The true talent of a magician is in their masterful use of illusion. How Bill Abbot was able to quickly read the cards chosen by a group of audience members was so much fun to witness in person and I’m still shaking my head at how he made a rolled-up dollar bill disappear and then reappear inside an uncut lime. Yes, a lime. While magic was going on at the Hideaway club inside the luxurious Casa Monica Resort & Spa in St. Augustine this night, there was just as much magic happening outside in this historic city as it became totally illuminated by thousands of white lights for its annual and immensely popular Night of Lights experience.
Night of Lights
Visiting St. Augustine in January was one way for a northerner to enjoy some moderate winter temperatures, learn some history, but also to experience this magical city that, who knew, becomes so lit up for the holiday season, and into the New Year. The Night of Lights is in its 29th year and runs from November to end of January. The trolley ride to see the lights is always a sellout as the Spanish Colonial architecture becomes aglow from the sidewalks to the rooftops, over the bridges, along historic buildings, and inns, a dazzling 20-city block display. With a pair of magical Night of Lights glasses (handed out on the bus tour), the lights pop out like snowflakes.
The Vilano Causeway
Speaking of the Old Trolley Bus, it’s the only way to introduce yourself to the lively stories of the past and get a sense of how the city is laid out before one starts exploring. One afternoon, our driver was named Summer, and with a great booming voice, and a lively personality, she greeted guests with a loud clang of her bell, and a shout: And your driver today is….SUMMER! Soon we all followed suit, will forever remember her name. (Smart woman.) These trolleys are narrow and fit perfectly in the equally narrow St. Augustine streets, allowing riders to get a peek at what the city offers, and what sites to return to.
Because of its location, St. Augustine was an instrumental stronghold when discovered in 1565, and it had to continually ward off attacks from the British, the Spaniards and the French who, at one time or another, wanted to take, or re-take the place. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that it finally came under the control of the United States, and oil millionaire Henry Flagler discovered it and envisioned it as the perfect vacation destination for wealthy families of the North. Soon, the railroad came to the area, and then the highways, all bringing tourists to Flagler’s beautifully designed hotels. One may think that Walt Disney created the notion of Florida as a vacation spot, but that ship had long sailed decades before Mickey Mouse.
Oldest General Store
Because of its extensive history, St. Augustine can boast many “firsts” and many “oldests,” such as the oldest house, oldest wooden schoolhouse, first general store, oldest street, the first Catholic mission, and the oldest shrine, with many restored and open for tours; there’s also a representation of an old-time drug store with examples of the remedies and elixirs of the day. Another interesting “first” is the recycling program as described to us by storyteller, Matt, from the Ghost Tours of St. Augustine. Walking past the fort that protected the city — Castillo de San Marcos — we learn that the structure was originally made of wood and was frequently burned to the ground. When under Spanish control in the late 1600’s, it was rebuilt using a material called coquina, a blend of cement and a soft limestone made of broken shells. During battle, cannon balls did not penetrate the walls but would stick IN them. The soldiers would pull those cannon balls out, and reuse them the next day, firing them back to the enemy.
We learned about another first from Matt: Florida’s oldest unsolved murder and probably the oldest “cold case file.” In 1785, Lt. Guillermo Delaney was attacked and stabbed on the same cobblestone street where we now stood. He was able to crawl to his girlfriend’s house and died a short time later without being able to identify or describe his assailants. Though a few suspects were questioned, no one was charged with the murder, and it remains unsolved to this day. Late at night, says Matt, the sound of footsteps could be heart along the very street where Lt. Delaney was attacked. Are they of the soldier, or something else?
There’s so much more to say about this great destination, but we end with a mention of its famous lighthouse and stunning panoramic views after climbing its 219 steps (c’mon, you can do it!) and if you go late in the day, the sunset is worth the effort. Interesting to note that the original lighthouse built in 1586 was the first wooden watchtower built by the Spanish – another first to add to the list – which kept an eye on any attacks by sea. Over the years, the rising sea levels brought concern that the structure would fall into the ocean, and it was rebuilt further inland during the 1870s. With its unique black and white spiral stripe (called a daymark) and continuous white light with a fixed-white flash every 30 seconds (its nightmark), captains at sea were able to easily identify their location.
Brunch selection at Ancient City Brunch Bar
Though only 10.7 square miles in size, St. Augustine is packed to the gills with quaint BnB’s, cozy pubs, eclectic art galleries, lively outdoor music, and horse drawn carriages clip-clopping through the cobble stone streets.
The Bridge of Lions
Like many popular cities in the U.S., it’s forged its own path through centuries of struggles, reinvention, and an optimism that remains contagious. It’s no illusion that its moderate winter and summer seasons make St. Augustine a year-round destination, and should one need a bit of quiet time, The Bridge of Lions or the Vilano Causeway will bring you to the beaches along A1A, or the scenic walking paths of Anastasia State Park.
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff
WomanAroundTown thanks the following for their cooperation with this story.