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Correction to This Article
This article gave incorrect drive times to St. Augustine, Fla., from the region's airports. The city is about 40 minutes from Jacksonville International Airport and a little more than two hours from Orlando International Airport.

Desperately Seeking St. Augustine

To Get to the Heart of This Quirky Old City, You Just Have to Know Where to Look

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By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 2008; Page P01

Each year, when we visit my sisters in Palm Beach County, my husband, Gregory, and I take a side trip in search of our perfect version of Florida, on the off chance that we might someday retire. Someplace close to family, but not too close, if you know what I mean.

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Much of what we've seen is as weird as a Carl Hiaasen novel, which has its appeal. But a touch of the gothic (in atmosphere and maybe some Gothic revival architecture) is required, and that's the harder touch to find. Savannah in Florida, I'm thinking, or Key West (so far the closest thing to Our Vision) without the hundred-mile hurricane evacuations.

On paper, America's oldest city seemed perfect. Really old houses, a fantastically loopy history, plenty of palm trees and moss, the ocean just a couple of miles away, and yellow fever hasn't been a problem in the past century.

In fact, it's hard to get a handle on the place. It's as if each of its residents had once had a bright idea for the city's enhancement, had run with it and then lost interest, leaving some unrefined semblance of the original thought. But that's pretty much the history of the city.

St. Augustine has been Spanish, it's been English, it's been Confederate, it's been Union. It's been an asylum for consumptives, a playground for the rich and a get-land-rich-quick magnet for speculators. And all the grand schemes have been undermined by war, fire, water and pestilence. Oh, and pirates: That most famous pirate (um, privateer) of all, Sir Francis Drake, burned the place down in 1586.

Echoes of each influence remain in the architecture and the attractions, making the city enigmatic and, ultimately, fascinating.

Best seen on foot (though there are tour mobiles, trolleys and haunted hearses, should you prefer), the historic district is about the size of Georgetown. Setting out from our room at the St. Francis Inn, we weaved in and out of the narrow cobblestone streets, wandering past Spanish colonial and Victorian homes crowding the sidewalks, peeking at sleepy gardens behind elaborate iron gates.

Lured by the sight of water, we continued along Avenida Mendoza, the main drag along the harbor, to the original city gates and into the Colonial Spanish Quarter, where the cultural dissonance began.

Here, some of the city's oldest buildings, along with some re-creations, are open to visitors, including a living museum of woodworkers and candlemakers and a drugstore with a child-size coffin leaning against a wall. Most of the museum-type places were empty but for us. The bigger visitor draws were the T-shirt and tchotchke shops in every other building. Williamsburg meets the Ocean City boardwalk.

The scene made us . . . itchy, so we headed for the county beach on Anastasia Island, a quick drive away.

Beware confusing the beaches. While the state park has four miles of pristine sand, herons and nesting sea turtles, St. Augustine's hard-packed county beach is just the place for families that can't be parted from their SUVs. You're welcome to drive right up to the waves with your Pringles and surfboards. Watch out for sand castles if you need to back up when the tide comes in.

The next morning I'm scribbling notes at a table beside the dinky pool at the St. Francis, glaring at the rumbling air conditioner and other industrial apparatus alongside the building. This is so not the lush tropical setting artfully pictured on the Web site.


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