Our Nation’s Oldest City ~ St. Augustine

This past week has been spent with family, and although we had lots planned when we arrived in Titusville, much was set aside to reconnect and relax with sister and niece.  This visit had been a long time coming so we decided that days devoted to conversation and cooking meals together trumped lots of activities.  We did explore Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore and if you find yourself in and around Titusville, I would recommend both.  And of course, there is the Kennedy Space Center.

Leaving Titusville behind and arriving at our final stop in Florida for the winter, we decided to play tourist one last time before we head further north, and where better than in our nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine.  In doing research you will find there is plenty to occupy your time here, whether you enjoy history, the beach, culture, nightlife, shopping, or delving into the paranormal.  And when you tire of all this sightseeing, there are many interesting restaurants downtown to saté your appetite.

The trolley seems to be the most popular way to traverse this city, with about 20 stops along the route, allowing you to hop off and on at your leisure, all while getting a little history lesson from your driver.  We prefer to walk instead, planning our own route and getting some exercise, unless the city we are in is too spread out and St. Augustine is a very walkable city.   There are plenty of brochures to grab from the visitor center to educate you about this historic city and a public parking garage right at the visitor center that can be accessed for $10/day.

This is where colonial America began, 55 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.  First visited by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, St. Augustine was later founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.  Over three years Avilés would import 500 African slaves to this city, the first slaves brought to this country, a sad piece of history.

Over many years the Spanish, French, British and finally the United States fought for control of St. Augustine.  I am not a huge history buff so I will leave you to read the details online if you are interested.   There are two forts in the city, Fort Matanzas and Castillo de San Marcos, for those who love history, and we found both to be interesting.

Our interest in this historic city lies more in the striking architecture found around the Old Town area, particularly some of the old hotels and churches, almost all that were influenced by Henry Flagler, a Standard Oil executive and partner to John D. Rockefeller.   In the 1880’s Mr. Flagler decided that St. Augustine should be a winter resort for the wealthy.  The stunning details in the Lightner Museum (formerly Hotel Alcazar), Flagler College (once the grounds for the Ponce de Leon luxury hotel), and the Memorial Presbyterian Church were certain to lure the affluent.

Tours are given at many sights around the city, some for a small fee and some that are free of charge.  We found the docent-led tour of the Memorial Presbyterian Church to be fascinating, and the architecture had already drawn us in.

Built in 1889 by Henry Flagler, this is the only Presbyterian church of its kind in the world.  It is of the Venetian Renaissance architecture style, shown in the copper dome and ornate terra-cotta frieze, and was inspired by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.   It is breathtaking both inside and out.

This sacred building was a labor of love for Henry Flagler, dedicated to his daughter Jennie Louise Benedict, who died due to childbirth complications the same year this church was constructed, hence the word “memorial” in the name.  Every last detail reflects Flagler’s loving touch, particularly the 92 stained-glass windows, designed by German artist Herman Schladermundt. Each window represents a segment of the “Apostle’s Creed” and they are all spectacular.

I must admit that until we arrived in St. Augustine I did not realize the importance of this city to the Civil Rights movement.   On June 9, 1964, Andrew Jackson Young, Jr., Civil Rights activist, led a march from Lincolnville, a St. Augustine district founded by former slaves, to the downtown plaza.  Mr. Young was sent to the city by his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize a peaceful human rights protest.  When his group arrived at the downtown plaza, they were confronted by a large white mob and were beaten.  Always vigilant to Dr. King’s non-violent strategy, they walked away.   This was a pivotal event that aided in the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964.

These bronze footsteps, incorporated into the sidewalk that runs diagonally through the plaza, honor this leader who received his first beating in the Civil Rights movement.

Our nation’s oldest city is rich in history, expressed in both her simplest of buildings and her most opulent.  Although a part of her story reflects some of our nation’s less than proudest moments, St. Augustine still maintains a charm all her own.

From here we continue north into the “Peach State” ~ Georgia.

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A Little Slice of Paradise ~ The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys, land of 1700 islands…

Grassy Key is one of the northernmost islands that form the Middle Keys and is to be our home for the next week.  When we decided to spend our winter in Florida, we quickly learned that it is no easy feat to book the RV park of your choosing in the Keys without planning many months or even a year ahead of your visit.

Although wishing for a state park stay but feeling lucky to have gotten a reservation here at all, we are thinking that Grassy Key RV Resort may be the little slice of paradise we were looking for, a tiny gem.   She may be small and not as plush as some parks, but we cannot resist her charms when sitting on the dock each morning, enjoying our coffee, as the sun casts its first colors of the day across the glassy waters.  Having the ability to walk our kayak down to the dock and cast off into the Gulf is an added bonus.

