St. Augustine – A winter trip to Florida for Canadians works on a simple equation: sun + warmth = pleasure.
Maybe for most of you. But we only get half the ingredients on a trip to St. Augustine, in the northern part of the state.
Oh, it’s sunny all right, but a cold front – from Canada, yet! – blows in the day we arrive, dropping temperatures during the day to just above freezing. They dip below zero in the early morning.
On the way to St. Augustine we stop at the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, a coastal preserve that runs between the Atlantic and the Matanzas River. The ocean-facing eastern side is too cold and blustery to walk, and even the more sheltered western side, about a mile away, is uncomfortably chilly.
Here, among the hickories and magnolias, park workers are concerned about the approaching cold night. They don’t worry so much about the centuries-old, massive live oaks, festooned with Spanish moss and huge staghorn ferns. These are trees that bring out the child in me; with branches that reach out horizontally like long, bony fingers, they’d be great for climbing.
Armed with sheets, towels, any cloth they can find, the workers scurry around the park’s ornamental gardens, planted in the 30s. The rose garden, the lush yellow, red, gold and purple bromeliads, the multicoloured crotons are all used to semi-tropical temperatures; any covering offers some kind of protection from the killing cold.
Established in 1565 by the Spanish, St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in North America. These days it still has a village feel, compared to the suburban sprawl that defines much of the region. Just as in the park, trees are grey-bearded with Spanish moss. Fan and palmetto palms, pendulous banana trees, tin-roofed houses and Southern-style outdoor verandas are reminders that cold weather isn’t a frequent visitor.
The town is filled with tourists, all of them bundled up against the chill wind. It’s not a beach day for anyone, so we take a tour of one of the city’s most famous sites, the Ponce de Leon Hotel.
Back in the 1880s, railway magnate Henry Flagler realized that Florida would become a winter haven for tourists and began building a train line that would eventually reach Key West. He also erected his first hotel, the Ponce, in St. Augustine, intending it to cater to the wealthy.
A grey building highlighted by touches of red terracotta and coquina stone, dotted with shaded loggias, fountains and arches reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada, it was the first major American building made from poured concrete.
The ornate lobby, with its marble mosaic floors and carved oak caryatids, was only the start of its opulence. Tiffany designed the windows for the dining room, with its 24-carat gold leaf ceiling and two balconies for orchestras. Thomas Edison himself came down to install the lights and calibrate the public area clocks; the building was the first in Florida to be wired for electricity.
Initially, the social registers of America and Europe received brochures for what was heralded as the winter Newport. Only invitees could stay in the hotel’s 450 rooms, and they had to pay three months’ accommodation up front.
Actually, it was the men who paid; women and children were shepherded into the grand parlour room on arrival, for Flagler considered that only men were capable of handling mo-ney.
The last laugh’s on him. The hotel is now the popular Flagler College, where women outnumber men five to one.