St. AugustineWhen you and the kids are ready for a break from strip malls, Mickey and theme parks, drive 90 minutes north to quaint St. Augustine, Florida. 

Charm & History

Mention to your friends you are vacationing in Florida and they’ll most likely answer with, “Tell Mickey I said hi!” It’s hard to believe, but Florida offers much more than commercialized theme parks and strip malls. We discovered this over a short trip to the Palm Coast and St. Augustine. Located 90 minutes north of Orlando, the city makes an excellent day trip if you need a break from long lines and costumed characters.  After a 20 minute stroll through the center of town, it hit me…I hadn’t spotted one McDonald’s or Starbucks! That’s when the charm of the city took over. My husband Allan and 16 year old Sondra, thoroughly enjoyed the historical aspect of visiting America’s oldest city. Instead of seeing cobblestone streets stamped by modern-day machines, we walked on authentic brick-lined streets and touched cannons used in the late 1600’s. Best of all, the major downtown attractions are within easy walking distance. Instead of having to buckle kids into their car seats to get from one destination to another, St. Augustine lets you meander and explore the entire day on foot. When everyone needs a break from history, hop over to the beach where sandcastles and shell collecting will keep kids happy.

Show kids how good they have it in school by visiting the oldest wooden school house in the US. Built in 1763, it comes complete with dirt floor and crooked walls. We overheard children making comments such as, “It’s so small” and “Where’s the bathroom?” (Outside of course!) Mannequins dressed in pinafores and knickers add to the realism of school life many years ago. We could envision pig-tailed girls eating lunch underneath the trees in the courtyard.
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Walk a few steps on authentic cobblestone streets and you’ll be at the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum. This living history museum features working blacksmiths, carpenters, and leather workers. Costumed historical figures discuss the meals they are cooking or show other day-to-day activities from the 18th century. historicstaugustine.com.

Next stop is the unique Lightner Museum, housed in a former hotel. Families can enjoy the displays of costumes, mechanical musical instruments, chandeliers and toys. Children can touch three goblets to help them understand the difference between crystal and ordinary glass. Instead of being stuffy, the museum lets people wander and view the eclectic assortment of displays. Kids won’t get bored looking at rooms and rooms of paintings or Egyptian statues. There’s a new discovery in every room. lightnermuseum.org.

The authentic Fort Matanzas National Monument fort was built in 1740 to defend St. Augustine against British attack. Today, tours are given along with simulations of cannon balls being fired. It’s loud! The entire area surrounding the fort and moat are ideal for kids who want to run and explore. fortmatanzas.areaparks.com.

The historical living museum of Old St. Augustine Village is almost difficult to find because of the lush trees surrounding the entire city block. Nine historic homes let you see what life was like as far back as the 16th century. Best of all, there’s plenty of room for kids to skip and jump in the courtyards. old-staug-village.com.

Our family walked the mile or so to some outlying attractions, although the trolley is a fun way to explore. The 7 mile tour (8.3 km) is narrated with great facts if you play Trivial Pursuit! Simply jump off and on whenever you see a place you want to visit. trolleytours.com (Can be boarded at locations throughout historical district.)

From downtown, you’ll need to drive (or take a trolley/bus combination) to reach the site of Florida’s first lighthouse. You’ll be glad you did. Unless of course, you don’t like heights or walking up 219 steps to enjoy the view. It’s only equivalent to a 14 story building! The lighthouse also offers a museum and a garden with flowers and herbs grown by lighthouse keeper’s families in the late 1800’s. A nature trail offers another chance for children to get rid of excess energy, although parents will probably want to rest after climbing the lighthouse stairs! staugustinelighthouse.com.

We debated about visiting the Alligator Farm, Zoological Park, thinking it might be some weary looking reptiles in smudged glass cases. No tiny glass cases here! Instead, alligators lounge in large open air ponds and swamp-like areas. The farm is the only zoological park in the world where you can see all 23 species of crocodiles in one location. You’ll see them up close also! alligatorfarm.com.