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The Voice of the Black Community

Life and Religion

The lure of St. Augustine: Beaches, beauty and black heritage
Explore the charm of North America's oldest city
 
Published Wednesday, March 5, 2014
by Michaela L. Duckett

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Known for its rich heritage, stunning architecture and breathtaking beaches, St. Augustine is truly a one-of-a-kind destination that combines natural beauty and a touch of opulence with old-world ambiance and Southern charm.

Discovered in 1513 and settled in 1565, St. Augustine is North America’s oldest city and considered to be the birthplace of African Americans.

According to its oldest written records, the Cathedral Parish Archives, the first black child was born here in 1606. Yet, most of us were taught that blacks first arrived over a decade later on the shores of Jamestown as slaves in 1619. In fact, the first Africans in America arrived not as slaves but as conquistadors and soldiers sailing with Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez - the Spanish explorers credited with settling Florida.

By all accounts, St. Augustine is a city of firsts. It was the first permanent European settlement; the site of the first Christian mass in the Americas; site of the first hospital; the first tavern; and an early leader in city planning with the first European town plan.

So why not start your visit off with a trip to another first – Fort Mose Historical State Park, the nation’s first free black settlement?

Under Spanish rule, Fort Mose served as a sanctuary for runaway slaves. Many from the Carolinas traveled 377 miles through snakes, tracking dogs, alligators, bounty hunters and wilderness to seek refuge here.

At Fort Mose, black people were granted freedom with the condition that they agreed to convert to Catholicism and committed to one year of service in the Spanish militia.

Today much of the 49-acre park is undeveloped and covered by marsh. The site has been converted into a historic state park and visitor center memorializing those who fled American colonies on a journey to freedom.

People travel from all over to revel in Fort Mose’s tranquil beauty. As part of Florida's birding trail, the natural preserve is a prime spot for bird watching and quiet reflection. Looking out from the 700-foot boardwalk, you might encounter Pileated Woodpeckers, Marsh Wren, Clapper Rail, Northern Harrier, Common Yellowthroat and the occasional Hooded Merganser. Catching a glimpse of a Bald Eagle or Roseate Spoonbill is rare but an added bonus.

Perhaps it’s the depth of its history or its astounding beauty that leaves many people feeling a spiritual connection to the land.

Stay and explore

When it’s time to check in, there is a broad selection of lodging choices in the area. Options include everything from Five Diamond AAA-rated resorts to quaint bed and breakfasts, condominium rentals, waterfront homes and boutique hotels.

A great home base for exploring St. Augustine is At Journey’s End Bed and Breakfast, where innkeepers John Gallagher and Time Millbern have earned a reputation for going the extra mile to live up to their motto that you may arrive as a guest, but will leave as a friend.

A stay at this 1800s Victorian home includes waking each day to a delicious hot breakfast. The staff arrives early in the morning to brew the coffee and prepare meals like omelets, berry breakfast bread and hash browns served with juice and fresh fruit. And you never know who you might meet at the breakfast table.

In the afternoon when you return from the day’s events, you’ll be greeted with snacks and cordials. Plus, guests are treated to complimentary soda, wine and beer for the duration of their visit. Each suite at the inn has a private bathroom. Private porches and verandas are also available.

Attractions within walking distance include the Castillo de San Marcos (the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States where there are daily demonstrations of military life, including musket and cannon firings); the Lightner Museum (Florida’s Smithsonian complete with an extensive collection of Tiffany glass, natural history and science exhibits and antiques); and Flagler College (formerly the Hotel Ponce de Leon – a luxurious resort built in 1887, where rooms, in today’s dollars, cost $2,000 a night); and the Colonial Quarter (a 2-acre living-history museum recreating St. Augustine’s storied past from the 16th century).

At Journeys End is also just a few cobblestones away from restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques located near St. Augustine’s scenic bay front.

When it’s time to explore the city, get your bearings with a guided tour. You will find there are tours on just about anything you can imagine from ghosts and graveyards to architectural design and food.

The St. Augustine Black Heritage Tour is a walking tour focused on the city’s black history and the pivotal role residents played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Walk through the Victorian homes in the Historic Lincolnville District, which was established in 1866 by former slaves and given the moniker “Little Africa.”

Another option is AdLib Luxury Tours & Transportation Inc. The company creates unique customized tours for groups and families based on personal interests and needs.

You can also hop aboard one of the trolley tours, which circle the city every 20 minutes allowing visitors to get off and on at various attractions. Buy a multi-day pass, and you don’t have to worry much about driving during the rest of your stay.

Have dinner fit for royalty at 95 Cordova Restaurant, located in the luxurious Casa Monica Hotel – a Kessler Collection property with a lavish lobby, featuring dazzling frescoes and tiled fountains with gold leafing and other exotic details.

A trip to St. Augustine would not be complete without visiting its famous Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, featuring 15 acres of lush, natural waterfront where peacocks roam freely and you can experience a Timucuan village on the actual site of Seloy – a 4,000-year old Native American settlement. Drink from Ponce de Leon’s legendary spring or take a walk along the new 600-foot long Founders Observation Platform to check out the panoramic Bay and Inlet views. You might see a dolphin.

If time permits, take a detour and travel about 60 miles north of St. Augustine to visit the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island and learn the story of Anta Madgigine Jai, a Senegalese princess who was sold into slavery and rose to become a property owner with a sizeable plantation and slaves.

To plan a trip or for more information on any of the above destinations, visit floridashistoriccoast.com

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