St Augustine – a Florida Gem

story by Maria Wu

The highlight of our last winter getaway was a two-day visit to St Augustine in Florida.  We stayed with friends on Anastasia Island whose house overlooks the lighthouse, less than 10 minutes’ drive to downtown St Augustine. On our first evening, we set out to dine at the Raintree Restaurant and, crossing the bridge heading to St Augustine, we were enchanted by millions of white lights, from the ground to the rooftops, in the trees and shrubs, that made the old city twinkle in the night.  We felt we were driving into a magical kingdom.  This “Nights of Lights”, held between 19 November and 31 January each year, is one of the post popular events in the city.  It traces its origins to the Spanish tradition of displaying a lighted white candle during the Christmas holiday.  In 2015, when this city celebrates its birthday as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America the display is sure to be even more enchanting.

We found Raintree easily, only to find it closed for renovations.  However, one of the repairmen cheerfully told us it would be reopened tomorrow.  So we took a stroll along the waterfront, studying menus of restaurants as we went.  We were attracted by the menu of Aviles, the dining room in the Hilton Hotel.  As we entered the lobby, we were greeted with the aroma of food and saw that a chef was cooking the feature of the night: “All You Can Eat Pasta”, chosen from a list of ingredients, with salad and a glass of wine for $14.99. The dining room was popular and cozy, the pasta dinner was great, and soon we were engaged in a delightful conversation with a local young couple — all of which made for a delightful evening.

Next morning, we revisited the old city in the daylight.  Our first stop was the Hilton Hotel once again, where the valet greeted us cheerfully, parked our car and ordered maps and espresso for us – such unexpected service.  As it was a warm and sunny day, we decided we would explore the old city on foot.  The twin towers of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in 1887 by Henry Flagler, (now home to Flagler College) are a distinct landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  We walked through the ground floor of the restored building, seemingly alive with its Tiffany windows, ornate murals and Spanish Renaissance architecture.   During the academic year, it is possible to tour the campus, sit in on a class, meet professors and have lunch with students by registering for an Admission Tour.