St. Augustine, FL
Who doesn’t want to see the “oldest city in America”? In all honesty, this town is made for strolling but the heat and humidity were so bad those couple days, we just didn’t have enough oomph. So we bought Old Town Trolley tickets that allowed us to tour the town at our leisure with “hopping on-off” privileges. It was well worth the price due to the severe heat. And we learned a bit of city history from our drivers as we rode along. I really loved the small-town feel of St. Augustine. It wasn’t overly crowded with tourists or traffic, the back streets were quiet and quaint and well-kempt, the outskirts seemed placid and liveable - it felt like a really nice town to live in. But as a tourist, I was mildly disappointed in the tourist trappiness of all the separate “museums”.
I guess I assumed St. Augustine would somewhat emulate the same Colonial village style as Williamsburg or Jamestown. But St. Augustine cannot compete on such a grand scale as those, mostly because all their historic landmarks are downtown amongst other businesses, all owned and operated separately (I assume). At the Visitor’s Center we paid for entry into the Colonial Quarter, a very small area displaying colonial times exhibits following the history of St. Augustine. We paid extra to enter the old fort Castillo de San Marcos and witnessed a live cannon blast presentation complete with dressed-up Spaniard Militiamen.
How many Oldests are there?
St. Augustine was founded in 1565 and is the oldest continually occupied settlement in America. So I get it, it’s the oldest city…so everything is the “oldest”. We skipped the Old Jail, the Oldest Store, the Oldest Schoolhouse and the Oldest House. Each of these “oldest” (and tiny) buildings had a separate fee and, at an approx. extra $10pp PER “oldest”, it entered into the ridiculous. This isn’t Disneyland, right? Yeah, you could buy a higher priced Trolley ticket that included slightly discounted, all-inclusive passes, but it wasn’t cheap. I felt mildly hustled. Where was the Oldest Ice Cream Parlor? I’d have paid for that!
What? No Fountain of Youth?
Top that off with the Potter’s Wax Museum, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and a Pirate Museum. Everywhere we turned…another cheese-trap. I had wanted to see the Fountain of Youth. But, already over budget and consulting TripAdvisor (what would we do without TA?), I couldn’t tell if it was just another money grab. Do I want to pay heavily just to see a stupid fountain? Sigh. We are tourists on a budget so we didn’t go. In hindsight, we probably should have skipped the Colonial Quarter and went to the Fountain instead. Maybe next time.
Instead, we saw some pretty cool free stuff to balance out our spending spree. The beautiful Basilica Cathedral downtown is worth a peek. Wandering around the peaceful gardens and riverwalk of Mission de Nombre de Dios, a Catholic mission whose origin dates to 1565, was worth a small donation. And a self-tour of Flagler College is a must-do. This posh hotel-turned university is an excellent example of Spanish Architecture. Its dominant feature is the main hall foyer boasting stained glass and intricate mosaics designed by Tiffany (no, not the 80’s one-hit-wonder). On another afternoon, we swam at the pristine and surprisingly uncrowded beach on Anastasia Island and toured the St. Augustine lighthouse and museum. The trip was not complete without taste-testing bourbon and gin at the St. Augustine Distillery (which by the way is now the #1 “Thing to Do” on TripAdvisor).
I love it here. So why can’t I live here?
We stayed at Anastasia Island State Park for only one night since it was booked solid. The beach here is awesome, but the adjacent campground is nestled in amongst lots of trees. Upon awaking, I spied a large spider making a web from a tree to my side mirror. I know, I know. One big, creepy spider - get over it. But as Brian made his way outside to “get it” for me, and then around the van to unplug our powercord, he found (nearly ran into) THREE more that had created LARGE webs overnight, perma-linking our van to the surrounding trees. Imagine this in a “compounding interest” sort of way…had we stayed for more than just one night…oh, the horror! Our house was quickly becoming enveloped into a gigantic spider cocoon…never to be seen or heard from again. Forget it. I’m out!
Leaving St. Augustine, Tropical Storm Colin was headed our way. As we arrived at the Savannah Visitors Center late in the afternoon, they were preparing to close early for the impending storm. It had rained all day and advisories for potential flooding were issued for that evening. This should be interesting. But we managed to get through with barely a scratch. The next day dawned cloudy but non-threatening - in the clear!
