We decided to have 4 nights at St Augustine (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable), partly because we were a little ahead of schedule, and partly because St Augustine is the oldest European settlement in the United States, predating Jamestown in Virginia by 42 years.
The city is proud of its Spanish heritage, and was under Spanish rule for nearly 200 years, except for a short period of Brtish control between 1763 and 1783. Florida was ceded to the US in 1821 and became a state in 1845, but St Augustine’s Old Town has a very continental feel and there is a lot of Spanish influence in the architecture of the churches and civic buildings.
Florida divides into temperate and tropical zones, and this difference has been apparent since moving from Port St Lucie in the south, where the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway starts, and St Augustine, 200 miles north. On Wednesday the overnight temperature dropped to 7C(44F) and on Thursday it was forecast to be even lower. Carina has no heating system, and on some mornings has felt cold and a bit damp. We had tried various places in St Petersburg when we took over the boat, Macy’s, Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, and looked online too, but the concept of a small electric fan heater seemed completely alien to everyone we asked. But on Thursday, in Bed Bath and Beyond, a treasure trove of a store which has everything you might possibly ever want or need for your home, there was an array of them. We acquired one for $24.99 and Carina now feels as cosy as she looks.
We hired bikes again, to explore Anastasia State Park, the northernmost part of Anastasia Island, the barrier island to the east of St Augustine. We were just in time to join a walk led by a volunteer ranger with an impressive knowledge of the ecology of the area.
He explained that the beach is constantly changing, with new dunes being formed as sand is deposited and pioneer plants take hold.
After our bike ride we had walked back into the town to have a drink and a meal at A1A AleWorks. As I sat in the crowded bar, sipping my marguerita, for which I had developed a sudden fancy, I thought I vaguely recognised someone. It was the bike man. He was with his family, but he came over and greeted us like old friends.
‘Say, you guys look a whole lot better without those helmets! You all had a good day?’
I was able to assure him that indeed we had.
St Augustine owes its prominence as a visitor centre not only to its Spanish heritage, but also to the endeavours of Henry Flagler, who was already a successful businessman when he came to Florida in the 1880s with his second wife, and was dismayed by the lack of accommodation in St Augustine. So he built the opulent 450-bed Ponce de Leon Hotel, which was quickly followed by the purchase of the Jacksonville-St Augustine-Halifax Railroad, which he developed to enable his guests to travel comfortably to his hotel. Then, perceiving his guests’ need for leisure facilities, he built the Alcazar Hotel, complete with the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, a Turkish bath, sauna, massage rooms and gymnasium, just across the road. The Alcazar had the additional function of fighting off competition from another hotel, the Casa Monica, on the next block.
But the Casa Monica is the only one to have stood the test of time as an hotel. The Ponce de Leon closed in 1931, and the Alcazar in 1932, casualties of the Great Depression.
The Ponce de Leon became Flagler College in 1968, and some of the rooms are open to the public. We joined a tour led by John, a senior year student. I hope he takes up a career in teaching, because he would be wasted doing anything else. We were a large group, but he managed to engage everyone with numerous anecdotes about the building, Flagler, and the ‘Gilded Age’ to which he belonged. As well as the stunning rception hall, we saw the Ladies’ Parlour, where 19th C wives networked on behalf of their husbands, and the dining room, where the college students now eat all their meals.
The courtyard was laid out as a Celtic Cross – Flagler wanted to commemorate his Irish roots.
St Augustine’s place in the Civil Rights Movement receives barely a mention in the visitor guides. The Lonely Planet doesn’t refer to it at all, although one of the streets is named for Dr Martin Luther King, who came to the city in 1964, and in the Plaza de la Constitucion,there is a plaque to mark the place where Andrew Young, a friend of Martin Luther King, was beaten up.
But when we went to the The Lightner Museum,housed in the old Alcazar Hotel, we found it was closing early, because of a concert by the local St Augustine Orchestra in the evening to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act. The programe included Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A, and the premiere of Someday, an oratorio commissioned by the orchestra.
We asked about tickets, and the museum lady looked at us a little dubiously. The tickets were $50 each, and included a VIP reception both before and after the concert, as it was a ‘fundraiser’, the lady explained.
Ian cut to the chase.
‘We just want to go to the concert. Is that possible?’ More dubious looks, but she did go off and find another lady who was associated with the concert, and who assured us that if we presented ourselves at the Granada St entrance at 7.30, we’d be able to buy tickets at the door.
We came back at the appointed hour, walked up and down the street, and there was no sign of anything resembling the entrance to a concert venue. Ian, who had not really wanted to go to the concert in the first place, was showing signs of early impatience. In something just a little short of desperation, we walked back into the museum, where through the window of the grand lobby, we could see the VIPs quaffing champagne and nibbling things. Eventually an elderly man dressed in a dinner jacket came out, drawing heavily on his cigarette. Ian asked him where the concert was. He studied us for a moment, swayed slightly and said ‘I.have.no.idea.’
We were rescued by two pleasant young men who had seen us, and not only knew where the concert was, but personally escorted us to the right door.
The concert was in what had been the swimming pool of the Alcazar Hotel, quite magnificent, with columns, balustrades, a high vaulted glass roof, and adorned with palms and flowers. The VIPs sat in the pool area, but we had perhaps a better view from the balcony, facing the pianist. It was moving to hear the theme of We Shall Overcome in Someday, 50 years after singing it at Folk Club in the 60s.
After the intermission the mood lightened as the orchestra played Duke Ellington and excerpts from Porgy and Bess. But the best part for me was the pianist’s encore. He played Martin Luther King’s favourite hymn, Precious Lord Take My Hand, and segued into Maple Leaf Rag. I had never heard Scott Joplin’s music played live before, and from my birdseye view, I could appreciate the phenomenal energy the pianist, Thomas Pandolfi, put into his playing.
Over the bridge from Hidden Harbor marina, where we were staying, was the San Sebastian Winery, and as we passed it on our way to the concert, we noticed that loud funky music was emanating from the top floor. As we passed it on the way back from the concert, the music was still playing, and the urge to investigate, irresistible.
There was no obvious entrance, which was slightly off-putting, but when we ventured furtively round the back, two People Like Us appeared. Ian asked them if it was a private party, or if it was open to the public.
‘Sure it’s open! No cover charge, you just get your drinks at the bar. Go on up, you guys’ll have a great time!’
And we did. Up on the roof, the lead singer looked like Elton John with frizzy hair. The clientele was mostly baby-boomers, but there was also a group of girls wearing satin sashes, celebrating someone’s birthday. We did feel they were a bit tame, compared with their Newcastle equivalents on a hen night in the Bigg market, though.
Elton John played Time is on My Side, possibly my least favourite Stones track, but then the Ginger Baker lookalike took over, with It’s All Over Now. Everyone was on their feet, so I got some dancing after all.
The tides are a lot bigger here on the east coast, so we had to time our departure from St Augustine to take advantage of the favourable tide. There was time on Sunday morning to go back to the Lightner Museum, where this proggy mat was certainly not the most exquisite exhibit, but perhaps one of the more memorable.
After all, it never does any harm to remember your place.