TRAVEL: St. Augustine: The Oldest City in America revitalizes with fountain of youth and a shot of bourbon

The Lightner Museum is among the various sites to check out while visiting St. Augustine.
The Lightner Museum is among the various sites to check out while visiting St. Augustine. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VISITORS AND CONVENTION BUREAU
A view inside the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine.
A view inside the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VISITORS AND CONVENTION BUREAU

Florida and history are often viewed as mutually exclusive.

But it all started for America in St. Augustine. Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed in September of 1565 and established the first European settlement in the new world. St. Augustine doesn’t have the theme parks of Orlando or the nightlife of Miami but it has a storied past, outstanding restaurants and a plethora of outdoor activities.

It also has a tiny airport, which is just three miles out of town.

Avoiding the aggravation of a major airport, Jacksonville, is just 40 minutes from St. Augustine, was a huge plus. Only 25 minutes after touching down, we were checked into the charming Bayfront Marin House, (142 Avendida Menendez, 904-824-4301,www.bayfrontmarinhouse.com) which is reminiscent of Cape May’s historic and comfortable Congress Hall. The Marin offered a three-night stay as a courtesy allowing the opportunity to explore St. Augustine.

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My wife was impressed with the bed and breakfast’s spacious suite, which includes a jacuzzi and a roomy bathroom. The bayfront view from our room, a happy hour with complimentary appetizers (the curry chicken pastry puffs are delicious) and drinks (craft beer, champagne and sangria) and the ample breakfast (caprese eggs Benedict, country casseroles) made my stay.

The Marin Inn is just off the historic district of St. Augustine. It’s surprising but you need more than a week to experience all of St. Augustine. There are a number of museums. Our first stop was the Lightner Museum (75 King street, 904-824-2874,www.lightnermuseum.org).

“We’re here a few months early,” my wife said.

That’s a reference to the incredibly popular “Dressing Downton” exhibit, which is slated for a Oct. 4 through Jan. 7 run at the Lightner Museum. Tickets are going quickly for the exhibit, which has been selling out throughout the country.

The Lightner Museum is a perfect place for downton devotees to congregate since the structure, which was once the massive but elegant Hotel Alcazar, houses priceless antiquities, primarily from the Gilded Age. The hotel, which once housed the world’s largest swimming pool, was commissioned to appeal to wealthy tourists during the turn of the 20th century. The paintings, sculptures and the grand building are well worth experiencing.

There is lower brow fun to be had in St. Augustine. We couldn’t help but check out Potter’s Wax Museum, (31 Orange Street, 904-829-9056,www.potterswaxmuseum.com) which is the oldest wax museum in the country. Potters, which opened in 1947, houses the typical, athletes, such as Michael Jordan and politicians, such as Richard Nixon. But the attention to detail to over 300 wax figures, makes Potter unlike any wax museum we’ve experienced.

We stopped for a sip of the fountain of youth at Ponce de Leon’s Archaeological Park (11 Magnolia Park, 904-829-3168,www.fountainofyouthflorida.com) but we were looking for something more potent after checking out some of the most ancient history in the Sunshine State.

Microbreweries are taking off all over Florida but for those serious about imbibing should check out the St. Augustine Distillery (112 Riberia Street, 904-825-4962,www.staugustinedistillery.com). We were up for a unique bourbon experience. The Florida Cask Bourbon floored us. Not quite literally but it’s impressive. I’ve never had such a deep, flavorful bourbon. The Sunshine State’s heat makes for some distinctive whiskey. We took the free tour and were intoxicated by the aroma. It’s a perfect set up. After sampling some bourbon and gin, you’re hooked.

After enjoying the full bodied taste, we popped through the distillery door to the adjoining Ice Plant Bar (110 Riberia Street, 904-829-6553,www.iceplantbar.com) which is one of the finer restaurants in Florida on a par with Tampa’s Haven and Naples’ Ocean Prime.

We started with the aptly dubbed “Devils on Horseback,” which is delicious bacon wrapped dates and buttermilk blue cheese puree. The local fish was snapper and I decided to go pan seared and I have no regrets. It was covered in pistachios and seared with lemon and brown butter.

My wife was pleased with the braised beef short rib, with whipped anson pills polenta, grilled Vidalia, blue cheese gremolata and red wine jus. It’s tender and so tangy.

The plan was to save room for dessert. A massive slice of pecan pie did us in. We had to work it off and we did just that at the beach. There is so much to do in St. Augustine, that the beach, which is a mile bike ride from our inn, was actually tertiary.

The white sandy beaches are relaxing and the surf is up. We surfed by the St. Augustine pier. We swam and strolled until it was time to head back to the Marin House. It was a pleasant under-the-radar experience in St. Augustine, which is one of the most underheralded resort towns in the country.