One of the highly recommended tours in St. Augustine is the student led one at Flagler College, former home of Henry Flagler’s opulent Ponce de Leon Hotel. This amazing building of the Gilded Age became a world renown hotel. The Ponce de Leon was so exclusive that guests were required to book 3-4 months consecutively, during the winter season.
For those who could not swing that, he built the Hotel Alcazar across the street. This is another amazing building that at the time boasted the world’s largest swimming pool and hosted many other activities for guests. Now the pool is home to a restaurant and the hotel is now government offices, plus houses the Lightner Museum.
We purchased the tickets for the campus tour a day in advance since the spaces are limited and there are only two tours a day. The tour times vary depending on the season. Our guide, who is a Senior at the college was there promptly at 10 AM in the beautiful rotunda area outside of the gift shop. We were very impressed with his tour and the extensive knowledge that he had of the building’s history.
The hotel, now a college, is a photographer’s feast with wonderful views at every turn. When waiting for the tour, just look up!
Completed in 1888, the Ponce de Leon Hotel was ahead of its time in so many ways. It had electricity installed by Thomas Edison himself, who happened to be a friend of Henry Flagler. The power was DC and apparently presented fears among some of the guests who would ring room service to have the staff come turn on the lights for them! Our guide reminded us that the Ponce de Leon had electricity before the White House.
Being a student at this private college and living in such a wonderful setting, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, must be a unique experience. Even the student dining room is flanked by a large number of Tiffany windows and beautiful woodwork, but no student offered a critique of the cafeteria food.
Perhaps surprisingly, our guide mentioned that Flagler College’s tuition is very price competitive with other private liberal arts colleges. This college also has a specialty major in the Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, plus a Master’s Program in Deaf Education. Flagler has a relationship with the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, the largest school of its type in the US.
Henry Flagler not only built the Ponce de Leon Hotel and Hotel Alcazar but also built a nearby church in memory of his daughter who died in 1889. We toured the beautiful Memorial Presbyterian Church and also had the opportunity to return for Palm Sunday services. We found the vibrant congregation friendly, the music amazing, and enjoyed our visit there. Note for town visitors, the church provides a parking lot during the week that is cheaper that any other lot we saw. Parking is a premium in the city and can be difficult to find. There is a large parking deck at the St. Augustine Visitor Center if all else fails.
A park that is off the beaten path and a place that we found out about because of a guide at the St. Augustine Visitor Center is the Fort Mose Historic Park. This is a small park north of town that has an interesting history. This settlement and fort was occupied by freed blacks; some them fled from the slave holding Southern states. Spanish Florida officially provided asylum for slaves from the British colonies if they would convert to Catholicism. Fort Mose was established in 1738 and was a refuge for various African tribes until 1763. That year, following the Peace of Paris in which East Florida became British, the freed blacks along with the Spaniards migrated to Cuba. There is a small museum on site that tells of the history, courage, and challenges of the freed blacks.
If possible, Celia and I try to visit the local farmers markets wherever we are. There is a Saturday market at the St. Augustine Amphitheater which had a variety of items. The amphitheater is very popular and is adjacent to Anastasia State Park and St. Augustine Elks Lodge.
We also had some great meals including one at The Floridian and delicious tacos at Mojo’s Tacos.
April turned out to be a perfect time to visit St. Augustine. The weather was great, the crowds were manageable, and the town is a true historical treasure. We really enjoyed our stay, and left with many places to explore on a return trip!
Up next, Georgia on My Mind – Savannah.