Bright Lights, Little City— Rediscovering St. Augustine
For five hundred years the old and the new have combined to create the urban tapestry that is St. Augustine, Florida. Today, the multitude of artists who call this charming historic city home have helped put St. Augustine on the art map and it is known as one of the “100 Best Small Art Towns in America.” The atmosphere is intoxicating and it’s the kind of place where you can walk around for an afternoon and feel as if you’ve gone to some faraway European locale. With the Nights of Lights opening in November, there will be three million twinkling reasons to slip away and enjoy a mini vacation of either a few hours or even a night or two. Only forty minutes south of downtown Jacksonville, St. Augustine’s tapestry of the old and the new is now even richer than before.
St. Francis Inn: The old that continues to be remarkable.
If an escape is what you truly need, then make your reservations at the historic St. Francis Inn, St. Augustine’s oldest inn (note that Sunday through Thursday stays are attractively priced). Located four blocks south of the Plaza de La Constitución where St. George and St. Francis Streets intersect, guests feel tucked away from the bustle of the north St. George Street shopping district. The St. Francis Inn philosophy, according to innkeeper/owners Joe and Margaret Finnegan, is that once a guest checks in everything should be included. “We don’t upcharge for any of our amenities,” says Joe. “Likewise, guests staying at our Beach Cottage get all the inn amenities for use as well.” Breakfast creations, afternoon social hour hors d’oeuvres, and evening desserts by Chef Janice Leary are outstanding. Guests can enjoy eating inside the dining room or out in the shaded courtyard that is expertly maintained by master horticulturalist Jill Ziebell who was awarded the Garden Club of St. Augustine’s Civic Beautification Award. The St. Francis Inn, built in 1791, has had its share pf many unique visitors, both human and ghostly. Just ask Joe to share his experiences. you’re sure to hear some unforgettable stories!
Colonial Quarter, Ice Plant Bar and St. Augustine Distillery: The old made fantastically new.
On March 16, 2013, visionary developer Pat Croce’s three million dollar transformation of the former Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum on upper St. George Street came to fruition with the opening of the newly-named Colonial Quarter, a two-acre living history museum that is fully interactive and has an authentic feel that is anything but kitschy. Croce, in partnership with the University of Florida, developed a world-class, education-focused facility. Kid-friendly activities include two huge archeological sandboxes where children can dig for buried artifacts. Visitors of all ages can watch a blacksmith at work, engage in musket drills or climb a watchtower. Tours are led by period characters expertly portrayed by local residents such as Chad Light who add an air of authenticity to this already polished experience. Croce’s Pirate and Treasure Museum next door will also add to your understanding of St. Augustine’s history. Top off your visit with a drink or a meal at the Bull & Crown Publick House or Taberna del Caballo. Both places have pet-friendly dining with “Yappy Hour” daily from 2 to 4 p.m.
On the west side of the historic district local investors transformed the old ice plant on Riberia Street into the Ice Plant Bar. The building now features a restaurant and bar upstairs and the St. Augustine Distillery, northeast Florida’s first small-batch craft distillery, is set to open in early 2014, Though modernized, the Ice Plant still retains its warehouse feel. Guests enjoy handcrafted artisan cocktails like the Florida Mule and tasty delights such as Devils on Horseback, bacon-wrapped dates with bleu cheese puree. Cool, funky, and unique, the Ice Plant Bar and St. Augustine Distillery are great examples of the old made fantastically new.
Food in St. Augustine: The new that never gets old.
One memorable way to experience the food and culture of St. Augustine is via the Savory Faire Food Tasting Tour offered by the City Walks tour company. For $49 a professional tour guide leads the way to four different restaurants where diners will sample the cuisine. And for a mere $18 more four wine parings are included. The tour begins daily at 1:30 and lasts about two-and-a-half hours.
If you wish to spread your food tour over the entire day and walk the city at your leisure, a myriad of options abound. The breakfast spot, the Hot Shot Bakery on Granada Street, serves up pumpkin pecan waffles with caramel sauce and bananas that will make your belly smile. More famously known for its chocolate-dipped datil peppers, Hot Shot chef/owner Sherry Stoppelbein will be glad to add your picture to her “wall of flame” if you dare to try one. As creator of the Datil B. Good hot sauces, Sherry is a hometown original whose café offerings won’t disappoint. Lunch or dinner at Bistro de Leon located on Cathedral Place at the northeast corner of the Plaza is a delicious option, that is, if you can tear yourself away from the sumptuous pastry case. Award-winning Chef Jean-Stephane Poinard’s creative sandwiches, quiches, and soufflés are the perfect precursor to dessert and a cappuccino. Try Chef Poinard’s newest sandwich creation the iBun…filled with just about anything you can think of. Mix it up and head over to Meehan’s Irish Pub & Seafood House on Avenida Menendez, across from the Castillo de San Marcos, and enjoy traditional Irish pub fare and seafood. Owner John Meehan’s prized beverages are the one hundred and fifty-one different Irish whiskeys from which to choose.
The Tasting Room, a contemporary restaurant at 25 Cuna St., delivers innovative Spanish cuisine. From tapitas to entradas enjoy seasonal menu items, complemented by selections from their award-winning wine list. Another dinner choice is The Raintree, renowned for its consistent, award-winning menu, extensive wine list and premium bar offerings all served in the warm, intimate atmosphere of a restored Victorian home. Lastly, consider dining a little further down Avenida Menendez at O.C. Whites. The building dates back to 1790 and the courtyard is shaded by an arbor intertwined with Confederate jasmine. With a view of the Bridge of Lions, the St. Augustine Municipal Marina, and the Matanzas River ,and ghost stories that will leave you spellbound, O.C. Whites offers up much more than seafood and southern hospitality.
No reason to stay away.
Whether you have relatives in town or not, give yourself the treat of heading to St. Augustine in the weeks to come. Hop aboard the Old Town Trolley Tour to begin your sightseeing adventure or for something more intimate, try Vintage Car Tours, all-electric replicas of 1920s touring cars that are emissions-free and can glide down streets too narrow for the bigger trolleys. However, if you prefer to take a stroll keep in mind that AAA once listed St. Augustine as one of the ten most walkable cities in North America. During the first Friday evening of each month you can take part in St. Augustine’s First Friday Art Walk, when the shops and art galleries stay open late and the town is host to its very own street party.
Make time in your busy holiday schedule to visit St. Augustine and enjoy the Nights of Lights that National Geographic listed as the one of the “Top 10 Places to See Holiday Lights” in the world. The bright lights of this little city will remind you that northeast Florida has its own national treasure, just a short drive away.
By Janet Herrick and Cinda Sherman