A City For Lovers
February 2020 Issue
Story and Photography by Elizabeth Skenes Millen
St. Augustine is for lovers. Lovers of history, architecture, art, food, nature, beaches and shopping. It is also romantic, truly perfect for lovers in every way. However, my trip to St. Augustine was a girls’ trip, and boy, did I have a full cultural experience and a lot of fun!
St. Augustine, Florida, is only three and a half hours down the coast, an easy drive, but a world away. I had spent time at the lovely beaches there before, but this trip was all about the cozy, historic town, where I felt like I had stepped back into an old-world, European village, complete with cobblestone streets, fabulous architecture and rich history, dating back to the 1500s.
St. Augustine is the oldest city in America and will celebrate its 455th anniversary this year. This city has managed to maintain its old-world charm and modernize at the same time, offering a balance of plenty to do, with the pull to retreat and spend time writing, reading, resting and strolling.
We stayed at the oldest inn in town, the historic St. Francis Inn, built in 1791 as a Spanish residence. Innkeepers Joe and Margaret Finnegan have a keen sense for blending history with comfort, hospitality and food—delicious food! Each morning we would gather in the parlor or dining room to enjoy a variety of coffees, along with a delicious, chef-prepared breakfast. This was also the gathering place for a wine and cheese in the late afternoon for a pre-dinner soiree.
The St. Francis Inn is the hub for two other properties also owned by the Finnegan’s. I stayed at their property just a couple blocks away called The 1894 House. Named for the year it was built, this adorable historical house, complete with balconies, porches and verandas, is perfect for a girls’ get-away or family vacation. It features a private upstairs, with two bedrooms, two baths, a full kitchen and a cozy living room. My friend Leigh Cort stayed downstairs, which had very similar amenities. The views off the back veranda were filled with neighbors’ gardens, and it was only one block from the waterfront. I walked over to St. Francis each morning for coffee, but more so, just to get out and walk the streets of the town in the beauty of the morning light—a real feel good experience.
When I travel, I pay close attention to how my surroundings make me feel and if I can meld into the culture. I was comfortable in this city. On my walks in town and along the waterfront each morning, I took in all the intricate visual delicacies along the way. Flowers, historic homes, unique shops, cafes and gardens all line the streets of this walking town. It was nice to see the city waking up.
Longing to take in the nature, we signed up to spend some time on the water exploring with St. Augustine Eco Tours. Our tour was a serene compilation of nature, history and the freedom being on the water always offers up. There’s nothing like a boat ride on a beautiful day and getting a whole different perspective of what makes the area tick. From the boat, we were able to see where historic battles broke out, entry ways and forts, and on the flip side, we also saw flocks of gorgeous roseate spoonbill birds, feeding on the marsh banks, all part of the delicate tidal eco system. Turns out, our Captain, Zach McKenna, who also is the owner of St. Augustine Eco Tours, grew up on Hilton Head Island, so we had a lot to talk about! His experience and passion for water made our time out fun and interesting.
As the person who scouts the art for the covers of Pink and Paisley, I visit art galleries every where I go, and St. Augustine did not disappoint. The town is rich in its cultural arts, including music and film, and I found a plethora of galleries repping local, national and international art. One of the highlights for me was ducking into Cutter & Cutter Gallery and discovering they had a sizable side room filled with the art of Salvador Dali. It was an unexpected art delight I won’t soon forget. I mention film because of the Corazon Cinema & Cafe, a historic theater that has undergone renovation by owner Karla Wagner, who has a passion for the movies. With the best popcorn in town, this independent full-service cinema was quirky, unique and served up lots of good vibes.
Speaking of good vibes, we meandered into Peace Pie, located on Aviles Street, the oldest street in America, one evening after dinner for an ice cream dessert like no other— the ice cream sandwich with a layer of pie filling. Peace Pie is the colorful creation of Maryrose LaCavera’s family that began Thanksgiving night 2010, over a delicious batch of pie filling and a forgotten pie crust. They now have three locations: Cape May, NJ, Charleston, SC, and St. Augustine.
Peace Pie was just one stop of many in our food-foray! We dined casual, fine and often. Our experiences ranged from Meehan’s Irish Pub, where the fish & chips are authentic and the Irish cream is homemade, to Raintree, a former Spanish Colonial Mansion (circa 1879) turned restaurant for a juicy, tender filet, cooked to perfection. One afternoon we had reservations with The Tasting Tours, where we loaded up in a golf-cart trolley driven by our culinary guide to five fabulous locations to wine, dine and unwind. We went to places we would have otherwise not known about that varied from an independent wine shop, to an eclectic mixology specialty bar, to a chocolate shop and bakery that filled every chocolate desire possible. (Let’s just say what happens on The Tasting Tour, stays on The Tasting Tour.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the scrumptious gourmet chicken salad plate I had at The Alcazar Cafe, where the dining room is literally situated in the space that used to be an indoor swimming pool—the world’s largest indoor pool at the turn of the 20th century.
History and Architecture
Flager College stands proud in the middle of town. With its extravagant history of being a former luxury hotel, Hotel Ponce de Leon, built by business magnate Henry Flagler for the wintering wealthy, a tour was in order. The detailed, ornate architecture, with no detail left to chance, was stunningly impressive. The large rotunda ballroom, which now serves as the dining hall for students, features 79 Louis Comfort Tiffany Stained Glass windows that stream light onto the beautiful hand-painted murals on the walls and ceiling. It was magical just imagining all of the pomp and circumstance that had taken place in that very room back in its heyday.
If you’re a fan of church architecture, St. Augustine is your city, and no denomination is slighted. The Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church is a Venetian Renaissance-styled church in the shape of a cross. It was constructed in memory of Henry Flagler’s daughter Jennie, who died giving birth. As with his other projects, Flagler spared no expense, incorporating hand-carved Santo Domino mahogany, detailed terra cotta frieze work by Italian artists, and a massive copper dome overhead. This magnificent structure rivals some of the great churches of Europe. In addition, Grace United Methodist Church was also built by Henry Flagler (circa 1887) using the same builders and architects as the Hotel Ponce De Leon. The church is built in the Spanish style and features breathtaking stained glass windows. The Cathedral Basilica, built in 1797, is a magnificent example of Spanish Colonial Renaissance with its towering spire, a symbol of the oldest Catholic parish in the United States. Trinity Episcopal Church, founded in 1821, is the oldest Protestant church in Florida. You’ll know it by its steeple, which rises above the Plaza and features must see stained glass windows.
I am already planning another trip to St. Augustine, and of course, the St. Francis Inn is now the only place I will stay. It has become one of my favorites. I felt very safe wandering the streets of this city that filled every sense a sister could want—eating, shopping, walking, water, beauty, safety, fancy, casual, fun, friendly and reflective. St. Augustine ignited my creative juices, and I went home feeling inspired. After four days of fun, frolic and friendship, I had a fresh perspective, and after all, that’s what a girls’ weekend is all about.
Make Your Reservations Today!
St. Francis Inn: www.stfrancisinn.com 1-800-824-6062
St. Augustine Eco Tours www.staugustineecotours.com 904-377-7245
The Tasting Tours www.thetastingtours.com 904-325-3911
Peace Pie: www.peacepieworld.com 904-295-8232