Colorful chairs on the dock begging us to come sit and relax.
Colorful chairs on the dock begging us to come sit and relax.

Exercise has been high on the agenda during our Keys visit, and we are fortunate to have a section of the Overseas Heritage Trail just outside our RV park.  When completed this bike trail will connect Key Largo to Key West and will span 106 miles, crossing over 37 bridges – the “Tour to Land’s End”.  This trail parallels US 1 and currently 70 miles of this aggressive project is complete. Love, love, love seeing this type of work unfold.

South of Grassy Key is where we planned the bulk of our exploits for the week, which meant crossing over a bridge connecting the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys, the famous Seven Mile Bridge.   It is part of US 1 known as the Overseas Highway, famous for being one of the longest bridges in the world at time of construction but now sits at a paltry 54th in the world and 9th in the US.  Size is impressive in this case but celebrity boasts as well, as scenes from Mission Impossible III and James Bond’s License to Kill showcased her breadth.

A lone fisherman at the base of Seven Mile Bridge
A lone fisherman at the base of Seven Mile Bridge

After reading MonaLiza’s wonderful post on the Lower Keys, a good part of our agenda was set.  Sometimes it is best to be the follower instead of the leader. 😉

Bahia Honda State Park is a fabulous way to while away a day, and with the park’s generous admittance fee, we were able to leave for a few hours to explore further south, and come back to enjoy the sunset, at no additional cost.

Coconut palms, sea grape & turquoise waters frame a glimpse of the new Bahia Honda Bridge.
Coconut palms, sea grape & turquoise waters frame a glimpse of the new Bahia Honda Bridge.

This park boasts an award-winning beach, a historic bridge, roads to bike or walk, short trails to traverse, and snorkeling and kayaking activities.  After biking the 3.5 miles, we slowed down and took time to soak in the park’s beauty and history.

The defining landmark at Bahia Honda is the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, a reminder of the industrious dream of Henry Flagler that still rises like a phoenix from the deep waters of the channel, albeit a bit worn.

Still quite photogenic!
Still quite photogenic!

This part of Flagler’s East Coast Railway, a rail system that ran down to Key West, was completed in 1912.  Its “day in the sun” was short-lived, destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the strongest cyclone of that Atlantic hurricane season, and the most powerful to make landfall in US recorded history.

Walking up a short trail to the section of the old bridge that remains open affords you a great vista of the park and award-winning beach.

Breathtaking views from above
Breathtaking views from above

As I stayed atop the bridge admiring the views, Terry decided to continue his exploration below.  It seems the expression “right place at the right time” fit his wandering, as he was rewarded with a close-up visit from a great white heron, only found in the Florida Keys.  This white cousin to the great blue is endangered and is a bird we thought we might not see unless we traveled to the wildlife refuge established in its name.  Isn’t she a beauty?   Her light-colored legs (resembling my very own in color!) lets you know she’s a heron, not an egret.  As I take a closer look, her legs may be a bit shapelier than mine however. 😦

Great White Heron
Great White Heron

We took a break from the park and headed south to the National Key Deer Refuge, where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the petite Key deer, the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer, standing no taller than two feet. They are listed as endangered due to past human interaction.  Thankfully today the residents here on the 25 islands in the Lower Keys where they reside take their safety seriously.  I find it quite interesting that these little cuties can easily swim between the islands.

Too busy eating to pose or to be spooked by me either.
Too busy eating to pose or to be spooked by me either.

By now we had built up a thirst so went in search of the No Name Pub, on the tiny little island known as No Name Key.   If your eyes weren’t wide-open searching for the pub, you might blink and miss this Key, sparsely populated with only 43 homes.

Terry heading into the No Name Pub to quench his thirst!
Terry heading into the No Name Pub to quench his thirst!

What I found most interesting about the No Name was not its pub but the fact that, due to a county ordinance prohibiting it, the residents of this pint-sized island have been off the commercial power grid until recently, relying on solar or generators instead for electric needs.  After a decades-long fight, these steadfast residents won their suit and were plugged into the grid in May 2013.

Back at Bahia Honda State Park, I was praying for a lovely end to the day, by way of a spectacular sunset.  The weather was turning hazy so I had my doubts.

Will the sunset disappear behind the clouds?
Will the sunset disappear behind the clouds?

What do you think?

After a long wait, the sun made one last appearance.
After a long wait, the sun made one last appearance.

But I think the best show may have been seen not above on the bridge, but down below on the beach.

Key West here we come!