By Peter Covino
When was the last time you were in St. Augustine?
For many, St. Augustine is that intriguing historic spot on the map that you always meant to stop by for a day or two, but just never could find the time as you zoom north on I-95 for a family reunion or a holiday in St. Elsewhere.
Or maybe, way back when, you did spend the day in this town founded by Spain 500 years ago, just long enough to go to the Fountain of Youth or the Oldest Jail or one of its other well-preserved touristy attractions.
But if you haven’t been to St. Augustine lately, you haven’t been to St. Augustine at all.
Sure, the city still has those quaint narrow streets and picture-perfect postcard architecture from centuries past. Much of the center is dominated by hotels and buildings built by one of Florida’s most important historical figures, Henry Flagler. But this compact, small city (population 13,400 or so) is so much more than a place for tourists visiting Florida — it is a vibrant, bustling shopping mecca, as well as an amazing place to dine. There are some 400 restaurants, representing just about every part of the world.
And as the holidays get closer, this beautiful city will get even more dazzling, as the Nights of Lights Celebration takes hold. From mid-November through January, the holiday lighting display, ranked as one of the most spectacular in the nation, will transform the city’s historic district with more than 2 million tiny white lights.
With dining, sightseeing and shopping, it is impossible to see all St. Augustine has to offer in just one day.
The city has many historic inns and hotels, but none is older or more charming than the oldest inn in town: the St. Francis Inn.
The oldest part of the inn dates back to 1791.
“It’s the oldest inn and some say I am the oldest innkeeper in St. Augustine,” said owner Joe Finnegan, “but that’s a lie.”
Finnegan and his wife Margaret have made many upgrades to the inn since they bought it in 1985, but it still retains all of that old world charm and those romantic rooms and suites (see more, including room rates, photos at www.stfrancisinn.com).
Every room at the inn is unique with names such as Marie’s Room, Lily’s Room, Ballerina Room and the Garden Hideaway. And every room and suite has a private bath, central heat and AC and cable TV.
Return visitors have their favorite rooms, and Lily’s Room, according to legend, has its own ghost. You can read about Lily and the room’s ghostly experiences at the inn website too, at www.stfrancisinn.com/ghosts.html.
There are plenty of guest amenities as well including a buffet breakfast (featuring some really nice baked breads, fruit soup and more).
Head back to the inn at 5 p.m. for the Evening Social Hour. You can mingle with other guests in the dining room (or in garden setting of the courtyard) and enjoy the appetizer of the day, made on the premises, as well as local wines and bottled beer, coffee and tea.
Parking is also a premium in St. Augustine, but the inn has its own parking lot, located right across the street from the inn.
Located less than six miles from the inn, the beach lodgings include Our Beach House, Our Beach Cottage and Our Beach Bungalow.
For a large family or group, Our Beach House features two bedrooms, each with its own full bath, as well as a queen sofa bed in the living room. There is a fully applianced eat-in kitchen, a desk designed for the portable computer, with WiFi internet and for that cold December night, a fireplace.
The St. Francis staff is as warm and inviting as the inn. After a few days lodging, you will feel like you are just part of the family.
There are many seasonal events in St. Augustine, but one of the best is the 20th annual Bed and Breakfast Holiday Tour, featuring the St. Francis Inn as well as 23 other inns throughout the historic city.
The tour is held from 1 to 5 p.m. Dec. 14 and 15.
Tickets are $25 and are good for both days of the two-day tour. (Go to staugustinebandbtour.com for more information and to purchase tickets).
It is a self-guided walking tour and includes an extensive tour booklet with a map of each day’s inns on tour. You can begin at any inn and go in any order. The ticket price includes a free tour shuttle trolley courtesy of Old Town Trolley. The trolley will stop at several locations along the tour route, but some walking is still required, but walking the streets of St. Augustine is never tiring in fall or winter.
Each of the inns will be decorated for the holidays and each inn also will be paired with a distinguished St. Augustine restaurant offering tasty treats of every variety.
The St. Francis Inn has its only daily tradition for the holidays, featuring a different “Twelve Days of Christmas” nightly-themed dessert in the dining room.
Other holiday events in St. Augustine include the 45th annual Garden Club Christmas Tour of Homes (www.gardenclubofstaugustine.org); the Regatta of Lights, the holiday parade of boats across Matanzas Bay (www.sayc2000.com); the St. Augustine Christmas Parade (call 904-824-4997 for information); Beach Blast Off, St. Augustine restaurants serving up chili for tasting and judging, concluding with a New Year’s Eve fireworks show (www.beachblastoff.com) and the British Encampment and Grande Illumination, a reenactment of the British occupation in the Old City from 1763-84 featuring a torch-lit parade, musket volley and Christmas carols in the plaza (www.britishnightwatch.org).
