By Karen Rubin

Every Florida student is required to visit St. Augustine, for it is here, more than any other place that its long and complicated history is laid out, almost as tidily as the grid of its streets. Each street within the historic district that spans nearly 500 years holds some treasure.

The oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States, this city contains many "oldests" (and even more amazing, they are authentic rather than reconstruction), such as the "Oldest Wooden School House" (1763), Oldest House (1720), the oldest standing European fort (Castillo de San Marcos, 1695), Oldest Store Museum (1840), and then a score of attractions that are merely "old" like the Old Jail (1891) or which are oldest but do not have the appellation (Marineland, for example, is the world's oldest Oceanarium). To enhance the visit, several attractions have reenactors, dressed as Spanish fusiliers or colonials.

St. Augustine is certainly where history comes alive.

It's particularly pleasing for families to visit because of the mixture of scholarship with whimsy (like an incredible selection of ghost tours), natural attractions (beaches, golf, tennis, water sports, fishing), entertainment, an active arts community and pure fun all in a relatively compact area. In addition, just about every week there is some special festival or event, culminating each year with the Nights of Lights, when a million sparkling lights brighten the bay front, beaches and downtown area, mid-November through January; the Menendez Birthday Festival weekend, celebrating the city's founder with parades, festivals, music, reenactors and entertainers (February); Easter Festival with a parade of floats, bands and horses wearing hats donated by celebrities; Drake's Raid, a reenactment of the raid on the city by Sir Francis Drake, said to be the largest 16th century reenactment in the U.S. (June);

It is staggering to contemplate that Florida was part of Spain for more than 235 years before it became part of the United States (in 1821), and that three generations of Spanish settlers had lived in St. Augustine-never having been to Europe--before the Pilgrims even arrived in Plymouth. (Visiting here is like visiting in Plymouth-you go from attraction to attraction, building to building and can use a trolley or sightseeing train to visit 20 different sites.). St. Augustine became a major outpost to protect the Spanish galleons bringing their treasure back to Spain from pirates and privateers. The city reverted to Britain in 1763, and was where several signers of the Declaration of Independence were imprisoned. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 restored Florida to Spain, until 1821 when it became a territory of the United States. And though Florida sided with the Confederacy, St. Augustine was quickly occupied by Union troops.

The Spanish influence is still very much in evidence-the layout of the city, the fort, the famous Fountain of Youth of Ponce de Leon (who died from an infection from an Indian arrow); indeed, some of the buildings are still owned by the Government of Spain. The Spanish era is typified more by the struggle of pioneers and soldiers. But the real magnificence of the city is the legacy of Henry Flagler, who is responsible for building magnificent churches, hotels, and mansions.

There are 144 blocks of historic houses, many listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and 85 historic sites and attractions which can be visited, including the formidable Castillo de San Marcos, the nation's oldest masonry fortress where Spanish soldier re-enactors emulate the First Spanish period of 1565-1763. Your imagination flies as you climb the ramparts and wander through its cavernous rooms. The citadel, which enabled the Spanish to retain control of the region, was recently renovated-finally repairing the roof which had been leaking since 1695.(www.nps.gov/casa).

Just across the street from the Castillo, you enter through the ancient remains of the City Gate (1808), recently restored and a symbolic grand entryway into what would have been the city where the original settlers would have lived and is today the heart of St. Augustine: 11 pedestrian-only blocks of the historic district. St. George Street, the main thoroughfare, is lined with 18th century Spanish Colonial houses including the Spanish Quarter Village, a living history museum featuring settlers clad in 1740s style britches and bonnets who work at blacksmithing, spinning and woodworking (904-825-6830).

Strolling up St. George Street, we come upon the Oldest Wooden School House, located just inside the City Gate. There is an automated professor and students dressed in period clothing relate the school's history, explain the barter system, subjects studied and use of the dunce cap (allow 30 minutes to visit).

The Oldest House Museum complex, the area's oldest surviving Spanish colonial structure, includes the Gonzalez-Alvarez House and two museums.

