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Things To Do

10 new reasons to visit St. Augustine


Published:   |   Updated: July 7, 2013 at 02:08 AM

Florida is celebrating 500 years since Ponce de Leon set foot on our shores, so what better time to revisit the place where it all began?

For those who take the time to get to know the nation's oldest city, St. Augustine is much more than the Fountain of Youth, gift shops and trolleys gone wild. Here's a look at 10 new reasons to visit:

Food and Nightlife

Like most tourist towns, St. Augustine has a diverse mix of dining and drinking establishments. Yes, there have always been plenty of great drinking holes in this college town, but in recent years the level of sophistication has kicked up a notch. Martini bars mix with jazz clubs, outdoor cafes and European bistros to offer an evening of upscale dining and entertainment. Aviles Street is where it's happening for outdoor cafes. At Bistro de Leon, owner Jean Stephane Poinard and wife Valerie serve up authentic French cuisine with such dishes as duck a l'orange, escargot and quenelle de Lyon, along with French wine, bread and pastries.

For a taste of Old St. Augustine, two new eateries on St. George Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, serve up food and drink reminiscent of the Colonial period. The Bull & Crown Publick House mimics an 18th century British pub with a mix of traditional British and modern American fare. Next door, Taberna del Caballo has the feel of an 18th century Spanish tavern with traditional tapas, sangria, paella and bean soup. Don't be surprised if you are waited on by a lusty wench; costumed servers complete the authentic ambiance in both eateries.

Ahoy, Buccaneer Fans

Not just for kids, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum offers a bounty of cool interactive technology and exhibits that educate visitors of all ages about the colorful pirates who roamed the Caribbean (and the streets of St. Augustine) for nearly 300 years. The museum features more than 800 artifacts from owner Pat Croce's private collection and others on loan from private collectors and the state of Florida.

Along with amazing stuff like the Journal of Captain Kidd's Last Voyage, dated 1699, you'll also find a 400-year -old treasure chest, a cannon from 1753, one of two known Jolly Roger flags dating to 1850, and booty including coins and jewelry, weapons and other artifacts uncovered from sunken pirate ships.

Complete with eerie lighting, creepy sound effects and a few roaming pirates, the Pirate & Treasure Museum is a fun way to learn about history. Touchscreens allow you to select a pirate, see his (or her in the case of Ann Bonney and Mary Read) journeys on a world map and learn about their exploits. Re-creations of a ship's deck and cabins give you an idea of life aboard a pirate vessel, but the best part is when you stow away into the darkness below deck, put on a headset and listen to Blackbeard's final battle going on above you. Created by Disney Imagineers, this experience will surely put you in need of a bit of grog.

Living History

Brick-lined St. George Street is ground zero for tourists, but unavoidably irresistible with its many shops, galleries and restaurants. The new Colonial Quarter Living History Museum, formerly the Colonial Quarter Spanish Museum, opened in March on a small two-acre site overlooking the Castillo de San Marcos. Three centuries of Colonial St. Augustine history are crammed into re-created villages, but the layout, which takes visitors from the 16th through 18th centuries, is well thought out.

The attraction provides self-guided walking maps, allowing visitors to stroll at leisure as costumed re-enactors show how life was during the Spanish and British periods of rule. Most interesting, however, may be boatwright Gary Kennedy, who is building a 50-foot replica of a Spanish caravel using sketches from the 16th century. Caravels were small sailing vessels used by the Spanish, and they were the type of ship used by Ponce de Leon and Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. It is anticipated he will take seven years to complete the ship, at which time it will be open for touring.

The Colonial Crew Review, a musical comedy act, is on stage at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights. Based on historical fact, the Picolita Players portray a troupe of traveling performers who must entertain the troops at the Castillo de San Marcos. The open-air courtyard seats 250; for tickets go to www.colonia lquarter.com/explore/ colonial-crew-revue/.

Military Magnetism

The imposing stone fort on the waterfront, Castillo de San Marcos, is definitely worth a visit - not only for its place in St. Augustine history but for the spectacular views of Matanzas Bay and the Bridge of Lions. Managed by the National Park Service as a national monument, the fort was constructed of coquina by the Spanish between 1672 and 1695 and is impressively restored. Take a guided tour with a ranger or explore on your own.

It can get hot in the old fort on a summer day, which is why one of the coolest things to do is take a night tour by candlelight. Offered from 6 to 9 p.m. the third Saturday of each month, participants will revisit the events of the Second Seminole War from the eyes of a U.S. Army sergeant. Tickets must be purchased in advance; for information visit www.nps.gov/casa or call (904) 829-6506, ext. 233.

Sleeping with Ghosts

Let's face it, St. Augustine is all about the history. That's why it's worth the splurge to stay at one of 24 bed and breakfast inns located in the Historic District. Park your car and forget it; the town is a walker's delight. Stroll along the waterfront or take a carriage ride at sunset; this is one romantic city.

