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In Search of St. Augustine

Beyond the tourist trappings and sunny beaches, inquisitive travelers can find remnants of America's Spanish past

St. Augustine, for now, was free to fulfill its mission of warding off attacks on the royal treasure fleets. That is, when it wasn't combating fire, famine and pestilence. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake burned the place to charcoal. St. Augustine rebuilt. In 1668, English pirates destroyed it again. It was time, the Spaniards decided, to build a proper fort. They stockpiled Anastasia Island coquina on the St. Augustine waterfront and, in 1672, broke ground for the Castillo.

More than three centuries later, driving into St. Augustine, we negotiate the outlying jumble of car dealerships and condos, then thread the narrow streets of the historic district to the harbor. Abruptly, the Castillo looms on its grassy swath. A national monument, it is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and one of the best-preserved. It looks encrusted with time.

"Probably, it's the most hurricane-resistant building in Florida," Castillo superintendent Gordon Wilson told us when we visited him at the National Park Service offices. Over a door, someone had taped up a photocopy of Titian's portrait of Pedro Menéndez, his dark hair cropped, wearing a ruff and puffy sleeves. Hand-lettered on the picture, it said: "Pedro Has Left The Building."

History is the attraction

"We have about 600,000 or 700,000 visitors a year," Wilson told us as we walked around the Castillo's gray-white walls. He said the fort was never taken. In 1702, British forces from Carolina gave St. Augustine one of its periodic burnings, but all 1,500 residents crowded into the Castillo for 50 days, until a warship from Havana chased the British away. "Legend says cannonballs stuck in those soft coquina walls as if they were cheese, doing no damage," said Wilson. "Otherwise, right now we might be looking at condominiums."

Travelers have been visiting St. Augustine at least since 1827, when the 23-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson wintered here to cure his tuberculosis. But it was after the railroad's arrival in the 1880s that tourists began coming by the thousands, staying at the magnificent new hotels of oil and vacation mogul Henry Flagler, to sun on the white beaches, to fish, to play golf and tennis.

Even modern St. Augustine's premier attraction remains its long history. The old section is compact, and you can walk the lanes. In the 1790 Murat House, which Napoléon's nephew once rented, the museum director showed us a musket ball embedded in a wall. We asked who had fired it. He shrugged. When a town has been around for five centuries, some stories are lost.

One afternoon we drove north of town to Guana River State Park, 2,200 acres on a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Tolomato River section of the Intracoastal Waterway. What the early Spanish colonizers saw, we can see today at the park: hardwood hammock, shell mound, salt marsh, inland marsh, pine flatwoods, coastal strand, and beaches and dunes. These seven different types of habitat support a lot of wildlife, such as bobcats and threatened loggerhead sea turtles, which lay their eggs on the park's protected beaches, and more than 175 species of birds, including ospreys and bald eagles and threatened least terns. Somewhere in, or near, the park, although nobody knows where, the Spanish built a mission—La Natividad de Nuestra Señora de Tolomato.

Saved by the state

In fact, given America's love of the bulldozer, it is astonishing how much of Spanish St. Augustine remains. Bill Adams, the city's director of historic preservation and heritage tourism, said it's lucky that any of it is left. By 1959, the year the state of Florida began buying them, only 36 of the 300 buildings here in 1821 still stood. The city took over in 1997. All 36 buildings were saved.

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