History books tell us that St. Augustine played an instrumental role in America’s early story. You’ve probably heard of Juan Ponce de León, Sir Francis Drake, Henry Flagler and the Timucua Indians. St. Augustine, which plops itself right between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, is proud of those important names. Museums and plaques throughout town tell us that much.
But the little city founded in 1565 wants you to know something else — the past is only powering its future. Be it with hotels, cuisine or family entertainment, St. Augustine is boldly looking ahead. After a recent visit to northeast Florida, we think it’s safe to say you’ll be interested in seeing where it’s headed next.
If you’re flying into town, rest easy knowing that both Jacksonville International Airport and Daytona Beach International Airport are but 50-minute rides from your home for the weekend, Hammock Beach Resort, A Salamander Resort.
Over the past year, the Salamander hospitality brand has overseen brilliant openings in New Orleans (NOPSI Hotel) and the Florida Panhandle (The Henderson). Though Hammock Beach isn’t new, that hasn’t stopped the 330-room property from unwrapping a few shiny toys of its own recently.
In July, the property unveiled the renovated Lodge, a boutique-hotel-within-the-hotel that differentiates itself from the main resort’s family-friendly feel with a slightly more tailored and contemporary aesthetic — cue the marble entries, private balconies and granite vanities.
And then there’s the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course, a golfer’s paradise that just reopened in early November after a 13-month restoration. When Hurricane Matthew caused significant damage to the course in 2016, designers took a long look at things and elected to redo the whole course, re-seeding the fairways, re-constructing the bunkers and, essentially, re-envisioning every blade of grass. The result is a jaw-dropping, coast-hugging beauty you’ll want to play as soon as you’ve checked in.
After a round here (or at the stunning Conservatory course down the road), go over to the just-opened Atlantic Grille for lunch. A relaxing space with floor-to-ceiling windows and a soothing, nautical color palette, Atlantic Grille is where you’ll want to go for sparkling views with a side of shrimp tacos and crab cake sandwiches.
With a full stomach (and, maybe, a nap in your 2,100-square-foot suite in the main building), make the eight-minute drive to Marineland Dolphin Adventure. One of the area’s most beloved attractions, this aquatic wonderland has wowed crowds since its start in the 1930s as an underwater movie studio. The facilities themselves have a vintage feel, but the site’s mission of using interactivity for the preservation and protection of marine life is forward thinking.
Like with a number of other oceaquariums, you can touch and feed bottlenose dolphins here, but Marineland makes its loudest statement with the Discover Dolphins experience, where you don a swimsuit, hop in the shallow waters and play with the intelligent creatures for roughly 20 minutes.
By the time you dry off, it will likely be dinnertime. A couple of restaurants located between Marineland and the resort may catch your attention — we’d understand if the aromas coming from the 386 eatery swayed you — but for your first night, we’d suggest trying Hammock Beach Resort’s own Delfinos. Much like St. Augustine as a whole, this establishment embraces the past (wicker chairs, a classic brown-and-green color scheme) while steadily moving ahead with creative interpretations of grouper, salmon and New York strips.
Here’s hoping the proteins don’t weigh too heavily on you overnight because you’ll need to get a fairly early start to the day, if you’re looking to avoid the crowds in historic St. Augustine. (Florida set a record for its most visitors — 31.1 million — ever in a quarter at the beginning of 2017.)
Like a snapshot from the 1800s, the center of the city overflows with stirring examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture. The doomed ceilings, red-shingled roofs and stained-glass windows paint the postcard-perfect picture of St. Augustine you’ve had in your mind. Regal fountains and trolleys make for ideal backdrops for social media posts or impromptu family photo sessions.
After a few poses in the center of downtown, walk over to the Lightner Museum for an informative trip back in time. Your guide will lovingly refer to Hobbies magazine publisher Otto Lightner as a “collector of collections” and you’ll be inclined to agree after trekking through galleries of furnishings, musical instruments and other remnants of 19th-century life.
“Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” an exhibit that chronicles the wardrobes of characters from the famed PBS show Downton Abbey, could not have found a more suiting temporary home (through January 7).
When you finish admiring the garments, go downstairs to Café Alcazar for a midday bite that would put a smile on Violet Crawley’s face. You’ll adore the sandwiches and made-from-scratch desserts, but we’re sure you’ll eat up the vistas even more; the cavernous-yet-cool restaurant sits in the old Alcazar Hotel’s former swimming pool, which, at one time, was the largest in the world.
Once you’re done there, walk in the general direction of Castillo de San Marcos, the stone fort that was completed in 1695. Before getting there, though, make a stop at Plaza de la Constitución, where you’ll find a host of memorials and monuments documenting the city’s past.
Andrew Young Crossing may be the most fascinating part, as it’s dedicated to the civil rights leader who visited the city during the contentious 1960s in an attempt to keep the peace. You’ll see bronze castings of Young’s shoes, so you can literally walk the same path he did while facing down racist attackers. Amazingly, this chapter in St. Augustine’s history is one many know nothing about.
Castillo, however, is well-documented as being the oldest masonry fort in the United States. Erected to protect Spanish treasure from pirates, the coquina-built structure is still a glowing example of the bastion system of fortification. Fully appreciate the engineering ingenuity by venturing into preserved rooms and looking out onto the same bastions that soldiers would have centuries ago.
By the time you get down from your post it may be 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Do some light shopping along popular St. George Street — we like the leather goods at Spanish Dutch Convoy and love the gourmet ice pops at The Hyppo — before your 7 p.m. reservation at Michael’s Tasting Room.
Yes, the Spanish/Puerto Rican eatery is mere minutes from the old fort but there’s nothing tired about this kitchen. Michael Lugo is a self-taught chef delivering seasonal dishes that change with the Atlantic winds, but you can be sure that fresh Gulf shrimp, scallops and ahi tuna will find their way onto the menu.
With original works from artist Roz Jacobs on the walls and an impressive roster of wines in the cellar, Michael’s Tasting Room serves refinement without a hint of pretension.
You won’t feel heavy after your meal, either, so an evening stroll won’t be too much to ask. Old Town Trolley’s Ghosts & Gravestones tour is a part-walking, part-riding adventure that touches on some of the area’s most spirited stories — the city is more than 450 years old, after all.
One particularly creepy stop is the Old Drug Store. There you’ll find dusty medicines and apothecary instruments on display. Rickety floors and dark hallways only add to the chills. We won’t give away the frights, but if history from our visit reveals anything, it’s that you might want to sleep with the 50-inch TV on once you get back to Hammock Beach.