Old City Sophistication

By: Amy Shepherd Nance

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Antiques, historical sites, fine dining and more in the old city of St. Augustine.

Fitzgerald had the French Riviera and its decadent glory - swaying palms, gilded resorts, dazzling beaches. In the ancient city of St. Augustine, just steps away from Florida's own dazzling coastline, lies another high-style paradise offering all the trappings of elegance.

Here you can be an expatriate from your own life. Dine in Moroccan splendor. Be chauffeured through the brick streets by horse drawn carriage. Shop specialty boutiques for everything from art and ornaments to chocolates and fine wines. Set a breezy late-afternoon picnic and stay until sundown. Then get dapper for jazz and cocktails. St. Augustine's historical glamour is worth dressing up for.

Begin at the Casa Monica Hotel, where opulent surroundings engage the senses. From the triumphant lobby fountain, richly tiled and flanked by high-backed leather settees, to thick velvet curtains tied with sashes, Moorish-style chandeliers and flickering candelabras, you'll find yourself steeped in exotic luxury. The Casa Monica is strewn with royal flourishes that attest to its castle-like exterior. Most rooms are appointed in mahogany and wrought iron, and luxury suites in the hotel's five towers offer antique furnishings, circular living rooms and generous views.

Once ensconced in your lavish retreat, you can choose from a bevy of services and activities to define your visit. Restored to its former status as a landmark 1880's resort, an atmosphere of first class leisure pervades the hotel. Take a dip in the second-story pool, arrange a horseback riding escapade or duck into one of the hotel's upscale boutiques. Have a round at a Jack Nicklaus-designed course or set off to the Serenata Beach Club, where you can while away the hours in your own cabana, swim in the heated pool or just view the ocean in private and unfettered luxury.

St. Augustine's cultural and historical riches will keep you moving about town, so don your sunglasses and walking shoes. For first-rate cultural immersion, tour the Colonial Quarter, opening in mid-February 2013. Experience the Ancient City's Spanish heritage in three-dimensional form at this living history museum, where costumed interpreters depict 200 years of St. Augustine's history.

From here it's a short step in time to Old St. Augustine Village, a group of houses, courtyards and gardens constructed between 1790 and 1910. You'll discover galleries and exhibits here that bring history close enough to touch. For an unparalleled view of St. Augustine old and new, picnic at the inlet on Vilano Beach, watching the dolphins with Castillo de San Marcos in the background. Enjoy a gourmet lunch to go from Café Cordova at Casa Monica. Toast the fortress from your comfortable crest and watch the birds that inhabit Matanzas estuary spiraling from the trees. Before you surrender to your deluxe quarters, stop at Kilwin's Chocolates for homemade fudge.

Whether uptown or downtown, St. Augustine's shops will satisfy those pining for the posh and the casual spectator alike. For unusual gifts, stop in at Rembrandtz Fine Art and Gifts and marvel at fanciful art pieces and unique prints.

Let a horse drawn carriage ferry you back to the Casa Monica, where a delectable repast awaits at the hotel's in-house restaurant, 95 Cordova. Try the five-course tasting menu and a bottle of carefully selected wine as you settle in to one of the sumptuously decorated dining rooms.

Afterwards, explore the city's galleries on the first Friday of each month during the evening ArtWalk. The St. Augustine Sightseeing Red Train is available for transport to the Walk, where you can see new exhibits and enjoy the street music.

Cap off your splendid stay in St. Augustine with a trip to the antique shops clustered around San Marco Avenue. Here you'll find European furniture, estate items, art glass, costume jewelry, antique stained glass windows and other innumerable wonders. Located in what used to be the Hotel Alcazar's pool, the Lightner Museum smartly mixes the old with the older. St. Augustine's historic luxury and exquisite cultural treasures will satisfy the greatest of Gatsbys.

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