#HolidayDriving Road Trip: St. Augustine yields engaging historical treasures for a great family vacation – Part 1 of 2

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I’m going to be blunt in saying that had I not been forced to visit St. Augustine during a cross-country, 12,000 mile family road trip in 2010, I probably would never have returned to see “America’s Oldest City”.  

When I first visited St. Augustine 20 years ago the only things about the city that seemed prime for visitors were the Spanish fort El Castillo de San Marcos and the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.  I spent a weekend there with friends and after having the place shutdown on us at 10 p.m. I vowed never to return.

Fast forward to 2013 and my what a difference time and a lot of imagination makes.

Today Fort San Marcos continues to be iconic main draw of St. Augustine but the competition for the Best Thing to See or Do in St. Augustine is fierce, especially if you visit during the perfect weather holiday season like my family and I just did.

The Pirate & Treasure Museum

The most pleasant surprise of our trip was seeing the Pirate & Treasure Museum, a small two-story structure that at first glance appears like a tacky tourist trap.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  If you took this museum and plopped it inside the Smithsonian in Washington, DC you would not hesitate to call it what it is: the best museum on pirate history and memorabilia in the planet!

The museum covers the full historical context of the big pirate era that roughly extended from the mid 1600s to the early 1800s in the Americas.  the museum captures all of these history lessons with interactive exhibits, excellent pirate biographies (Black Beard was said to be the scariest looking pirate of all time), wanted posters and even an actual 400-year-old treasure chest that you can touch and is one of the only ones ever discovered.

The biggest irony about the Spanish, French, English and Portuguese nations who righteously put bounties for the killing or captures of pirates was that they themselves were in the business of plundering treasures from lands and natives living in the Americas.  The difference is that they were professional government plunderers.  That’s the beauty of the history lesson here: no one really was the “good guy”. When you go to St. Augustine I recommend that you visit the Pirate & Treasure Museum BEFORE you visit El Castillo de San Marcos National Monument because it gives it more colorful context than if you went to the fort first.  The museum is directly across the street from the old fort.  Budget about three hours for a complete visit. Our Top Five Things to See/Do at the Pirate & Treasure Museum:

  1. View a real Jolly Roger (a real pirate flag with skull and crossbones)
  2. Lift a real gold bar
  3. View the interactive pirate biographies
  4. Fire the digital canons
  5. Touch a real 400-year-old treasure chest
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Because of its 20-acre size and history of protecting the city as a military base, the Castillo de San Marcos is and will always be the most important symbol of St. Augustine’s heritage as the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the United States.

Construction of the two-story masonry stone fort began in 1672, 107 years after the city’s founding by Spanish Admiral and conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, when Florida was part of the Spanish Empire.  Even as far north as it stands, the fort was a strategic outpost for cargo ships heading back to Europe.

Prison wall drawing of sailing ship.

Photo credit: Briani Ruiz

Over several several centuries the fort changed hands from Spanish to English to Spanish to U.S. rule. The Top Five Things to See/Do

  1. See the prison rooms where prisoners carved elaborate ships into the masonry walls of the fort
  2. Take family photos atop real cannons
  3. Do the famous head-in-the-cannon photo
  4. View a historical demonstration with re-enactors

The Fountain of Youth

The Fountain of Youth water drink we tasted was a little salty tasting but it was clean. The slight sulfur smell is normal.

I wouldn’t say it was Bucket List priority item but for as long as I could remember I had always wanted to visit the Fountain of Youth, another St. Augustine historical treasure that at first blush sounds like a tourist trap but actually isn’t.

The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is the 15-acre waterfront, historical site where St. Augustine, Florida officially began in 1565.  There’s an unsettled debate about whether Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, the first European in Florida, ever came here but what is known is that it was the first place Europeans called home in the United States and that  in 1571, 50 years before Thanksgiving at Plymouth, a Thanksgiving-style feast took place between Spaniards and the now extinct Timucua tribe.

Today the Fountain of Youth, a still very active archaeological dig, sports a variety of activities to make it worth a three or four visit by your family. The Top Five Things to See/Do at the Fountain of Youth

  1. Sip a cup of the actual Fountain of Youth water
  2. Watch a cannon firing and get training on how crossbows and arrows work
  3. Photograph the small zoo of peacocks that roam the land
  4. See the stars in our Planetarium
  5. Visit the Native Timucua Village

The Fountain of Youth is the perfect place to spend a leisurely three to four hours so budget your time accordingly.

In this spot, the Spaniards and Timucua indians are said to have had the first Thanksgiving style feast, 50 years before Plymouth.

Photo credit: Briani Ruiz

Nights of LightsAfter a long day of excursions, the team from St. Augustine visitor’s bureau arranged for us to see one of the city’s top annual holiday attractions: the Night of Lights aboard the Holly Jolly Holiday Trolley.

The city’s trolley tours are always a terrific way to get a birds-eye view of the city but what makes this very special is that you view more than 2 million lights through special glasses that literally turn lights into snowflakes or candy canes.

I have to say, I’m normally a bit jaded about stuff like this but this experience was so beautiful that you don’t want to take your special, 3-D-looking glasses off.  (I tried photographing the effect with my camera but couldn’t replicate what I saw through the glasses). Selected by National Geographic as one of the ten best holiday lighting displays in the world in 2011 and 2012, St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights takes place from late November until the first week of January.  This year it ends on January 4, 2014.

Road Trip Tip of the Day (Sponsored by State Farm)
If you’re taking several children with you on a road trip be sure to eat at places that are noisy or will allow you to separate your family far away from others.  There is nothing more stressful than eating at restaurants where you are the only ones dining with kids and everyone is looking at you with strange faces because they’re not also surrounded by children.
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