This post is long overdue by a couple weeks, but Michael and I have been so busy this month that sitting down and writing this post kept getting pushed further and further down the list. So I promise to make this one worth the wait. Lots of good stuff in here! (At the very bottom of the post will be links to more info of all the stuff we did).
I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of my last post about our camping trip to the Florida Caverns State Park. Well, after driving 4 hours east we made our way into St Augustine for camping spot number 2. If you are unfamiliar with St Augustine, let me fill you in. It’s about an hour drive south from Jacksonville and has a small-town feel to it, despite being one of the oldest cities in the country!
A Brief History of St Augustine
From 1513 to 1559, the Spanish sent several major expeditions to Florida, but each one ended in complete failure. Remember Juan Ponce de León from Jr High History class? Well his colonization attempt was cut short by a Native American arrow that killed him. Hernando de Soto died of fever after three years of wandering around the southern states not accomplishing much. There were a few other Spanish settlements that were started but didn’t stick around for long. So King Philip II of Spain put the brakes on further efforts to colonize Florida. But he quickly changed his mind once he found out French Protestants had built Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville. Back then, Spain and France weren’t exactly buddy-buddy and King
Phil wasnt about to let those Frenchmen one-up him. So, the Spanish King sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 1565.
On September 8, 1565, Menéndez founded the city on the Atlantic coast of Florida, which he named St. Augustine in honor of the patron saint of his hometown. (Fun Fact: It is the oldest continually occupied settlement of European origin in the continental United States, which pre-dates Jamestown and Plymouth by a few decades). Within days of arriving he and 500 men easily overran the French Fort Caroline and butchered most of the Frenchmen there. A number of French boats had shipwrecked while chasing the Spanish flagship down the coast and even though the castaways surrendered without a fight, the Spanish tied them up and brutally stabbed them to death. A second group of French castaways were also killed two weeks later. Ever since, that site south of St. Augustine has been called Matanzas (Spanish for “Slaughters”) which is also the name of the river that runs through St Augustine. During all this “conquering” the Native Americans were always dealt the short end of the stick and many were killed or forced into slave labor. Britain has a small part in St Augustine’s history as they reigned supreme in North America in 1763, taking away Canada from the French and Florida from the Spanish in the Seven Years’ War. But by 1784 they were forced to return Florida to Spain as part of the same treaty that granted the American colonies their independence. The city of St Augustine was a refuge for British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. Residents of St Augustine even went as far as burning effigies of John Hancock and Samuel Adams in protest of the Declaration of Independence.
St. Augustine’s long history and varied cultural influences are clear in its streets, buildings, and the people who call it home. It has everything for outdoor enthusiasts, history nerds, artsy-fartsy artists, hipster hangouts, beach bums, food fanatics and the typical tourist. Seriously, St Augustine packs a punch for things to do an is high on our list of favorite places.
Camping at Anastasia State Park
Our camping spot was at Anastasia State Park located on the northern peninsula of Anastasia Island, which sits right across the bridge from historic downtown St Augustine. The State Park is huge and has tons of campsites for RV or tent camping, but as I always recommend, book months in advance! It was crazy busy the 4 days we were there but that was due to the fact it was right before the July 4th weekend. It really didn’t affect us too much because we were out exploring during the day, and I flew out a day early before our camping reservation ended to visit family in Ohio.
The tent campsites were spacious and sheltered, but thankfully we had a larger 12×12 tent to cover our tent because there was rain every day in the afternoon. It’s just something you learn to work around when living in Florida, so we usually have an umbrella with us at all times in the summer months. Anastasia State Park has tons of fun stuff to do for families or people without kids. You can rent bikes for the day, or head down to the watersports hut and rent a paddleboard, a kayak, or a Hobie (small 2-person sailboat). The beach was amazing! Sorry Clearwater Beach, you ain’t got nothing on the east coast beaches.
Our first full day there we decided to save a few bucks (and our sanity) and “urban hike” into historic St Augustine. It was only 4 miles from the park to where all the cool stuff was located, so we’re thinking “no big deal, we’re fit and healthy…piece of cake.” We set out before 9am and started walking. Well, in Florida it’s hot by 9am, especially with no breeze or shade. Then by lunch time it’s like the inside of an oven, which in turn results in some pretty intense afternoon thunderstorms. Typical Florida day. In total we probably ended up walking 11-12 miles by the time we made it back to our campsite. We were chased in by an ominous looking thunderstorm but it ended up being just rain. All in all it was a good day, and there was still a ton of stuff to go back and explore the next day.
St Augustine Lighthouse
The iconic St Augustine Lighthouse was on our way into town, so we stopped to check that out while it was still early. And yes, we climbed the 219 steps to the top! It was built in 1874 and is still a working lighthouse today. There is an admission fee of $12.95 to tour the inside of the lighthouse (totally worth it) but you can tour the Lighthouse Keeper’s house and the Maritime Museum free of charge if climbing the lighthouse is not your cup of tea. Sidenote: as with most places in St Augustine, because of the extensive history, there are multiple ghost tours you can take throughout, including the lighthouse. We did not take part in any of these tours for personal reasons, so we can’t give any feedback on those. But I promise you, there is much more to see and do during the daylight hours anyways!
We crossed the Bridge of Lions into historic St Augustine and spent the entire day exploring. We recommend visiting St Augustine at least for a couple days because it’s near impossible to see everything in one day. Lots of shops and restaurants, but also the architecture and little nuances of buildings that have been there for a few hundred years! Most of the shops are located on the city’s original brick-paved side streets. The oldest wooden school house is America is tucked away on one of these streets.
Castillo de San Marcos
The Castillo de San Marcos will take a couple hours to explore if you are planning a trip. If you get a opportunity to sit in on a “Ranger Talk” I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to learn some history. The Castillo de San Marcos is a National Park, while Anastasia is a State Park. The Castillo is the second fort that we have visited within the past year, and it was interesting to compare it structurally to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. While Fort Jefferson was built primarily out of brick, the Castillo is built out of coquina which is a softer limestone naturally by millions of shells of the tiny bivalve also known as coquina. What was really interesting was that when the fort experienced cannon fire during its many attacks, cannon balls would either bounce off or just create small holes that were easily repaired with more coquina. The Park Ranger compared the Castillo as being made of “styrofoam” while more traditional forts would “shatter like glass” when under attack, which has allowed the Castillo to remain intact to this day despite it’s battle-worn history. Plus, viewed from above the fort looks like a giant ninja star! We were told this had strategic purposes for being able to have cross-firing cannons, but I still think that the Spanish were just really into ninjas.
This trip to St Augustine was extra special because we were able to share a few days of it with family and friends. Those are the trips that we love the most, creating shared memories with the ones we love the most!
If you are looking for some more information about St Augustine or things to do, check out some of the links below. We highly recommend taking a coffee break at The Kookaburra. It’s an Australian-themed coffee shop with some of the best Aussie meat pies we have ever had.
Castillo de San Marcos (The Ninja Star Fort)