger flags in the world, a journal about Captain Kidd's final voyage and shipwreck treasure dating back to the 16th century.
• Hop back on the trolley for a short ride to The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park at the site of a former Timucua Indian village. Of course, sip a bit of the pungent (but yukky-tasting) "magical" mineral spring water (pre-poured paper cups), but there are far more intriguing exhibits - the planetarium, Indian exhibit, archeological dig and diorama depicting 500 years of history. Stunning albino and iridescent blue/green peacocks strut their stuff for guests and pose for photos.
• Head back to the Lightner Museum across from Casa Monica for a delicious lunch at Café Alcazar in the deep end of what was once the world's largest indoor swimming pool in the former Alcazar Hotel. The eclectic menu varies from soup, salad and sandwiches to Chicken Artichoke Sauté and Crepes Alcazar.
The Lightner Museum, once known as a home away from home to New York's social register, was built in 1887 by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler. Far ahead of its time, the hotel had a steam room, Turkish bath, gym, spa and even a cold water plunge. After it closed in 1932, the building remained empty for 14 years before being purchased by Otto C. Lightner to house his extensive collection of Victoriana. Adults and kids alike will love the intriguing collection of mechanical instruments in pristine working condition that are demonstrated throughout the day, plus the mysterious desk with hundreds of small secret drawers rumored to have been owned by King Napoleon's secretary.
• After a full day of sightseeing, head back to the hotel for a refreshing swim before heading to dinner at O.C. White's across from the wharf, just a short walk from the hotel.
• End the evening with a ride on Ripley's Ghost Train Adventure, the city's only ghost tour that takes guests inside the first ever Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum. The tour includes tales of the paranormal, an Electro Magnetic Field ghost meter and a disposable camera to record the visit.
• What's a trip to Florida without time to enjoy the beach? Visit the 219-step St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum for spectacular views (and bragging rights) before exploring the Maritime Museum. Pause to watch volunteers build ships from a former era and view the ancient artifacts found in nearby waters that are catalogued at this archeological site.
• Grab a quick lunch at AIA Ale Works, a kid-friendly micro-brewery that overlooks Lion's Bridge before boarding an afternoon cruise on the Black Raven Pirate ship. This one-of-a-kind entertainment ship regales the kids with face painting, pirates songs, and sights along the Matanzas River.
If you have a craving for the beach instead of pirates, take advantage of Casa Monica's partnership with the beautiful Serenata Beach Club (for a small additional room fee). The plethora of beach activities include parasailing, surfing, kayaking, golf and full use of the clubhouse and pools (charges appear on your hotel bill). A Casa Monica shuttle provides once-daily transportation, but guests can come and go at leisure using their own transportation.
• For your last night in this historic city, dine at Bistro Leon on Cathedral Place. With New Orleans-style Cajun seafood for the adults and a kid's menu, it's the perfect way to end your 48-hours in St. Augustine and plan a return trip.