Peter and I are motoring in Mantanzas Bay in St. Augustine, Florida, with Captain Zach McKenna and his first mate and partner, Sara, on board Skimmer. We’re listening to a hydrophone, an underwater microphone, hoping to hear nearby Atlantic bottlenose dolphins communicating with each other beneath the water’s surface, using a whistle-like sound. The dolphins also make a clicking noise called echo-location to sense their surroundings.
But all we hear is the mating call of a male toadfish, a low burping sound, and nearby boat motors, which make a huge racket underwater. The constant boat activity in this busy waterway causes stress in the dolphins, Capt. Zach tells us. Who knew these beautiful sea creatures, frolicking, diving, and occasionally slapping their tails are susceptible to stress?
Educating visitors about the fragile marine environment is the primary purpose of Eco-Tours. “We use the five senses to engage the client,” Zach explains. “We’re trying to get people to see all the connections.” Besides dolphins, we view a variety of bird species on the water: snowy egret, blue heron, laughing gull, American oyster catcher, loon, great egret, cormorant, brown pelican, and wood stork. The tour is a perfect introduction to the city’s marine life, especially for nature lovers.
We’re in St. Augustine, part of a region known as Florida’s Historic Coast, for a three-day visit and excited to learn more about the city’s cozy charms. Strategically located at the mouth of the Mantazas River, St. Augustine was home to the Timucua Indians, who were sadly decimated by European diseases brought by Spanish explorers. Their arrival in 1565 means St. Augustine has the distinction of being our nation’s oldest city. Since then, its history has been marked by maritime battles and cannonball fire as the British, Spanish, and pirates tried to claim this valuable coastline as theirs. St. Augustine became part of the United States in 1821.
Today the brick-paved streets evoke a sense of Old Europe, and the city throngs with tourists. Whether you are seeking to immerse yourself in history or enjoy St. Augustine’s many attractions, mouth-watering restaurants, and sparkling beaches, you’ll find this northeastern Florida destination an ideal place to vacation, and it’s just a day’s drive down I-95.
Stay in an Historic B and B
Try Casa de Suenos and the St. Francis Inn
The city’s Old-World charm can best be enjoyed by lodging in one of its many B & B’s. Peter and I are staying in Casa de Sueños (House of Dreams), a circa 1904 Spanish-style home conveniently located a couple blocks from St. George Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare. Our room on the first floor, one of seven, is quiet and comfortable and even has a Jacuzzi. We love the intimate vibe, tasty breakfasts, and social hour every day from 5 to 6 p.m., where we meet other guests and pick up sightseeing tips.
While older children are welcome, Casa De Sueños’ sister property, the St. Francis Inn is more kid-friendly with a pool and nightly campfires, where families enjoy homemade s’mores. Owner/innkeeper Joe Finnegan shows me around the St. Francis, whose main building dates to 1791. With its antique furnishings and crooked stairways, the vibe is a bit like my grandmother’s attic. Joe says he’s heard that before. “If you come to the oldest city in the U.S., why not stay in a historic B & B, where you get a feeling for the history, the culture, and the lore?” Joe says.
Taking the Old Town Trolley Tour is another fun way to get an overview of St. Augustine and its attractions. The 80-minute narrated tour features 22 stops, and ticket holders can hop on and off at any of the stops. The hard part is choosing which sights to see as St. Augustine is brimming with cool museums, cultural attractions, and historic sites.
Learn About our Nation’s Beginnings at Castillo de Marco
Don’t Miss the Original Ripley’s Believe It or Not
Kids of all ages will love the kitschy, eerie collection at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, the first permanent Ripley’s museum and the only one Robert Ripley himself stepped foot in, having stayed in the property when it was a hotel.
Originally the winter home of William G. Warden, the imposing Moorish-inspired structure became a hotel in the 1940s and opened as a museum in 1950. Today its maze-like interior is home to a zany collection of oddities and artifacts. See a shrunken head, a replica of the world’s tallest man, and my favorite, the vertigo-inducing tunnel, which Peter had to skip because he really does have vertigo!
Another kid-pleasing attraction is the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, a journey back in time to the Golden Age of Pirates. Over 800 authentic artifacts include the world’s only real pirate treasure chest, plus treasure maps, swords and artillery, and interactive displays. My favorite is the auditory pirate experience, where guests enter a dark room and, using headphones, become immersed in an explosive battle scene. Imagination required!
Exploring Castillo de San Marcos is another fun family activity. Owned and operated by the National Park service, it’s the oldest masonry fort in the U.S., built by the Spanish to defend the city. Make sure you request the Junior Ranger Activity Book, which inspires kids to explore the fort’s history. Daily cannon and musket firing demos add a thrill to this historic experience. Don’t miss the living history tour at the nearby Colonial Quarter, another worthwhile attraction, which takes families on an immersive experience into the daily life of our first settlers.
Enjoy Downtime on St. Augustine Beach
Crocodilians Await at St. Augustine Alligator Farm
Take a break from history and head over the Bridge of Lions to Anastasia Island and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park and Rookery. Home of 24 species of crocodilians from around the world, including critically endangered species, the zoo participates in conservation efforts to ensure these species don’t become extinct. Favorite activities include Crocodile Crossing, a zip line/ropes course, and a Rainforest Sloth Encounter. Daily wildlife shows round out the fun!
Ready to relax? Check out nearby St. Augustine Beach, chosen by TripAdvisor as one of America’s Top 10 beaches, where the family can enjoy fun in the sun. Kids love the seaside splash park and playing in the waves. A short drive away, the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse offers stunning views of the beaches and bays. Explore the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, WWII exhibit, and boatbuilding displays.
You won’t go hungry in St. Augustine, known as a foodie’s paradise. Spanish, Caribbean, and West African influences ensure you’ll have a variety of flavorful choices. All along St. George’s Street, restaurants and bars lure visitors in with tantalizing offerings like donuts, ice cream, tacos, and Florida-style cuisine. On Anastasia Island, Salt Life Surf Shack and Grill specializes in seafood and has a kids’ menu with combo meals under $10. Mom and Dad can enjoy local shrimp, grouper, and tuna.
Take a Factory Tour at Whetstone Chocolates
Sample the Menendez Dark Chocolate with 72% Cocoa
Everyone’s favorite treat, hand-crafted chocolate, is on the menu at Whetstone Chocolates of St. Augustine. First take the Chocolate Tasting Tour and learn where chocolate comes from and how Whetstone’s process ensures even the dark chocolate has no trace of bitterness. Joe, our tour guide, tells us to use all our senses as we taste morsels of their delicious chocolate. “Listen to the snap,” he says and then explains that cocoa beans are like grapes. “They taste different depending on where they’re grown.”
The tour ends in the chocolate shop, where foil-wrapped seashells feature flavors like key lime, orange, and toffee crunch.
You can also buy brittle, fudge, bars, and bags of chocolate. I settle on a bag of Menendez Dark Chocolate with 72% cocoa—smooth, supple, not a bit bitter. The chocolate flavor lingers on my tongue as Peter and I leave the shop and prepare for our journey home. St. Augustine will leave a good taste in your mouth and, like Whetstone Chocolate, you’ll want to come back for more.
Visit www.FloridasHistoricCoast.com to plan your family adventure.