What do you give a 450-year-old for his birthday?
Well, since he has already had five occupations, seven invasions, untold wealth and treasure from visitors, glorious natural beauty, amazing architecture, miracle building materials, and gifts bestowed by an early 20th century multimillionaire, the best thing to give him would be your presence. And that we happily gave to St. Augustine, Florida.
We Roadtreked into Anastasia State Recreation Area, Feb. 9, with a plan of touring St. Augustine. We were lucky to get in with no reservation, though it was easier to get as we were asking for only one or two days. Later in the year it may be tougher. (And maybe the brisk 48 degree Fahrenheit temperature had something to do with availability.) There are other sites as well.
But for this leg of our Roadreking, we used our RV as a base of operations and became tourists. To tour St. Augustine we planned our usual urban tactic: take one of the touring trams around to get the lay of the land so we could to decide where we would spend most of our time. This is our second trip in as many decades, and our memories may have wavered a bit, so we definitely required one of the city’s tram tour services. We chose The Old Town Trolley. One ticket for this tram permits you to exit and re-board anywhere along the route for three days as well as giving you free parking. There is also free RV parking near the Visitors Center, but again, depending on the time of year you visit it may or may not be available.
So, St. Augustine had five occupations? While the people within its walls most likely have had every occupation, the city was occupied five times and has flown five different flags, in this order: Spanish, English, Spanish again, The Confederacy, and finally, the U.S.
Seven invasions? Well, seven that were the easiest to count, and that the residents of St. Augustine clearly “lost.” The English governors of South Carolina were given the mission by the king to either conquer St. Augustine and claim it for Britain, or destroy it. So they burned the city to the ground, seven times in 200 years.
Eventually the Spanish discovered a material to withstand bombings and fires. It is called Coquina.
A miracle building material for a fort under siege, coquina is composed of shells which were rolled and crushed under the pressure of the ocean floor for eons. It resembles coarse concrete and is mined near what is now Anastasia Recreation Area. It requires a “drying” process of at least 16 months. The miracle is that coquina does not crumble under cannonball strikes. In fact, the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos actually absorbed the cannonballs rather than crumbling. After being rent asunder so many times, the citizens of the city of St. Augustine were finally given permission by the Queen of Spain to build their own buildings with it. And though the attacks continued, British flames never again leveled the entire town.
The architecture of Old St. Augustine bears strong Spanish influence but is defiantly thick and strong in the face of war and weather. As coquina came in shorter and shorter supply, a new material, Portland cement, was mixed with small shells and sand. When poured into forms to make walls of a building, this poured concrete technique became the next building technology on the American scene. St. Augustine was among the very first cities to use it on a large scale thanks to Henry Flagler and his Florida hotel empire.
Flagler’s empire had many firsts, but most impressive to me was his city block long indoor hotel swimming pool. Also in this hotel which now stands as St. Augustine’s City Hall, were several pool halls, a casino, a dance hall, various salons and emporia. Outside were acres of tennis courts. Flagler’s guests had fun at his hotels.
Flagler College stands in his memory and upon the foundation he laid. His railroad through the “wilds” of Florida brought his guests in from the civilized world. And the dining room in one of his hotels housed
Tiffany glass windows now insured at a bazillion dollars. These are among the earliest works of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
But all these facts don’t relay the character and flavor of America’s oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement and port in the continental U.S. Nearly to a person, everyone we encountered had their own bit of history to add, and their pride to display.
Meandering through predominately Spanish and British architecture, Rhonda and I found a wonderful Irish pub for dinner, Meehan’s Irish Pub. We walked the original streets and shopped at authentic shops for goods and crafts. We dodged traffic on streets barely six feet wide and suitable only for pedestrians and the smallest of cars. All in all, the Old St. Augustine transported us back in time at nearly every turn.
This year is St. Augustine’s 450th Anniversary. The whole year is full of events. The town is primed for the big celebration on Sept. 8 and ready for you. If you have never seen St. Augustine, as a Roadtreker, you can get into the city, camp, enjoy yourself, and depart with far less trouble than most. Camping sites include Anastasia State Recreation Area, and these others. The excitement of a truly historic event in the oldest continuously occupied city in the contiguous United States drew us in, despite the traffic, and the “touristy” attractions, and the countless other Americans there to celebrate.
Like everything you see and do in life, what you get out of something is only a product of what you put in.
So that’s our gift to the only 450 year-old we know– our presence– and in return we received an increased sense of the history and greatness of our country.
Thinking about giving St. Augustine your own presence?
It’s well worth the trip.