Upon first glance at Florida’s northeastern coastline, you would just assume that this is an area of pleasant beach communities in a quiet suburb of Jacksonville. But dig beneath the surface and you’ll find that St. John’s County, better known as St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches, is rich with history of all kinds—from the foundation of America to the foundation of the PGA Tour and everything in between.
Many of the juiciest stories can be traced back to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. Ponce de Leon landed there in 1513 and claimed the land for Spain, naming it La Florida, Spanish for “land of flowers.” It is also home to the historic Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. The town reflects its Spanish roots in the circa-1600 Plaza de la Constitucion and in its churches and narrow streets filled with cafes, shops and attractions. One of the most inherently Spanish looking structures, the Castillo de San Marcos, wasn’t part of the original plan, but was built in 1672 as a response to the city’s first attack by Sir Francis Drake and his crew. The pirates attacked and burned the city in 1585 under orders from the British government. The structure was created to further protect the city, says Barbara Golden, communications manager for the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau, and she adds that Sir Francis Drake’s pirating days aren’t really mentioned in the history books. And today the brand-new St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum (where groups can “relive the Golden Age of Piracy” and host private functions) recently set up shop next door explicitly because of this history. Pirates and their escapades are such a big part of the local culture that many locals clad in seafaring garb play full-time pirates.
Spanish and pirates aside, the city has many other striking structures with their own stories like Flagler College, which was originally built as a hotel, and the 138-room Casa Monica Hotel. Awash in a white exterior and adorned in hand-stenciled Moorish accents within, the Casa Monica was built by Bostonian architect Franklin W. Smith and opened in 1888, adjacent to two of Henry Flagler’s hotels. However, rumor has it that Flagler, a wealthy businessman and proverbial patron saint of St. Augustine, didn’t like the competition and found ways to bankrupt Smith and buy his hotel so he would operate all of the hotels in the area. The Casa Monica operated as a hotel until 1932, and lay dormant until 1962 when it became the St. John’s County courthouse. Richard Kessler, of The Kessler Collection, bought the building in 1997 and restored it to its original Moorish grandeur. The hotel also commissioned art that told the story of historic St. Augustine figures including Diamond Lil’, a character who claimed to discover the Fountain of Youth and began selling water during the early 20th century, and Henry Flagler himself.
You can’t tell the history of this community without talking about local cuisine that has been influenced by immigrant populations of the past. One restaurant that reflects this story is Aunt Kate’s on the banks of the Tolomato River in St. Augustine. Although the black-and-white historic photos in the entrance set the tone, the restaurant just opened March 2009. The owner’s grandmother, whose family hailed from the island of Minorca off the coast of Spain, prepared food for locals in the area 150 years ago. One day she, referred to by the family as Aunt Kate, was asked to roast oysters for Henry Flagler and a group of his friends. His very generous payment for the meal is rumored to have contributed the funds for starting a food business, which has served food on this spot since then, but the former restaurant was rebuilt following a fire in 2001. Today Aunt Kate’s serves up Minorcan specialties, such as clam chowder and pilau, alongside local favorites like fried gator tail (which I tried and loved!) and warm, fresh johnny cakes.
And this story of Northeast Florida concludes with the historic Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, the first hotel to be built in Ponte Vedra. It started out as a beach club in 1935 and eventually grew into a 250-room, Five-Diamond resort and club and a sister property, the Lodge & Club. The resort has a whole room dedicated to the past displaying old photos contributed by past guests and members. But the real story lies in the staff, many of whom are third generation employees and what Andy Radovic, VP of sales and marketing, considers to be the resort’s No. 1 asset. Off the lobby, in a hallway the Inn has what they affectionately refers to as the Wall of Fame, with pictures of its staff members who have been working at the resort for at least 25 years—Radovic himself has been on property for 23 years.
There are so many more stories to be told here, so stay tuned for an upcoming post on the story of golf.
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