Why St. Augustine Is a Way Cooler Family Destination Than You Thought

Feb 15, 2019

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St. Augustine, Florida, is known for its history. However, most kids equate “historical” with “boring.” I’m happy to report that the sites in St. Augustine are anything but boring. In fact, it’s a cooler family destination that most probably think. From stomping around a 300-year-old fort to taking in a Victorian-era scavenger hunt, America’s oldest city charms at every age.

The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. (Photo via Shutterstock)
The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Castillo de San Marcos: Fort Fun

What’s cooler than a castle? How about one that is also a fort? The Castillo de San Marcos was used for both housing and protection by Spanish colonials. The oldest stone fortress in the United States dates from the 17th century, but its appeal is timeless.

The Junior Ranger Guide, put out by the National Park Service, takes kids through the castillo via the eyes of children living in the colonial era. Kids earn a badge by completing the puzzles and other challenges in the booklet. There’s even a Spanish lesson in the guide.

Flagler College: Where Florida Became Florida

Most know St. Augustine for the Fountain of Youth and for the Spanish colonial cathedral and old town. While that part of town certainly deserves a visit, its Gilded Age history is also appealing. I visited three turn-of-the-century historical sites that were remarkably kid-friendly.

Florida wouldn’t be Florida without Henry Flagler, and it all started in St. Augustine. Flagler brought the railroad to St. Augustine, and railroad customers needed somewhere to stay. Flagler satisfied that need with the Ponce de Leon Hotel, a Spanish Renaissance marvel. The hotel now serves as the hallmark building of Flagler College.

You can take a tour of the college, but the courtyard is a surprising experience. Imagine, at the top of the hour, church bells clanged the tune to “Michelle” by the Beatles! The bells’ selections range from the Fab Four to “Star Wars.” The Flagler College bells perform hourly and are not to be missed. I would forget to tell the kids about the bells and see if they figure it out.

Flagler College's iconic entryway. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Flagler College’s iconic entryway. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Villa Zorayda: Alhambra Speakeasy?

Henry Flagler gets the credit for bringing tourism to Florida, and with good reason. However, Franklin Smith, the mind behind the Villa Zorayda (83 King Street), deserves a place in history as well. Smith, a wealthy Bostonian, built the Alhambra-in-miniature in 1883 as a winter getaway.

Flagler, a friend of Smith’s, observed the Moorish influence and replicated the style in his own Ponce de Leon Hotel across the street. The two then inspired other Spanish Renaissance buildings, furthering Flagler’s wish to make St. Augustine a tourism capital.

Imagine “Boardwalk Empire” dropped onto Seville, Spain, and you’ve got an idea of Villa Zorayda. I find that historic replicas say more about the replicator than the history, and Villa Zorayda is no exception. Smith was a fan of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra,” which romanticized the Moors, and named the mansion after one of the characters in the novel.

The Villa Zorayda Museum. (Photo via Shutterstock)
The Villa Zorayda Museum. (Photo via Shutterstock)

I can’t imagine what the original inhabitants of the Alhambra would have thought of this homage, which played fast and loose with their interpretation. For one, the color palate of Tiffany box blue, Pepto Bismol pink, and royal blue would have been out of place in southern Spain.

And then there’s the uses to which the Villa Zorayda was put. In 1904 it was converted into a private club that featured gambling, dancing and flouting the law during prohibition. There’s even a roulette wheel among a dazzling display of 18th- and 19th-century Arabian artifacts and other oddities.

It’s best to arrive at Villa Zorayda at opening because all-day parking is included with museum admission. Most kids’ reaction to a museum visit is an eye-roll, but Villa Zorayda is so over the top that even the most jaded tweens should be enchanted.

The Lightner Museum: Tiffany and Turkish Baths

If you’re a fan of marble statuary, stained glass cherubs or are a hotel geek, the Lightner Museum (75 King Street) will feel like your dream house.

Another Flagler Spanish Renaissance revival marvel, the Lightner Museum was originally christened The Alcazar Hotel (yes, after the Alcazar in Seville, Spain) in 1888. The hotel was state of the art, featuring the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, Turkish baths and a bowling alley. The baths, which the museum kept in original condition, are fascinating. They even have a period swimming costume.

Be sure to request the scavenger hunt for the kids at the information booth. The museum brings a Victorian shopping court to life, and families search through the “shops” to complete the hunt.

The Lightner Museum. (Photo via Shutterstock)
The Lightner Museum (Photo via Shutterstock)

There’s more to the Lightner Museum than artifacts, however. Tucked into the back of the Lightner Museum, Cafe Alcazar occupies space formerly held by the Alcazar Hotel’s swimming pool. A live pianist lures visitors inside, where a surprising menu that contains a Greek influence defies museum cafe cuisine expectations. The cafe is owned by a Greek family who bring their ancestors’ recipes to the table. Enjoy a golden avgolemono soup, with striking color due to a lemon–egg broth. I had never tried the Greek specialty before and now will seek it out.

Where to Stay in St. Augustine

The best place in St. Augustine to keep up with the Spanish Colonial vibe is the Casa Monica Hotel, part of Marriott’s Autograph collection. The Casa Monica shines both due to its location next to the Lightner and its history. Dating from 1888, the hotel is a stellar example of old Florida. The Casa Monica is a Category 6 Marriott, which puts it at 50,000 points per night. This also puts it in range for an annual up to 50k night certificate from the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card.

The Casa Monica Hotel. (Photo via Shutterstock)
The Casa Monica Hotel (Photo via Shutterstock)

And if the cool history side of things gets to be too much, a dip in the pool will hopefully chill everyone out.

Image courtesy of the Casa Monica

Hilton Honors is also well represented in St. Augustine, with three properties in the historic area. Some of Hilton’s properties may be better suited for families due to both the room rates and the number of rooms with two queen beds. Of the three, I would choose DoubleTree as it gets good reviews and the rates were consistently lower than the Hilton and equal to the Hampton Inn. Here are some ways to bulk up your Hilton Honors account balance.

Getting to St. Augustine

St. Augustine is about halfway between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville, but Jacksonville (JAX) is probably your best bet for good airfares. Jacksonville is even a Southwest destination, just in case you’ve got a new Companion Pass burning a hole in your pocket. Another alternative, depending on the season, is to use a one-way car rental deal from the Northeast. You might also save money by flying into Orlando (MCO) and making the roughly two-hour drive.

Bottom Line

Many sites that appeal to history buffs will not pass the tween eye-roll test. St. Augustine threads the needle between kid-friendly and intellectually stimulating quite nicely and turned out to be a much cooler destination for families than you might think. Oh, and did I mention there’s a pristine beach right down the road? My long weekend there wasn’t nearly long enough, and I suspect you’ll think the same when you visit.

Taking a trip to Florida soon? Here are some other places your family may enjoy…

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