By Janet K. Keeler
St. Augustine is old. Like 1565 old.
This is not exactly news, but it’s a bit of an oddity in a state that didn’t really blossom as a large-scale tourist destination and year-round home for many transplants until air-conditioning was perfected in the early 1900s.
St. Augustine lays claim to the status of the oldest city in the United States and there are many historians who believe that the first Thanksgiving was a feast there. Some 50 years before the pilgrims broke bread with the Wampanoags in Plymouth, Mass., Spanish colonists sat down for a meal of shellfish, alligator, tortoise and wild turkey with Florida’s Timucua tribesmen.
That’s just the first of many history lessons that visitors to St. Augustine will learn. The best way to get acclimated to St. Augustine is to buy tickets for the Old Town Trolley. With 21 stops on the narrated hop-on-hop-off tour, it’s easy to spend an entire day getting to know the town and its European-influenced architecture and history.
A written script for the hearing impaired is available on request and several trolleys have lifts to accommodate wheelchairs. A 24-hour notice is requested to make sure that properly equipped vehicles are available. People needing to use the lift are encouraged to board at Stop No. 1, the Old Jail Museum on San Marco Avenue. Tickets are sold there but can also be purchased online. Through previous arrangements, other stops can be used as pick-up spots.
While the trolley makes 23 stops, not all of them are suitable for operating the lifts because the surfaces aren’t level. Still, 16 stops are accessible, including Castillo de San Marcos, the Lightner Museum, San Sebastian Winery, Ripley’s Believe it or No, and Plaza de la Constitucion. Ask the tour guide or inquire at the Welcome Center about restaurants along the way.
Five stops that will give you the full flavor of St. Augustine:
Lightner Museum. Railroad magnate Henry Flager left his mark all over Florida. He built the Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine in 1888 and for decades it entertained winter visitors from the north. Today, it is the home of the Lightner Museum and its collection of 19th Century fine and decorative art. Children are fond of the Lightner, thanks to displays of shrunken heads, a mummy and human hair art. It contributes to St. Augustine’s old and slightly spooky reputation. The museum is fully accessible.
St. Augustine Distillery. After all those oddities, you might just need a taste of something strong. The St. Augustine Distillery set up shop in a 1907 ice manufacturing shop and it’s there they make small batch bourbon, vodka, run and gin. The distillery began operations in 2014 and today offers free self-guided tours and tastings and paid 30-minute guided tours through the day, seven days a week. The distillery is gaining fans across the country and in 2015, its New World Gin won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition and was also honored by the American Craft Distilling Association in Austin, Texas. The facility is wheelchair accessible.
Oldest House. Though the Oldest House isn’t at one of the wheelchair-friendly stops, it’s worth it to pay attention to the narration here. The Gonzalez-Alvarez home was built in the mid-1600s and is the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial home in Florida. It is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Like the old fort, the Oldest House is also a popular stop for school trips. As the trolley rolls through the old town, visitors get an idea of what the city looked like way back when.
Castillo de San Marcos. Construction on the masonry fort began in 1672 and has a long history of protecting the coastline from its perch on Matanzas Bay. It is now a national monument and a favorite spot on the school field trip schedule. The parking lot and lower level of the fort are wheelchair accessible. On the lower level are the museum rooms, theater and bookstore. For history buffs, a tour of the fort is a must-do. The National Park Service website will help you plan your visit here. Be warned, the trolley tours end at 4:30 p.m. Make sure you know when the last pick up is … or plan on sleeping with the colonial ghosts!
Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum. Okay, so maybe it’s not authentic Old Florida, but Ripley’s is a certainly a fun spot to check out entertaining oddities. Elevators carry patrons to all three floors. There are more shrunken heads (detecting a theme?), plus funky chickens and other stranger-than-fiction exhibits in the 800-artifacts Odditorium.
For trolley riders who don’t want to hop off at all, the excursion should have you back at the Old Town Jail, Stop No. 1, in about 70 minutes. That’s a lot of sites and history packed into just more than an hour.