We have been looking forward to visiting historic St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the US and the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years as well as the former capital of British East Florida.
We left Marineland at 8 am on March 22nd in bright sunshine, making good progress while bird watching, as usual, along the way. We came round the final bend towards the bascule Bridge of Lions (“the most beautiful bridge in dixie”) at 10:25 and radioed immediately to request their 10:30 opening. The bridge operator asked if we could get there in time, and we acknowledged and sped up. He could see us all the time, but when we actually reached the bridge at full tilt it was 10:33 and he told us we would have to wait till 11:00 am. Darn! If he had opened on schedule we could have gone right through and if he had told us in advance that he wouldn’t wait even a couple of minutes, we would have taken our time on the final approach. The current was swift, clouds threatening as we started to slowly circle and ‘hang out’ mid-stream for 30 minutes. Then the heavens opened, and for a while visibility was reduced to a few feet and winds gusted well over 30 knots in the squall. We could not even see the bridge, and worked hard to hold our position and not drift into the many obstructions and/or shallow ground nearby. Double darn@#$%!
Luckily the squall passed just as the bridge opened, and we are able to transit and pick up our assigned mooring just north of the bridge with no further incident. However, it set the stage for the rest of what turned out to be a very wet day. Besides, there were gunshots from the nearby fort and pirate ships in our anchorage so we felt rather under attack from the Spanish before we even came ashore! I suggested we furl our Canadian flag but Skipper Steve did not think it do anything to staunch the gunfire.
We took the dinghy into town, registering at the marina for our two-night mooring, and then walking through the historic old town to George Street,, which is lined with historic homes from various periods. Most of these homes are reconstructions of buildings that had been burned or demolished over the years, though a few of them are original.
There does seem to be an awful amount of competition for being “oldest” or “first” here – like the oldest house, the oldest wooden schoolhouse, etc. There are also a lot of very touristy shops, museums, pirate tacky tours, and money grabbers, but there are also some lovely gift stores, local artisan crafts (good prices) and genuine historic attractions. So on balance we loved it and left with a favourable impression and desire to return. Besides, under advice from cruisers we met at Marineland, we stopped for pizza for lunch – and to get out of the rain – and it turned out to be about the best pizza we have had. Anywhere. Ever. Go where the queues are longest is the best restaurant tip!
We then set out up King Street to go to the post office and the Sailors Exchange, a unique bazaar of new and used boating equipment. It was about a mile walk, which is nothing to us, except that the skies had really darkened by this time, thunder and lightning crashing and flashing around us. We got to the post office at 2:15 pm to find that it closed at 2 pm, but undaunted, we hardy salty dawgs made our way over the bridge to the Sailors Exchange, to find that it too closed at 2 pm on Saturdays! By this time we were soaked to the skin and the sky was dark as night. We sought shelter under the overhang of a pawn shop, and the owner beckoned us indoors, and gave us paper towels to wipe our glasses and faces. By this time it had started to hail – grape size hail stones scattering on the tarmac outside.
As soon as the hail stopped we left again in the rain and went back over the bridge to the Sebastian winery on the other side. We decided that taking advantage of the wine tasting and tour was a better use of our time than walking in the rain or standing in a pawn shop. Warmed up by the 6 free tastings, we left puddles of water and strange looks of customers and staff behind us and ventured back into the flooded streets to make our way back to Tai Chi. By this time there were tornado warnings and we were anxious to get home to make sure all was well with our boat on its mooring. We found our dinghy half full of water, gas tank floating, and Steve pumped it out. We were very relieved to find the water all still on the outside of the boat when we got there, and happy to change out of sodden layers, dry off and make a cup of tea. I shouldn’t complain – we have avoided winter and been blessed with warm weather and sunshine while our family all endured bitter, nasty winters. Pay back time.
The next day the free pump-out boat came around as scheduled at 9 am, after which we left in our dinghy to do some more exploring. It really is a very interesting and beautiful city. Flagler College, once the Ponce De Leon Hotel, must be one of the most beautiful campuses in North America. We wandered through the streets admiring the spanish colonial architecture, the venerable Castillo de San Marcos, completed in the late seventeenth century, which survived destruction of the city by invading British forces in 1702. Much of the architectural legacy of the city is much younger, testimony to St. Augustine’s troubled history. But it is all attractive – neat and tidy with a smattering of flowers and mature trees in parks, gardens and boulevards. Although it rained on and off during the day, we were able to keep dry, and enjoy the intermittent sunshine.
To cap off a much better second day in St. Augustine, we spent the evening in the wonderful company of friends from our home club, QCYC, on Toronto Island. Wayne and Mary picked us up downtown and showed us around the lovely tennis and beach condo complex where they spend most of each winter. Other mutual friends also rent condos at the same resort, so there were 10 of us for dinner. Great food, wine, stories and laughter reminded us that, however much we may admire esthetically pleasing architecture, the warmth of human relationships always brings more joy than bricks and mortar ever can. Also, this glimpse of our friends’ ‘home away from home’ made me think for the first time, that, despite having dismissed this as an option for years, perhaps at some future date, I could be a snow-bird, and travel t Florida in the winter!
View our photo journal for St. Augustine.
View Tai Chi: Journey 2012 in a larger map