“First, we went to St. George Street and visited the oldest house in the United States. Then we went to Hospital Street and seen the oldest house in the United States. Then we turned the corner and went down St. Francis Street and inspected the oldest house in the United States. Then we dropped into a soda fountain and I had an egg phosphate, made from the oldest egg in the Western Hemisphere. We passed up lunch and got into a carriage drawn by the oldest horse in Florida, and we rode through the country all afternoon and the driver told us some o’ the oldest jokes in the book.”
Excerpt from “Gullible’s Travels,” 1917
Like any good walking ciy, St. Augustine is as much about shade as sunshine. Live oaks overspread the streets and venues, branches horizontal and heavy with Spanish moss. Imagine these lush canopies against a backdrop of outstanding architecture and you’ve got it: a shimmering sense of place.
From its earliest days, St. Augustine saw itself as an outpost in the wilderness. To anyone skeptical of what Florida has become further south, St. Augustine continues to serve as an outpost, but with an inversion of logic. Instead of malarial swamp, heathen natives, and marauding Englishmen, the adversaries now are the excesses of civilization. Surely, tourism is an industry that eats its own babies; witness the congestion and overdevelopment as you continue down the Intracoastal Waterway. Yet tourism is the lifeblood of St. Augustine, too. The difference may well be that here they hawk history (real and fanciful), and history, unlike beachfront property and wetlands, is a commodity enhanced in the sharing.
Rare is the place that packs so much of the past-tours, museums, ancient structures-in so compact an area. Somewhere nearby-no one knows exactly where-an expedition led by the ruthless Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida on April 2, 1513. It was Easter, a time of flowery celebration in Spain, and this new land was in full bloom, too, so Ponce de Leon named it La Florida, the flower. Later, bad karma caught up with the conquistador. The vanquisher of Indian nations was felled in Southern Florida by one Indian’s well-aimed arrow. With the Fountain of Youth undiscovered and antibiotics not yet invented, PdL eventually succumbed to the wound. Lardner’s “Gullible” offered an alternate theory:
“The hotel’s named after the fella that built it. He come from Spain and they say he was huntin’ for some water that if he’d drunk it he’d feel young. I don’t see myself how you could expect to feel young on water. But, anyway, he’d heard that this here kind o’ water could be found in St. Augustine, and when he couldn’t find it he went into the hotel business and got even with the United States by chargin’ five dollars a day and up for a room.”
After PdL’s death, the dirty work of projecting Spanish power in the region fell to the equally bloody-minded Pedro Menendez de Aviles, but he will always get second shrift in the city he founded, judging by the multitude of statuary lions, Ponce de Leon’s trademark. Spotting-thelion, in fact, could be a contest here. In any event, fountains and statues of all kinds do help give St. Augustine a decidedly European feel (America in general and Florida in particular preferring neon to nuance). History as layer cake: Founded in 1565 by the Spanish, after the Spanish came the British, then the Spanish ruled again, then the United States, then the Southern Confederacy, then finally the United States.
Late 19th Century oil baron Henry Flagler adopted the town and built magnificent hotels evoking the city’s Spanish heritage. Downtown homes are cottage-like, trimmed off with “carpenter gothic” detailing and metal-roofed. Many seemingly ancient buildings on St. George Street are in fact mid-20th Century reproductions, but they have earned historic significance in their own right after 50 years of wear, repair, and presence. Importantly, St. Augustine is not a theme park, with all its implied sterility. Some of the landmarks, such as the Bridge of Lions, are a bit shopworn. Also, too, amid the tourist shops and restaurants, you will find facets of ordinary life-a lunch counter, hardware store, an American Legion hall. Last year, the city engaged in a messy feud with local street performers, begrudging them a venue in the historic district until a federal judge ruled in favor of Larry’s “One Man Band.” And you will occasionally spy a person who appears homeless. No, this is not Disney World, but that is good.
The author of Gullible’s Travels would be reassured to know the horse-drawn carriage tours have survived well into the age of the motorcar. Did I mention the dozens of restaurants? Seafood, of course, rules in a town that still boasts a working fishing fleet. Quaint shops and factory outlets compete for your shopping dollar. Inveterate duffers could play a different course every day of the week without repeating or traveling more than a half-hour.