The best way to start your visit is at the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center, where a movie, "Dream of Empire" provides a historically accurate introduction (904-825-1000). Then move on to the Government House Museum, in the downtown Plaza, which offers more than 300 artifacts and exhibits that trace the history from early native settlements to Flagler's Golden Era.

The Central Plaza, the Plaza de la Constitucion, laid out in conformity with all Spanish colonial cities, dates from 1565 and is the oldest public meeting place in the United States (and is where many walking tours of the district depart). A monument to celebrate democracy in Spain in the 1800s is the only surviving one in the world because the monarchy was reinstated two years later and ordered all the monuments destroyed. On the north side is the Cathedral of St. Augustine, completed in 1797.

Old St. Augustine Village (a relatively new attraction) displays 400 years of history on a city block in downtown St. Augustine, through nine houses in various stages of rehabilitation that range from 1790 to 1910. Five exhibit galleries are open and feature the collections of the museum benefactor, Kenneth W. Dow.

Museum of Weapons and Early American History (www.museumofweapons.com) displays an authentic collection dating from 1500 to 1900, with objects from Colonial days, Indian period, Civil War.

There is so much to explore here, it is a good idea to begin with an Old Town Trolley Tour that includes some 100 different points of interest in a narrated tour (about 1 ˝ hour) and allows free reboarding at 20 different attractions over a three-day period (www.trolleytours.com, 904-829-3800). Or, take the St. Augustine Sightseeing Train which also includes on/off privileges at the major attractions and offers free van shuttle service to motels, (800-226-6545, www.redtrains.com). There are also tours from horse-drawn carriages and scenic river cruise ships on Matanzas Bay. Then leisurely visit by strolling around the district and the Castillo de San Marcos. There are wonderful walking tours lead by professional guides in period dress, which leave from the Central Plaza.

Probably the most famous lure to St. Augustine is Ponce de Leon's legendary eternal spring which may be found in the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (1903). You can understand how Ponce de Leon might have thought this was the Fountain of Youth: the Timucuan Indians he found stood six to seven feet tall, towering over the Spanish, and when he arrived, they were celebrating the Chief's 80th birthday, when the typical Spaniard lived to only 40 years old. Here you can drink from the fountain and visit a planetarium and space globe.

Children, especially, will appreciate Old Florida Museum, a hands-on museum with barn yard animals, quill pen writing, corn milling, Native American games, colonial tools. One section features Timucua Indian dwelling (there were 200,000 Timucuans when the Spanish arrived). Another tells the story of Fort Mose, the first Free Black settlement in colonial America, which played a unique role in protecting the city. Another section depicts an 1800s Pioneer homestead (800-813-3208, www.oldfloridamuseum.com).

Kids of all ages will enjoy visiting Whetstone Chocolate factory, where there is a free, self-guided tour and a walk through the factory (825-1700).

Families can also take a break at a wonderful playground at the St. Augustine Visitor Center, with a space shuttle and swing park.

'America's Riviera'

St. Augustine is not solely about Spanish colonial history. Its place as "America's Riviera," is evidenced from the awesomely magnificent hotels, churches and other buildings built by Henry Flagler.

Flagler built the fabulous Alcazar Hotel, which at the time had the world's largest indoor swimming pool, bowling center, casino, and was the first place where silent movies were shown. This magnificent edifice has been turned into the Lightner Museum-known as the Smithsonian of the South for its incredible range of collections, everything from Tiffany glass, toys and music boxes to a mummy. It is full of surprises, and not just because of the interesting collections on display on four floors, but because of the rooms themselves, such as a steamroom, and the swimming pool ($6/adult, $2/12-18 year old, under 12 free).

Another hotel that Flagler built, the $2 million Ponce de Leon Hotel, with exquisite features including Tiffany-stained glass, gold leafed Maynard murals and was the first building with its own electricity by Thomas Edison, and now has been converted to Flagler College. Other stunning architectural feats include the Venetian Renaissance Revival Memorial Presbyterian Church (built by Flagler and now his burial place) and the Bridge of Lions, resplendent with beasts carved of Carrara marble.

Ghost Tours Galore

The popularity of nighttime ghost tours has spawned many different companies and a variety of approaches.

