Why St. Augustine Is Florida's Best-Kept Secret

Aviles Street is the oldest street in the U.S.

We hear it time and again: Today’s travelers — especially but not exclusively Millennials — are seeking more in-destination activities and experiences. Regarding reasons for choosing a new vacation destination, MMGY Global’s 2018-19 Portrait of American Travelers cites “specific attractions or activities I want to experience” as the greatest determining factor. Number two is “I want to experience emerging, off-the-beaten-track destinations.” 

One place that could come into play here is St. Augustine. While it may seem odd to consider the oldest city in the U.S. (founded in 1565) a new or emerging destination, it can be considered off-the-beaten track in terms of typical Florida vacations that generally focus on beach resorts and theme parks. 

With its rich history and culture, St. Augustine certainly qualifies as an experiential destination. The Old City, as it is often called, has a storied collection of homes, museums, forts and the lush, green park at the Fountain of Youth. Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument, stands witness to more than 330 years of history and culture. St. Augustine’s maritime history is represented by Florida’s first lighthouse. It doubles as a museum, with exhibits in the keepers’ house about the Coast Guard in WWII, shipwrecks, and the lives of the keepers and their families. Visitors can also climb to the top of the 165-foot tower for breathtaking views. A stroll down Aviles Street, the oldest street in the U.S., leads visitors to the Spanish Military Hospital Museum, quaint sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and other charming sites.

For some contemporary fun, especially for families with kids in tow, there’s the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park and the one-of-a-kind exhibits at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. And there are beaches as well. St. Augustine Beach, for one, is home to the St. Johns County Pier, a playground, pavilion, fishing pier, volleyball courts, bait shops, restaurants, shopping and more. Crescent Beach is considered to be one of the most scenic, unspoiled beaches in Florida, while Butler Beach is dedicated to preserving a fragile dune system that is home to the native gopher tortoises.

All three beaches are on Anastasia Island, the north end of which is Anastasia State Park, a protected bird sanctuary that consists of 1,700 acres and five miles of sandy beaches as well as nature trails, a boat ramp, fishing, a volleyball court, beach equipment rentals (umbrellas, beach chairs, canoes), picnic areas with grills, concessions, a covered pavilion, gift shops, playgrounds, and camping. 

Those in town on the first Friday of each month can join in the First Friday Art Walk, when local art galleries open their doors and serve wine and snacks; local artists are often on hand to discuss their work.

The area also has a great variety of accommodations, including an abundance of bed-and-breakfasts, several of which are converted Victorian-style homes dating to the late 19th century. One such B&B is Bayfront Westcott House, where a variety of romance packages make it well-suited for couples. Families may appreciate that, from 6 to 7 p.m. every Monday and Wednesday, a professional storyteller hosts a social hour there, sharing St. Augustine stories.

For those who prefer the familiarity of a “name” hotel, a number of popular chains are represented. For your luxury clients, consider Casa Monica Resort & Spa, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Built in 1888 and restored in 1999, it is a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America.

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