St. Augustine would be a worthy destination for thinking people even if it did not lie astride the ICW. Bear down like a delivery skipper before and after, if you must, but plan on at least two full days to explore the 144 blocks of Old St. Augustine. Three decent marinas-one of them in the heart of the old city-make your choice easier. Dropping a hook is an option as well. Dare you to try that in Fort Lauderdale.
And remember, like Sir Francis Drake’s attack in 1586, yours will be an amphibious operation. Bring your walking shoes.
(St. Augustine lighted whistle buoy 29 54.9 N, 081 15.3 W)
The approaches to St. Augustine are threefold. North or south on the ICW or through the St. Augustine Inlet. The ICW provides shelter from stormy weather but limits progress. To be sure, most trawlers can navigate the ICW at cruising speed, but sensible folks run only during daylight, which in winter can be as short as 11 hours, including twilight. Overnight passages on the outside can certainly make up for lost time, but there are caveats.
The St. Augustine Inlet can be untenable in easterly conditions associated with the “northers” of winter, especially when an outgoing tide fights these winds. Much is made of the fact that St. Augustine’s inlet is uncharted because of the shifting sands between the seabuoy and the cut, but my visit in June revealed no reason why a competent mariner could not transit safely into this harbor during settled conditions and daylight-even without “local knowledge.”
Nighttime is trickier. During my most recent visit, for example, the channel doglegged between seabuoy and the next lighted mark, so anyone running from light to light would cut the unlighted mark in between and likely traverse shallow waters. By the time you arrive, the channel may well have become straight as a gun barrel. Maybe not. If you arrive at night and don’t want to wait for dawn, have a powerful searchlight ready to find the small “drop buoy” marks, which Coast Guard crews can move easily in response to shifting shallows.
Mariners, therefore, would be advised to gauge their arrival to coincide with both fair weather and daylight. Be mindful also of strong tidal currents, listed in cruising guides (and confirmed by my observation), to be about 2 knots. Local observers maintain currents can reach twice that speed or better, but in my three trips through here I’ve not seen it.
Black-striped St. Augustine Light stands 161 feet tall about 11/2 miles south of the inlet on Anastasia Island; a shifting shoreline has left it well inland from the beach. A tall cross (lighted at night) rises inside and just north of the inlet. Sandbars, charted only as “dump site” quadrilaterals, line the north and south sides of the entrance channel and extend well offshore. Of the two, the north bar reaches out the farthest and has a reputation for plaguing the unwary. For peace of mind, keep 11/2 miles offshore while approaching the seabuoy. Enter through two sets of “gates”-that is, paired nuns and cans. Pass north of the lighted can 7 (the fixed light shown on the charts is gone). Then favor the south side of the channel, with its rock seawall, passing two more nuns, 8 and 10, before arriving again in charted waters.
Tidal range at St. Augustine is about 41/2 feet. Controlling depth, according to Capt. John Ambielli of St. Augustine SeaTow, is about 61/2 feet near the first two buoys, numbers 2 and 3. This shallow spot tends to migrate as the result of storms.
“When we’ve got a good east wind, any east wind-east, northeast, southeast-and it’s blowing all day 15 to 20 knots, and you get to the inlet in the afternoon on an ebb tide, you can see an 8-foot standing wave at the inlet. You can have white water all the way across it,” Ambielli said. When in doubt, Ambielli recommends following a deep-draft shrimper into the harbor or you may call him on Channel 16, “24/7,” then switch to 10 for local knowledge. His telephone number is 904.824.9969.
If, based on weather forecasts, you expect the inlet to be frothing, enter at the St. Johns River, whose inlet is about 33 nautical miles north of St. Augustine. If you have come from the south and find St. Augustine impassable, bite the bullet and press northward. St. Johns is still your best bet, being closer than any all-weather inlet to the south.
ICW veterans will find “the ditch” hereabouts unremarkable except for one boobytrap. This trap awaits near the intersection of the inlet and the Tolomato River (the ICW north of St. Augustine), and it catches the unwary going in both directions.
Southbound mariners have a tendency to find bottom just after the Vilano Beach Bridge (a causeway that replaced the lift bridge a few years ago). Problem is a sandbar has crept eastward over the years, more so than charts indicate, so when boaters cut the 60 mark to head toward the city, they find themselves hard aground. This may be exacerbated by a charting error in what I call the “magenta highway,” the red line that traces the ICW on NOAA charts. Anyone obeying the magenta would cut two red marks and drive the boat directly onto the bar.
