St Augustine is America’s oldest city and is packed with museums & culture – The Sun

SIR Francis Drake took an instant dislike to Florida. So much so, he laid waste to a whole city, set it on fire and retreated to watch it burn.

But that was all par for the course for Britain’s famed conqueror of the Armada. Anything vaguely Spanish got his dander up — and seeing Spain’s flag flying over the city of St Augustine in 1586 did just that.

Beholding the spot where Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite privateer landed on the Matanzas River, we could imagine the consternation of the local populace.

We were at Castillo De San Marcos admiring its 14ft-thick, 30ft-high walls — but sadly for the city folk of 1586, it was not completed for another 110 years. It does, though, stand as the US’s largest masonry fort.

We learned all this from costumed re-enactor Mark as we wandered the battlements, watched ceremonial cannon-firing and soaked up the story of America’s oldest city.

“You didn’t think Florida had history, did you?” Mark quipped once he picked up the British accent quizzing his character, a uniformed 17th-century Spanish gunner.

We were not that oblivious. But the oldest city in the US? Not Jamestown or New York?

Mark laughed. “Naw, we’ve got 59 years on New York. And those Brits in Jamestown? They didn’t arrive until 1607. We were founded in 1565.”

But the castle was just one of many pleasant surprises from our trip to St Augustine — a 1hr 40min drive north from Orlando and light years away culturally.

Instead of theme parks, St Augustine has forts and museums.

In place of glitzy International Drive, its pedestrian St George Street is a bastion of colonial charm with its historical markers, boutiques and cafes.

We started at the Old Town Jail, where another re-enactor walked us through the 19th-century prison that served as the template for San Francisco’s Alcatraz in 1910.

From the outside, it looked more hotel than jail. “Exactly,” said “inmate” Ungrie, our guide. “Old Henry Flag-ler, the railroad baron, didn’t want to spook investors, so had it designed to fit the rest of the street. Nice lookin’, ain’t it?”

Indeed, Flagler brought his East Coast Railroad, and well-heeled New Yorkers, to Florida and built some spectacular hotels.

We marvelled at Casa Monica, an 1888 original still as swish as its heyday; the Alcazar, now a museum; and crown jewel Flagler College.

Built in 1885 as the Hotel Ponce de Leon, in a Spanish style that would have irked Sir Francis, the College still offers daily tours of its marbled halls, vaulted ceilings and many murals.

The original electric system was installed by Thomas Edison, Mark Twain was among the first guests and Babe Ruth hit baseballs over the tiled roof of this five-storey gem.

But we retired to somewhere more modern to recharge.

The St Augustine Distillery sits in the city’s former ice plant, dating to 1905, but is as sharp as they come in terms of its 21st-century production.

We got to sample their bourbon, cane vodka, gin and rum, and tottered slowly back to our hotel.

Franny Drake may have torched the city 434 years ago but it has bounced back well — and we raised another glass to those plucky Spanish adventurers.

GO: St. Augustine

GETTING THERE: Fly to Orlando from Gatwick with British Airways, Virgin and TUI. Flights for next March are from £332pp with British Airways.

STAYING THERE: Guy Harvey Outpost Resort on St. Augustine Beach is great for kayaking, fishing and eco-tours. Seven nights’ room-only from £840pp including flights and car hire. Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront has a week room-only from £1,190pp including car hire and flights. See americaasyoulikeit .com or call 020 8742 8299.


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