Begin your exploration of Florida's northern coast by following the Buccaneer Trail, a 125-mile oceanside highway that starts where the first French and Spanish explorers first walked in Florida at Fernandina Beach and continues to Saint Augustine. Buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake, Edward Teach (alias Blackbeard), and Jean Lafitte pillaged the Indians and exploited each other. But as you drive past peaceful islands, inlets, and forts, it's hard to imagine the turbulence of those early years. And while history comes alive in Saint Augustine, vast aquatic preserves, coastal wildlife sanctuaries, salt marshes, the state's oldest live oak forest, and nine beach parks stretch along the Atlantic.
Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island
Amelia Island, 13 miles long by 2 miles wide, has only one town, Fernandina Beach, named by the Spanish for King Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1811. Great sand dunes fringed with sea oats frame sweeping Atlantic beaches. Birds live in its salt marshes and ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss hang over streets lined with Victorian mansions.
It's the only place in the United States to have been under the rule of eight flags. To learn about this, you must visit 1,086-acre Fort Clinch State Park, located at the northeastern tip of the island. French explorer Jean Ribault arrived first in May 1562, calling the island Isle of Mai (Isle of May). Rene de Laudonnier took over for Ribault in 1564 and built Fort Caroline. Three years later, Spaniards captured the fort, followed by the British in 1735, renaming it in honor of Princess Amelia, King George II's daughter. In 1812, the “Patriots of Amelia Island” flew their flag, and in 1817, the Green Cross of the Florida Republic appeared. That same year, privateer Luis Aury flew the flag of the Republic of Mexico.
After Florida became a part of the United States, the U.S. Army built Fort Clinch as one of a chain of U.S. masonry forts along the Atlantic Coast. And though its ramparts with their mounted cannon are impressive, it never saw action. Construction on the pentagonal fort began in 1847, but the Confederate troops seized it in 1861 and in 1862 abandoned it to Union troops, who used it as prison for the remainder of the Civil War. Visit the museum to learn about the fort's history, then take a guided tour of the bastions, restored barracks, infirmary, bakery, and blacksmith's shop. Or take the candlelit tour on summer weekends. Admission $2 per person. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-277-7233)
JUST FOR PARENTS
Midway between Jacksonville and Ormond Beach lies Washington Oaks State Gardens, a 390-acre park on the grounds of the former Belle Vista Plantation, site of one of Florida's first orange groves. The original plantation house now acts as a horticultural center, featuring rose, camellia, and tropical gardens set amid reflecting pools. Admission is $2 per car. (Open daily 8 A.M.–sunset, 904-445-3161)
After visiting the fort, you can take a two-hour guided tour at 3 P.M. of Fernandina Beach's fifty-block historic district, with its restored nineteenth-century Victorian buildings. One of these, the Palace Saloon, is Florida's oldest tavern. You should also take the forty-five-minute tour at 11 A.M. or 2 P.M. of the Museum of History, housed in the former jail. Admission is $1. (Open Monday through Friday 11 A.M.–3 P.M.
Ormond Beach, north of Daytona, used to be sugar plantation country. Just north of town stands Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic Site. Looking more like a movie set than the ruins of an old plantation, the crumbling remains of an eighteenth-century sugar mill stand eerily in the thick subtropical growth. A visit to the visitor center will help you understand plantation life and the use of slave labor to produce sugar cane, rice, and cotton. Eventually, the Seminole Indians burned it in retaliation for being displaced by white settlers. Admission is free. (Open daily 8 A.M.–5 P.M., 386-517-2084)
Not much changed until the 1880s, when Henry Flagler bought and enlarged the Ormond Hotel to house tourists from his railroad. Legend says that in 1918 John D. Rockefeller, upset with his treatment at the Ormond, bought his own three-story winter home across the street, which he called “The Casements.” Admission is free. (Open Monday through Friday 10:00 A.M.–2:30 P.M., 386-676-3216)
When you think of Daytona Beach, you probably think of college students whooping it up at all-night beer parties, but it was car enthusiasts such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, and Ransom Olds who came here during the early twentieth century to race their prototype vehicles on the straight, hard-packed beach. Those were daring days when someone broke the land speed record regularly. In 1935, Malcolm Campbell sped along at 276 miles per hour in his Bluebird with its V-12 engine.
Daytona Beach, named for Mathias Day, an 1870s immigrant from Ohio, began to blossom after Flagler's hotel in Ormond Beach became a success. The wide sand beaches became an ideal place for wealthy entrepreneurs to test the speed and maneuverability of their new motor vehicles. In 1903, the Florida East Coast Automobile Association formed to promote beach racing. And for the next three decades, drivers from all over the world came to Daytona Beach to set world racecar records.