Northbound, the problem is mental disconnect. Coming from the inlet into the ICW, marks are no longer “red right returning.” Northbound boaters who take the ICW reds to starboard end up on the sand as well. Posts bear orange-framed signs saying “DANGER, shoaling” and serve as further warning to avoid what one local boater calls “bonehead bar.”
But all this talk of tidal currents and sandbars obscures what for me is the real source of terror in Florida’s otherwise friendly waters-lightning. More boats get hit by lightning in Florida than in any other state. It was on the ICW at nearby Ponce de Leon Inlet where my boat was caught in a thunderstorm so frightening that we put on lifejackets to avoid drowning in case a bolt blasted us off the boat, alive but unconscious. While researching this article in early June, a terrific storm rolled through St. Augustine, lobbing a bolt through the lighthouse. The Lighthouse Museum’s phones and computers were knocked out.
Charts: Maptech Chartkit Florida East Coast and the Keys. NOAA Chart 11485SC (1:40,000). NOAA Chart 11488 Amelia Island to St. Augustine (1:80,000). NOAA Chart 11486 St. Augustine Light to Ponce de Leon Inlet (1:80,000). Cruising Guides: Embassy Guides: Florida’s East Coast, covering Fernandina Beach to Biscayne Bay, published by Maptech. The Intracoastal Waterway: Norfolk to Miami, A Cockpit Cruising Handbook by Jan and Bill Moeller, published by International Marine, Camden, Maine (designed to be used with the Chartkit). Cruising Guide to Eastern Florida by Claiborne S. Young, published by Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, La.
For The Boat
Marinas: Three excellent marinas accept transients and are convenient to downtown- Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor, Conch House Marina Resort, and St. Augustine Municipal Marina. A fourth, Oyster Creek Marina, is a modern facility up the San Sebastian River, a bit remote from the historic district, but with the advantage of being within walking distance of a supermarket.
Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor 904. 829.5676; fax 904.829.0396; www.camachee @aug.com. Transient dockage: $1.20/foot; MLW: 61/2-7 feet; Electric service: 30/50 amps; Pumpout available; Gasoline and diesel fuel; Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week; Phone in lounge; Cable connections at dock; Laundry room; Proximity to downtown: 1.5 miles; Shopping: on-site grocery store, beauty salon; Restaurants: The Harborside; Ships store and marine services: First Mate; Repair:
Camachee Yacht Yard and First Mate; Computer outlet for email; All major credit cards accepted. Camachee Cove is a modern facility with more than 300 slips, owned by brothers Joe and Tom Taylor. Camachee’s sheltered basin is just north of the Vilano Bridge, with a straightforward, well-marked entrance. Surrounding the docks on nearly all sides are the condos, offices, stores and other businesses that make this marina into a buttoned-down boating community. Assistant Harbormaster Kathy Lewis said vessels need not make reservations except for holiday weekends.
Conch House Marina Resort 904.824.4347; fax 904.829.6998; www.conch-house.com. Transient dockage: $1.45/foot; MLW: 6 feet; Electric service: 30/50; No pumpout; Gasoline and diesel fuel; Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Cable connections at dock; Laundry room; Proximity to downtown: 1 mile; Shopping: fresh meats, seafood and produce at Stewart’s Produce (Route A1A, a five-minute walk from the marina) and on-site gift shop; Restaurants: Conch House Restaurant and Lounge; No haulout facility; Diver, mechanic and electrician on duty; Swimming pool; Computer outlet for email; Boat rentals at Raging Water Sports (904.829.5001); All major credit cards plus Texaco/Shell.
The 100-slip Conch House Marina, whose family-owners claim descent from Ponce de Leon himself, manages to combine floating concrete docks with a funky tiki-hut charm. The marina, on the west side of Salt Run, is about 1,000 yards from the inlet and ICW along a well-market channel. Benjamin Ludwig, assistant operations director, suggests reservations for the weekends; Boaters planning to arrive in the evening should call ahead, and staff will wait past closing to take their lines and refuel their vessels.
