It’s How We Roll in St. Augustine
When we rolled our little turtle shell into Saint Augustine we really didn’t have a planned agenda. We knew we wanted to take in the ancient city and discover a bit about its history, but we really arrived with just a blank piece of paper and knew we would somehow fill it in as we lifted rocks looking for treasures.
We planned to spend a month in the area, which is a bit longer than our typical two weeks stay in most places. Traveling with an RV through Florida in the winter can be a bit tricky and expensive as most campgrounds and state parks fill in about a year in advance. When we found the Stage Coach campground only 9 miles from downtown and got their very reasonable monthly rate, we found our base camp to explore from.
It didn’t take long until our sheet of paper with possible adventures began filling in. It was nice having a couple rainy days when we first arrived so we could troll the web, talk with locals and start getting a plan together. Now when I say PLAN, I mean it in the looses of terms. We love to begin each day as if it was on purpose, but balance that with letting the day bring adventure, people and experiences to us. Sure we start the morning with, “So let’s drive through the old part of the city today and get our bearings; maybe take the trolley tour.” and, “Babe, go ahead and lay out a couple Salmon filets for supper.” Then, ultimately, the day will wind up flowing something like this……
It’s still part of the New Years holiday weekend, so the crowds and traffic are a bit more congested than we like to be in, so we did drive (very slowly) around the outskirts of the town. We caught glimpses down the historical Saint Augustine streets and quickly concluded that our beast of a truck – Howe (Home on Wheels Engine) was not going to fit easily down the roads that were designed and built in the 1800s. We scoped out a few paid public parking places, some street spots where we could fit and also found a place where RVs or vehicles with trailers could park near the visitors center. We stop at a red light for a trolley loaded with families and happy loud kids and decide we’ll push that idea for a less crowded weekday some other time. It’s a nice feeling driving without a real destination. Just to drive, to soak in what you can from behind a windshield and allow an internal compass to slowly form. Often some of my favorite discoveries are finding those little brown or green signs along the road pointing to a park or natural area. We see one and slowly meander our way into the Lincolnville Historic District located on the southwest peninsula of the nation’s oldest city, and was established by freedmen following the American Civil War. We smile at each other when the road ends at the Eddie Vickers Park where we get out to stretch our legs on the walking trail. Other than a few kids playing in the small playground nearby, it’s quiet and peaceful. Then, we see it! A beautiful community garden with a big sign that reads, “Welcome, come on in”.
We spend an hour or so walking through the 4 x 8 squares of vegetables and herbs. It was like being among old friends that we hadn’t seen in a while. “Hello rosemary, You’re looking good chard, Still hanging in there mater, Is that you little radish?…..” When we sold Butterfly Hollow filled with the organic gardens that we created and tended to for 18 years, I was looking forward to having days without weeding, the worry of weather, the stress of bugs and critters, but what I didn’t know was that I would truly miss my relationship that I had with the earth and my friendship I’d cultivated with the plants that provided me such amazing food. We stroll around, softly touching, smelling our lavender scented fingers and nibbling on greens. We follow the pretty monarch butterflies around with our camera and decide we’ll come back one Sunday morning and volunteer when they have their Compost Social.
There are three main beaches in the area and all three with a completely different sand and feel. The Vilano beach is two miles north of St Augustine on A1A and we read that it was more of the locals beach, and most tourists just pass it by. It’s time to dip our toes in the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was almost all ours, except for a few folks trying their luck surf fishing. The sand is a brownish color with coarse shells and completely different from the other two beaches that we later explored. We walk a couple miles enjoying the sunshine, each other and the sea birds that follow along.
We decide to continue north on A1A for a little while and come to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is a 73.352-acre preserve that features more than four miles of beautiful, coquina sand beach lined with 35-foot dunes. The reserve is home to species of at least 44 mammals, 358 birds, 41 reptiles, 21 amphibians, 303 fish and 580 types of plants. It contains habitats essential to 48 protected animals and 8 protected plants. It also has miles of hiking and biking trails, which puts it on our list for a return visit or two later in the week.
Our belly begins to growl so we point the truck back in the direction towards our camper and a few miles later Sharon has the camera out trying to capture a medieval looking castle that we somehow missed on our way up A1A. I make a U-turn at the next place I can and turn down the side road closest to the castle. She pops out to get some more photos and I’m Googling.
Castle Otttis was created as an original landscape-sculpture, ‘Done in Remembrance of JESUS CHRIST’, in 1984 and is made available by appointment to schools, churches, colleges, universities, institutions and community groups for academic and spiritual environments. Bummer, so no tour today. The street looks inviting though so we slowly tool towards the intracoastal side of the peninsula. Spanish moss hangs from the live oak trees and homes are painted in yellows and pinks with shutters in aqua blue. Our eyes widened when in the middle of what feels like nowhere we find ourselves in a small gravel parking lot attached to a sprawling nautical restaurant. We follow the bougainvillea lined pathway up to the open deck seating that overlooks the St. Johns River. We have found Caps on the Water. Yep, that’s how we roll.
Of course, we are offered the best seat with the best view of the water. Queue the sunset, an order of fish tacos to split, a couple tasty brews and our first day of discovering St Augustine comes to a smiling close. Guess the salmon will keep ’till tomorrow.
Planning a visit sometime soon?
Here are a few suggestions on visiting St Augustine.
If you can only visit St Augustine for a couple days, I would recommend taking one of the two trolley tours that are offered. They are moderated as you go around town and will fill you in on all the great spots and history of St. Augustine. The Old Town Trolley would be our pick, primarily because the other one in town looks like a big red train and tends to have more kids. Both are about $25 a person and you can use your pass to get on and off the trolley as many times as you want and it is good for 3 days. You can park for free too. We never took the trolley, but learned that we could park for free at the Mission Nombre de Dios and walk everywhere from there. We also kept our eyes out and when ever a trolley would be coming by we would get close enough and listen in on the tour guide. I know, I’m pretty cheep, but it works.
Speaking of FREE,… Touring the grounds of the Mission Nombre De Dios is a must. Also the museum is free and is well worth a visit inside and volunteers will walk around with you giving you in-depth details. The Castillo Des San Marcus is also a must see and you can walk the outside grounds for Free too. We thought that was going to be all we really wanted of the fort, but when we learned that our National Park Pass that we bought last year would get us in for free, well there you have it. We went inside and are so glad we did. It is well worth the $10 per person. Fort Matanzas is also another free-bee. It is a National Monument of the other fort that guarded St. Augustine’s southern river approach. The park has a great mile long boardwalk trial and there is a free ferry ride that leaves every half hour that takes you over to fort.
When you search for St Augustine almost every picture of the ancient city you will see will have the breathtaking 1888 Alcazar Hotel and it’s terracotta roof line in it. It is no longer a fine hotel for the rich and famous, but has become The Lightner Museum. Tickets are $10 a person, but we found a bo-go deal on Groupon, which fits a little nicer into our frugal travel budget. Across the street is the former Ponce De Leon hotel, now Flagler College, which is also stunning and free to walk inside and around the breathtaking grounds.
A walk down St. George Street is a must and do take time to go down each of the side streets too. Many of the shops have gardens and unique sitting areas in the back, so even if the store doesn’t look like something you would typically visit; walk in and see what’s inside, upstairs, and out behind. Saint Augustine is one of those magical places that will appear and feel completely different just by slowly walking down the street in the other direction.