ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla -- WSBTV.com hits the road this week to discover ruthless pirates, amazing eats, fascinating wildlife, world championship golf and some of America's earliest history on a trip to St. Augustine, Fla.
St. Augustine's history stretches back to 1513 when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first landed in the New World. Any discussion of Ponce de Leon usually includes a discussion on the Fountain of Youth, too.
"Not one word about the Fountain of Youth was ever written by Don Juan Ponce de Leon," said the Fountain of Youth re-enactor Chad Light. "There's no evidence to suggest he knew anything about it. But, regardless of that, the mythology that has been built up around it is so ingrained with Ponce de Leon that when someone says Ponce de Leon, you think Fountain of Youth."
And today, visitors to St. Augustine can drink from a Fountain of Youth, but that's because Luella Day McConnell, known as "Diamond Lil," created the current Fountain in 1904.
Visitors to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park can take a sip from the world famous fountain, but there are other offerings at the park, too. The park is the site where Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived in the New World in 1565 and established the first continuously occupied European settlement in the country. There's evidence of Native Timucua Indians at the location for over 4,000 years.
"One thing that people are typically unprepared for is that there is more here than just a sip of water," Light said. "People will pay the admission to come into the park, take that drink, not knowing what they are going to see is the evidence of a very large, very ancient native habitation here, that they are going to see the field that contains the original settlement site of the Spanish, that the 15 acres here truly are one of the most beautiful spots in Florida, as far as our view and what we have to see."
Pirates played a role not only in the history of St. Augustine, but in the history of the entire region . Did pirates make traitors walk the plank? Did they bury their treasure? Uncover the true history about pirates at the Pirate and Treasure Museum in St. Augustine. The attraction features more than 800 authentic pirate artifacts from the Golden Age of Piracy. Included in the collection are the only authentic pirate treasure chest in the world and a used jolly roger pirate flag. There are only two such flags in the world. Learn about the two pirates that burned St. Augustine, too.
"We have weapons, swords, documents that were written by kings, the oldest wanted poster in the world, maps, broadsides (and) treasure chest," museum director Cindy Stavely said. "We have the only treasure chest left in the world that actually belonged to a real pirate, Thomas Tew."
Partly because of those pirate attacks, the Castillo de San Marcos was built. Completed in 1695, it defended Spain's claim to the New World and was never defeated in battle. Today, guests can explore 330 years of history and culture touring the castillo and witnessing historical weapons demonstrations and re-enactments.
From there, head over to Fort Mose. Fort Mose was the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what is now the United States.
"(Fort Mose) is not a story about slavery," James Bullock from Fort Mose said. "This is a story about freedom. And understanding this story is a very essential way to understand the America that follows a short time later."
In 1845, Florida became a state and another history book began. Visitors to St. Augustine will immediately see Henry Flagler's impact on the area. In the 1800s, he built the Ponce de Leon hotel. Today, it's Flagler College. Flagler built the Alcazar Hotel, too. Today, it's City Hall and Lightner Museum. Both are worthy of a carriage ride around to view the architecture.
Right next to both is the Casa Monica Hotel. It was built in 1888 and now offers visitors a four-star boutique hotel experience in the heart of historic St. Augustine.
"When you think about St. Augustine, you think about history," Casa Monica Hotel manager Anthony Lazzara said. "It's a large part of what this city is all about, being the oldest city in America and Casa Monica, being part of that history, was part of the late 1800s and being part of this hotel and being part of the community and part of history makes it a very neat place to be."
Present day St. Augustine celebrates the area's rich history and offers a variety of options to explore it.
For the foodie, there are food tours that take visitors off the beaten path to some of St. Augustine's top spots for dining. Tour guides share the hidden gems for delectable dishes and are quick to point out various points of historical interest.
"Most of the restaurants in St. Augustine are very small," City Walks tour guide Mia Bain told wsbtv.com. "They are very intimate, so you're not going to go into a huge restaurant. You're going to get that personal one-on-one with the person that is waiting on you. Sometimes even the chef comes out and serves your food. It just depends on where you are, but you'll get really good food here, great service and I would put it up against any big city."
For an adventurous outing, climb the 219 steps and enjoy the view from atop the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
"It's the ninth tallest along the Eastern seaboard, third tallest in Florida," Brenda Swann from the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum said. "It's 140 feet to the observation deck. We do have eight landings. This is one of the few lighthouses that was built with the idea of having tourists come and climb it."
The region features 42 miles of beaches and plenty of options to explore the coastal waters.
"Our most famous (kayak) trip downtown paddles under the historic bridge of lions from 1927, passed the Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort, and back into these beautiful salt marshes," Zach McKenna from St. Augustine Eco Tours said.
The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve offers visitors an educational experience while exploring North Florida's natural history.
"Depending on the season that you are here in the area, you can see North Atlantic right whales off our coast if you are lucky," Janet Zimmerman from the GTM Reserve said. "We have a bald eagles nest directly across from the center. From the time of December through early spring, (visitors) can watch a mating pair raise their young. And then, we have a plethora of wildlife that are out on the trails as well."
Golfers visiting the area can tee off at one of golf's most famous holes, the 17th hole with the island green at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, as well as some of Florida’s most challenging and scenic courses. The TPC Sawgrass offers visitors a tour of the facilities there where story tellers delve into the history of the famous course and its winners.
"If you want to come for a more relaxed experience I believe is how I'd put it," vacationer Bruce Kaffenberger said. "It's a more relaxed, more family-oriented (experience). If you like the beach, clean beach, surf, I think this is more the place for you. It's got good food, (you) feel safe here, plenty to do and if you don't want to do anything, there's plenty of that, too."
This story is sponsored by FloridasHistoricCoast.com.