I’ve left my heart in many places. It’s the traveler in me.
Among those places is St. Augustine. It’s the kind of town where people use the word “beach cowgirl” and it’s actually endearing. There is a nostalgia in its essence that can be felt from its locals. It is in fact the oldest European established settlement and port in the US, and perhaps it’s this foundation that asserts the feeling of another epoch. At its core, St. Augustine is a mixture of older European influences layered into an antique American base. The merged product of these two diverse cultural infrastructures and years of time passing is a modern-day travel haven; its spirit part Key West, FL and somewhere in Spain. The mix doesn’t seem feasible until you see it.
My boyfriend and I made the trip to St. Augustine on the most appropriate of weekends, the fourth of July. A friend of ours generously let us stay at his family’s compound, quite the authentic way to experience this holiday in particular. Miami, culturally speaking, is a city that may as well be annexed from the rest of the US. Needless to say, it’s not the best place to spend the fourth. Most of my holiday celebrations have involved cheap beer, ripped jeans and country music. It’s the one day a year we get “Amurkan” and it’s all in exaggeratedly good fun. This, however, would be my first blue blooded fourth of July. As a writer, I’m always up for experiencing the world from a different lens, so I was all in.
Our first stop was of course, the compound. This cluster of connected beach cabins was as charming as the “Welcome to Coquina cottage” sign we found on our respective quarters. The long wooden porch leading up to the white cabin was surrounded by lush plants and scattered shells forming delicate but deliberate tropical oyster gardens. The look was reminiscent of Old Florida, the cottage-like homes that once filled this state many moons ago; its remnants can be seen sprinkled in South Florida down to the keys and a few select locations in Northern Florida. Inside our cabin was warm and creaky and had all the antique trimmings we expected, like old beach bottles and shells. Once we put our bags down, it was time to explore the compound. As we passed the 4 connected cabins, including our own, we walked right through the tennis court located at its center. This led to the compound’s apex, two large vintage-styled wooden homes connected by a breezeway facing a glorious pool and Vilano Beach.
This is where we spent a bulk of our visit. There are plenty of activities around St. Augustine to keep you entertained, but it is a beach town so this was a sizeable amount of the trip. After relaxing for an entire day by the pool, leisurely drinking cocktails and slipping in and out of sleep, I realized I had not fully relaxed in years. I have had spurts of relaxation followed by activity, but I hadn’t sat still for an entire day staring at Mother nature and taking cat naps. I appreciated the reacquaintance. That is until I began to notice a weariness. Towards late afternoon I didn’t know quite what to do with myself. I became aware of my inclination to reach for my phone; an act of futility as there was no service on the compound, a forced blessing.
Bringing it back to the moment, I let go of the desire to be productive, something many of us deal with due to our over-stimulated culture. A place as remote as St. Augustine is good for this. It allows us to remind ourselves what real disconnect is. Its clean, shelly beaches are quiet and nothing can be heard for miles except families laughing and occasionally a few dogs barking. We showered and got dressed to walk the 10 feet back to the pool area. It was time to see fireworks. St. Augustine does an annual show that can be observed from practically anywhere in the small town. The show was spectacular. In that moment we paused from the rooftop, only the popping from a distance and the wind to be heard. I leaned my head on my boyfriend’s chest and noticed I could also hear his heart beat. I never noticed how loud it was! The gentle thumps made me realize how we can so easily miss the fact that we’re alive every second. If we don’t make the conscious effort to notice, our daily routine will rob us of things like the beauty of our heartbeat constantly working to keep us alive.
Once the fireworks’ finale lit the sky and echoed like a bad ass drum solo, we sat for a bit until the Florida mosquitoes showed us who was boss. Heading back to our lovely cabin, we fell asleep early. Well, our group did, I couldn’t help but lay in bed anxious that we should be out somewhere doing something. Resisting the urge, I closed my eyelids and welcomed sleep, something I know my body had been lacking. In a matter of minutes the feeling was forgotten and I slipped into a deep sleep.
Our day 2 was for exploring. You really don’t need more than that unless it’s your first time. We went to downtown St. Augustine relatively early to walk around the eclectic little island shops. This is one of the best things you can do if you like strolling and exploring locally-crafted goodies. It’s a romantic little town as well, offering plenty of activities to enjoy with your plus 1. We decided to split off from our friends and spend some time together. One of our favorite stops was Columbia Restaurant, a charming Spanish restaurant with a wraparound balcony perfect for catching the breeze, chatting and people watching. Here we had its most recommended pitcher of sangria, and I have to say, it did not disappoint our Spaniard tastebuds. The bustle of the crowd and street performers could be observed from this spot. A spectacular bird’s eye view and although we didn’t try it, the food smelled delicious. All in all a must stop if you like yourself some fine sangria. We also visited several other small bars around the same area and the locals were overly friendly. The enthusiastic travel-embracing culture can be felt at every spot. At Barley Republic, the bartender went as far as making us special Oyster shooters with a beer-based mixer. Oyster shooters, let alone specially made, were not offered. This is a testament to the local friendliness and openness to passers through.
Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort that was built port side in the 17th century, is its most notable attraction. Another must stop. Architecturally, St. Augustine is a time capsule of this early settlement era. Tours are available inside the fort, although we passed on this activity and opted instead to walk around and take photos enjoying the rays and breathtaking views of the ocean and early century construction. It’s easy to imagine what it may have been like all those years ago.
As evening fell upon us, we headed back ready for a night out. Our friends took us to local lounge The Ice Plant, and this was by far the most surprising part of our trip. Outside, The Ice Plant is a warehouse with grass surrounding it for miles. Inside, it is a chic bar with industrial designs you’d expect in metropolitan areas like Miami or NY. The music was modern and loungy and the crowd was a young adult mix, mid-twenties to early-thirties. I couldn’t help but wonder where all these people came from and how this speakeasy of sorts existed in such a remote beach town. It could have been the moscow mules, but I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she discovered the Mad Hatter’s layer. Needless to say, we spent the night dancing, catching up and ordering specialty cocktails served in copper glasses, glass jars and other creative cups. Highly recommend stopping by for a drink or two.
We again returned to our cabin and hit the sack rather early, but this time I welcomed it. The next morning I felt ready to come home feeling like we accomplished everything a weekend getaway should. St. Augustine, in all its American charm and coquettish European tones, was the perfect 2 day travel destination. One of my favorite parts of traveling is that moment when you’ve gathered your things, you may be a little sleepy and quiet on your flight or car ride home, and you reflect on the trip. It could be the writer in me, but I love contemplating. I brought back some real awareness from this trip, and some not-to-so constructive silly fun. An ideal balance.
St. Augustine, my heart is with you, you’ll forgive my fuzzy memory, but it’s scattered somewhere between the The Ice Plant and Coquina cottage.
Have you been to St. Augustine? Have any other local spots we should add? Let us know in the comment box below!