Destination St. Augustine

Author:
Publish date:

Spanish explorers came for the gold. You’ll want to visit because there’s so much to see and do in America’s oldest city.

Spanish explorers came for the gold. You’ll want to visit because there’s so much to see and do in America’s oldest city.

 

When I sail into St. Augustine Inlet today I always wonder, How did they do it? Ocean swell breaks on shifting bars, north and south of the channel. When you get inside the beach, a jumble of channels and shoals greets you where the Tolomato and Matanzas rivers collide with ocean waters.

Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles “did it” Aug. 28, 1565, on the Feast Day of St. Augustine. He came with huge lumbering sailing ships of the Spanish fleet and safely landed with 600 soldiers and trumpets and flags. The inhabitants of the Timucuan Indian village of Seloy watched in amazement. Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles was there for God and king, not to mention gold. Florida had been “discovered” by Don Juan Ponce de Leon on Easter, March 27, 1513, while searching for a fountain of youth. Claiming the land for Spain, he named it La Florida, meaning “Land of Flowers.” But later the French Huguenots built FortCaroline just to the north on the St. Johns River. Menendez came to remove the French and secure Spanish rule. Today, you can follow Menendez in your much more maneuverable boat, through a well-marked, jettied channel or via the Intracoastal Waterway.

Whichever way you come, you’ll be confronted by the huge Castillo de San Marcos. Just 21 years after Menendez founded St. Augustine, Sir Francis Drake burned and looted it. He was one of many marauding threats, including the British, the French and pirates. So the Spanish spent 23 years building this fort using coquina, a soft, natural mixture of broken shell and coral that not only was hard and durable but also spongy when hit by cannon balls. After it was completed in 1695 it repelled all attackers, its cannon commanding all approaches to the village. In the 1800s it imprisoned Chief Osceola and Chief Coacoochee and their families. Today, as we explore its damp passages, the soldiers of ancient times speak to us through their drawings on some of the walls.

Castillo de San Marcos stands near the western foot of the ornately decorated Bridge of Lions and is known well by waterway travelers. (The bridge is currently undergoing a thorough rehabilitation, but the historical architecture will remain.) The fort and bridge are symbols of the ancient town. Seamen still come here today, but to enjoy the cultural experience, history, museums and, yes, the fine restaurants. They also come to have their yachts repaired, rebuilt and serviced.

Approaches

St. Augustine is at Mile 778 on the ICW, with an inlet from the Atlantic. Large commercial fishing boats, often drawing as much as 8 feet, use the inlet daily, as do numerous pleasure boats. But it is relatively shallow, with oft-changing shoals. It isn’t advisable to transit it in heavy easterly weather or swell. With enough onshore sea it can be dangerous. Just inside the inlet the channel converges with the ICW channel, often confusing yachtsmen. Carefully study the latest charts, and carefully identify aids to navigation ahead. Hard sandbars lurk just outside the channel.

St. Augustine ashore

As soon as you come ashore, a feel of the 1500s surrounds you with narrow brick streets, period Spanish architecture, horse-drawn buggies, art and shops. It’s a fantastic experience. The 4 million-plus visitors that come to St. Augustine each year are the proof. There are 144 blocks of buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, hundreds of annual festivals and events, and more than 150 restaurants of all types and categories.

Walk down historic St. George Street with its shops and restaurants, or begin with a tour on the trolley. This open, guided tour train will give you a great introduction. There are also horse-drawn carriage tours with drivers who tell you about what’s around, as well as answer questions. For a free vacation planner for St. Augustine, visit www.getaway4florida.com or call the Visitors and Convention Bureau at (800) 653-2489. The VisitorInformationCenter, (904) 825-1000, is at 10 S. Castillo Drive. I’ll whet your appetite with but a few examples of what the town offers.

