St Augustine Pit Stop

St Augustine Pit Stop

How can you drive by the city that claims to be the oldest city in the U.S. and not stop?  That's like driving past the Largest Ball of Twine and not taking the exit.  Sounds like a challenge to me! It had been my goal for many years to make a pit stop in St. Augustine, FL and finally the palm trees and blue skies aligned on a sunny January day.

Photo courtesy of Visit St. Augustine
Photo courtesy of Visit St. Augustine

Inevitably most of us who live in the Southeast will make a trip to Orlando FL for all the entertainment it offers.  For many of us that means driving. There. And Back.  It can be a LONG trip.

On a recent return from Orlando, I decided to break up the drive and make a pit stop in St. Augustine.  My wife and I had discussed it, briefly, before she dozed off so it wasn’t too big of a surprise when she found me making a last second exit off of I-95.  We knew we wanted to be back home to the SC Upstate before our all-important 10pm bedtime so we kept this visit short, allotting no more than two hours to “see what we can”.

It’s not just a simple exit from the interstate, make a right turn, and you’re in St. Augustine.  You still have to drive for quite some time to get to the city itself.  Without any plans (except what could be made from doing a quick Google search on our phone) we came to a ‘T’ intersection.  Intuition said ‘go left’; we did, and she was right.  It’s nice to have a navigator who can read a two-inch square screen.

Photo courtesy of Visit St. Augustine
Photo courtesy of Visit St. Augustine

If we saw a street that looked interesting, we took it.  (This kind of travel is not for the obsessive-compulsive types, but can lead to treasures nonetheless; try it sometime.)  It helps if someone in the car has a good sense of direction so you can somewhat keep track of the general direction to get back on a main thoroughfare.  I’ve honed that skill from years of refusing to ask for directions.  The first noteworthy sighting we had this day was the campus of Flagler College, a small, private residential college.

I immediately felt like I could have just as well been in sunny California with the Spanish architecture and red tile roofs. It’s easy to imagine yourself walking to class or just soaking up the sun on the lush green lawn.  One of the main buildings on campus started out as a hotel/resort built in 1888. We crept through the campus (in our car) and hopped out for a few pictures here and there.  Sounds kind of suspicious in today's world, but I think we had 'tourist' written all over us in our Mickey Mouse t-shirts.

Located across from the campus is the Memorial Presbyterian Church (pictured) which was worth violating a No Parking Zone to get pictures.  (It helps your cause to leave the car running with someone in it.)  The present sanctuary was dedicated in 1890 and they do offer tours.

Memorial Presbyterian Church
Memorial Presbyterian Church

We assumed there had to be a historic district. Duh.  (St. Augustine was founded by Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in September 1565 and is considered the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States.) So we started driving again.  A Google map and street signs led us past historic homes and more beautiful churches.  Again, Spanish architecture.  We debated taking a chauffeured tour that was offered from the Grace United Methodist Church (pictured and constructed in 1887) parking lot, but declined so we could keep the pit stop on our time schedule.

Grace United Methodist Church
Photo courtesy of Visit St Augustine
Photo courtesy of Visit St Augustine

Side note: Both of these mentioned churches were built by the generosity of Mr. Henry Flagler, who evidently did quite well by his association with John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil company!

Castillo de San Marcos courtesy of Pixabay and Visit St. Augustine
Castillo de San Marcos courtesy of Pixabay and Visit St. Augustine

We did a drive-by of several attractions including the oldest masonry-constructed fort in the U.S., Castillo de San Marcos and numerous homes built in the early 1800s.  We stopped at the Mission of Nombre de Dios (free parking) and stretched our legs.  There is a Mission Museum as well as rustic altar and huge cross on the grounds but beware that hurricane damage has restricted access to some of it.

We went in search of the Fountain of Youth while we were in the city, but our gray hairs will attest that we were unsuccessful.  Alas, we did happen upon Fort Mose which was the site of the first free African-American settlement in the U.S.  The moss-draped oak trees provided a wonderful relaxing moment.  Other attractions could include the Oldest Wooden School House, Oldest House Museum, Oldest Catholic Parish, etc.  You get the picture.  Since the settlement began in 1565 there are going to be a LOT of “oldest” to visit, right?

StA_Cross
StA_Oaks

Eventually our time was running short, so we found our way to Hwy 1 and headed North toward the interstate.

If you go, obviously try to do a little homework of what you want to see and decide how much time you can allow.  One excellent source would be the super friendly and helpful people at Visit St. Augustine.

But there is something to be said for spontaneity and just seeing where a pattern of two right turns, one left can get you!  Don't be afraid to take a chance. Happy wanderings!

Dave is a native Texan but has lived with his family in South Carolina since 1998, both in the Low Country and now the Upstate.  He grew up receiving photo compliments like “that must be a good camera you have” which is like telling a writer “that’s a good pen you have”.  Lately he realizes it’s as much what you see and feel on the journey as it is what you capture.  He caught the Instagram bug a couple years ago and loves to shoot images mostly using his iPhone. He recently founded instagram/@Discover_Carolinas on Instagram to highlight the beauty found across NC and SC using the work of amateur and professional photographers.

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