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St. Augustine: If you go

By ROBERT JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


America's Ancient City
As St. Augustine wrestles with the modern problems of growth and development, its centuries-old allure beckons visitors.

Resort's museum aims for golf aficionados
Swing with an 1880s wood-shafted putter, walk the Hall of Fame or take a break in the IMAX theater.

St. Augustine cannot quite be all things to all tourists. But for Florida, it's not bad.

For those amused by the unusual, the city and immediate suburbs offer a multistory Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, Potter's Wax Museum, St. Augustine Alligator Farm (comprehensive at this sort of thing), the tasteful collections of the Lightner Museum and the bizarre Zorayda Castle (originally the home of the man who designed and owned the Casa Monica Hotel).

But the city also offers the calmer Restoration area, sometimes referred to merely as the Old City. Throughout this area are small museum houses and stores in centuries-old structures, as well as costumed docents offering informative, entertaining history lessons.

Just across the street from the northern border of the Old City is the impressive Castillo de San Marcos. Begun in 1672 and finished in 1695, it was impregnable, its walls 12 feet thick at the base and 33 feet high.

In the 1800s, the great Seminole chief Osceola was imprisoned here. Dank cells and store rooms are still open for view, and versions of its cannons are fired from the parapets on Saturdays and Sundays, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A plus: The grassy, tree-dotted lawn bordering the castle is great for picnics or for letting the kids roll down hills, play catch or merely run from here to there.

A good way to get an overview of the touristic parts of St. Augustine is to board one of the two commercial tour trolleys: Ride the entire, one-hour loop, make notes on which sites seem most interesting, then hop off and on at those as you make the journey a second time. The guides' narratives are based on fact, but don't take notes here for term papers.

The area code for St. Augustine is (904).

Making memories: A few years ago, when my wife and I brought our young sons to the city for the first time, we took a break from strolling the Restoration area to have a snack from the bakery on St. George Street. My son Mike was digging his shoe in the dirt by the picnic table behind the bakery, when something caught his eye. He dug up a marble-sized piece of white and blue ceramic.

Just down the street was the Government House Museum, a trove of historical remnants from the area. We headed there with our treasure.

A historian on duty eyed the blue and white item and announced, "It's a piece of pottery, English period," meaning 1763-83, when the British ruled.

He handed it back to Mike, saying "You can keep it."

And he did, saving it among the other little treasures that fill his room and his memories.

Getting there: St. Augustine has no commercial airport. It is about 35 miles south of Jacksonville, about 105 miles northeast of Orlando -- an easy car ride from the Bay area. The fastest route is I-4 to Daytona Beach, turning north on I-95. Take exit No. 95 east on State Road 16 for about 7 miles, into downtown St. Augustine.

St. Augustine map

Eating there: My wife and I gathered a new memory when we returned a couple of months ago to the city we first visited nearly 30 years ago. It was longtime resident Mary Jane Dillon who told me that if the lines waiting for a dinner table were too long at the Gypsy Cab Co. (regularly changing menu, 824-8244), O'Steen's (seafood, 829-6974), La Parisienne (French, of course, 829-0055) or Cafe Cortese (salads, pasta, 825-6775), head just north on US A1A to Vilano Beach.

This is a stretch of barrier island dunes increasingly covered with vacation and time-share, multistory beach houses facing the Atlantic. But tucked inland, along the Matanzas River, are two casual restaurants:

Fiddler's Green (seafood, chicken, 824-8897) was closed for use by a private party, but we lazed away the late afternoon on the back deck of Oscar's Old Florida Grill (829-3794).

In a perfect break from the tourist bustle just a few miles away, we sat beneath a big oak behind the 91-year-old restaurant, watching boaters and anglers tie up to the baithouse dock. We rested our eyes on the river and, on its far bank, a solid backdrop of trees.

We passed the time while filling up on smoked fish spread, cold shrimp and crab patties. There was beer and iced tea, too.

If we had wanted dinner, Oscar's menu offers oysters, catfish, Minorcan clam chowder, gator tail, mahi mahi, grouper. . . . and if you haven't bothered with socks the day you visit, no one is going to notice.

The hot place in town is the A1A Ale Works, a brewpub and restaurant. Beyond the finger food are items such as grilled portobello mushroom sandwich, key lime shrimp and lobster over linguini, and tuna dusted with sesame flour and sauted. A1A usually brews up to six ales and stouts; if the names sound confusing, order a sampler that includes a generous serving of each.

Staying there: In the past decade, St. Augustine has become the B&B and inn capital of the state. There are about two dozen old homes gussied up with antiques and lace and hospitality, all within a short walk of the main business district or the Restoration area.

There are, of course, a number of moderately priced chain motels, the new Casa Monica, the Ponce family's eclectic Conch House Marina Resort and the family-friendly Radisson Ponce de Leon Golf and Conference Center Resort.

Your best references here are the old reliables, AAA's Florida TourBook and Mobil Travel Guide 2000/Florida. A steady cross-reference for anyplace in the state is the conversational but informed Hidden Florida, Ulysses Press, $17.95.

For more information or for suggestions on accommodations, contact the St. Johns County Visitors and Convention Bureau, (800) 653-2489 or (904) 829-1711; e-mail tdc@aug.com. Check, too, with St. Augustine Visitors Information Center, at 10 Castillo Drive (825-1000).

Helpful Web sites are:

http://staugustine.com, which has up-to-date events calendars, weather forecasts, brief histories and maps.

The Chamber of Commerce's http://www.staugustinechamber.com, which includes several dozen lodging options, including beach-house rentals.

The Historic Inns of St. Augustine, a group of 24 inns and B&Bs, is at http://www.staugustineinns.com. That organization is offering tours Nov. 24-Jan. 31 of 16 member inns, with proceeds to benefit the local Police Athletic League.

For more information about the tour, check the Web site or call Nina Tomas at 829-0079 or Pam James at 824-2100. (Mrs. James and her husband, Walt, are former residents of St. Petersburg and Indian Rocks Beach and have owned their three-story Victorian inn since 1994, so if you do visit St. Augustine, stop by to exchange news with them.)

- ROBERT N. JENKINS

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