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St Augustine, America's Oldest City

On the Trail of Spanish Pirates, Arrogant Alligators and Perfectly Grilled Grouper in Florida's Most Historic City

A raucous screech drew my attention downward, over the railing. Far below, a flock of impossibly green wild parrots glided above the forest canopy, wheeling suddenly and settling invisibly into the treetops. Then I leveled my gaze and sucked in my breath. From 165 feet above the ground, the view from the top of the St Augustine Lighthouse reveals much about what makes this relatively undiscovered northeastern corner of Florida one of the state's most fascinating destinations.

The lighthouse stands on Anastasia Island, a strip of barrier dunes that shelters historic St Augustine from the force of the open Atlantic. From the top, the view sweeps across the vibrant green expanse of tropical forest and fine homes, which ends abruptly at brilliant white ribbon of the island's sugar-fine sand beaches. Beyond sand and surf, the turquoise-and-sapphire-blue vastness of the Atlantic stretches to the horizon, dotted here and there with the white sails of pleasure yachts. Walking around to the other side of the lighthouse, the view takes in the blue Mantanzas Bay and beyond it, the red tiled roofs of America's oldest city - that rich stew of history, charm and Spanish soul that is St Augustine. Founded by Spanish adventurer and explorer Pedro Menandez de Aviles, in 1565, St Augustine has been around long enough to perfect a culture that is both richly sophisticated and deliciously laid back. This is a town where horse drawn carriages clip-clop down narrow cobbled streets - a town of graceful stucco buildings and ancient stone walls whose arched gates offer tantalizing peeks into hidden courtyards and cool, green gardens.

St Augustine is perhaps best known as the site where in 1513, adventurer and former Puerto Rican Governor, Don Juan Ponce De Leon and his hearty crew came ashore, lured by legends of the fabled Fountain of Youth. He proclaimed a local spring to be the genuine article, and in passing, claimed the land he had discovered for Spain naming it 'La Florida", land of flowers.

Fifty two years later, Menendez and sixteen hundred settlers and soldiers landed here, with the goal of claiming Florida for Spain and establishing a colony. That was 42 years before the English founded Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, making St. Augustine the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in North America.

Today, the town boasts more than 60 historic sites, most of which are contained in the 144 blocks of the historic district. This is a relatively compact area, perfect for exploring on foot.

A great place to begin is at the Bridge of Lions, the elegant moorish architecture bridge that spans Matanzas Bay between St Augustine and Anastasia Island. The bridge, named for the large stone lions that guard each end, is one of the cities most beautiful and enduring landmarks.

From the Bridge of Lions, you can stroll along the waterfront walkway that traces the shore of Matanzas Bay. A part of the inter-coastal waterway, the bay is lovely and the benches along the waterfront offer a front row seat for the endless parade of fine yachts that pass by.

At the other end of the waterfront walkway stands the massive stone Castillo De San Marcos, the impressive fortress built by the Spanish in 1672. Castillo De San Marcos is open to the public, and guided tours are offered. Inside, you can explore guard rooms, powder magazines, the chapel, shot furnaces and underground storage chambers. You can also climb the steep stairs to walk along the parapet walls where several original cannons are still mounted and get a Spanish-eye view of the Channel and the town.

The fortress was vital to St Augustine's survival in the hard early years of Florida's development. The town was attacked by the English corsair Sir Francis Drake in 1586, and another attack in 1668, by pirate Captain John Davis, left sixty people massacred in the streets.

But pirates were only part of the town's challenges. Disease, Indian attacks, hurricanes and war also took their toll. In 1702, St Augustine residents took refuge in their newly built fortress and withstood a two month siege by troops led by Carolina Governor James Moore. In 1740 they fended off an even more determined attack by British General James Oglethorpe. But it was politics, not firepower, which finally ended the Spanish rule of Florida. In 1763, with the stroke of a pen, Spain ceded Florida to Britain in exchange for the newly conquered Havana. In 1783, Florida was returned to the Spanish, but the second period of Spanish rule lasted just 37 years. In 1823, the Spanish, unwilling to invest in Florida's defense against a land hungry America, sold the territory to the United States and took their final leave.

Just inland from the Castillo lies the cornucopia of colorful shops, galleries and restaurants of St George Street, a pedestrian walkway that winds through the heart of St Augustine's historic district. Once the commercial heart of the city, many of the buildings lining the street date to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A favorite destination on St George Street is Spanish Quarter, a historic mini-village that presents St Augustine as it existed 250 years ago. Inside the Spanish Quarter, the historic buildings are inhabited by costumed interpreters who bring old St. Augustine to life, portraying blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, and various villagers going about the daily business of life, circa 1740.

St Augustine also has a strange fascination about having the "oldest" attractions. Within an easy walk you can visit the Oldest House, the Oldest Store, the Oldest Schoolhouse and the Old (but not oldest) Jail.

The Oldest House is one of St. Augustine's most popular historic sites. True to its name, the original house on this site was built in the early 1600's of palm thatch over a log frame. This structure burned in 1702 and was immediately replaced with a small dwelling made of sturdy coquina stone excavated from nearby Anastasia Island. The house was added on to many times over the next two hundred and ninety five years, and a walk through the house is a stroll through the history of the city itself. Of particular interest is the original section of the house built by Thomas Tomas Gonzales Hernandez, an artilleryman at the Castillo. The single, dark and smoky room was living, eating and sleeping space for Hernandez, his wife and children. Another room served as a town tavern in the 1780's. It was owned and operated by Mary Peavett, the widow of a British paymaster, who was the model for the main character in the well-known novel "Maria" by Eugenia Price.

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This article continues, including the Oldest Store, the Old Jail, Anastasia State Recreation Area and the wild tropical birds and beasts of the acclaimed Alligator Farm.

Total word count: 1,840 words. Originally published by Farm Family America Magazine, (circ 410,000) in December, 1998

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