As a child, I was ever-intrigued by the whisper of ghostly secrets from our upstairs attic and shout of adventure from a realm of field and forest I regarded as my backyard.
The simplicity of childhood has changed since those days and as parents we tend to shield our kids from the unknown. There is a place, however, where I can take my son and feel safe in the knowledge that he shares a slice of discovery cut from the fabric of my own childhood curiosity.
St. Johns County holds that promise of discovery with its vast array of historic and natural treasures. On a recent stopover I reminisced about our first visit together, when Aaron was only 4. We stayed at the edge of St. Augustine's historic district, from where we could walk to the sightseeing train station and hop aboard trolley tour. In his pre-schooler's excitement to graduate from day care to kindergarten, he was fascinated by the Oldest Wooden School House in the USA, where a robotic schoolmaster taught lessons on colonial education.
Aaron was in his "pirates phase" at the time, so the whole fort Castillo de San Marcos and colonial-era re-enactment scene enthralled him. He got his fill of swords, cannons, tricorns, soldiers and eye patches in St. Augustine's decidedly unmusty attic - browsing souvenir shops, walking cobbled streets with effusive performers, and visiting the Colonial Quarter. Here history fleshes out as costumed demonstrators involve kids in colonial cooking, blacksmithing and the likes. For more hands-on history, visit three different St. Augustine eras at the Old Florida Museum, where kids can write with a quill, grind corn and scrape out a dugout canoe with oyster shells.
What does Aaron remember most fondly about that first visit? The oddities at Ripley's Believe It or Not! and mammoth Gomek, the then-alive, now preserved monster croc at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. Which led me to believe that this time around he was ready for the more macabre and natural side of St. Augustine's history.
At age 14, he has outgrown the excitement of the little choo-choo. The Old City "frightseeing" tours are more his style. We picked the Ghosts & Gravestones trolley tour instead of the walking versions. For older children, it's a good pick - dark and scary enough, crammed with grisly facts, but made insidiously hilarious by local drama students and visits inside the town's "most haunted places." The tour lasts about an hour and twenty minutes, with ghost stories and a stop at an authentic old jail that visitors can walk through.
Also for older children (44 inches and taller), a climb to the top of St. Augustine Lighthouse provides the thrills they seek. For Aaron, top thrill these days means catching a five-foot glassy wave on his surfboard, so we're in luck around St. Augustine, whose backyard is lined with Atlantic-crashed beaches from Guana River Beach and Vilano Beach south to Anastasia Island State Park, St. Augustine Beach Pier, and the drive-on beaches around Crescent Beach and Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Surf shops sell and rent equipment around Anastasia Island State Park, also known for its windsurfing and kayaking. Salt Run, the cut between the park's beach and marshy shore, is perfect for both and the park rents gear and provides instruction.
Nature trails at all three beachfront state parks - plus Faver-Dykes State Park, inland along a state canoe trail - travel through salt marshland, hardwood hammock and coastal scrub where myriad birds take shelter and bobcats hide.
Between the ocean, Intracoastal Waterway, mighty St. Johns River, and smaller streams, St. Johns County's backyard is fully stocked for anglers of all ages. Hot spots: Vilano Beach Pier, St. Augustine Beach Pier and fish camps along the St. Johns River and Intracoastal. To dine family-friendly in a fish-camp atmosphere, try Salt Water Cowboy's in St. Augustine Beach or Cap's on the Water, in Vilano.
For more on-the-water adventure, check out Fort Matanzas National Monument, south of St. Augustine Beach, where a free (donations accepted) boat tour takes you across the river to a time when the outpost protected from "backdoor" attacks on St. Augustine's proud and impenetrable Castillo. It's the best of both St. Johns County's child-appeal worlds, where attic-peeking meets backyard-conquering.