Published on Thursday, January 26, 2017

A little slice of US history, with fairy lights

Graham McKenzie couldn't help but feel festive on an historical city tour of the oldest city in Florida, even though it was mid-January.


"Generally recognised as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America, St Augustine was founded by Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, some 450 years ago. Largely pedestrianised and partly cobbled, its pretty historic district is a maze of narrow streets, lined with Spanish colonial-style houses and charming little boutiques selling chocolates and souvenirs. Horse-drawn carriages clip by and trolley buses circle the tourist highlights, bells ringing at each stop. It's like nowhere else in Florida.

Oldest in the USA

The title of eldest inevitably comes with other awards, such as oldest street in America and oldest house in America, which are all walking distance from the historic centre. From Thanksgiving till the end of January, it's lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree as part of St Augustine's annual festival of nights of lights. I went in mid- January and, sure enough, the trolley tours put you in a festive mood almost immediately. It was a pity that another 11 months needed to elapse till we really could truly celebrate a 'Merry Christmas where everybody's having fun looking to the future when it's only just begun'.

The man himself, Henry Morrison Flagler

The modern day influence here is dominated by a chap called Henry Flagler. A businessman from the industrial north, partner of Rockefeller at Standard Oil and with quizillions of dollars, he is recognised as the father of the modern day tourism in Florida. He sparkled some of his stardust in St Augustine in the 1870s and 1880s before moving further south to Palm Beach, Miami, and the Keys. Here in America's oldest city not only did he finance the development of the rail connections form the north but also developed some outstanding hotel facilities. The Ponce de Leon Hotel, named after the Spaniard who landed close by at the start of the 16th century, was designed with no expense spared, literally. Flagler gave a blank cheque to the designers of the hotel to include everything that could possibly be included to make a world leading facility. Today tourists can tour and wonder at the glamour of the building, as it is now a fully-operational educational institute aptly named Flagler College. It is truly a wondrous sight and I urge you to go if you're in town.

Across the road from the Ponce de Leon, Flagler commissioned another hotel - but one for people who wanted short stays and perhaps had a more limited budget. In its way, the old Hotel Alcazar is equally as impressive, with fabulous gardens and intricate designs, plus the first indoor heated pool of its type. Today the hotel is a museum and the pool is a very impressive lunchtime rendezvous with fabulous soups and salads.

Graham was hosted by Historic Florida Coast and Visit Florida. He stayed at the Bayfront Marin House and drove a car supplied by Hertz UK

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