Be sure to visit the Castillo de San Marcos (www.nps.gov/casa). On its high, sun-drenched parapets and along its dark passages, authentically costumed guides answer questions, and you can push buttons to get recordings at your leisure as you move through different areas of the fort. Regularly, the booms of cannons fired from the fort echo over the waters and ancient brick streets. Near the fort, a huge cross, visible from the inlet, marks the spot where the first Roman Catholic mass was conducted here on Sept. 8, 1565.

One of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (www.fountainofyouthflorida.com), contains displays depicting the life of the early Spanish explorers, artifacts of their discovery, early American Indians and more current displays. When you take the tour you’ll be offered a drink from the Fountain of Youth spring. Many take a sip ... you never know.

Within a few blocks of the waterfront are the famous Potter’s Wax Museum (www.potterswax.com ), several art galleries, the Spanish Military Hospital Museum (www.spanishmilitaryhospital.com ), and Ripley’s Believe It or Not (http://www.staugustine-ripleys.com/ ). Also near the waterfront, the Old Market and Plaza de la Constitucion reconstruct the central area and market of former Spanish times, and the Cathedral of St. Augustine stands on the site of the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the United States. In the Plaza de la Constitucion there is a statue of Ponce de Leon on the eastern end and the GovernmentHouseMuseum, one of the oldest government houses in the country, on the western end across St. George Street. Cannons, memorials and ancient trees impart a feeling of the past. Don’t overlook the “Love Tree” on the north end of Cordova Street, four blocks from the Plaza. Long ago, an oak and palm tree entwined around each other and now grow as one, although you can see the distinctly different trees.

The nearby LightnerMuseum (www.lightnermuseum.org) is known for its elegant relics of America’s Gilded Age of the 19th century, exhibited on the museum’s three floors. The collection includes beautiful examples of cut glass, Victorian art glass and the stained glass work of Louis C. Tiffany. Near the end of the 19th century, Henry Flagler, entrepreneur and co-founder of Standard Oil, began developing the east coast of Florida for tourism. He built the Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. Its fabulous architecture of Spanish Renaissance Revival style, fountains and sculpture were opulent and classic. Tiffany decorated the interior using stained glass, mosaics and terra cotta relief on the walls and ceilings, as well as several commissioned grand murals. Today, FlaglerCollege occupies those halls, which are open for touring. You can also visit some ruins of the first buildings here. Many of these old houses had doors only as tall as the tallest family member, usually 4-1/2 to 5 feet.

If you want to see something really tall, check out the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum (www.staugustinelighthouse.com). As you approach the inlet, or from the ICW, you’ll notice the black-and-white, spiral-striped structure rising 165 feet above sea level. Its history, as told in the museum, is fascinating. And if you climb the 219 steps to the top, you’ll see the Atlantic, the inlet and its shoals, the Matanzas and Tolomato rivers, the marinas and anchorages, and the town itself. The grounds include a nature walk, and the nearby AnastasiaState Park demonstrates the area much as it was before civilization (www.floridastateparks.org ).

St. Augustine also is home to the headquarters for the San Sebastian Winery, which offers a tour and tastings, as well as The Cellar Upstairs wine and jazz bar. Its vineyards are in Florida and elsewhere (www.sansebastianwinery.com ).

Of great importance to cruisers are a Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, Publix, Winn Dixie and Target, all on Route 1 South. You’ll need a car or taxi, but they’re only a few minutes drive from the marinas.

There are numerous art galleries in town, and on the first Friday of every month there is an art walk during which participating galleries stay open until 9 p.m. and serve refreshments. For a different perspective, visit the Alligator Farm (www.alligatorfarm.us) to see its rare white alligators and collection of 23 species of crocodilians from around the world. Maximo lives there, and at 15 feet, 3 inches he is reported to be the largest crocodile exhibited in the Western Hemisphere. There also are reptile and exotic bird and new world primate displays and shows. This zoo, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, was established in 1893 with a collection of alligators found on AnastasiaIsland (on which you’ll be when you visit the farm). It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The beach towns of St. AugustineBeach and VilanoBeach are just east of the ICW and offer swimming in warmer months, surfing, and beautiful walks by the ocean anytime. And for golfers, there is the World Golf Hall of Fame (www.wghof.com ) and a number of championship golf courses nearby.

