Old World History, New World Recreation


On my first visit, St. Augustine, Fla., was not what I expected.

Intrigued by the romance of a place founded by Spaniards more than four centuries ago, I imagined it might share some of the flavor of colonial settlements in Latin America: cobblestone streets, pastel haciendas and shady courtyards.

The Old Town I actually saw, though, felt more like the Wild West than San Miguel de Allende.

As I strolled along the waterfront into the historic district, I was surprised to see 19th-century wood-frame houses bearing pirate flags and terracotta buildings that looked to be of a fairly recent vintage. Draped in Spanish moss and dotted with parking lots, St. Augustine is more American (Deep) South than South America.

Then again, San Miguel de Allende doesn’t have lovely white-sand beaches just minutes from downtown. As I discovered, it is this combination of Old World history and New World recreation that makes St. Augustine a family destination.

St. Augustine was also one of the original Jewish settlements in a state that has been enduringly popular with the tribe: 16 percent of American Jews now live in Florida, according to recent statistics. In the mid-1700s, a transfer from Spanish Catholic to English Protestant rule allowed the first Jews to live freely and practice their faith here, according to conventional wisdom.

But the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society, a local group, is now beginning to challenge that wisdom, reopening the archives to investigate whether Spanish Marranos or conversos (Iberian Sephardim forced to live as Catholics) may have been among the first Europeans to found this settlement in the 1500s.

While the question has yet to be resolved, the idea that Sephardim walked these humid shores nearly a half-millennium ago adds a layer to the city’s intrigue. Today’s Jewish community is considerably less elusive, with two thriving congregations, each with nearly 150 members. First Congregation Sons of Israel is located in the historic district, with a Torah from 19th-century Russia and an affiliated cemetery that dates back more than 100 years. Temple Bet Yam, Hebrew for “temple by the sea,” is a newer Reform temple.

The Spanish forbearers might well have been involved in the construction of Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine’s most memorable sight. A double drawbridge over a moat leads to the imperious, black-walled fort, built over two decades in the late 1600s and still intimidating (especially when you consider what kind of forces, both military and weather-related, must have pummeled those limestone walls over the years).

Apart from the fort, the Lightner Museum is the most substantial of St. Augustine’s attractions. It is as fabulous and eccentric as the era it represents — the Gilded Age — and, one might add, the state it represents. This three-story collection of bygone curios in the over-the-top setting of the Hotel Alcazar has plenty to keep all ages entertained.

Henry Flagler, the industrialist who essentially built turn-of-the-century Florida, commissioned Carrere and Hastings, later the architects of the New York Public Library, to design the Spanish Renaissance-style hotel. When it closed, the building — now on the National Register of Historic Places — was bought by the publisher Otto Lightner to exhibit his collection of Victoriana, which occupies three floors. Then he donated both the building and the collection to the city as a museum.

The grand hotel lobby was recently restored to lacey, colonnaded perfection, sweeping visitors back into an era of gilt and elegance. In rooms where railroad magnates once lounged, you can see Lightner’s Art Nouveau cabinets, bronze goddesses, antique pipe organs, Victorian gramophones and Tiffany lamps.

Flagler College is another legacy institution, filling a series of Spanish-style buildings near the historic district. I wandered past clock towers and turrets to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, a landmark whose congregation dates to the first Spanish parish of the 1500s. The current building, with a tranquil courtyard and lavish interior, was erected in the 1790s after a series of fires.

In the shady, moss-draped park across the street, a wedding party was posing and giggling in front of a gazebo; nearby, children romped around a shiny black cannon from the Civil War. Just down the street, an open-air museum recreates daily life in the Spanish Quarter of centuries ago, with blacksmiths, cobblers and rebuilt structures to present the illusion of Old Florida.

From the Spanish Quarter, it’s a five-minute stroll to the fort and the scenic bridge that connects this peninsula town with its barrier beaches. The peaceful salt marshes of Anastasia State Park, where grassy dunes give way to ocean beach, offer a low-key alternative to Florida’s many high-rise beach boardwalks.

There are plenty of fish restaurants nearby, but for me, the park’s lagoon-side picnic benches — scented by salt breezes and covered with a wide coastal sky — are the best tables in town.