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Mr. Adventure Goes to St. Augustine

What does an adventurer do on vacation? Well, if you want that pirate vibe, you just have to try the blunderbuss.

Illustration by Gary Hovland

As many of you know, I am an avid history buff. Any chance I get to learn more about how we got into the mess we’re in makes me better able to place blame at someone else’s feet.

But I learned something during recent visit to St. Augustine that left me floored: Columbus, the charming Italian boy for which part of Ohio was named, did not discover America proper. Shocking, right? He only made it to the “Americas.” That’s a subtle, but very real, difference.

It seems the real person to discover this great land of ours was none other than Juan Ponce de León, patron saint to every plastic surgeon on the planet. He declaredit “La Florida,” which roughly translates from Spanish to “where grandma lives.”

Written accounts state that de León and his group first came ashore the morning of April 3, 1513. And it must be true because I was given a keychain/flashlight/key fob with de León’s picture on it commemorating the 500th anniversary of his becoming Florida’s first tourist.

Like most people, he was just visiting. But it should be noted he did return in 1521 in what we can only assume was an attempt to retire to the Estero area. He was greeted by a Calusa Indian arrow to his upper thigh. (Since he was a demure 4 feet 11 inches in height, de León’s upper thigh area was pretty close to all his important organs.) He fled to Cuba where he promptly died.

Fast-forward 400-plus-or-minus years and Walt Disney came in, killed all of the remaining Calusas and made it safe for the rest of us to wear mouse ears in public. At least that’s the story I heard on the street by someone dressed as a pirate. Like that scene in From Here to Eternity, America was conceived on those very beaches. Ah, history.

I had joined an elite group of famed travelers for a visit to Florida’s Historic Coast during the 500th anniversary celebrating the first cruise ship arriving in the Sunshine State. And to that end, we had no sooner dropped off our bags at the charming Casa Monica Hotel on St. Augustine’s Cordova Street when we all walked down to the city’s beautiful municipal marina for a cocktail party aboard El Galeon, a 175-foot replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon.

It had just arrived from Spain to begin a multi-year tour of the U.S. eastern seaboard. We were allowed to explore the entire ship and it was surprising to learn there was no refrigeration or working plumbing—just like modern Carnival cruise ships. And just as in the old country, sangria was plentiful.

It seems conquistadors know how to throw a (landing) party. Ha!

From there we walked back along the quiet and charming cobblestone streets to the 95 Cordova restaurant to dine with the Casa Monica Hotel manager, Anthony Lazzara, who was kind enough to explain the signature of Bill Clinton scribbled on the wall of the front desk area. It seems Lazzara plied our man Bill with some hard-to-find cigars and an invitation to come back with Hillary. An aide to the president apparently confided later that the chance of Hillary staying with cigar-loving Bill in a hotel named Monica was slim to none. That’s a shame because it’s a nice place. (Bret Michaels filmed an integral part of Rock of Love at the hotel, so there ya go.)

It seems that back in the day the entire area was a hotbed of pirate activity, and to prove it, former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce opened the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, which features a spectacular collection of real artifacts that once belonged to some of the world’s most notorious pirates and scofflaws (such as Captain Thomas Tew’s elaborate treasure chest and the journal of Captain Kidd’s final voyage). If you’re lucky, a pirate wench will give you a tour of the place and let you fire a blunderbuss. I did and I haven’t been the same since.

As part of the “Adventurer’s Tour,” we headed over to the Castillo de San Marcos (aka the big fort thing at the water’s edge with all the cannons) to see how locals defended themselves against the marauding pirates. The fort was built immediately after Capt. Robert Searles ransacked the city in 1668. (Sir Francis Drake completely destroyed the city 82 years earlier.) Today, the worst that could happen to you during a visit might be you get roped into visiting the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum (the world’s oldest!).

And while the city does have its share of tourist traps, there are some must-sees for visitors interested in exploring the city’s rich history. Flagler College encompasses the structures of Henry Flagler’s flagship Ponce de León Hotel, a magnificent tribute to life in the gilded age. Flagler also built the Hotel Alcazar, now home to the stunning Lightner Museum, which houses a collection of oddities you might not stumble across anywhere else (such as a desk belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Louis, and art made from cigar bands). It can fill a day if you let it.

But if you want to see everything all at once, head over to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, one of the most beautiful lighthouses you will ever see. After listening to Chuck Meide, the lighthouse archaeological director, discuss some of the work the museum does in locating previously unknown shipwrecks off the coast and after seeing actual cannons the team has recently pulled from the sea, you owe it to yourself to climb to the top of that striped devil. Two hundred and nineteen metal grate spiraling steps that leave you with a breathtaking view of everything the city and surrounding waterfront have to offer.

By the time I made it to the top of the lighthouse a storm had rolled in, and I was greeted by high winds and pelting rain. All things being equal, it’s better than an arrow to the thigh. That, my friends, is progress.

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