Our Travel Editor, Smitty
Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.
When you first see that hulking fort by the bay, the Castillo de San Marcos, you know this is no ordinary American town.
In St. Augustine's old section, you feel like you are in Europe. In fact, St. Augustine began as a projection of Spain's power into the New World, and it is unlike any other American town.
The city's population is only about 12,000, but every year some two-million additional visitors squeeze into the narrow streets. As we threaded our way through with our big SUV, the fact that these lanes were laid out in the 1500s, for horses and oxcarts, became clear. So we parked and walked. For one thing, the cozy streets bordered by old houses—sometimes really old—invite your feet. And the historic section, roughly from the city gate southward along the Matanzas Bay to St. Francis Street, is not vast.
We found what we believe is the best way to start a tour of St. Augustine: a gem of a little museum that the city operates in Government House on the plaza. Walking through, you pick up all sorts of tidbits, such as a 1514 directive from the Spanish king: "Settle the island of Florida. Treat the Indians as best you can and seek in every possible way that they be converted to our Holy Catholic Faith."
We learned that every 100-ton ship bound for America required at least 15 mariners and legally could take no more than 30 passengers. We learned that 20 or more ships might sail at a time for the New World, and that the authorized daily rations in the 1550s were one and one-half pounds of bread, two pints of water to drink, one pint of water for bathing, and two pints of wine. Here you get to see escudos (gold coins) and reales (silver coins) and golden toothpicks.
We found out how rough life was for the first colonists, beset by yellow fever (known as "the black vomit"), smallpox, plague, measles, and hurricanes. We also discovered that one week in April 1723, a priest conducted 11 funerals for young children. One epidemic began when mosquito larvae carrying yellow fever arrived in water casks from Havana, where one-third of the population had succumbed. There were other ways to die, according to the 1707 History of Florida Martyrs: "By 1597 in one of the provinces of this government there had died at the hands of pagan Indians and of some of the recently converted who had forsaken the faith, five missionaries and one lay brother. Another priest escaped with his life, but served them as a slave."
History is so dense in St. Augustine that we found it restful to escape a bit. We had lunch at Oscar's Old Florida Grill, a few miles north from the city. Oscar's is a waterfront shack, really funky. It is buried under live oaks slung with Spanish moss, next door to "Mike's Place—Beer-Bait-Ice" and a mobile home with kids' toys scattered on the lawn. You can view the restaurant's tin roof from both outside and inside. Your fellow diners might be beachcombers, leftover Confederate soldiers, possibly pirates. Oscar's fish and shellfish, at least when we were there, were ultra-fresh. We had the best fried shrimp at Oscar's we ever had anywhere.
After that, while driving back to St. Augustine, we stopped off at Guana River State Park. We'd heard that Ponce de Léon's first landing may have been here. Although when we mentioned that to archaeologist Kathy Deagan, back in St. Augustine, she looked amused and said: "Wouldn't it be neat to take a tour of all the places where Ponce is supposed to have landed?"
Our favorite place was Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south of St. Augustine, on Anastasia Island. It's a great spot to get away from all the tourists, many of whom don't find their way here. A boardwalk takes you through coastal hammocks and swampland, just as the Spanish would have seen when they first came here. Under a live oak we had a picnic. And we pictured Pedro Menéndez and his guys marching across the white beach in their armor, under the sizzling sun.
Richard & Joyce Wolkomir