America's Longest Stretch of History in St. Augustine, Florida — Page 2
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

St. Augustine distillery bourbon

It's an atmospheric distillery, with big copper pot stills and rows of wooden barrels used to age rum and bourbon. Although less than five years old, they already produce 75,000 gallons a year of gin, rum, bourbon, and vodka made from Florida sugar cane. The bourbon is not aged as long as it is in Kentucky distilleries, with the heat being the convenient excuse, but it's interesting enough for sipping even at two to four years. The rum is the real winner in our tastings though and is especially tasty in the rum tiki cocktail we get to sample in the tasting room with full bar.

A Tycoon Brings the Tourists

My daughter's high school in Tampa was named after Henry B. Plant, who brought the railroad down to Orlando and Tampa Bay. The other railroad Henry—Flagler—was doing the same on the other coast. The rail line he brought to St. Augustine eventually went all the way down to Key West, through a pitiful little town now known as Miami.

It's hard for us to imagine now that there was once almost no tourism in Florida, that people couldn't get there from the north except by boat and there was no decent place to stay if they did make it that far. Henry Flagler solved both problems: he kept extending the railroad to these warm places, then built hotels grand enough to please rich vacationers from the north. Many of those northerners were business owning men of leisure with their families. When they checked into the Ponce de Leon Hotel, they paid for the entire winter season in advance, in cash, and then spent months lounging around in the Florida sun instead of freezing in New York or Philadelphia. It was just what the doctor ordered. In today's dollars, they were bringing down the equivalent of $100,000 for this original "all-inclusive" stay.

former Ponce de Leon Hotel Florida

The hotel was an ambitious project, headed by a young architect that would later go on to design the New York Public Library. The walls were made from poured concrete-a radical building method at the time-but that enabled them to finish it in just 18 months, in 1888. The Ponce de Leon had electricity three years before the White House and its two 8,000-gallon water cisterns ensured that guests would all have plenty of water at all times. The 79 Tiffany stained glass windows remain the largest collection in use anywhere and there's a clock in the world's largest piece of white onyx.

Henry Flagler College dining hall St. Augustine

The hotel building has housed Flagler College since 1963, with what is perhaps the finest student dining hall in the country—with Tiffany stained glass, Austrian crystal chandeliers, and intricate original murals. I had never heard of the college, despite its hefty annual tuition, so I looked it up online to see what I could find. The famous alumni list includes a part-time NASCAR racer, a former Playboy Playmate of the Month, and a pro player in the Philippine Basketball Association.

The St. Augustine Lightner Museum

Back in the late 1800s, Flagler soon discovered that his guests were running out of things to do, plus not everyone could afford to pay in advance and stay for three or four months at a stretch. So he killed two snowbirds with one stone by building the slightly more modest Alcazar Hotel across the street, filling it with facilities that guests of both properties could use. There were Turkish and Russian baths, tennis courts, an entertainment stage, a bowling lawn, and a giant indoor swimming pool that may have been the biggest in the country at the time.

One of the best places to visit in St. Augustine - Lightner Museum

The building now houses the Lightner Museum, named after avid collector Otto Lightner from Chicago, who purchased the hotel in 1948, after it had fallen on hard times. Lightner didn't specialize in any one thing, often buying whole collections from people who wanted to unload everything during the Great Depression. So the museum covers a wide range of interesting, beautiful, and sometimes just odd items grouped together by theme. After checking out a collection of music boxes big and small and listening to some of them play, we moved on to stained glass, porcelain, hats, war medals, cigar cutters, typewriters, smoking pipes, cigar boxes, salt and pepper shakers, furniture, and even shrunken heads.

City of St. Augustine FL view

We walk across the Lion's Bridge to our Marker 8 Hotel and get one last view of the city across the water. We spend the afternoon checking out the local lighthouse and going for a walk in the sand on Ponte Vedra beach before driving back through Saint Augustine itself to head inland. The city is buzzing with tourists, seemingly half with ice cream in hand on this hot Florida day. The outdoor cafes are full and the fort is swarming with tourists as we drive by it the last time. I see a man with a walker making his way toward the entrance as his wife, who looks at least 80, holds his arm and his pace. The Fountain of Youth may still be no more than a legend, but the visitors and residents are living much longer than they did in the 1600s. St. Augustine is a much more welcoming place in the 21st century, the only pirates being the ones dressed up to pose for photos.

Fountain of Youth Saint AugustineIf You Go
To make visiting plans, head to the official Florida's Historic Coast website. Follow these links for info on touring Flagler College, the Lightner Museum, Whetstone Chocolates, the Fountain of Youth Park, and the distillery.

Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer and the author of five travel books, including A Better Life for Half the Priceand Travel Writing 2.0. He has run the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003.

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Blowing Through the Lower Florida Keys - Tim Leffel
Unmarked History in New York City - Chris Epting
In Canada's Forgotten First Capital of Kingston - Tim Leffel
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