Forty miles north of Daytona Beach, US-1 passes through the heart of charismatic ST AUGUSTINE. Eminently walkable, with a densely packed city centre and a Mediterranean feel, it bucks the daunting sprawl of much of Florida’s East Coast. The oldest permanent settlement in the US, with much from its early days still intact along its narrow streets, it also offers two alluring lengths of beach just across Matanzas Bay.
Bordered on the west by St George Street – once the main thoroughfare and now a tourist-trampled, though genuinely historic, pedestrianized strip, its entrance anchored by the eighteenth-century City Gate – and on the south by Plaza de la Constitución, St Augustine’s Old Town holds the well-tended evidence of the town’s Spanish period. It may be small, but there’s a lot to see: an early start, around 9am, will give you a lead on the tourist crowds, and should allow a good look at almost everything in one day.
Though Ponce de León touched ground here in 1513, European settlement didn’t begin until half a century later, when Spain’s Pedro Menéndez de Avilés put ashore on St Augustine’s Day in 1565. The town developed into a major social and administrative centre, soon to become the capital of east Florida. Subsequently, Tallahassee became the capital of a unified Florida, and St Augustine’s fortunes waned. Since then, expansion has largely bypassed the town – a fact inadvertently facilitating the restoration programme that has turned this quiet community into a fine historical showcase.