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Trip Report St. Augustine, FL -- trip report

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Visited St. Augustine not long ago. The original proposed itinerary was listed here:

http://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/possible-itineraries-for-miami-key-west-st-augustine-tallahassee.cfm

It turned out that three days was a much better way to experience all I wished. Here's what I actually did:

============================

One day

-Mission of Nombre de Dios
-Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
-Authentic Old Jail and Florida Heritage Museum
-Castillo de San Marco
-Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse

This was a mix of musts and must-nots. The Mission of Nombre de Dios is apparently the first place where mass was celebrated in the U.S. It's now a contemplative outdoor site overlooking the inlet between the mainland and nearby barrier island, with a small chapel, burial ground, and collection of religious icons with the largest being a huge metal cross visible from some distance. Serene and pleasant enough.

The Fountain of Youth Park is, as all reports suggest, a really cheesy tourist trap. This is almost certainly not the spot where Ponce de Leon landed, and the spring on the property has nasty smelling sulphur-laced water. I didn't drink it, though samples are offered. There are a few scattered artifacts on the property, a very rudimentary Native American inspired exhibit, an Indian burial ground that now consists of a pavilion over a sand pit, a sketchy few panels on early local history, a cannon firing, a couple statues, and really short and corny "Discovery Globe" presentation of American exploration by the Spanish. The big problem is that everything done here is much better executed at other attractions, or frankly by cracking a rudimentary book. The waterside view, for example, is pretty much the same one gets for free at the nearby Mission. If there weren't some excavations going on here that are unearthing artifacts, there'd be no reason for this place to justify itself.

The Authentic Old Jail was actually interesting. It's a late 19th century replacement for an older structure that was replaced because it was too close by Henry Flagler's fancy hotel. From the outside, it looks like a Victorian era boarding house. Half of the inside is pleasant enough, given over to the area where the warden and his family lived. The other half is indeed a forbidding place, like other such attractions visited in past -- not a spot you want to be locked up. The tour was enthusiastic and good despite a few corny touches, though an animatronic sheriff encountered later was pretty goofy. Still, worth seeing. The adjacent Florida Heritage Museum was better than what the Fountain of Youth offers, but wasn't exactly exhaustive, either.

Worth noting nearby is a huge old live oak in the parking lot of the nearby Howard Johnsons Lodge, called The Senator. It's so big, it has a palmetto growing out of its center. Adjacent Magnolia Avenue runs by the entrance to the Fountain of Youth and has a nice row of large namesake trees lining its edge.

Castillo de San Marco is excellent, an old semi-ruined fort that was built long ago by the Spanish to keep out the neighboring English. It's a fun place, with many exhibits in the various rooms that open onto the central parade grounds. A climb up to the second floor ramparts yields a pleasing view of the immediate area. I missed the cannon firing and costumed docent talk, which are supposed to be good.

Located right in the heart of pedestrian-only and tourist-friendly St. George Street, The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse is another of the tacky tourist trap attractions here. The old ramshackle wooden schoolhouse is nice enough, but the animatronic teacher and dunce student are plenty silly. With the outdoor kitchen and privy structures, this need not take much more than 15 minutes of your time.

========================
Another day

-Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church
-Flagler College tour
-Villa Zorayda
-Government House Museum
-Cathedral Basilica
-Ximinez-Fatio House
-Colonial Spanish Quarter
-St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum

The Flagler church's construction was funded by its namesake, and a lovely building that bears a solid resemblance to St. Mark's Church in Venice. The outside is impressive, with its dome and Italian style detailing. Inside is a crypt where Henry Flagler, his first wife, and two of their children are buried, as well as an interior with nice woodwork and okay stained glass. There's also a small garden surrounding the church. Worth a look, for sure.

Taking the Flagler College tour offered by the school is a great idea, much better than anything offered by an outside company, as you get to see much more than just the lobby. This used to be one of Flagler's luxury hotels, and no expense was spared. The courtyard has a large fountain and two big Spanish style towers. The lobby centers on a rotunda loaded with painted figures and gold ornament. What is now the school's dining hall is a wealth of chandeliers and painted ceilings/walls, plus one of the largest collections in one place of Tiffany stained glass. The sumptuous parlor has plenty of fancy furnishings and paintings. A must.

Also a must is nearby Villa Zorayda, a gorgeous Gilded Age mansion in Moorish style closely modeled on The Alhambra. Inside, it's loaded with ornate furniture, paintings, sculpture, wall and ceiling ornamentation, and arguably the oldest rug in existence, ancient Egyptian and made of cat hair. The tour is self-guided via handset, and very good. Wonderful place.

