St. Augustine is the archetypal Old Florida tourist destination. You can drink from the Fountain of Youth, hit the Oldest House, maybe Ripley's Believe It or Not, then mosey out to Alligator Farm and thrill to all 23 crocodilian species.
Now, there's nothing wrong with gulping down a little overpriced sulphur water, enjoying a building just because it survived a couple of centuries, or gawking at mummified cats and bored gators. But if that's the extent of your encounter with the place, you're missing the best stuff. Underneath the tourist trappings, St. Augustine is an arty town with fine architecture, interesting galleries and Old Florida ambience. Ignore the shops selling shells that come from everywhere but Florida, any establishment with extra letters in the name ("olde," "shoppe"), or anyone pushing pirate merchandise, even though St. Augustine has a legitimate claim to pirate promotion. After all, Sir Francis Drake burned the town in 1586, and Robert Searle, another English pirate, sacked it in 1668. Treat the place the way you would a European city; that is, visit the churches, the museums and the galleries. Walk around. And eat where the natives eat.
I recently visited St. Augustine for the Florida Heritage Book Festival, a lively event boasting literary talent from bestselling novelist Carl Hiaasen to Stetson Kennedy, the 94-year-old folklorist and author of Palmetto Country. Between readings, I wandered — St. Augustine is small enough that you don't need a car — starting with Aviles Street in the heart of what the residents call "the ancient city." Named for Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the Spanish grandee who founded St. Augustine in 1565, Aviles may be the oldest street in America. An archaeologist recently established that it had been a thoroughfare since the early 1600s.
The coquina and tabby house at No. 32 was built in 1691, which probably makes it older than the official "Oldest House" (just around the corner at 14 St. Francis St.). Now owned by an order of nuns, it's a museum dedicated to Father Miguel O'Reilly, an Irish priest who lived there during the late 18th century. It's open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and it's free. Call (904) 826-0750 for information.
The charming white house at 20 Aviles built by merchant Andres Ximenez in 1798 is also open (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, $6 admission, (904) 829-3535).
Aviles Street is rich in 18th century architecture, but it's even richer in contemporary art. If you're in town on the first Friday of the month, St. Augustine's galleries hold a festive "art walk" through the city. The Aviles Street Gallery at 11C houses 20 artists from watercolorists to photographers to goldsmiths. However, Worley Faver's pottery (11A Aviles, faverpottery.com) was the most impressive work I saw. He doesn't use a wheel but builds pieces the way "the ancients," American Indians, have done for thousands of years, with clay coil upon clay coil, smoothing as he goes, polishing the surface with stones in the manner of Maria Martinez, the famous New Mexico potter. I watched as he worked on one there in his studio, accompanied by his dog (St. Augustine is very relaxed).
I was having such a good time peering into rose-filled courtyards and shops that I was surprised to hear the bells tolling noon. I considered having lunch at Casa Monica, the lush Spanish-Moorish hotel at King and Cordova in the center of town. The King and Queen of Spain stayed there when they visited Florida in 2001; if the recession isn't biting you too hard, you can get a room with a view for around $250 a night for two (casamonica.com, (904) 827-1888), though I was bunking at one of the very nice, if very ruffled and bowed, Victorian bed-and-breakfasts around the corner on Cedar Street (rooms at the Penny Farthing or the Cedar House Inn start at $150). Lunch at Casa Monica's restaurant, 95 Cordova, runs around $30 for two — they do a great portobello mushroom and brie stack.
But I decided to head for the Floridian, the hands-down, no-contest finest lunch or dinner in town (39 Cordova St., (904) 829-0655). This is a new restaurant, promising "innovative Southern fare for omnivores, herbivores and locavores." They're not kidding: I agonized over whether to order the shrimp and stone-ground grits or a salad with Atlantic crab, roasted corn and Florida avocado or the catch of the day (which was grouper) or, well, you get the picture. In the end I went for the Indian Summer salad with roasted peppers, local greens and Sweet Grass Dairy goat cheese (from just over the border in Thomasville, Ga.), all for a bargain $8.50. Before I'd had more than three bites of it, I'd resolved to come back to the Floridian for supper, so I could try the "oven-fried" chicken and one of their boutique wines. And no matter what else you eat at the Floridian, get a piece of the pecan pie with chocolate and coconut ($5). It's beyond to die for; to kill for, more like.
