A few days after I arrived in Florida, my sister, Marilou T. Eplite, told me during our dinner: “We will be going to St. Augustine tomorrow.” It is, she added, the oldest city in North America. Really? I thought to myself.
I did some research on the place. It all started in 1513 when Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain. At that time, some Spanish explorers found gold and silver in Mexico and Peru. The treasure was sent back to Spain in ships sailing in the Gulf Stream.
According to a report published in a tourist magazine, “Spanish settlements needed to be built in Florida to protect the Spanish treasure fleets. King Philip II of Spain sent Pedro Menendez de Aviles to settle Florida and drive out French garrisons recently established there.”
In September 1565, Menendez along with 700 soldiers and colonists landed in what is now known as St. Augustine. As such, it became “the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America.”
We travelled for almost two hours, until we arrived in the city. But first, until we had to find a parking area. My brother-in-law, David Eplite, decided to park near the Welcome Information Center.
To know what to see in the city, I took a sightseeing tour map which was given free. Looking at the areas to visit, I was totally overwhelmed. There were too many and I was sure they couldn’t be visited just by walking.
But David had a good news. We can explore the historic places through a trolley, a 23-stop fully narrated tour by expert conductors-cum-drivers. He bought a ticket in the form of a round sticker, which we placed in our shirts. You can hop in and hop out at designated areas.
There is an interesting story on how the city, which used to be the capital of Florida, got its name. It is said that it was de Aviles who named it San Agustin “as his ships bearing settlers, troops, and supplies from Spain had first sighted land in Florida eleven days earlier on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine.”
Before we did our sightseeing tour, we went to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument since it was just walking distance from the information center. After paying the entrance fee, we had our self-guided walking tour.
For many years, Castillo de San Marcos was the northernmost output of Spain’s vast New World empire. It protected St. Augustine from pirate raids and from Spain’s major rival, Great Britain.
As indicated in the broschure, “You have entered one of the most extraordinary places in the United States, incorporating over 345 years of history and culture.”
“Construction of the Castillo de San Marcos began in 1672, making it one of the oldest standing structures in North America.”
If you want to know what it looks like, here’s how the brochure described it: “Engineer Ignacio Daza designed a fortress using a bastion system. The star-like outline of the Castillo is formed by diamond shaped projections, called bastions, on each corner of the fort. This design eliminates blind spots for the guards in the garitas, or sentry boxes, at each bastion point and increases the fort’s firepower by allowing multiple cannons to fire on the same target, creating a crossfire effect.”
After visiting the fortress, we had our sightseeing tour. It was fun and very revealling. One of those that caught my interest was the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, site of America’s first colony. Imagine stepping into the area first explored by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 and settled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. It was also in this place where the first documented Thanksgiving feast between Europeans and Native Americans occurred.
Houses fascinate me so I had the pleasure of seeing the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, touted to be the oldest Spanish-built home in the United States. With a construction history dating to about 1723, it is also a living example of the city’s Spanish colonial architectural style, with later modifications by English owners.
Not far from the said house was what has been touted as the oldest wooden school building in the United States. The exact date of construction is unknown, but it first appeared on tax records in 1716. There are no extant wooden buildings in St. Augustine built prior to 1702 when the British burned the city.
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
The Potter’s Wax Museum will have you come face to face with the past, present and future. It is America’s first wax museum and it is home to more than 160 different wax figures – from stars to singer, from professional athletes to political figures. Too bad, there was no wax figure of Harry Potter. Actually, it was George L. Potter who established the collection in 1948.
Since I am based in Davao City (soon to be known as the Chocolate Capital of the Philippines), I was totally mesmerized by the Original Chocolate Tour led by Whetstone Chocolatiers. I get to know the history and the making of chocolate. The walk through the factory is something for chocoholic with a discriminating palate searching for the subtleties that define artisan chocolates.
If Davao City has Crocodile Park, St. Augustine has Crocodile Crossing. What makes it very exciting is that you zip over all of the world’s 23 living species of crocodilian species. Another challenge: zip across the lagoon with adult American alligators right under your toes.
Another thing Davao City has is the replica of Michelangelo’s famous David. Displayed at Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, it is one of the only two copies in the world carved to the exact specifications as the original – 17’ high and weighing 10 tons. Made in 1963 for the World’s Fair in New York City, it was moved to Buena Park, California in 1965 where it stood for 42 years. Acquired by Ripley in 2007, it was transferred to St. Augustine in its present location.
There were so many other things to visit but we were tired already. So, we decided to take our lunch at George Street, where most of the stores are located.
After eating, we returned to the parking area and went to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. It was here that I had to conquer my fear of heights. To go up, you had to climb the 219 stairs or about 14 stories. At first, I didn’t want to go but David pushed me to do it.
I did it. But still when taking pictures, I still had to hold tightly in the fences; I was still afraid I might fall down below. From the top, I was able to take breathtaking photos of the old city and see the Atlantic Ocean.
It was already five in the afternoon when we went down from the lighthouse. It was time to go home.
“Thanks for bringing me to St. Augustine,” I told the Eplite couple. “It was a memorable experience!” G