Restaurants

As you might expect, restaurants present a problem: There are so many good ones of all types that it’s very difficult to choose. We love the Kingfish Grill (www.kingfishgrill.com ) at CamacheeCoveYachtHarbor, with its affordable menu, great seafood, and many other types of hors d’oeuvres and entrees. It meets my test for scoping out good restaurants when I sail into a port: It’s popular with the locals.

The Raintree Restaurant is a top-quality fine-dining spot with seating in many rooms or outside (www.raintreerestaurant.com). The AAA Four-Diamond 95 Cordova is very fine dining

(www.casamonica.com/95cordova ). The restaurant is at the luxurious CasaMonicaHotel on Cordova Street across from the Plaza de la Constitucion. Built in 1888, the hotel was completely renovated in 1999.

The Village Inn (www.villageinnrestaurants.com ) is open all night and makes a great breakfast spot. The Sunset Grille (www.sunsetgrillea1a.com ), across the ICW at St. AugustineBeach on AnastasiaIsland is very popular with locals because of its good food, good service, music, and a fun, laid-back atmosphere. There are many more excellent restaurants; enjoy becoming a local expert on this subject.

There also are many bed-and-breakfast inns in the historical section of town, some facing the MatanzasRiver and inlet. They immerse you in the culture of the past.

Festivals

This special city celebrates special events and festivals all year long; we can mention only a few. The St. Augustine Easter Festival includes brilliantly decorated boats, historic reenactments, and a promenade of horses with flowers. In April, the First Coast Birding and Nature Festival Takes place, providing residents and visitors with a series of workshops and field trips that celebrate and educate about the unique natural beauty and wildlife found here. Also in April, a torchlight procession called the “Spanish Night Watch” stops at the Cathedral Basilica (built in 1797) for a blessing of the Spanish flag. It finishes at the fort with cannon firing.

Each spring, the Marine Industries Association of Northeast Florida sponsors the St. Augustine Boat Show, with both in-water and land displays. This year’s show will be held from May 3 to 7

(www.staugustineboatshow.net). Also in May, sportfishing boats gather for the El Pescado Grande Tournament, with big prize money and big billfish. In June, Drake’s Raid of 1586 is re-enacted in the streets of the city. In September St. Augustine celebrates its anniversary with a First Thanksgiving re-enactment of the Menendez landing and a variety of other activities.

Christmas is our favorite season here, with costume parades, a festival of lights, decorated horse-drawn carriages, candlelight carols, tours of ancient churches, and period musical performances. During the famed Nights of Lights, which this year will run Nov. 17 to Jan. 31, the downtown area is lit with more than 3 million white lights. The not-to-be-missed British Grand Illumination and Torch Light Parade is held on the first Saturday in December, and the Regatta of Lights (decorated boats) on the MatanzasRiver is held on the second Saturday. The trees in the Plaza de la Constitucion, tastefully dressed in white lights, are especially beautiful. The entire historical section is beautifully lit for Christmas, with a distinct Spanish flair.

Taking care of business

With so many boats — both local and visiting — it isn’t surprising that it’s easy to get things done for your boat. For example, the Sailor’s Exchange offers all kinds of used boating equipment, as well as some new (www.sailors-exchange.com).There’s a Boaters World at CobblestonePlaza — you’ll need a taxi or car — and a West Marine on US 1, closer to the waterfront. The Marine Supply and Oil Company

(www.marsupco.com) on 150 Riberia St. has a large selection of serious marine hardware. CamacheeCoveYachtHarbor, one of our favorite marinas, offers one-stop shopping for boaters, as well as a first-class marina experience.

Marinas

CamacheeCoveYachtHarbor

(www.camacheeisland.com) is just north of the VilanoBeachBridge on the western shore of the TolomatoRiver, right off the ICW. It’s a very convenient stop for waterway traffic. You can also access it from the ocean without passing through any opening bridges. Located in an enclosed basin with state-of-the-art floating docks, it provides a good, protected base for enjoying the city, although you can stand on its outer docks and see the inlet.

