St. Augustine, Florida: Spanish history and luxury living
Our New Book
Conquerors -- Spanish and AmericanThe Spanish influence dates back to the founding of the city in 1565, making St. Augustine the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the United States. The Spanish provided their grand plaza, the original narrow streets of the town, and the venerable fortification of Castillo de San Marcos overlooking the harbor. When the British invaded in 1702, many of the original buildings were destroyed, others were renovated to match British taste. Eventually St. Augustine became Spanish once again, and finally, in 1821, a territorial possession of the United States. In 1845 Florida achieved full statehood.
Although that ended the British-Spanish give and take of the city, another wave of conquerors came in led by wealthy oil baron Henry Flagler who single-handed created a building boon.
Flagler, one-time partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, looked around the landscape and had a vision – he would single-handedly turn St. Augustine into a winter resort for most wealthy and socially connected of all Americans.
He started by building grand hotels, and opening a railroad line that linked St. Augustine to the more populated cities of the east coast. The first hotel was the Spanish-Moorish extravaganza the Ponce de Leon hotel. This was quickly followed by the only slightly less imposing Alcazar. A third hotel, started by Flagler and taken over by others shortly after its completion, is the Casa Monica.
Flagler's architects changed the appearance of St. Augustine, providing structures that, along with its still vibrant Spanish history, created a tourist destination unique for its architectural heritage.
The Spanish CityA visit to the beguiling historic colonial district is one of the delights of the city. You can even see the overhanging balconies from the early period. Walk down Aviles Street and enjoy the artisan stores and galleries. In contrast to the quaint quiet of Aviles, nearby St. George Street is tourist central with ice cream, art, jewelry, and history all side by side.
The centerpiece of any Spanish heritage visit would be to the Castillo de San Marcos, built by the Spanish in 1672 to protect its claim in that part of the New World. This national monument site encompasses over 20 acres and includes a reconstructed section of the walled defense. Beyond its distinctive architecture, it is the only existing 17th century fort in North America. Although self-guided, park service rangers provide interpretive walks through the fortress.
Flagler EraFast forwarding to the Golden Age – and with all the gilt on the buildings, it was quite literally golden – Henry Flagler came to town in the late 19th century and totally transformed St. Augustine into a destination town with destination hotels.
The flagship Ponce de Leon hotel was a marvel, built in the style called Spanish Renaissance Revival to blend, in a rather lavish way, with its historic surroundings. Ponce de Leon was a poured concrete structure with touches of Spain – red tiled roof and terra cotta carvings and red brick. Ornate water towers flank the main part of the building.
Flagler hired the famous artists and innovators of the day -- Louis Comfort Tiffany for stained glass windows and chandeliers, andThomas Edison for electric light. There was running water, and steam heat. Beautiful mosaic tile floors, carved oak columns, lush gardens.
In 1888 Ponce de Leon opened, already filled to capacity despite outrageous prices (for the day), with the Who’s Who of American society. Although it closed as a hotel in 1967, it reopened a year later as Flagler College. Guided tours take you through several of the public areas and offer a fascinating look at the incredible building.
Across the street, Flagler built the Alcazar Hotel, said to be inspired by the royal palace in Seville, Spain. It too boasted two large towers, spires, and red tile roof. Inside guests could indulge in a steam room, Turkish baths and, what was at the time, the world’s largest indoor swimming pool.
It closed in 1932, only to reopen in 1946, as the Lightner Museum, housing the eclectic collections of Otto Lightner. It’s difficult to categorize the vast array ranging from children’s marbles to cut glass from the American “brilliant” period. Porcelain, and salt shakers. Buttons, sea shells, and even a shrunken head. Plus a music room filled with mechanical music boxes and player pianos.
The Casa Monica Hotel is the third of the extravagant hotels constructed during the late 19th century. It was built by Boston architect Franklin Smith who ran into financial difficulties and sold everything to Henry Flagler who turned it into an annex of the Alcazar. Falling into disrepair it was purchased by St. John County for use as a courthouse. Today it has been returned to its destiny as a luxury hotel and its original name, the Casa Monica.
There is a fourth building in the area remaining from the Flagler era -- and the Villa Zorayda is easily one of the highlights. Built by Smith in 1883 as a winter home, he used the same technique of poured concrete used in building the Flagler hotels, while the inside is modeled after the Alhambra Castle in Spain, and is a scale model of one wing of the famous palace/fortress in Granada. The inner courtyard is surrounded by galleries on two floors supported by striking white columns of ground alabaster and plaster. The outside seems like pure whimsey with 40 different shapes of window.
In 1904 Smith sold the building to Abraham Mussallem and in 1922 it became the famous Zorayda Club, catering to the socialites looking for a personal place of fun and amusement, and fine living. It was famous for its dinners served on gold-leaf china, and for its gaming including board games as well as games of chance (or perhaps skill), closing a few years later when Florida outlawed gambling. Since then, it has been a museum and now, after extensive renovation has opened to the public. It’s filled with treasures from intricately carved chairs and sofas to a rare sacred cat rug from Egypt, over 2400 years old literally made from the shed fur of cats that roamed the Nile.
Exploring St. AugustineWhile St. Augustine is a perfect city for walking, we enjoyed clopping down tiny streets in a horse drawn carriage of St. Augustine Transfer Company. Alternative transport includes taking a trolley or even a tram ride both great ways to get a feel for the city and its rich history. There are also fascinating “ghost” tours. The Ghosts and Gravestones Tour operated by Ancient City Tours gives history with a gruesome twist with true tales of life in one of the country’s oldest European settlements.
Ponte Vedra Inn & ClubFor an elegant resort on the water, head to Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Their large and very well appointed rooms open onto the beach, and the sincerely friendly and attentive staff insures you'll be welcomed. A Florida landmark since 1928, the resort covers 300 oceanfront acres with several pools, including child-friendly facilities. The ocean view fitness center lets you work out while looking at the water and offers a full program of fitness classes. But save some time to indulge in their 30,000 square foot spa. It is one of the finest in the country with its own secluded pool area, custom artwork, and a beautifully decorated Conversation and Relaxation area. With more than 100 services including a menu of medical spa options, you'll want to spend the day here. Their new Seahorse Grille on the second floor of Surf Club offers ocean views, and superb food. The cuisine is New American Fusion delicious -- eclectic, innovative, and every dish beautifully presented and mouth-wateringly wonderful. We loved it.
Casa MonicaThe lavish Casa Monica hotel brings back a sense of opulent wonder. It is perfectly located in historic St. Augustine with lobby and public spaces in keeping with a Moorish fantasy theme while the rooms are truly comfy (with great beds) and free wi-fi. Dining spaces are elegant and welcoming with award-winning eclectic cuisine. Even the swimming pool has been turned into a delightful retreat. One of the Kessler Collection of unique hotels, Casa Monica is also a member of Preferred Resorts and Hotels.
B & Bs and small inns abound in a city with such a rich history. See the Inns of Elegance. In addition, the major hotels are well-represented.