The Government House Museum is arguably the best place to go for a dose of St. Augustine history. It's not overwhelming, but it is informative, and presents things with clarity. Covered are Native Americans, Spanish and British and U.S. rule, Flager and his railroads and hotels, economic issues, and shipwreck information. Worth the visit.

The nearby Cathedral Basilica echos the Spanish influenced architecture found elsewhere, with a mission-style tower and top facade and tile roof. Inside is a wood beamed ceiling and some nice detail work. A good pop-in.

The Ximinez-Fatio House is one of several historic houses open for touring. It spent much of its life as an upscale boarding house, and is restored to that 19th century time. It features a knowledgeable and interesting guided tour. Very good.

One encounters several structures at the Colonial Spanish Quarter complex, including shops for a blacksmith, candlemaker, carpenter, and leatherworker; a scribe's residence; and chicken coops and such. One of the houses, the De Mesa House, is seen via a pleasant enough guided tour. Unless you're really keen to see all the work-related presentations in detail, this place is a fairly quick visit.

The Lighthouse is a very long walk from the historic part of the city, and the best argument to spring for the trolley (bus service seems nearly non-existent in this town, though most everything else is close by each other and easily reached by walking). The lighthouse is a perky candy-striped edifice, and climbing to the top affords a great view. Nearby is the keeper's quarters, with a reconstructed room and small exhibits on shipwrecks, the local shrimping industry, and World War II use of the lighthouse. Pleasant enough.

=========================================

An extra day

-Oldest House (Gonzales-Alvarez House)
-Dow Museum of Historic Houses
-Lightner Museum
-Spanish Military Hospital
-Pena-Peck House
-St. Augustine Pirate Treasure Museum (formerly Pirate Soul)

The Oldest House in St. Augustine certainly looks it on the inside -- lots of old wood and coquina (a pre-limestone substance often mined and used locally for building), plus no shortage of well-aged furniture. The tour was pretty perfunctory. There's also a separate section with more St. Augustine history and another gallery with maps of various vintages. The Tovar House, also on the property, is plenty old in its own right and has minimal contents. Interesting, if not the most essential house to see in this town.

The nearby Dow Museum is a large enclosed block of eight dwellings ranging from the late 1700's to the early 20th century. One house was owned by Napoleon's nephew, a colorful fellow in his own right. Two others are now art galleries. One house, a carpenter's dwelling, leans badly and looks like it could collapse any minute, though the folks working there assured that it's stable -- but you can't enter this one, nor would one likely feel comfortable doing so. The non-gallery houses have furnishings of varying kinds. Interesting enough, as all the houses are different -- good to experience.

Based in the now-decommissioned Alcazar Hotel (another Flagler luxury spa), the Lightner Museum contains the huge collection of Otto C. Lightner, who liked 19th and early 20th century applied art and paintings. It's all Gilded Age over-the-top stuff other museums often don't collect, but it's not kitsch. There's a riot of glassware, porcelain, furniture, paintings, clocks/watches, clothing, hats, tapestries, gems, buttons, scientific instruments, chandeliers, sculpture, stained glass (including some choice Tiffany items), and music-box type instruments (this last demonstrated twice daily), and plenty more. Very much worth seeing, and be prepared to spend a good few hours here, as it's a large place.

Being a squeamish sort, I asked if it were possible to skip the lurid tour at the Spanish Military Hospital and see it self-guided. Happily, the answer was yes. It's a small place with a mourning room, surgical room, pharmacy, ward of beds, and one other room. There were a few interesting exhibits of old medical instruments and such. Certainly okay, though one might get a bigger bang if you've got the stomach for the tour here.

The Pena-Peck House doesn't show up in any guidebooks I'm aware of, and that's a shame, as it's the closest one gets to touring a non-Opulent Era fancier house in the city. Located next door to the Cathedral on St. George Street, it's a house with several large rooms and upscale furnishings. The tour was earnest and informed -- and the place is free to visit. Well worth seeing.

The Pirate Treasure Museum (formerly Pirate Soul) is a kid-friendly place, if not quite as much a tourist trap as one might guess. There are actually some decent exhibits on collected pirate booty, famous pirates both local and not, and information on pirate customs which are not necessarily what people might expect (for example, no walking the plank apparently, as it wasn't rough enough a punishment for most pirate tastes). Best for kids, but not a worthless loss, either.

Most everything was within a reasonable walk of each other, except for the Lighthouse. Cars are not needed here (unless you want to drive out to the World Golf Hall of Fame, which I didn't see), nor are buses. Signing up for the trolley is costly, but can come in handy for the lighthouse or for those who aren't much on walking.

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