A walk across the nearby high-rise bridge to VilanoBeach brings you to the ocean, where you can walk along the inlet’s southern shore or for miles northward along the beach. A walk from the marina to the main historical section may be too long for some, although we find it great exercise. However, the marina offers two loaner cars to its transient guests. Also, local taxi service is relatively inexpensive, and there are regular bus runs and a free van pickup at the marina for the sightseeing train.

The marina has gasoline and high-speed diesel, and you can fuel (diesel) in some of the transient slips. The crew will stay after hours if necessary for boats with large fuel needs. Electricity up to multiple 50-amp 250-volt service is available at all docks, as well as cable TV and Beacon WiFi.

The marina can accommodate yachts up to 120 feet, with 100-amp single-phase electric service available. There are three well-maintained shower/ laundry facilities and two very nice skippers’ lounges with television, coffee, phones, computer links and a pool. The headquarters of the Northeast Florida Marlin Association, which hosts several tournaments, is on the premises. The St. Augustine Yacht Club also is on the premises.

The river’s current can flow swiftly past the entrance channel, but once you clear the entrance markers and get inside the jetties the current drops dramatically, with virtually none inside the basin. This makes docking much easier than in many other marinas in this land of 8-foot tides. Conspicuous, lighted range markers on the basin shore opposite the entrance are there for those who need them when coming in, but we never have.

In December Camachee Cove has a fabulous Christmas party. Each of the many businesses surrounding the basin has an open house, serving the invited public and slip-holders (including transients) food and drink, sometimes with live music. It seems that each business tries to outdo the other in this lavish and generous smorgasbord. The marina office offers a grand finale with many choices of dessert and after-dinner drinks.

There are around 20 businesses bordering the docks, just back from the marina. In addition to the Kingfish Grill mentioned above, there’s also the Café Paris, (904) 824-3780, which has a gourmet snack bar, deli, groceries, beer and wine. There are bait and tackle supplies, and First Mate Yacht Services and Ship Store (www.firstmateys.com ) sells a thorough selection of competitively priced boating equipment and parts, and provides various repair and other services, including electronics repair and installation, air conditioning and refrigeration, fuel filtering, parts acquisition, diesel mechanics and diving. The headquarters for X-Change-R (www.x-change-r.com ) oil changing and cleaning units is at the marina.

Jacksonville Yacht Sales, (904) 824-2202, represents Pursuit, Carolina Classic, Luhrs and Mainship, as well as brokerage boats, and has an inventory of boats at the marina. Coleman Marine (www.colemanmarine.org ) is a brokerage for commercial and marine insurance, with 30 years experience. The St. Johns Realty Group (www.stjohnsrealty.com ) deals with residential, commercial and open-land realty. The Wavy Clipper Day Spa and Salon (www.wavyclipperdayspa.com ) offers hair design, manicure, pedicure and massage. If you want a break from the boat, there is The Inn at CamacheeHarbor (www.camacheeinn.com ). There are also offshore fishing charters, and the St. AugustineSailingSchool (www.sta-sail.com ) offers training and charters, as well as a separate “Sail Time” fleet.

The Camachee Yacht Yard (www.camacheeisland.com) is a full-service yard with a 50-ton lift and 24-hour emergency service. Its motto is “quality workmanship at an affordable price.” It is an authorized representative for a wide range of products and services and has an enclosed painting area that can accommodate very large boats. We recently were hauled out here and felt that they more than live up to that motto. In 54 years of owning boats I’ve never had my boat moved by anyone else or worked on unless I was there. After checking out the yard and talking with other customers, I decided that I would be comfortable doing this here while I took a trip north to take care of some business. I was very happy with the experience.