Ghost Tours of St. Augustine offers a Ghostly Experience Walking Tour, where you saunter about with a guide in period dress lighting the way with a lantern (904-461-1009, 888-461-1009). This one was well done and well suited for the many school groups.

The popularity of ghost tours has spawned some interesting variations. One has its guests go around with a ghost-detection machine. Ours (Ghosts & Gravestones of St. Augustine) was more theatrical, lead by a character who appeared to be hysterical (which became irritating), rather than historical (which we would have preferred); the first part was a walking tour to many places on St. George's street where ghostly apparitions are supposedly seen; half was by trolley which retraced the same route that the daytime sightseeing trolley tour takes, winding up in the Old Jail which was completely dark and truly scary. This tour was not appropriate for children under 12; the other, more historical tours are much better suited to families.

Anastasia Island

Some of the further attractions would be visited by car: on Anastasia Island, reached over the historic Bridge of Lions, you can visit 24 miles of beaches, where sabal palms and sea oats grow wild on 20-foot high dunes; the signature, striped St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum (built in 1874, you climb its 219 steps to a gorgeous view of the city and can visit the museum in the lightkeeper's house; there is a haunted lighthouse tour here, 904-829-0745, www.staugustinelighthouse.com).

The lighthouse is across the street from the famed Alligator Farm and Zoological Park (dating from 1893, it features all 22 species of crocodilians, the most complete collection in the world). Also, Marineland the world's oldest Oceanarium which was established 1938 as a "marine studio" for underwater research and photography and was where "Sea Hunt" was filmed, has been completely renovated and turned into an ecotourism attraction offering dolphin encounters, snorkeling and scuba. Fort Mantanzas, a mysterious, brooding place built in 1742, is reachable only by boat.

There are some impressive natural attractions including three state parks: Anastasia State Recreation Area on Anastasia Island, is a 1700-acre bird sanctuary with five miles of beach, lagoon waterways, wildlife and sand dunes; Faver-Dykes State Park on the southern tip of St. Johns County, is a 75-acre forest for endangered bald eagles and wood storks. Guana River State Park in Ponte Vedra Beach is a 2,200 acre preserve with a five-mile coastal strand, an ancient Spanish well and 2,000-year old Indian shell bluffs.

Dining, Lodging

There are some 120 different eateries, including Scarlett O'Hara's, in a 140-year old house that was converted into a restaurant by day and a stage for live entertainment at night; Colombia Restaurant, a Florida tradition since 1905 with a décor of Spanish-style fountains, hand-painted tiles and courtyards; and places where you can try the distinctive Minorcan cuisine, such as the Florida Cracker Café, a casual eatery right in the heart of the historic district on St. George Street where we were able to same Florida Gator Tail ($6.25) and Minorcan Chowder ($1.95/cup).

As befitting one of America's first great resort destinations, St. Augustine offers any number of lodgings, including 28 bed-and-breakfasts and a slew of hotels and motels.

Casa Monica Hotel is a gorgeous, four-Diamond hotel, across the street from the Lightner Museum in the heart of the historic district, in what had been a Flagler hotel from 1888, had served as City Hall for a time, and reconverted to a hotel in 2000. Besides the 138 guest rooms and tower suites, it has a private oceanfront beach club. 800-648-1888, www.casamonica.com.

We were able to combine our visit to St. Augustine with a stay at a new resort, World Golf Village, less than 30 minutes drive away (800-WGV-GOLF, 904-940-4000, www.wgv.com).

For more information, contact the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, 800-OLD-CITY, www.VisitOldCity.com.

Picture Captions:

A stroll down St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida, is like stepping back into time (© 2002 Karen Rubin).

At the Spanish Quarter Village, a living history museum featuring settlers clad in 1740s style britches and bonnets, children watch demonstrations of skills such as blacksmithing, spinning and woodworking (© 2002 Karen Rubin).

Children enjoy a Ghost Tour through the historic district of St. Augustine, America's oldest city (© 2002 Karen Rubin).

© 2002 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. E-mail questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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