A bar built onto the Conch’s docks is great venue for some salty repartee. During the warmer months, the resort hosts weekly “Reggae Sunday” dock parties, which you either (1) must experience or (2) avoid like the plague, depending on your outlook. Be warned: This event is fertilizer for a midlife crisis.
St Augustine Municipal Marina- 904.825.1026; Transit dockage $1.05/ Foot; MLW: 18 feet at fuel dock; Electric service: 30/50 amps; Two pumpouts; Gasoline and diesel fuel; Cable connections at dock; Hours: 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Laundry room; Proximity to downtown: two steps off the dock; Shopping and restaurants; ditto, but no groceries; Ships store and marine services: First Mate; No haul-out; All major credit cards.
Location, location, location-what more needs be said about a marina that’s just across the street from the historic downtown? St. Augustine Municipal Marina, just south of the Bridge of Lions, has 75 slips for vessels up to 80 feet. Dockmaster Paul Johnson says transients will have no problem finding a berth on weekdays, but weekends tend to be booked well in advance. Call ahead on weekends anyway, he said, because often there are enough reservation no-shows to accommodate at least a few boats.
Anchoring-St. Augustine’s anchorage is divided into two parts, north of the Bridge of Lions and south of it. Transients dominate north of the bridge right up to the Castillo de San Marcos; water averages about 12 feet deep. Liveaboards tend to anchor south of it, where water tends to be deeper, the holding is less good and the current stronger. Thanks to the bridge, however, the south side does offer more protection from the stormy north winds of winter. When anchoring among neighbors, mind your scope because when the tide turns, you will swing 180 degrees. A few years ago after a 4 a.m. tide-turn, I awoke to obscenities and insults from a drunken sailor, whose boat was then 40 feet off my port quarter; a mile would have been too close to that guy.
The only dinghy dock is at the municipal marina, which charges $7.50 a day for tie-up privileges, including use of showers and laundry facilities. The liveaboards, being a parsimonious lot, howl at the injustice of it all, while the city happily collects their cash, having cleverly instituted a de facto anchoring fee.
Hauling and Repair-Besides the aforementioned Camachee Yacht Yard and First Mate Yacht Services, nearby San Sebastian River offers at least two haul-out facilities that cater to pleasure boaters. St. Augustine Marine (904.824.4394) promises “complete repairs on all types of vessels,” while Oasis Boat Yard (904.824.2520) advertises itself as “full service or do-it-yourself,” including dry storage.
Crew Changes-Jacksonville International Airport is your best bet, an hour away up I-95 north.
Things To Do Try to see too much and you will truly see very little. That bit of travel advice applies doubly to a place such as St. Augustine, where it would take at least two weeks of disciplined daily touring to take in more than 85 sights and attractions. Unless you are traveling with kids, I would recommend skipping the obviously hokey. (With kids, you’re best off skipping everything but.) In this category I would include the Fountain of Youth, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Ghost Tours and anything that involves captured alligators. Eat, drink, see the fort and few museums, take a buggy ride, then get your vessel under way. You will surely be back for the rest someday. Here is a sampling of St. Augustine’s best:
Sights and Tours-Castillo de San Marcos is the granddaddy of all St. Augustine attractions. After English raids, the Spaniards spent 23 years building this state-of-the-art fortress, finishing it in 1695. Based on innovations by earlier military engineers such as Leonardo da Vinci, the starshaped Castillo was a veritable defensive killing machine, designed to funnel assault troops into pockets vulnerable to musketry and crossbow fire from three sides. Geographic coincidence added to the impregnability. The soft native “coquina”-the shell rock used to build the walls-so absorbed the impact of enemy cannon fire that little damage was done. The Castillo was besieged several times but never captured.
Castillo de San Marcos, complete with inside exhibits of garrison life, is operated by the National Park Service. Spend a relaxing afternoon touring the grounds and enjoying the harbor view from the battlements.
If you want to see the historic district in a single sitting, you can take narrated trolley, “train,” or horse-and-buggy tours. Tour boats operate from the municipal marinas. Guided historical tours are available or can be selfguided with the help of informational maps, available at either of the two Visitors Centers.
Don’t miss the ornate, old Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College, whose high white walls dominate the city. Students conduct daily tours. And as in any Spanish town, St. Augustine has a central park, originally the heart of the city’s social and commercial whirl. Today, it’s a shady spot to relax and watch the world go by. That’s why you went a’cruising isn’t it? To relax.
