Castillo Girls2 copyWhen it came to planning our precious vacation time, the thought of spending it touring air-chilled museums that sap your vitamin D was not at the top of my list (and frankly, a learning focused trip wasn’t the kids first choice, either). A luxury hotel, well crafted meals and some beach time sounded better to me; the just kids wanted something fun to do. 
But swashbucklers, conquistadors AND civil rights history, all in one place? It’s all part of the constantly evolving history of St. Augustine, Florida.

In St. Augustine, we immersed in living history by day and ended our days with a refreshing swim, fabulous food, live music, and finally, a comfortable hotel room for a good night’s rest. 

THe Public Market copySt. Augustine’s Public Market, which anchors the Plaza de la ConstitucionAfter checking into the Hilton Bayfront St. Augustine, a quaint but luxurious hotel built in the Spanish Colonial style, we settled in for dinner at Aviles, the hotel’s restaurant.Aviles features a broad menu of local flavors, traditional American dishes and Spanish-influenced items, and a broad and well chosen selection of wines by the glass. On the night we ate there, the restaurant had a design-your-own-pasta bar, which the kids loved. 

The Hilton Bayfront has embraced its many places in the town’s history, and from its architecture to its restaurant to the plaques that can be found around the property, it is a hands-on history lesson of St. Augustine’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement. More about that here.

After dinner we jumped into living history with a Ghost Tour hosted by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Now, believe it or not, Ripley’s has an authentic role in not only St. Augustine history, but also in many of the ghostly stories that are told. Ripley’s first museum was in St. Augustine, housed in a castle built by Standard Oil partner William G. Warden, which  later became a luxury hotel owned by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Yearling. Rawlings owned the hotel in the 1940’s and hosted many of her literary friends from New York, but sold it shortly after a devastating fire killed two guests in 1944. That fire, however–you guessed it–spawned many of the ghost stories that are told during the Ripley’s tour, which took us through town to a grave yard, the Castillo de San Marcos, and through the Ripley’s museum. The full story of the Ghost tour, as well as the St. Augustine Lighthouse Dark of The Moon Tour, which was featured on SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old, is here

Wax Museum copyRubbing shoulders with history at Potter’s Wax MuseumThe next day, after a wonderful breakfast at the The Gourmet Hut, which features outdoor seating in an Oak and Spanish moss-draped garden, we toured the Oldest House, a continually occupied homestead on the West side of the historic district whose ownership began in the 1600’s and ended with the advent of the automobile; the tour highlights all the incarnations the compound endured and demonstrates how people lived one era to the next. We also took a tour through Potter’s Wax Museum, a local family-owned wax museum that is smaller than many other wax museums, but big on local and national history: from Ponce de Leon who discovered St. Augustine to the Chief Osceola of the Seminole Indians who presided over the region, to British Royalty, American founding fathers, inventors, writers and artists, the exhibits put history into a familiar context (and teaches a little bit, too). Admission tickets ($8) are good for all day, so go early and come back and enjoy the air conditioning when the day gets hot. Another cool tour is of the Whetstone Chocolate Factory. The family owned candy company has been a St. Augustine treasure for decades, and it’s yummy products are sold worldwide. The tour is full of interesting information and more importantly, samples!

One of the highlights of St. Augustine is the Pirate & Treasure Museum. Built by Pat Croce, an entrepreneur, former president of the Philadelphia 76ers and author of  a number of books on pirates including the best seller The Pirate Handbook, the museum captures Croce’s passion as an avid collector of pirate memorabilia. Much of his collection, including treasures, an original Jolly Roger and pirate tools and weapons are on display in this galleon-themed space of authentic feeling decks and galleys. Guests can take an tour of pirate life through interactive kiosks designed by Disney Imagineers, shoot authentic feeling– and loud–digital cannons, or take a seat in the brig, where salty swashbucklers tell stories of pirate murder and plunder. 

Milltop GirlsLunch at the Milltop restaurant; the Castillo de San Marcos is across the street That the museum is across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos is quite a convenience: At the Castillo, a national monument, the oldest masonry fort in the US and probably St. Augustine’s most visible site, antique cannons are fired at several daily ceremonies, and the Castillo’s storied history is on display and retold by re-enactors. The Castillo served as a battle stronghold for the Spanish (in the 1670’s), the British used it as their Floridian capital (1780’s) and it served as a Confederate Army base, a US Army base and a jail for American Indians. If you visit the Castillo during the heat of the day, the Pirate Museum is the ideal place to cool off
and keep the swashbuckling theme going.

After a tour of the Castillo and the Pirate Museum, a craft brew and some local boiled shrimp is ideal. We climbed the steps to the Milltop Tavern, next door to the museum, and sat under oak branches dripping with Spanish moss where we were fanned by ceiling fans and serenaded by folk singer playing guitar. Despite the heat of the day, the outdoor rooftop was the perfect spot to cool down, and quite beautiful; it’s always on our must-visit list.

Hoisting the sailHoisting the sail of the Schooner FreedomTo keep the pirate theme going, we took a day sail on the tall ship Schooner Freedom. A 72’ sailing schooner with two masts and five sails, our voyage was led by Captain John and his crewmen Andrew and Jimmy. During the Freedom’s two daily sailings, guests are invited to sit back, relax and have a soda, beer, wine or bottled water–or to pitch in and help raise the sails if you’re up for it–while the crew harnesses the power of the wind and navigates the boat through the Bridge of Lions drawbridge and out to sea. The two hour cruise was a relaxing and picturesque way to see St. Augustine, and it was nice to feel the wind in our hair and breathe the fresh salt air.  

After a few days of seeing the sights, it was time to get our adventure on: We fed the dolphins at Marineland, toured the intracoastal by kayak with Ripple Effect Eco Tours and took a zipline tour over the alligator pits at the Alligator Farm. Follow our links for the full story!

Disclosure: Many of the activities listed here were provided by the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, but the opinions are genuine and all mine.