Savannah is one of those cities you don’t forget. Slow and sultry like a smooth jazz tenor, Savannah implies sophistication but isn’t overly snooty. It felt comfortable rambling along the quiet back streets, marveling at the countless historic (and pricey) Victorian homes, lounging on an ornate park bench in one of several peaceful neighborhood squares romantically bedecked with statues, fountains and moss-shrouded trees, watching as every-day America runs our gauntlet: the millennial joggers, the t-shirted tourists, the businessman and the horse-drawn buggy-man, the be-bopping teenagers and the purple-haired student-artists, the latte-sippers and the cell-phone yappers…all the while imagining this same idyllic scene in this same idyllic square 100 years ago (minus the Pokemon). We sit and listen to the relaxed vibe of a gentile city and we are content. Annapolis invokes in us this same feeling; we always said if we were forced to live downtown in a city, it would be Annapolis. I now include Savannah.
Georgia State Railroad Museum
This was a very cool, uncrowded and inexpensive museum detailing Savannah railroad history. We spent two hours here and definitely got our money’s worth. Several impressive old railroad cars were on site awaiting or in process of restoration; we got a personal tour of two such cars. We both enjoyed the steam engine presentation and another where we got to help operate a real human-powered (double-levered) handcar. Brian loved seeing the antique foundry equipment, especially the giant metal drill press and The Buffalo Complete Woodworker, an all-in-one drill press, sander, router and planer. He was in heaven.
Skidaway Island State Park
We camped at Skidaway Island State Park in Savannah for four nights. And while the entire park is hidden under a tree-covered canopy, with no sunlight to be found, we had NO problems with bugs. Zero. They spray for mosquitos. The bathrooms were very clean. The sites were huge. They even had washer/dryer facilities. We LOVED this park. And there was hardly anyone in it. Too bad for them, but awesome for us.
Old Savannah Tours
Again we bought tickets for an “on/off” trolley, this time from Old Savannah Tours. Because this city is pretty large, using the trolley was worth it. This particular trolley places character actors in certain spots along the route who jump on and give you a little dose of their particular history. We saw Forrest Gump on one occasion! Interesting note: our tour bus driver said he’d lived there for 40 years; but he wasn’t FROM there. Apparently, to be FROM Savannah, you had to have been BORN there.
The Pirate House
Built around 1753, this former inn & bar was a haven for grog-seeking pirates of yore. Tales are told of unconscious, drunken souls being shanghaied from The Pirate House, later awaking at sea to discover themselves pressed into service on a ship bound for Singapore or other far-flung port. Scenes from the book Treasure Island take place in Savannah and this very house, with Captain Flint dying upstairs. Nowadays, it’s a very popular restaurant that manages to retain that old swashbuckler feel, festooned with brass fixtures and wooden planked floors and trestle tables, without feeling too campy. Our lunch consisted of sumptuous southern comfort food: you got yer fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra, biscuits, green beans, collard greens with bacon, black-eyed peas, mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potato, peach cobbler. How can you go wrong with THAT menu?
One day, we ventured over to Tybee Island for a day at the beach. We opted for the northern beach which was less busy than the jam-packed Pier area. Needing to park in crowded paid lots twice that day, we were happy to be driving our van that can fit in a normal parking spot, rather than a big rig where we’d have to spend a half hour just to find a parking spot and THEN walk a mile to the objective. Winners.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Brian isn’t especially into the ghost tours that are hawked everywhere in Savannah. I was ambivalent - I’d already been on one here many years ago (it was pretty interesting). So searching for another free thing to do, I happened upon the Bonaventure Cemetery which is featured in the above book/movie, making both the city of Savannah and the cemetery legendary. (I’d never read the book, but it’s now on my list.) But Brian wasn’t overly thrilled with this choice of tourist activity. Who goes to a cemetery on vacation? Apparently a lot…it’s a thing. Heck, TripAdvisor says it’s cool (#4 of 204 of Things to Do in Savannah, can’t beat that), plus, did I mention it’s FREE? So zip it, we’re going.
Bonaventure wasn’t creepy at all (at least not in daylight!) but hauntingly beautiful. Now 170 years old, this former plantation consists of 100 acres of quiet, intersecting paths. We strolled among the beautiful old stones, some dating back to the late 1860’s during the Civil War. Several were interestingly marked with “CSA” veteran emblems (Confederate States of America). Many memorials involved huge granite monuments, carved statues and intricately fenced and flowered family plots.
The avenue of stately live oaks was impressive in their age and sheer massiveness, branches draped in veiled moss swaying mournfully in the breeze. The illustrious John Muir was so captivated during his visit, he devoted an entire chapter to this cemetery in 1867: “I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light." Agreed.
To Be Continued…