St. Augustine

On Christmas Day we traveled to St. Augustine, the oldest continuously populated city in North America — or something like that. It was founded in the pre-Pilgrim 1500s by the Spaniards, and it’s well worth a visit.

Our first stop was the Castillo de San Marcos, the fort the Spaniards built to protect their settlement. Although the interior was closed — even the National Park Service takes Christmas Day off — our tour of the grounds showed that the fortress is in remarkably good shape given its age and history. Richard’s Google check indicated that since being founded by the Spanish Empire, the CdSM has flown the flag of England, the U.S., and the Confederacy, and also been used to house prisoners.

We then walked along the harbor road to the old town section of St. Augustine, which features some of the beachfront kitsch you expect in any Florida town, but also some very interesting buildings dating from the Spanish era as well as some fine architectural flourishes added during the Gilded Age. Among the highlights were two facing hotels built by the indefatigable Henry Flagler, a railroad and oil magnate who played a key role in Florida’s development. The one shown above has now become city hall.

But it is the structure across the street that is the real jaw-dropper. Formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel — where travelers presumably could search for the Fountain of Youth in the Florida sunshine — it is a beautiful and sprawling bit of Spanish-influenced architecture that includes lots of remarkable features, like the fierce carved lion head at the gates, shown below.

I don’t know much about how and where Flagler made his money, but I will say this: he used part of it to create a fascinating object of great beauty. It’s fitting that this structure has now become the main building of Flagler College.