By 1936, William Henry Getty (Bill) France began racing his father's Model-T and by 1938 organized and promoted racing events on Daytona's 3-mile course. The American Automobile Association sanctioned the races, offering $5,000 in prizes, attracting many of the country's top drivers. But World War II temporarily halted racing at Daytona.
As soon as the war ended, racing resumed. A large crowd watched the first successful stock-car race in 1947. Later that year France and a group of leading drivers formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). He petitioned the State of Florida in 1955 to build a racetrack. Daytona International Speedway, with 150,000-person capacity, two-and-a-half-mile oval track, and a twisting infield road course, today plays host to some of the world's premier motor racing events.
It used to be that the only way to experience a Speedway race was to buy a ticket. Now you can spend several hours at Daytona U.S.A., a 60,000-square-foot interactive motor sports theme park at Daytona Speedway. You can play TV announcer and call the race, drive a stock car on the track using a computer simulator, interview top drivers using interactive DVD technology, and lots more. Then you can view NASCAR 3D: The Imax Experience and Daytona 500 Movie on a four-story IMAX screen. Admission is $21.50 per adult, $15.50 per child. For an additional $8.50 you can take a thirty-minute behind-the-scenes tram tour around the track, into the pit road, and through the garage. (386-947-6800, www.daytonausa.com)
If you want a real thrill, you can experience Daytona Speedway's banked curves at 160 miles per hour with the Richard Petty Driving Experience. For $134 per person, you can ride shotgun in a real stock car for three laps. (Toll-free 800-237-3889)
Daytona's Museum of Arts and Sciences is a must-see. Displaying an eclectic collection — such as a skeleton of a 13-foot-tall, 130,000-year-old giant ground sloth, American furniture and paintings from 1700 to 1910, and an exhibit spanning 200 years of Cuban culture from 1759 to 1959, including paintings donated by former Cuban dictator Batista — it also features a planetarium and outdoor nature trails. Admission is $2. (Open Tuesday through Friday 9 A.M.–4 P.M., weekends-9 A.M.–5 P.M., 386-255-0285, www.moas.org)
After all that culture, I'm sure your kids will agree it's time for some fun. Stroll the Boardwalk and be spooked at Baron Fun Frite's Castle, have fun at the Forest Amusement Park, and get a spectacular view of the beach from the Space Needle and Sky Ride.
Ten miles south of Daytona stands the restored Ponce de León Inlet Lighthouse, built in 1883. Climb the 203 spiral steps for an exhilarating view of the Atlantic and the inlet. Stop into the museum in the restored keeper's cottages to view a video presentation on the area's history, as well as exhibits on the keeping of the light and the shipwrecks that have occurred on this part of the coast. (Open daily 10 A.M.–5 P.M., 386-761-1821)
Once you see it, you'll agree that Saint Augustine, America's oldest city, is the most interesting place in Florida because the guides make its history come alive through stories of the town's original families.
Although Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León probably landed here for fresh drinking water in 1513, it wasn't until September 8, 1565 that Spanish religious zealot Pedro Menéndez de Avilés brought a colony ashore. He named his settlement San Augustín because he arrived on the saint's feast day. With three sides flanked by rivers and the fourth protected by a fort, it was an ideal military location. Unfortunately, the first nine wooden forts suffered severe damage in attacks.
For a truly unique way to see Saint Augustine, sign up for one of the Ghostly Experience tours. To get up close, take the walking tour for $12 through cemeteries and haunted houses. Or ride along old city streets to the haunted lighthouse for $22. And for a nautical ghost tour, sail aboard the schooner Freedom for $35. (www.ghosttoursofstaugustine.com)
In the late seventeenth century, the king of Spain invested today's equivalent of $30 million to build Castillo de San Marcos, a massive fort constructed of coquina stone, a natural aggregate of seashells embedded in limestone, to protect the Spaniards from buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake. Begun in 1672 and completed in 1756, its walls are 14 feet thick at the bottom, tapering to 7 at the top. Even when Sir Francis Drake burned Saint Augustine in 1586, the town's residents remained safe inside the fortress. The British renamed it Fort Saint Mark and used it as a base for attacks on Georgia and South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army used it as a prison. Take one of the free guided tours given five times daily beginning at 10 A.M. Admission is $6. (Open daily 8:45 A.M.–5:15 P.M., 904-829-6506)
Before the Civil War, Saint Augustine acted as a shipping center for the sugar plantations. Then, in the 1880s, Henry Flagler established resort hotels here and ran his railway south. Today, the Old Town, running along Saint George Street and south of the Plaza de la Constitución, acts as a living history museum. Before exploring Old Town, see the film The Dream of Empire in the Museum Theater at the Visitor Center.
