Anderson'sWorld.com - March 2008
St. Augustine, Florida: The City That Makes You Smile
Story and photography by Nancy & Eric Anderson
It’s the little town that could. It’s the proof that, in an era when big is better, there’s still a spot for small town America. Only 12,000 people live here but three million come to visit every year. It’s St. Augustine, Florida -- since 1565, the oldest continuously occupied European city in North America.
St. Augustine can be explored easily. Every attraction has free maps galore and enough guide books and brochures to satisfy the busiest of tourists. Many of the magazines and books have discount coupons for restaurants and museums. Some operators, Tour Saint Augustine, for example, will assist visitors with lodgings and ticketing needs prior to their arrival. We have found this operator useful. It would be helpful to get a city map from it or from the Visitors and Convention bureau before you choose accommodations.
Ghosts are news in any city that’s old and this one is just 50 years short of a half millennium. St. Augustine’s ghost story is well told by our guide Natalie who, brandishing a candle lantern and clad in Colonial garb, leads us along dark streets.
Here’s the Casablanca Inn where reputedly the ghost of the former owner has been seen swinging a lantern on the roof to warn rum smugglers that government agents are in the area. The light from her lantern apparently has disturbed guests sleeping in the facing room in the inn next door.
With all this activity, where we gonna eat? From several visits we have our favorite restaurants.
The Kingfish Grill on the northern part of town just before the Vilano Causeway is more elegant, based as it is in the old St. Augustine Yacht Cub building. This restaurant surely meets city sophisticate Leigh Cort’s Big Four criteria for any restaurant: Attitude of staff and ambience of the place, knowledgeable attendants and fabulous food. Even something as simple as its sweet potato fries are sensational.
And for the treat of chocolate because you are, after all, on vacation: check out Claude’s on Hypolita street. We ask Jackie behind the counter, “Do you give out samples?” She replies, “Only if people ask?”
We wiggle our eyebrows like Groucho Marx. She catches on. Opinion? Seashell Milk Chocolate with Champagne Ganache: out of this world. The offerings vary from chocolate covered Cheerios to chocolate covered candied orange slices with dusting of ancho pepper.
Claude Franques is an interesting guy. His French parents lived in Algeria when it was a French territory. The family moved to Toulouse in the south of France when he was 11. During school breaks he worked as a restaurant dishwasher. After high school he attended the Culinary School of Toulouse and graduated in two years. He had cousins in America, and as a hotel cook he found that land beckoning.
A chef specializing in sauces, he found a job at Rene Pujol, The New York Times award-winning restaurant. He fell for Nicole the owner’s daughter. Later in talking to his friend Jacques Torres, a chocolate specialist in New York he found confectionery an interesting challenge and before he and Nicole, now his wife, quite knew it they were creating chocolates north of his downtown shop in a new store a few miles north of the St. Augustine airport on Highway 1.
But what about breakfast? Depends where you are staying. If you have chosen well you are housed in one of the seven Inns of Elegance, a group of well run, individually owned, small Bread & Breakfast inns all centrally located in the old city and, yes, they provide parking.
Breakfast starts one of the seven inns the Inn at Charlotte with fresh fruit followed by baked Eggs Benedict soufflé served over a hash brown potato and cheese casserole. A special coffee cake that the inn is experimenting with, as its entry in a cooking competition, accompanies the meal, probably the best breakfast we’ve had in a year.
“How long have you had your chef?” we ask Lynne Fairfield, the inn owner. “All my life,” she replies. “it’s me.”
Lynne, a former Marriott procurement executive, bought the inn in January 2006 with her sister, Valerie, as financial partner. The house was built in 1918 for a lawyer and so solidly put together it’s almost soundproof, insulated from any street noise. It had been a B & B for the previous 15 years and was so well restored by a previous owner, Lynne essentially walked in without any need to do anything.
It has eight rooms, two of which are in the carriage house. Asked what she offers guests, Lynne replies, “Casual elegance and gracious Southern hospitality.” Sensing that seems a bit rehearsed, she goes on, “We often find guests arrive for the weekend, stressed out for work reasons and Florida traffic – 60 percent of visitors to St. Augustine come by car. We try and keep out of their way yet make them feel they’re at home.”
She looks across at one of the stuffed armchairs and recalls the couple who had come for their 25th anniversary. “They had finished their breakfast and were sitting in the living room drinking their coffee. Well, the man was. The woman had fallen back in her chair, mouth gaping, sound asleep. They made themselves at home!”
Was Lynne, after two years, about as busy as she wanted to be? “Yes, thanks to our publicist who has marketed us so well. She has taught us you need to get guests to come for the first time; after that they will return.”
St. Augustine and its brick streets are a tourist and photographer’s delight. The cameras are always busy in the old town clicking on somewhat kitsch suits of armor, pirate mannequins, and replicas of historic persons; and attractive boutique posters, and colorful inn signs (there are 27 inns in St. Augustine including the 72-room Hilton, the smallest Hilton in the chain; it looks 200 years old but has been at the bayfront on Avenida Menendez for only three years.)
If a three year-old inn looking 300 years old seems a historically inaccurate artifact it’s the only real fraud in this town, this place, this pleasure that makes us smile each time we visit.
If you have any
questions or would like more information, please contact us
us, or use our online request form.