Museums-If you have time for but one museum, go to the Lightner. This “collection of collections” is housed in another of Flagler’s elegant creations, the former Hotel Alcazar, built in 1888. The museum and its collection of Gilded Age artifacts were a gift to St. Augustine from Chicago Publisher Otto Lightner. Some of this stuff-carved furniture, Tiffany glass, statuary-is so wild that even an insensitive male can appreciate it. If your timing is good, you’ll get to listen to the antique music boxes. As an antidote to the pomp and circumstance, walk around the corner to the Museum of Weapons and Early American History.
Another worthy visit is the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum on nearby Anastasia Island. Besides the lighthouse itself, which can be climbed by the healthy of heart, the museum features artifacts from shipwrecks and exhibits about Florida’s maritime history and the lives of lightkeepers and their families.
Shopping-To begin with, the pedestrian-only streets of downtown comprise an open-air shopping mall, combining the predictable (souvenirs, jewelry, clothing) with the goofy. You decide which is which, but my favorite is Blades and Shades, a St. George Street vendor, specializing in sword replicas and sunglasses for the fashionable conquistador.
Let’s face it, though, downtown is for amateur shoppers. You pros will surely take a taxi to St. Augustine Outlet Center, six miles from the waterfront at exit 95 of I-95. There you will find 95 factory stores, everything from Ann Taylor to Van Heusen Direct. Real men, meanwhile, will seek solace among hardware. A quirky store on West Kings Street near the San Sebastian River, called Sailors Exchange, advertises good deals on new, used and consigned marine gear, including used nautical books. One recent example was a shipment of blemished electrical panels passed over by a Florida manufacturer, offered at deep discount. Yippee!
St. Augustine and Anastasia Island boast nearly 150 eateries of all types, so no list will be all-inclusive. For atmosphere and convenience, restaurants in the historic downtown are hard to beat, but it is the way of the world that the best food often lies distant from the beaten path. The difference may well be worth the price of a cab. Restaurants come and go. As chefs change, some get better and some worse. The following are enduring places at which I have dined or which come well recommended by others:
Columbia Restaurant-Apropos of St. Augustine’s Spanish history, the Columbia presents typical Spanish dishes such as paella 1905, long past the Spanish reign in St. Augustine (a less auspicious time for fine dining with hard-pressed settlers chowing down on everything and anything, including manatee).
Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grill-This popular downtown restaurant is across the street from the waterfront and features Cajun style seafood such as jambalaya and crawfish etouffee. If the sky’s not threatening, enjoy your meal in the shady courtyard, with a gate onto Avenida Menendez.
Cortesses Bistro-This restaurant is a halfmile north of the historic district, and an easy ?- mile stroll from Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor. It is well worth the trip from either direction. Entrees such as Angus beef tenderloin, threepepper salmon, or herb-encrusted lamb are presented in a sophisticated yet simple fashion. The restaurant’s Flamingo Room lounge, with live jazz Tuesday through Sunday, provides a cozy venue for grown-ups.
Fiddler’s Green-This Vilano Island seafront eatery (whose name is old-timey sailor talk for a somewhat naughty heaven) is over the causeway from Camachee Cove, about a mile’s walk. It features a straightforward surf-and-turf menu.
A1A Aleworks-This brew pub, with its “New World cuisine,” is across Avenida Menendez from the municipal marina and serves as the unofficial clubhouse for the liveaboard set. Some receive their mail here, deposited in their personal steins. Consequently, no place offers a better combination of spicy food and salty talk.
Barnacle Bill’s-Ask local folks to recommend good seafood and they will inevitably steer you to Barnacle Bill’s, a local chain with restaurants in downtown and Anastasia Island.
Saltwater Cowboys-A bit off the beaten track from the waterfront, this St. Augustine Beach restaurant stands on the site of an old fish camp on the marsh side of Anastasia Island. Rustic décor underscores a hearty menu of seafood, chicken and ribs. This is a real find. Take A1A southbound on Anastasia. Saltwater Cowboy’s is at the end of Dondanville, on the right about a half mile south of the Publix Supermarket.
Mary’s Harbor View Café-This popular Avenida Menendez diner opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. It’s a three-minute walk from the municipal marina.