Filled with chocolate and cheese, I was ready to deal with Henry Flagler, the Medici-style prince of the city, the man who opened the Atlantic coast to the rich, huddled masses of the Northeast, yearning to get warm. The Ponce de Leon, his 1885 flagship hotel, is now part of Flagler College (74 King St., (904) 819-6400, tours twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., $7 admission) and a masterpiece of wacky magnificence. Sitting in the courtyard, I could imagine how those Yankees must have felt, arriving from the iron cold of New York or Boston, tumbling out into this riot of pink hibiscus and languorous palms waving in front of a palace that looks like a cross between the Duomo and the Alhambra, all towers and arches and witty fountains with terra cotta turtles spitting water at terra cotta frogs.
Flagler let his pet architects, John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, run wild on this Mediterranean fantasy of a building: The ornate entrance hall boasts carved caryatids and sulky-looking ladies representing "Adventure," "Civilization," "Conquest" and "Air." The tour takes you throughout the onetime showplace of the "Florida Riviera," including 70-odd Tiffany windows, mountainous chandeliers and a huge clock made of onyx.
The Father of Florida Tourism, or what's left of him, is buried around the corner. You can visit Flagler's tomb in Memorial Presbyterian (36 Sevilla St., (904) 829-6451), a fancy wedding cake of a church he had built in 1890 as a monument to his daughter Jennie, who died in childbirth. Though Presbyterians normally take a dim view of papist ornamentation, Carrere and Hastings covered the place in Moorish points, Romanesque arches, small spires and mosaics in an homage to the famous St. Mark's in Venice.
In St. Augustine, Flagler was pretty much lord of all he surveyed. In the 1880s, he owned the Casa Monica (then called the Hotel Cordova), and built the Hotel Alcazar, now home to city hall, upscale shops and the Lightner Museum of Decorative Arts (75 King St., (904) 824-2874, $10 admission). The collection of Otto C. Lightner, a Chicago newspaper publisher, proves that economic downturns have an upside for the museum-going public. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Lightner bought 18th and 19th century furniture, sculpture and paintings from the onetime mansion dwellers who needed the cash. Highlights include a desk made for Napoleon's brother, a malachite urn once owned by a Russian tsar, acres of glittering American cut glass and armies of marble nymphs, simpering prettily.
I strolled out of the marble courtyard with its well-fed tropical plants again to the sound of bells calling. This has been the quintessential sound of St. Augustine for nearly 500 years, the sound heard by the young hidalgos from Castile and the Asturias, the friars, the Minorcans, the remnants of the Timucua, whose village lies under the streets of the Spanish city, the slaves brought from Africa, the French and the English, Prince Achille Murat, Napoleon's nephew, who lived here for a year in 1824, and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited around the same time, and said "the air and sky of this ancient, fortified, dilapidated sandbank of a town are delicious." I pushed open the door of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine and walked inside.
The original church was destroyed by the English in 1586; this mix of classical and baroque styles dates from the 1790s (38 Cathedral Place, thefirstparish.org) with extensive Victorian restoration. The ceiling mosaics depict the history of the Catholic Church in Florida, with Franciscan friars evangelizing the native people and founding the string of missions across the state. It's calm and lovely, scented with incense, lit by votive candles flickering before the images of saints, a piece of the Old World in the New. Someone began to practice the organ, so I slipped out into the early evening air. It was 6 p.m. and surely the bar at the Floridian was open by now.
Diane Roberts is a professor of English and writing at Florida State University.