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The Most Wonderful Season of All to Visit St. Augustine
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost staff writer
Help a dolphin paint a picture; get a stair-climbing workout like no other; eat great seafood; take a walk in the woods; light up the night; and tour one of the oldest standing structures in North America.
These are just some of the experiences awaiting you in St. Augustine — one of America’s oldest cities– located on the northeast Florida coast. Beach, history, natural wonders, art, and lots of opportunities to eat and drink distinguish the First Coast from the rest of the Sunshine State.
Here’s just a small sampling of what you can see and do in a couple of days:
I stumbled into this venerated attraction without reservations on an afternoon when the staff was setting up for a wedding. Wandering around, I came upon a large open tank where several dolphins were making jaw-clapping noises on the surface. I stopped to snap a photo and one of them came right up to me and grinned into the camera. Then I got yelled at by a volunteer who said I was in a restricted area.
Whatever. If you make advance reservations, you can touch and feed the animals; swim with them; and hold a canvas over the water while the dolphin paints a picture– among other adventures. You can also check out the sea turtle and shark tanks holding clients from the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience headquartered right across the street.
I bet that wedding was a doozy.
Hungry after my impromptu dolphin encounter, I visited Blackfly, the Restaurant on St. Augustine Beach, operated by Vaughn Cochran and partners and renowned for delicious sushi and other seafood.
Cochran– an artist, former flats fishing guide, lodge operator and now owner of the top fly shop in nearby Jacksonville– has helped create the region’s only saltwater fly-fishing-themed eatery. Incorporating elements of prized recipes from the various lodges Cochran ran in the Caribbean and Central America, Blackfly specializes in local fish with creative touches.
I dined on local sheepshead in a tasty tomato-bacon beurre rouge sauce accompanied by mashed potatoes and bok choy. Yum. And even better, I got to go fly -fishing with Cochran and guide captain James Dumas the next day and we all caught and released redfish on the flats.
If you think your Stairmaster workout at the gym is tough, check out what the 19th century lighthouse keepers had to do to keep this beacon going and prevent ships from running aground: climbing 219 stairs carrying a 30-pound can of lard oil four times a day every day. Heck, I was winded walking to the top toting nothing heavier than my purse. But once there, you will be treated to panoramic views of the ocean and Old City.
If you don’t feel like making the climb, you can tour the lighthouse keeper’s home and boatbuilding shed, walk a nature trail, or take your kids to the shipyard-styled playground.
One of the oldest standing structures in North America, this Spanish fortress took 84 years to build, completed in 1756. It’s spectacular to see from both St. Augustine Inlet and the Old City, and equally breathtaking to tour.
The fort is built of more than 400,000 blocks of coquina stone– all cut and set entirely by hand– and it still looks a lot like it did in the 18th century. You get to explore cannons and watch towers, and visit the ancient rooms where soldiers slept, ate and stored their ammo.
Though the fort changed hands many times over several centuries, it never fell in battle. Rather its transfer from country to country was accomplished through treaties and peace agreements.
Now it’s a hugely popular historic site managed by the National Park Service.
Located on A-1-A about halfway between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, this 9,800-acre region of forest, fresh- and saltwater ponds, and marshes is a haven for the outdoors enthusiast.
Visitors can fish from shore or wade in the redfish- and flounder-rich waters of Lake Ponte Vedra, hunt ducks from November through January, and go paddling, hiking, biking and horseback riding.
I took a short hike on one of the miles of trails that loop through the area, enjoying the quiet and shade of an oak hammock.
This hunting/recreation area abuts the 2,400-acre Guana Tolomato Matanzas Estuarine Research Reserve, designated in 1999. Take time to visit the reserve’s Environmental Education Center located just before the entrance gate.
This truly is THE most wonderful time of the year to visit St. Augustine, especially after dark when the entire city– buildings, homes, parks, monuments, street lamps and vehicles– are strung with millions of tiny white lights to observe the holiday season. Named one of the top ten holiday lighting displays in the world by National Geographic, it stems from an old Spanish tradition of placing a single white candle in the window of each home. The light fest runs through Jan. 31.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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