You can experience the long history of St. Augustine on any visit at one of the newer attractions, Colonial Quarter.
Just off of St. George Street, one of the city’s most famous and busiest streets, the Colonial Quarter offers a glimpse of the city’s history, from 16th century Spanish settlement to its 18th century British occupation, all on two acres of land.
On a fall weekend, the quarter will probably be crowded with tourists, but on weekdays, you will share the experience, most likely, with kids on a school field trip.
The tour features history in four quadrants, each representing a different part of St. Augustine’s colonial Spanish and British history.
Along the guided route, you will encounter everything from a working blacksmith shop to a gunsmith demonstrating musket drills. You can even climb a watchtower for a view of the bay front.
The quarter also features a 250-seat, lantern-lit amphitheater, with a stage for live entertainment and refreshments available for purchase.
Other highlights include de Mesa House, built in the 1740s as a one-room colonial residence, though it has been expanded over the centuries.
While the city offers many great dining opportunities, you don’t even have to leave the Colonial Quarter for a nice dining alternative. Make that two alternatives.
The quarter features the Bull & Crown Publick House, with authentic British fare and the Taverna de Caballo, a Spanish tavern.
Both dining spots are also accessible off of St. George Street.
The Spanish tavern is well worth a stop.
The tavern (as well as pub) are two of the newer dining places in the city.
If the weather permits, and it usually does in fall, you can dine in the courtyard or inside. There is a really nice assortment of tapas selections, including many varieties of flatbreads, cheeses, sausage, an outstanding pressed Cuban sandwich and two varieties (red and white) or their own sangria.
Dining will present of the biggest quandaries in a visit to St. Augustine. There are opportunities on every corner.
You can sample several in one long lunch with via St. Augustine City Walk tours (www.staugustinecitywalks.com).
CityWalks offer several tours, including ghost tours, a history mayhem and murder tour and more, but for the famished there is the Savory Faire Food Tour.
The $49 “ticket” includes at least three stops, from tapas to dessert, with a culinary guide and a special selection prepared by the chef at each stop. You can also sign on for for a wine pairing upgrade for an additional $15.
The tour is a great way to sample St. Augustine fare that the local residents enjoy. And these are generous size samples, you will want to have a late dinner.
Bistro de Leon, featuring the culinary mastery of Chef Jean-Stephane Poinard (www.Bistrodeleon.com).
Try the chef’s newest creation, hot from the oven, the iBunn. This is so new, it might not even be on the menu yet. It is the chef’s take on reinventing the sandwich.
“The secret is the brioche,” the chef says. It can be filled with pretty much anything from ham and cheese to curried shrimp or a pulled pork barbecue.
And the potato salad is also something special.
Meehan’s Irish Pub & Seafood House (www.mehansirishpub.com) has got to be a mandatory stop for lunch or dinner.
The food is outstanding (the salmon is so fresh you may need to stab it with your fork to keep it from swimming off the table) and there are more than 60 varieties of whiskey served by the glass.
Back to that salmon, it is served on parchment paper and it is flown in fresh from Scotland daily.
The menu includes a lot of Irish fare (steak and stout pie, shepherd’s pie, bangers, corned beef and cabbage) as well as local seafood and signature dishes.
The pub also has a courtyard featuring an island café and tropical bar.
Another memorable dining spot is O.C. White’s restaurant (www.ocwhitesresaturant.com).
With a history dating back to 1790, O.C. White’s also has a great courtyard, with live entertainment.
The menu is fairly large with an emphasis on seafood (seafood gumbo, blue crab cake sandwich, shrimp abaco, fresh mahi sandwich, grouper).
Open for lunch as well as dinner, the restaurant also features a Sunday brunch.
You might want to start one morning at a great breakfast place, the Hot Shot Bakery (www.hotshotbakery.com). Chef/owner Sherry Stobbelbein’s restaurant is known for its paninis and pumpkin pecan waffles with homemade caramel sauce and bananas. It is also home of the Wall of Flame, a photo-covered wall featuring the 1,400-plus people who have tried one of the chocolate-covered datil pepper. Yes, it is really hot.
Stobbelbein also sells the café’s own label of hot sauces. The café is also open for lunch.
Getting around St. Augustine is easy. Once you park your car, you are better off leaving it parked. You can walk just about anywhere you want to go in the city limits or take a guided trolley tour (www.historictours.com) or go upscale in a vintage car (www.staugustinevintagecartours.com).
For a listing of other events and things to do in the city and Flagler County go to Floridashistoriccoast.com.
How to get there: From Kissimmee/St. Cloud, St. Augustine is only about a two hour drive, via Interstate 4 and Interstate 95. Just follow the St. Augustine exit signs off of I-95 to the historic district.