My husband and I had vacationed in St. Augustine, Florida, several years ago, pre-kids, but this summer was the first time we’d traveled with our daughters, as well as the first time they’ d seen the Atlantic Ocean. It was also the first time our youngest Miss A, who is four, had flown and only the second time Miss C, seven, had flown so it was quite an adventure for them. The Jacksonville International Airport is about a forty-five minute drive from St. Augustine and lucky for us it was an easy direct flight from Nashville.
We stayed at the beautiful Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village, centrally located between old town St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. One of the hotel amenities we really liked was the fact that a full breakfast buffet, which offered everything from bagels to a full omelette station and fresh fruit to Lucky Charms and my girls’ personal favorite chocolate chip muffins, is included with most of the hotel packages. There’s a small, but nice, hotel pool as well as a hot tub and the girls loved hunting for tiny lizards by the hotel playground.
The Renaissance, which recently underwent a $10 million renovation, is a fifteen-minute drive to St. Augustine’s quaint streets and magnificent sites, such as the impressive Castillo de san Marcos in St. Augustine, which my girls referred to excitedly as “the castle!” The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is part of the National Park Service and was begun in 1672 and completed by 1695. It’s the oldest masonry fort and best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial fortification in the continental United States. Many of the employees at the Castillo are dressed in period costume to just add to the historical charm.
St. Augustine has undeniable coastal charm, but it’s the charming Old World history that really makes it unique. One of the first things we did on our first full day stroll down St. George Street and browse all the unique shops, soaking in the sights and sounds. We enjoyed lunch at the Florida Cracker Cafe and after having some amazing conch fritters we spent the afternoon riding a sightseeing train. This ended up being an adventure in and of itself as we got caught in a thunderstorm. The beauty of being on the Florida coast, however, is that the storm was short-lived and made for a cool evening for walking through old town. After a quick trip back to our hotel for a change of dry clothes we headed to Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum. The girls loved all of the odd, fascinating, and downright head-spinning exhibits (you exit through a swirling hallway which gives the illusion of spinning.) Once our minds quit reeling from Ripley’s we walked down the sidewalk on A1A for dinner at A1A Aleworks, which has a great outdoor seating area which overlooks the St. John’s and A1A, that stretch of highway that hugs the Florida coast that Jimmy Buffett mentions in so many songs.
We are huge beach lovers so we made sure we spent several afternoons exploring local beaches. Anastasia State Park has a lovely beach. Island Joe’s at the park is a small convenience store that also sells drinks and snacks (we tried the incredible sweet potato fries with cinnamon sugar sprinkled on them for a healthier twist on french fries.) We saw dolphins in the distance, searched for shells, and dug in the sand. We also drove south of Ponte Vedra to beautiful Vilano Beach in Ponte Vedra, or the “golden beach” as we nicknamed it.
Although we’ re not big golfers, our girls truly enjoyed touring the World Golf Hall of Fame, especially the golf simulator at the end of the tour. We had to practically drag the seven-year-old from the simulator. There’s even an IMAX Theater on the property and we ate dinner one evening at the Murray Brothers (as in Bill) Caddyshack restaurant. I missed out on checking the PGA Tour Spa but that just gives me a reason to go back.
There were plenty of encounters with ocean life and other creatures on our trip. On several occasions we saw dolphins swimming in the Atlantic and on a walk out on Jacksonville Beach Pier we saw surfers dodging rays and a fisherman catch a “cuda” (as in barricuda.) We took a short drive down to Marineland, steeped in history since first opening in 1937. We experienced as a family our first time feeding and petting a dolphin. We also saw Nellie, the world’s oldest dolphin in human care, who celebrated her 56th birthday today earlier this year. We also spent an afternoon visiting the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, which as twenty-three species of crocodilian on display. The girls were thrilled to pet a python during an afternoon session and I even braved petting the snake. The Alligator Farm is set up like a traditional zoo and is beautifully landscaped, not to mention shady, so it’s a nice respite from the heat if you need to take a break from the beach or pool. We were also impressed that a film crew from the National Geographic cable TV station was on the grounds taping an upcoming special.
One of the more pleasant surprises of our trip came on the last full day when we decided to take a break from the heat and tour The Lightner Museum, in the heart of downtown St. Augustine. I questioned whether two little girls under the age of eight would enjoy a museum with Tiffany lamps, but there were plenty of things to hold their interest, not to mention my seven-year-old enjoyed completing the treasure hunt worksheet given to her as we entered the museum, which was once known as the Hotel Alcazar, built in 1837. The grounds and gardens are breathtaking.
Lunch on our departure day was at Aqua Grill in Ponte Vedra, a great spot popular with locals and with many celebrities in town for the TPC Sawgrass or the ATP Tour. It has a unique combination of a very casual sports bar atmosphere where kids are welcome at the bar but the menu features some of the best seafood around—elegant gourmet food with a laid-back vibe. Try the Aqua Grill Rockefeller as an appetizer. We took the scenic route back to Jacksonville International Airport, boarding the Jean Ribault ferry in Mayport for a slow and pleasant cruise across the St. John’s and then driving through Amelia Island, a low-key resort area with beautiful marsh land and untouched expanses along the intracoastal.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of St. Augustine Beach, so there are events planned throughout the year in celebration.
Originally published on JamieReeves
Photo courtesy of Jamie Reeves