The esteemed St. Francis Inn Bed and Breakfast may well be the bee's knees when it comes to history. St. Augustine's oldest inn, built in 1791 as a Spanish residence, has a charming tropical courtyard and a pool where you can kick back and relax if you don't feel like sightseeing. Owner Joe Finnegan is happy to entertain with ghost stories and Old St. Augustine history as you sip a sangria and nosh on social hour appetizers and nightly desserts made fresh daily.

It may be old, but the St. Francis Inn wins kudos as a Florida Green Lodging for practicing energy and water conservation, recycling and providing green amenities. If you feel like a day at the beach, guests can stay overnight or just hang out at the inn's Beach Cottage, eight miles away on St. Augustine Beach.

Go Wild

St. Augustine and ecotours may sound like a stretch, but in reality, the Matanzas Bay and the inland waters here offer excellent opportunities for dolphin watching and birding. The estuary system serves as habitat for diverse wildlife, including shorebirds and many species of fish and sea turtles. St. Augustine Eco Tours, located at the municipal marina near the Bridge of Lions, offers daily ecotours with trained guides who are interpretive naturalists.

A two-hour guided salt marsh kayak tour takes you under the bridge, past the Castillo de San Marcos and into the saltwater marshes of the historic mission grounds. The Dolphin, Birding and Nature Tour transports up to six passengers on a Zodiac up nearby rivers and creeks for an intimate look at wildlife. If sailing is your thing, hop aboard a 27-foot catamaran for a sunset Eco Sail.

Bring your camera, and don't be surprised if your guide starts snapping his own photos. St. Augustine Eco Tour owner Zach McKenna is involved in marine research on the behavior of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.

Art Walks

Monthly art walks are a fun and cheap way to spend an evening, and a great way to support local artists. Behind its history, St. Augustine harbors a strong cultural scene with a variety of talented artists. The First Friday Art Walk has gained "must-do" status for residents and visitors. What could beat strolling the city's historic streets, enjoying live entertainment and perusing more than 20 galleries that stay open late. You'll find everything from fine art paintings to handmade jewelry, ceramics, glass, photography and sculpture.

Most galleries serve refreshments and hold exhibit openings, so you'll be able to meet the artists. Galleries are spread out among five distinct districts. Parking is free at the San Sebastian Winery on King Street, where you can hop aboard free Artwalk trolleys from 6 to 9 p.m. For a gallery listing and map, go to www.artgaller iesofstaugustine.com.

Zip It!

You've seen one alligator, you've seen them all, right? Not quite. How about some alligator viewing while hanging from a zipline just 20 feet overhead? At the Alligator Farm Zoological Park, the Crocodile Crossing zipline ride takes you to new heights when it comes to gator watching. Not for the timid, ziplines carry the adventurous across seven acres of the zoo park, including alligator and crocodile lagoons. Choose from the Sepik River Course ($30), which lasts 45 minutes with three ziplines and is about 20 feet high, or the Nile River Course ($45), which takes about 90 minutes to complete on nine ziplines and is about 60 feet high.

If you really want to test your mettle, plunk down $75 and sign up for the "Dark Side of the Zoo" adventure on Saturday nights for a nocturnal reptile tour via zipline over the glaring green eyes of the gators. They say you only live once!

Night Lights

From Nov. 23 to Jan. 31, nearly 3 million tiny white lights will turn St. Augustine's Historic District into a glittering holiday wonderland during the 20th annual Nights of Lights celebration. The first weekend in December kicks off a month of old-style holiday cheer. The Grande Illumination Parade, at 8 p.m. Dec. 7, is a candlelight procession through the streets of St. Augustine led by British Redcoats, fife and drums bands, and colonial reenactors, joined by public revelers who march to the Government House for more festivities. A British Colonial Encampment that weekend offers living history lessons and loads of family fun. Visit www .NightsofLights.com and www.BritishNightWatch.org for information.

Holiday Tours

Check out six private historic homes decked out for the holidays during the 45th annual St. Augustine Garden Club Christmas Tour of Homes. The tour takes place from noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 8 and features a tea and gift boutique at Trinity Episcopal Church. Advance tickets are $20 and go on sale Oct. 1. Tickets are limited and often sell out, so advance purchase is recommended. Visit www.garden clubofstaugustine.org

Visit all 24 of St. Augustine's bed and breakfast inns from Dec. 14 to 15 during the 20th annual "Christmas Around the World" Bed and Breakfast Holiday Tour. Twelve inns decorated to reflect different cultural heritages are open each day from 1 to 5 p.m. In addition, each inn is paired with a different St. Augustine restaurant or culinary partner to offer delectable treats along the way. Tickets are $25 and cover both days; for advance tickets go to www .staugustinebandbtour.com.

Both tours are self-guided walking tours, with special tour trolley shuttles available. Visit http://gar denclubofstaugustine.org/tourofhomes.html.

Marcia Biggs is a freelance travel writer based in Safety Harbor.

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