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History, Pirates, Ghosts & More

April 28, 2008
By PHYLLIS R. SIGAL Design Editor

Just pack your bags and all your belongings — lock, stock and barrel — right now, because it'll save you time later.

Later, as in after you’ve visited the quaint city of St. Augustine, Fla.

There is something about the town, a certain affection that wells up inside, as you enter the heart of St. Augustine. It swallows you up, and you want to be a part of it. And before you know it, you’re searching for real estate and a job.

   At the very least, you are planning a return trip before you’ve ever left.

What is it exactly? There is so much — the history, the shopping, the bed and breakfast inns, the full moon, the bay and its yachts, the ghost tales or maybe, it’s the truly welcoming people.

These welcoming folks were just like you and me, a few years ago — travelers in search of a holiday who never turned back. They remember the magnetism, the force that drew them to their new lives.


     - Michael Hyatt, owner of Collage, a restaurant: Michael wanted the water, the beach, and he loved to fish. It was friends who convinced him to visit St. Augustine. “Within 24 hours we were looking for a place to live,” he said. They loved the history. “Here it’s like Santa Fe with water.”

    - Jay Humphreys: Jay is the communications director for the city’s visitors and convention bureau. .... Growing up in Charleston, W.Va., (he and his wife are both West Virginia University graduates), he spent around 30 years in public affairs and speech writing, 15 years in the Washington, D.C., area.

“We decided we couldn’t take the commute anymore. We agreed we wanted to live in Mayberry, with Andy,” Jay recalled. “We tried to get jobs in South Carolina, then I got a job at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, 80 miles east of here. That was a great place to be, but as soon as we saw St. Augustine and its beaches, we knew this is where we really wanted to spend the rest of our lives. In fact, my wife and I bought a house here on the beach before we had jobs,” he said. “We got a great deal on a house ....” And, now he’s been with the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau for nearly 10 years.

Article Photos

Statues of Ponce de Leon are numerous in St. Augustine. He is credited with
discovering Florida in 1513, which he named “La Florida,” The Flower.

Photos by Phyllis R. Sigal

   - Katy and Kal Kalieta, innkeepers: “It all started 35 years ago,” noted Katy. It was her first stay at a bed and breakfast inn, in Olean, N.Y. “I fell in love with the entire idea.”

  But it happens ... you know it’s the right time to do something different, at the same time an opportunity opens up, Katy said.

“That happened 12 years ago,” she said. “We were visiting. I fell in love with St. Augustine. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the place to do it.”

- Then there are Clark and Pam Wulenwebber who both work at the Colonial Spanish Quarter, the city’s only Living History Museum. They travel to the Ohio Valley twice each year — once for the Fort Henry Days Festival and once for the “True Wetzelians” reunion.

They are planning to retire in our area. “There comes a time in your life when you realize you look better in a turtleneck than a swim suit,” Pam said.


I was in St. Augustine for about three days and didn’t stop the entire time, except for about one hour by the pool at the Hilton.

There are so many attractions in the oldest city in the United States, most of which are steeped in its history.

I suggest taking one of the two trolley tours, which takes visitors to practically every important site in the town. You can hop off and visit, then get back on the next one that comes along. A guide gives a great presentation while you are riding.

Most of the town is very walkable, but some of the sites are a distance, which makes the trolley a good bet.

- Flagler College: The name Flagler is evident throughout the city. An industrialist, railroad pioneer and oil magnate, Henry M. Flagler built two hotels in St. Augustine, the Hotel Ponce de Leon, which is now Flagler College, and the Alcazar. He also purchased a third hotel, the Cordova,  from a competitor

Flagler commissioned architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings to design the two hotels; the two young architects later designed the New York Public Library and the U.S. Senate office building.

When the Hotel Ponce de Leon was built in  1885, it was the first large structure of its kind in the country. Louis Tiffany provided the glass windows and the chandeliers.The dining hall of the college boasts the world’s largest collection of Tiffany windows in use, valued at $30 million.

Hand-laid imported tile can be seen throughout the building. It was the first building in Florida to be wired for electricity.

Flagler wanted it to the be like the best hotels in New York City, with running water and electric lights. When it opened in 1888, tourists flocked to St. Augustine to see the place.

Flagler died in 1913. The hotel closed in 1967, and the small, private college opened in 1968, the vision of one of Flagler’s heirs. The four-year liberal arts college ranks among the top for value. About 2,300 students attend.

- The Lightner Museum: The former Hotel Alcazar, the Spanish Renaissance-style building houses a myriad of objects — paintings, glass objects, Tiffany lamps and windows, pieces of furniture and much more. Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner purchased the building to house his extensive collection of Victoriana in 1946 and opened the museum two years later. He gave the museum to the city of St. Augustine. 

- Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archeology Park: Ponce de Leon’s name is about as common in St. Augustine as Flagler’s. Juan Ponce in 1513 discovered what he thought was an island on April 3 of that year. He named it “La Florida” — The Flower.

In 1513 when Ponce de Leon landed there, the average lifespan was 35 years and the average height of a man was 4 feet 5 inches. He was greeted by Chief Oriba, who was 7 feet and 1 inch tall and weighed 300 pounds. Ponce de Leon thought it had to do with the water.

In 1904, stones in the form of a cross were discovered; 15 stones from east to west, and 13 stones from north to south, which many believe were placed there by Ponce de Leon to indicate the year 1513, when he set foot there. Also found was a silver salt cellar sealed with beeswax. Inside was a parchment that claimed, “I claim this land for the King of Spain,” and it was signed by Ponce de Leon.

The salt cellar is believed to have been a gift to Ponce de Leon from Columbus in commemoration of their 1493 voyage across the Atlantic together. A reproduction of the salt cellar is on display.

The spring house, which was built to protect the original spring, can be visited where guests can drink a cup of the unique water.

The Discovery Globe offers an eight-minute presentation that details journeys of early explorers with the help of a two-story globe and black light.

You can also visit a planetarium, a shipwreck exhibit, Indian burial ground and historic archaeological excavations.

-Castillo de San Marcos National Monument: “You have entered one of the most extraordinary places in the United States incorporating over 335 years of America’s history culture,” explains a brochure detailing the site.

Construction of the fort began in 1672; it “has served six different flags, survived hurricanes and withstood bombardments and sieges.”

It’s a fascinating place in which to walk around and gaze at the thick walls made of coquina, which is a Spanish word for “tiny shell.” Cannon balls fired at these walls burrowed into the rock and stuck there, which is one of the reasons the structure has endured so much. The fort was never defeated in battle.

- Colonial Spanish Quarter: Billed as St. Augustine’s only living history museum, visitors here can step back in time to visit a blacksmith, carpenter and a soldier’s wife, who go about their daily activities. 

- Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum of Oddities: The St. Augustine Ripley’s is located in Castle Warden, a historic Moorish Revival style mansion built in 1887. Built as a winter home for millionaire William Warden, Castle Warden later served as a fashionable hotel owned by Norton Baskin and his wife, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of “The Yearling.”

Robert Ripley was a frequent visitor to the hotel and had commented on numerous occasions that Castle Warden would be an ideal location to showcase his collection of unbelievable curiosities. Although he attempted to purchase the building several times, he was not successful in his lifetime. After his death in 1949, his heirs managed the purchase of the building and in December of 1950, the museum opened.

The museum is home to hundreds of oddities.

- St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum: I am a lighthouse freak. I love to look with wonder at the beautiful structure towering before me. I love to look up the circular staircase that reminds me of the inside of a conch shell, and then make my way up to see the prism that flashes beyond the shores.

But, I usually remember once I’m at the top, having viewed the 360-degree panorama, that I have to walk back down. That’s when my fear of heights hits me.

I’m OK on the way up; but I must clutch both railings and watch my feet hit every one of the steps (219 in the case of the St. Augustine Lighthouse), all the way down.


While at the top, on a clear day, you can see the smoke from the power plants in Jacksonville, about 45 miles away. Usually, you can see around 30 miles, explained Richard, the volunteer who was posted at the top on the day of our visit.

On the first day he worked, there was one marriage proposal and a wedding. On Valentine’s Day, there were three marriage proposals accepted — two almost simultaneously on opposite sides of the lighthouse, he said.


- Ghost Tours: Pretty much everything is haunted in St. Augustine, they’ll tell you. The Old Jail. Many of the inns. Flagler College. The Lightner Museum. The Spanish Military Hospital. Aviles Street, which is the oldest street in the country. The graveyards (well, duh!) You name it, it’s supposed to be haunted.

There are a number of tours you can take for some haunting experiences.

We took the Ghosts & Gravestones Night Tour, riding around the city on the “Trolley of the Doomed.”

Our tour guide, a theater student at Flagler College, told us tales to make our hair stand on end. She was quite believable, in a theatrical sort of way. Our trolley driver, a “former resident of the Old Jail” dressed in black and white stripes, took us the Old Drug Store, the Spanish Military Hospital and the Old Jail.

It was more theatrics than actual ghost hunting, but it was fun. My fear of residual nightmares was unfounded.

- Pirates: Avast ye matey ...  Pirate lore is everywhere you go in St. Augustine, as are shops with shipwreck treasures and pirate items. Pirates were attracted to the Spanish treasure fleets that passed by St. Augustine on the way back to Spain. A very narrow street in the city called Treasury Street is just wide enough for two men and a treasure chest.

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