The Conch House Marina Resort (www.conch-house.com ) is on the west bank of the Salt Run, to the east of the ICW, with no bridges between it and the inlet. It has floating docks that it reports can accommodate boats up to 155 feet, with cable TV and telephone hookups and 30- and 50-amp service, free wireless Internet, swimming pool, charter fishing fleet, motel, ship’s store, and a restaurant and lounge. Diners can sit in thatched-roofed huts among palm trees and torch-lit paths. People come from far and wide in boats and land vehicles for the heavy partying on “Reggae Sundays.” There is a northerly fetch at this marina. Call ahead for controlling depths into Salt Run.

St. Augustine Municipal Marina (www.staugustinemunicipalmarina.com), just south of the Bridge of Lions on the western shore of the river, has floating docks with slips for vessels to 260 feet on the outside face dock and 120V-30 amp or 120/208V-50 amp electric hookups, as well as 100-amp single- and three-phase power. It offers free WiFi and high-speed diesel, available in many of the transient slips. This is the closest marina to the historic district. First Mate Yacht Services and Ship Store has another facility there.

When docking at the municipal marina, note that the current flows rapidly up and down the river. Unless you have twin screws and/or bow thrusters and are very skilled at boat handling, you may have difficulty getting into or out of inside docks while the tide is running strong. Also, maneuvering between the bridge and the docks can require extra care. There is a long northeasterly fetch that can make the waters rough at the docks in strong northerly winds. But many enjoy the marina in normal, settled weather because of its proximity to town.

The new small marina at the Anchorage Inn (www.stayatanchorage.com ), just across the MatanzasRiver from the Municipal Marina at the southeast end of the Bridge of Lions, offers transient space at its floating docks, with 30- and 50-amp electricity, cable TV in some slips, and WiFi. Its T-head can accommodate boats to around 100 feet. Prepare for current when docking and note the exposed fetch.

Oyster Creek Marina, (904) 827-0520, is in protected waters up the San SebastianRiver, alongside Route 1. It’s within walking distance from West Marine.

St. Augustine Marine, (www.staugustinemarine.com ) is tucked away up the narrow but well-marked San Sebastian River to the south of the historic waterfront. This isn’t a transient marina but a large full-service yard with a 100-ton mobile hoist, 250-ton railway and a wide array of service shops. It allows some do-it-yourself work. The huge and impressive Luhrs/Mainship facility, where both of these brands are built, lies within sight on the other side of the San Sebastian. Their boats often are commissioned at this yard.

Oasis Boatyard and Marina (www.oasisboatyardandmarina.com ), also up the San Sebastian, reports a 50-ton lift and both full-service and DIY options. There are many other marine services available in the area. The Marine Industries Association of North East Florida has a directory of its members, available at most marinas and at its Web site (www.mianef.org ).

Anchorages

There are two regularly used anchorages. The most popular is just to the south of the Bridge of Lions, and south of the municipal marina, on the western side of the Matanzas River. The second anchorage is just to the north of the Bridge of Lions, again on the western side of the river, almost under the shadow of the ancient fort. Both of these are in the open Matanzas River and are vulnerable to northerlies that set boats rolling and spinning on their anchor rodes in the strong river currents. Both have questionable holding and scattered junk on the bottom to snag anchors or cut nylon lines. It is important to avoid blocking access to the city docks, to stay clear of the shoals to the south, and, of course, the river/ICW channel with its traffic.

We’ve anchored in each of these anchorages once and hope to not do it again. But others regularly use them, paying a small fee to dock their dinghies at the municipal marina and access the historical section of the town. Obviously, these anchorages aren’t so bad in settled weather, but with the currents and frequent winds, you must worry not only about your own hook dragging but also those of others. There is a third anchorage area up in Salt Run, beyond Conch House Marina. It is crowded, narrow and exposed to a long northern fetch, and quite a distance from the hub of town.

St. Augustine is one of those places where you should plan to lay over for at least several days. Many now are “laying over” here for the entire winter, flying in and out as needed. It’s only an hour from Jacksonville International Airport. You won’t run out of things to see or do.