Living in Central Florida all our lives, we are very familiar with the St. Augustine School Field Trip. As a student, myself, I was bussed to the oldest city in the U.S. as part of my eighth grade trip, circa 1962, to see the Cross and Sword, which later was designated as the official Florida state play. Years later when my children were in school, they each trekked to the old city with mom in tow as a chaperone. Just this past summer, my husband and I took our oldest grandsons for a tour of the Castillo de San Marcos and a glimpse into history.
Recently, however, we were given the opportunity to visit St. Augustine without children along for the ride, rediscovering a city full of culinary and cultural surprises. Our newfound experience of this historical town created a feeling of European ambience with narrow brick lanes leading to our lodging of choice, the St. Francis Inn, on St. George Street. Here we were welcomed to an inviting suite complete with complimentary sherry, to be sipped on the wrap-around porch in rocking chairs, surrounded by lush, native Florida landscaping. Our hosts, Joe and Margaret Finnegan, provided an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality, while enlightening us on the Inn’s historical past. After each day of exploring the city, we enjoyed a relaxing time in the courtyard with a selection of evening wines and desserts along with ghostly tales from our hosts.
The St. Francis Inn’s Gardeness, Jill Ziebell, schooled us in her techniques for preserving the grounds with natural Florida flowers and shrubs. As a Master Gardener and Master Naturalist, Jill exudes passion for her craft and calls her own design style “Artistic European with Historic Flavor.” She is a true earth mother and the St. Francis benefits from her expertise.
Our culinary experience in St. Augustine left us amazed at the diverse menus available and the passion of the chefs who deliciously hone their craft. Our gastronomic journey started at the Bistro de Leon on Cathedral Place, where we met Chef Jean-Stephane Poinard of Lyon, France. He states, “When you cook, you have to love people. My cuisine is like a symphony; I cook to the rhythms of music…” Chef Poinard welcomed us with tasty samplings of his creations and left us feeling loved.
Earlier this year, a new attraction took over the two acres on St. George Street which previously housed the Colonial Spanish Quarter. A multi-million dollar renovation created the Colonial Quarter which includes a unique experience of sixteenth through eighteenth century life in the Nation’s Oldest City. The endeavor is partnered with the University of Florida and provides an educational, historical and adventurous experience for all ages. The attention to historical accuracy is obvious, the hands-on encounters with the past are priceless, and you won’t see mouse ears or death defying roller coasters anywhere on site. We had an enjoyable time among actors portraying British and Spanish characters with enthusiasm and charm.
After our adventure we were treated to lunch at La Taberna del Caballo, on the Colonial Quarter property, providing a sampling of menu items from Cuban fingers to cheese fondue to flatbreads of all variety. Pair that with sangria worthy of a two hour nap and you get a fantastic meal prepared by Chef Murphy Leathers, who graced us with his presence. We waddled back to the St. Francis Inn where the aforementioned nap was in order.
Later that evening, we were hosted by Photographer Hookey Hamilton and her goldsmith husband, Joel Bagnal, on the balcony of their 211 year old home overlooking the harbor. Stories of their home’s history, ghostly events and their serendipitous meeting, made the cocktail hour a special time to get to know this lovely couple. Their home reflects the love and passion they have poured into their craft.
More food on the horizon when we walked to Meehan’s Irish Pub and were greeted with wine, whiskey and superb food. John Meehan’s passion for fresh ingredients made for a delightful menu of Grilled Lamb on a Stick, Steak ‘n Stout Stew in Pastry and Bangers & Mash, among others. The daily house-made Irish Cream was the kiss of the Blarney Stone. John’s secret recipe was the perfect ending to our little trip to Ireland.
Breakfast, the next morning, at the Hot Shot Bakery started with a chocolate dipped datil pepper, which this cowardly diner just couldn’t bring herself to try. I stuck with Sherry Stoppelbein’s Pumpkin Pecan Waffles with homemade Caramel Sauce and bananas which were delectable. However, Sherry’s Wall of Flame exhibits hundreds of photos of more adventurous diners who dared to take a bite. A Minorcan staple, St. Augustine is the leading producer of datil peppers in the U.S.
The rest of our day included a visit to “57 Treasury” with Karin Sufalko who created wonders with discarded palm fronds, turning them into works of art. Karin is from the Bavarian region of Germany and exudes the warmth and friendliness we encountered on our trip there last year. Her stories, told while creating a masterpiece floral arrangement, were as whimsical as her shoes.
More food was in store as we joined Tour St. Augustine for a lunch excursion which included the Old City House Inn & Restaurant’s presentation of cod on a bed of lemon grass mushroom risotto with pea puree and mango dash (my personal favorite of the trip); Athena Cafe’s flaming cheese and Minorcan clam chowder; and dining al fresco at The Gourmet Hut for a crabmeat salad with mango nectar and a blackberry platz crumb cake.
St. Augustine Vintage Car Tours gave us a ride back to the Inn on their electric-powered shuttles, where we were treated to a cooking class with Janice Leary who showed us her Strawberry Fruit Soup, Eggs in a Basket and Swan Cream Puff techniques. Janice runs a tight ship and manages to feed many appreciative guests each morning with an array of menu choices culminating each year in a Holiday pairing of desserts with the “12 Days of Christmas,” thus the Swan Cream Puffs for the Seven Swans-a-Swimming.
Not knowing how we could possibly have room for another meal, we later walked to O. C. (Outta Control) White’s for dinner overlooking the historic Bridge of Lions on the Matanzas River. Between courses we were entertained with ghostly tales, by an animated server, about the building which goes back to 1790. (There seems to be a ghost living in every inch of the city.) Live music, shrimp and grits with cool evening breezes…it doesn’t get any better.
A farewell brunch at the St. Francis, the next morning, surprised us with a visit by Henry Flagler himself, a dapper gentleman, worth millions, who put St. Augustine on the map in terms of becoming a winter destination for wealthy northerners. His stories transported us back to an earlier time when customs were quite different and men of his stature were the definition of genteel. Try as we might, we couldn’t get him to fall out of character. He was quite surprised to hear that there was a college named after him! (Flagler was portrayed by the actor John Stavely, the Colonial Quarter’s Director of Historic Programming.)
Our whirlwind visit certainly gave us a new perspective on the Oldest City and will be our destination of choice when we crave the flavors of Europe and the historical experiences of our country at its inception. Once you have chaperoned the mandatory school field trips, return for the grown up version of St. Augustine and you won’t be disappointed.