Ecotourism: Green Attractions and Activities in St. Augustine
By Janet K. Keeler
There are many ways to enjoy St. Augustine’s natural beauty for maximum minimum impact. The old city is the historic gem of Florida’s First Coast and can be explored from the water, by foot or with the aid of communal transportation.
Established in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States. The city has done a fine job preserving its heritage, including shutting down traffic on Saint George Street. Pedestrians can peruse the shops and grab an empanada or sweet confection at the Spanish Bakery, its menu a nod to St. Augustine’s colonial past. Much of the charm on the historic street is visiting the Spanish Colonial home that was built by order of the King of Spain in 1750. The nation’s oldest wooden schoolhouse is on this street.
Generations of schoolchildren from all over Florida have run the ramparts of the Castillo de San Marcos, which has stood guard along Matanzas Bay for more than 300 years. The national monument is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the continental U.S. and now operated by the National Parks Service.
And there’s more to enchant and entertain travelers who seek a St. Augustine experience that’s as unplugged as the 17th century dinner party with Spanish colonists and Florida’s Timucua tribesmen. Many historians believe this was actually the first Thanksgiving.
Eco-friendly ideas for touring St. Augustine:
St. Augustine takes historic preservation seriously. Construction in the city’s historic core is routinely accompanied by archaeological assessments to determine if there are any artifacts below the surface. To get a better idea of the scope of the city’s history, stop by the Oldest House Museum Complex, which is operated by the St. Augustine Historical Society.
The complex is a short stroll south from the Bridge of Lions and not far from many of the city’s B&Bs. Guided tours of what is also called the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, are conducted regularly during operating hours. Besides touring the oldest Spanish Colonial home in Florida, visitors can check out five centuries of maps of the area and imagine what it might be like to have lived (and cooked!) in the home. A tour of the gardens will get visitors up close to the muscadine grape vine, whose fruit was used to make wine.
San Sebastian Winery
The local San Sebastian Winery makes muscadine wine in a former railway building near downtown. The winery offers tours.
There’s another kind of preservation going on in St. Augustine. The folks at the seven-acre St. Augustine Wild Reserve take in all manner of animals that have been abandoned by neglectful owners. Visitors are invited to the reserve to see the animals, including tigers, mountain lions, artic wolves and coati mundis, relatives of the raccoon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Reservations are mandatory. Memories will need to be taken away in the heart and head as no photography is allowed. The operators believe that the cameras bother the animals.
Lighthouse and Museum
St. Augustine is all about the water as it’s bounded on the west by the San Sebastian River and on the east by Matanzas Bay that leads to the Atlantic Ocean. A visit to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Martime Museum and especially a climb to the top of the barber-pole lighthouse provides a view of all that. Florida has many lighthouses but St. Augustine might be the most picturesque. There are 219 steps up the spiral staircase to first-order Fresnel lens the lookout deck of the 1874 lighthouse.
Need more low-impact history lessons? Consider a walking tour with St. Augustine Historic Tours. Stories of capitalists and conquistadors, plus a few pirates, are celebrated. A paranormal pub crawl is as spirited as you might imagine.
The salt marsh kayak tour with St. Augustine Eco-Tours is a way to get to know St. Augustine from the water. The two-hour tour in tandem kayaks is a guided excursion through the local ecosystem. A bonus is a great view of the Castillo de San Marcos fort with narration from a knowledgeable naturalist. Eco-tours other several excursions including a photography tour and a dolphin, birding and nature eco-tour.
FOOD AND DINING
Southern Living magazine calls St. Augustine the South’s No. 1 foodie town thanks to restaurants such as the Floridian. The innovative menu with a Southern twist boasts many regionally and locally sourced ingredients and in fact names the purveyors on its menu. The fresh catch fish sandwich is served on bread baked just up the road in Jacksonville. Florida shrimp is all over the menu, and the gimlet cocktail features local St. Augustine Distillery gin. (If you’re so inclined, you can tour the distillery.) Also on the menu is a hearty selection of Florida craft beers.
Another local favorite is The Hyppo, a gourmet ice pop store that got its start on Hypolita Street. There are easily more than 100 flavors but the most local of them all would be the Strawberry Datil or Blue Datil. The spicy datil pepper is grown widely in the area. Want something tropical but with less heat? Try any number of combinations of mango, coconut or hibiscus.
Going to St. Augustine and not eating seafood is like visiting New York and not having a slice of pizza. Load up on fresh seafood at Kyle’s Seafood Market to prepare at the condo kitchen or campfire. There is also a popular fish spread made of smoked mullet and several seafood soups that just need to be heated. Smoked fish is a good option for visitors who don’t have access to cooking facilities.
The Old Town Trolley is one of the best ways to see all of St. Augustine without having to fight for a parking place. The hop-on-hop-off trolley makes 23 stops so a visitor could easily spend all day exploring. This is also a good option for multi-generational groups with varying physical abilities. The trolleys are wheelchair accessible and 16 of the stops have level surfaces so that riders can get off to explore. Among the stops that the trolley makes are Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Villa Zorayda Museum, the Old Jail, the Fountain of Youth, Castillo de San Marcos. For those who want to go along for the ride, they will hear all about the history of the city from the trolley driver through an amplified narration system.
Your own two feet might be your greatest transportation asset in St. Augustine. A 1.1 mile self-guided walking tour in the city allows you to move at your own pace, stopping where you want to stop. Much of the walk is along Matanzas Bay.
Green Lodging Program
Reduce, reuse and recycle is the aim of many hotels these days, both large and small. It is common practice for hotels to ask patrons to use towels and washcloths for more than one day. Recycle bins sit next to trash bins, too. In Florida, the Certified Green Lodging program encourages hotels, motels, resorts and B&Bs to be sustainable and environmentally aware. You can peruse this list to find accommodations that do this.
The Carriage Way Inn and St. Francis Inn, both designated green lodgings, pride themselves on their sustainability efforts. The gardens at St. Francis are a certified wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. The Florida-inspired gardens are full of native species including coral honeysuckle, sea grape, wild coffee and silver lovegrass. Visitors relax in the natural surroundings for early evening cocktails. At the Carriage Inn, make sure you load up on housemade baked goods before starting your city exploration. You are just a couple of blocks from the pedestrian-only Saint George Street and another two streets from the historic fort. No need for a car.
Anastasia State Park
Anastasia State Park has about 140 campsites for RVs and tents. The park is just a short walk or bike ride to the Atlantic Ocean and campers can be lulled to sleep at night by the roar of the waves. Fishing on Salt Run is a popular activity and a fish identification kiosk lets anglers know what they’ve reeled in. The park is on the Great Florida Wildlife and Birding Trail so pack the binoculars. Some of the birds that frequent the area include herons, woodstorks and roseate spoonbills. The picturesque lighthouse is just a few miles north.
Call organizations you are interested in ahead of time to make sure they can accommodate short-term volunteers. Some jobs require training sessions.
Keeps of the Coast
Keepers of the Coast does important work in the St. Augustine area. Volunteers for them help with reef restoration and wildlife rehabilitation (mostly manatee, dolphin and turtle). Coming to St. Augustine with family or a group of friends? Keepers suggests that you organize your own beach cleanup day. Put on some plastic gloves, select an area of the beach and scour it for trash. Spending the morning on cleanup detail and the afternoon enjoying a pristine stretch of beach.