Saint Augustine's restored Spanish Quarter, a group of mostly reconstructed eighteenth-century Spanish buildings, offers a look into its past. The González-Alvarez House, the town's oldest house, is a good place to start your tour. Begun in 1723 and extensively remodeled over the centuries, this simple building was once a one-story coquina stone house. Later owners added a second story of wood. You'll be impressed by its tabby floors, hand-hewn cedar beams, and huge hearth. As you walk through it, you'll notice that the furnishings change from the first and second Spanish period to the British period. A blacksmith demonstrates his skills and an eighteenth-century weaver and spinner hers. Also included is the Manucy Museum, with exhibits tracing the city's history, and the Museum of Florida's Military, depicting the history of Florida's soldiers through military uniforms and memorabilia. Admission to all is $8 per adult, $4 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-824-2872, www.oldesthouse.org)
Also in the restored Spanish Quarter is the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, with its original red cedar and cypress clapboard siding and tabby floors from 1778, built to be a residence but later used as a school. The oldest wooden building surviving in town, it has been restored as a school but also includes a Spanish-style kitchen. Admission is $3 per adult, $2 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-829-6545)
You'll learn a lot about life in a Spanish colony at the Old Saint Augustine Village, a complex of nine reconstructed homes and workshops, featuring costumed volunteers going about their daily chores. Go early to avoid the summer crowds. Admission is $7 per adult, $5 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-823-9722, www.old-staug-village.com)
The Doctor Peck House, also on Saint George Street and named for a Connecticut doctor who moved his family here in 1837, is among the oldest in the city, having been originally built for the Spanish royal treasurer before 1764. In true Spanish style, the house contains an interior arcaded courtyard into which livestock could be driven in case of attack. Admission is $4.50 per adult, $2.50 per child. (Open Monday through Friday 12:30–4:00 P.M., Saturday 10:30 A.M.–4:00 P.M., 904-829-5064)
RAINY DAY FUN
If you need to seek cover from a sudden shower, step into the Potter's Wax Museum to see more than 170 wax representations of notable figures from history, television, sports, and politics. Admission is $9 per adult, $6 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–9 P.M., www.potterswax.com)
But not all structures in Saint Augustine's Old Town are of Spanish origin. Some have been restored to show the Victorian Era. The Oldest Store Museum is a re-creation of a turn-of-the-century general store chock-full of more than 100,000 items, including Gibson Girl corsets, high wheeled bicycles, and animal-powered treadmills, many of which came from the original warehouse. Admission is $3. (Open Monday through Saturday 9 A.M.–5 P.M., Sunday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-829-9729)
Henry Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de León in 1888, the first of its kind in Florida. He sent architects to Spain to study Spanish and Moorish architecture so they could design this Spanish-Moorish-style masterpiece. It features a central dome and corner towers, Tiffany glass, and murals depicting the history of Saint Augustine. It's now the home of Flagler College. (904-819-6400)
Franklin W. Smith, a Boston architect, designed and built a rival hotel across the street. Later he sold it to Flagler, who rechristened it the Alcazar. Today it houses the Lightner Museum, a collection of nineteenth-century decorative arts, including a large collection of American cut glass, a Tiffany room, an Oriental room, cloisonné, fine china and porcelains, and a Victorian village re-creation. Louis Comfort Tiffany designed the interior. The Alcazar hosted up to 25,000 guests from 1889 to 1896. It closed in 1931; Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner purchased it in 1946 to house his collections. The music room, containing instruments dating from 1870 to 1920, is one of the most interesting. Staff members play period tunes on many of them in informal daily concerts. Admission is $8 per adult, $2 per child. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 904-824-2874, www.lightnermuseum.org)
Though you should see Old Town on foot, you can tour it in open-air trolleys with Saint Augustine Historical Tours; they allow you to park free for the day at their office (904-824-2402).
Just beyond the Lightner Museum stands Zorayda Castle, built by Smith in 1883. This brightly colored Moorish-style home, which inspired Flagler, is a copy of a wing of the thirteenth-century Alhambra in Spain, but just one-tenth its size. A wealthy Egyptian consul purchased it 1913 to store his collection of carpets and treasures, including a bizarre 2,300-year-old sacred cat rug and a magnificent gaming table inlaid with sandalwood and mother-of-pearl. Admission is $3.50. (Open daily 9:30 A.M.–5:00 P.M., 904-824-3097)