My sister, Crys and I, along with her partner Jackie made an impromptu visit to the oldest city in the United States this past weekend, St Augustine, Florida, a city on the Atlantic coast. My sister whose birthday is on the 4th of July suggested we go there. I have visited this charming city many years ago and I was excited to go there again. We left Jacksonville mid Sunday morning, the temperature in the upper nineties and it was humid to say the least. The heart of the city was lively with tourists and locals everywhere when we first drove into the city limits. Shortly after our arrival, we decided to tour the city. So we parked the car, free of charge, in the parking lot of Red Train Tours, a cheaper alternative to the City Trolley so we were told. With the cost only twenty dollars a piece, we boarded the little red train and for three short hours and twenty stops later, we were in complete awe over the city’s unique history.
St Augustine is four hundred and fifty years old. It sits on the edge of the Atlantic coast in northeastern Florida just twenty-five miles south from the city of Jacksonville. Pedro Menendez de Aviles, (there’s a street in the city named after him in his honor) a Spanish explorer and later the governor of Florida founded the city on September 8, 1565. For over two hundred years the city served as the capital of the Spanish Florida and then in 1819, Spain released Florida to the United States. When the treaty was later ratified in 1821, St Augustine became the capital of Florida until it was changed to Tallahassee in 1824. Since the late 19th century, St Augustine’s distinct historic character has made the city a major tourist attraction in the United States.
Although, there is a lot to see in this beautiful city with its many historical sites including Ripley’s Believe Or Not Museum, historic churches, colorful Spaniard décor, gift shops, art studios, live music and outdoor seafood restaurants and eateries, there are a few fascinating highlights I believe are worth mentioning.
Huguenot Cemetery, a protestant burial ground directly across from the city gate is one of the most haunted cemeteries in the country. It was established in 1821 after a third of the city’s population died from yellow fever and it’s believed 436 of the city’s inhabitants were buried there. One of the symptoms of yellow fever was falling into a coma.
In the 1800’s, trained doctors did not understand the “comatose” phenomena and as a result patients were often declared dead and then buried alive. Once the dead awaken from their comatose state, they would dig themselves out of their very own graves shocking the hell out of everyone around them. To calm the town’s nerves, the medical establishment took matters into their own hands and came up with a peculiar idea. They created a contraption, a little bell with a string attached which they would tied to the big toe of the comatose patient right before burial. So when the patient woke up from his/her coma a few days later after being accidentally buried alive, he/she would wiggle their big toe, jiggling the bell and then cemetery personnel would come to their rescue and dig them out of the grave. This peculiar scenario gave way to the term “the dead ringer.”
Fast forward to the Civil Rights Movement. Lincolnville, the African-American community in St Augustine was subjected to rising Ku Klux Clan violence on a daily basis. Doctor Robert Hayley, a local dentist and African-American sent an appeal to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference asking for help. This organization was headed by Doctor Martin Luther King Jr who readily accepted the invite. He came to St Augustine right away where he organized and conducted several non-violent marches. Hundreds were arrested including Martin Luther King Jr, himself and he landed in jail for one night. The area’s struggle drew national attention paving the way to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
On a lighter note, we were fortunate enough to meet the oldest resident in St Augustine, the “old Senator” a live oak tree that is 600 years old. The “old Senator” sits in the parking lot of the Howard Johnson Hotel on San Marcos Avenue a short distance from historic downtown. This magnificent oak tree should be considered one of the greatest wonders of the world, a natural treasure, a grand landmark in the nation’s oldest city.
Another interesting site is the Fountain of Youth, an archaeological privately owned 15-acre park. History touts it as the 1513 Florida landing site of the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, although there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. The park contains an artesian well of freshwater supposedly the secret to staying young forever and it also houses 40 different species of peacocks. The tour guide on the little red train made us aware of the statue of a nude David, his lower body surrounded by thick vegetation. As the train rolled passed the site, the guide informed us that David the statue was more than well endowed. Fortunately, for our sakes, the thick vegetation covered his lower part only allowing us to view the upper part of his body instead.
Soon the tour came to an end. We hopped into the car and took off to the San Sebastian Winery. The winery had three floors including a balcony with a wine bar where one could view the entire city of St Augustine. It also didn’t hurt to have live jazz playing nearby either. The wines, reasonably priced ranged from $8.99-$29.99. After tasting some of the winery’s signature wines, I bought two bottles to take home with me.
After our brief stop at the winery, we ventured out into the district and we came across a cute little shop named “Grace’s Gallery” on Charlotte Street. The shop specialized in international products such as Indonesian, Mexican and Laos masks, Bob Marley Tee-shirts, dresses, leather sandals, jewelry and Nepal handbags. The owner was both welcoming and accommodating and before we knew it, we were set back a small investment. I loved the Nepal Bag decorated with peace signs so I bought it. I also bought a pair of earrings as well. The owner informed me she obtains her products from India, Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia while traveling abroad. Her shop definitely was worth the stop and I look forward to visiting there again.
A half block down from Grace’s Gallery, we came upon “Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops”, a quaint little store also on Charlotte Street. The store offered a variety of different flavored popsicles with fresh ingredients and needless to say, the coconut popsicle I devoured was soooo very good. We continue on our journey, exploring the district for the rest of the afternoon and when the evening faded into dusk, we hopped in the car and made our way back to Jacksonville.
As the orange gold sun disappear over the horizon, a warm breeze off the Atlantic was a welcome relief. Instead of going home, we decided to stop by the “Wine Bar” near North Jacksonville Beach. One of the owners, David Hamilton welcomed us with a big smile and his customer service was outstanding. He introduced us to a South African wine made in Bukettraube called Cederberg. The wine set us back $24 a bottle, but its flavor was crisp and smooth to the palate.
The appetizer, “Hot Nuts” was the highlight of our evening. A mixture of walnuts and almonds in olive oil with a hint of salt and by the end of the evening when it was all said and done, I didn’t know which was more tastier, the South African wine or the bowl of “Hot Nuts!” So if you are ever in Jacksonville, be sure to make a visit to the Wine Bar on the beach and have a bowl of “Hot Nuts” with a glass of South African wine. I guarantee you the combination will not disappoint!