Wandering an old brick lane, I catch the lofty gong of church bells and the tinny ping of a lone steel drum player, luring me to a cantilevered balcony and a pitcher of sangria on a torrid summer night. But before I make it to the taverna, the spicy, seductive tang of incense entices me into a secret garden and the flicking votives of a mysterious shrine.
Am I back in Greece? Spain? The Caribbean? It’s actually a bit of them all in the surprisingly sensual city of St. Augustine, Florida.
Once the tourist trap where kitschy hordes went only to sip from Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, this town of 12,000—fiercely proud to be the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental U.S.—has plotted a whole new trajectory.
Sure, there are Cadillacs and condos, all the clichés of Florida, but there’s also full-sensory touring, from morning’s first sunray to evening’s last lullaby breeze.
Sniff out the gunpowder as you cross the drawbridge to the Castillo de San Marcos, designated a national monument in 1924. Ponce de Leon is credited with “discovering” St. Augustine in 1513, but the Spaniards came to colonize in 1565. They immediately fortified this beachhead, first with wooden palisades, then shifted to the local coquina stone for the Castillo’s construction from 1672-1695. It’s stood impregnable ever since.
Inside, reenactors fire off their muzzle-loaders, the smoke trailing that telltale fireworks aroma. The smell wafts over to the Colonial Spanish Quarter, a living history settlement along St. George Street. Behind stone walls, it’s the 1740s again, as tradesmen pound wrought iron and work leather; while in the apothecary shop, they grind mint and other herbs that families used against various maladies.
St. George Street is the pedestrian spine of St. Augustine, running from the lone remaining city gate to the town’s original Spanish plaza—almost a mini-version of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.
Like Las Ramblas, St. George Street is a jumble of authentic buildings, reproductions, and, yes, some of the tackier cogs of the tourism engine. Yet there are sublime moments, too, as when you follow your nose to the piquant incense of St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine. No matter how hot the day, the cool courtyard and the white plastered walls will drop your internal thermometer at least 10 degrees.
The shrine is an expression of gratitude from Greeks, who established their first religious community on the American mainland in Florida. After the Treaty of Paris (1763) ended the French and Indian War and forced Spain to cede Florida to the English, one Scotsman sniffed a fortune by building a cotton and indigo plantation in the newly Anglicized land. He swept up volunteers from Greece, Italy, and the Minorcan Islands of Spain, essentially enslaving them once they arrived in Florida.
The Greeks named their town New Smyrna and toiled for 10 years before marching north to St. Augustine after conflicts with a cruel overseer. Greek Orthodox worshippers have been lighting tapers and burning incense here ever since.
Minorcan and Greek families are the bedrock of St. Augustine society, and one of the tastiest places to dip into Greek culture is the Athena Restaurant. George Chryssaidis and his family fold a mean spinach-feta omelet and slice a juicy gyro. Every dish is made with Frixa olive oil, their family brand going back many generations.
Food, particularly seafood, is one of the central pleasures in St. Augustine. Into the 1970s, this was shrimp central, with dynasties of Greek, Italian, and Spanish families hauling in the nets. Local industry has faded, but nearly every self-respecting menu still features famous St. Augustine fried shrimp. Forced to pick a favorite, most people opt for O’Steen’s, the quintessential mom-and-pop place serving, some say, America’s best fried shrimp.
And to drink? In an old Spanish town, broiling in the sun, definitely sangria.
Just as it’s an unwritten law that you can’t leave town without a sip from Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, it’s practically mandatory to head out to St. Augustine’s No. 1 attraction, the Alligator Farm Zoological Park. There’s plenty of sensory overload here, too: smells, parrot calls, and the snapping of alligator jaws when you toss chow in their moats.
The farm has moved away from cheesy animal shows to a more educational format, where visitors can witness a petite alligator handler grabbing a bamboo stick and hopping over the wooden barrier for her morning “class.” She’s surrounded by basking alligators that seem to understand her quiet command: “Be good.” St. Augustine is good, in every way that matters.
For more travel tips, visit saturdayeveningpost.com/staugustine.