Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017

The Pirate Museum has North America’s sole authenticated treasure chest, a real Jolly Roger flag and pirate gold.

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Blast from the past

Florida’s oldest city, St. Augustine trots out conquistadors, pirates and ghosts to woo its littlest visitors

Turning 50 is a major milestone, so you can imagine what a big deal it is to turn 500. That’s the birthday the Sunshine State is celebrating this year as it marks the arrival of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who “discovered” La Florida in 1513. Admittedly, he didn’t linger long, and it took some threatening moves from other imperial powers before his mother country colonized the place. In 1565, however, Spain solidified its territorial claim over “the flowered land” by founding St. Augustine, making it the earliest European settlement in what is now the United States.

St. Augustine — located on the Atlantic Coast, 165 kilometres north of Orlando was listed by National Geographic Traveler magazine among the “World's Top 20 Places to See for 2013.” So when you’re ready to take a break from theme park rides and water slides, visiting it is the perfect way for your family to honour Florida’s quincentennial (fla500.com).

Castle Crazy

The obvious spot to begin delving into St. Augustine’s past is Castillo de San Marcos (1 South Castillo Drive; nps.gov/casa; $7 for 16 and up), a national monument that sits on the city’s waterfront. When the Spanish started construction in 1672, they needed a fortress that could defend the colony and serve as a way station for treasure-laden ships returning from South America. They opted to use the local, limestone-like coquina stone to build walls up to six-metres thick; then rimmed the entire structure with a dry moat that’s crossed via a double drawbridge.

As a result, the US’s oldest masonry fort is the sort of site that impresses even little tykes whose interest in architecture typically stops at Lego houses. Inside, displays detail the turbulent past. Younger children, though, will probably learn more by participating in a Junior Ranger program that adds treasure-hunt elements to the history lesson. Cannon-firing demos further enhance the experience. If these get your kids fired up, they can burn off energy by rolling down the fort’s grassy knolls or running around the perimeter.

The narrow streets that grew up around the Castillo offer another glimpse into life in the past lane. The Old City can be explored by carriage, trolley, electric bus, even Segway. But since this is one of America’s most walkable cities, it’s best to proceed on foot. Simply download a free annotated map (citywalkingguide.com/staugustine) and set out. The heritage buildings in the 144-block historic district double as boutiques, galleries and specialty food shops and are interspersed with kitschy attractions, like America’s first wax museum (Potter’s, opened in 1948) and Ripley’s first permanent “odditorium” (which debuted in 1950). Purists might balk at the juxtaposition. Kids, on the other hand, adore it.

Chances are they’ll feel the same way about the newest attraction, the Colonial Quarter (29 Saint George Street; tel: 904-825-6830; colonialquarter.com; adults $11, kids 5 to 12 $6): an open-air museum that spotlights the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Covering almost a hectare, it consists of restored and replica structures (among them a climbable watchtower more than 10 metres high). Onsite, you can try hands-on activities, check out dioramas and displays, and see costumed interpreters demonstrating old-fashion skills. Best of all, tickets are valid all day, which means you can come and go as you please.

Arrrgh-Rated Experiences

At first glance you might not suspect that pirates repeatedly wreaked havoc here: Sir Francis Drake arrived with a fleet of 23 ships to attack and sack it in 1586, and Robert Searles followed suit in 1668. Re-enactors (searlesbucs.com) mark the former each June and the latter in March. And in November, the whole city recalls the Golden Age of Piracy during the Pirate Gathering (70 West Castillo Drive; pirategathering.com).

Or you can get your swashbuckling fix at the city’s Pirate & Treasure Museum (12 South Castillo Drive; tel: 877-467-5863; thepiratemuseum.com; adults $13 adults; kids 5 to 12 $7). A prime example of “infotainment,” it combines one of the world’s largest collections of pirate-related artifacts — over 800 in all, including the sole authenticated treasure chest, a real Jolly Roger flag and glorious pirate gold — with engaging exhibits, some of which were created by Disney Imagineers.

Afterwards, youngsters obsessed with parrots and eye patches can board the Black Raven (111 Avenida Menendez; tel: 904-826-0000; blackravenadventures.com; adults $30, kids 3 to 12 $20), a faux pirate ship that hosts Matanzas Bay cruises complete with story-telling, shanty-singing and role-playing. Just remember to book a daytrip: adult-oriented evening outings concentrate less on buried booty and more on shaking ones.

Although it’s often said that history comes alive in St. Augustine, there is plenty of talk about the “undead” here, too. Indeed, nearly a dozen companies scare up business by offering spirited tours. Obviously all aren’t appropriate (or appealing) for kids; nevertheless, they can be a fun way for older kids to absorb some local lore.

Ghost Tours of St. Augustine (2 St. George Street; tel: 904-829-1122; aghostlyexperience.com) organizes relatively tame lantern-lit walks (ages 7 and up $15) led by guides outfitted in period garb, plus a Trolley of the Doomed (adults $26, kids 6 to 12 $14) option for those who would rather not “frightsee” on foot.

Ripley’s Ghost Train Adventure (19 San Marco Avenue; tel: 904-824-1606; ghosttrainadventure.com; adults $24, kids 6 to 11 $13) is another family-friendly alternative. The titular train (in reality, an innocuous motorized choochoo) begins and ends its run at Castle Warden: an historic, reportedly haunted mansion. The castle conveniently houses the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum, which passengers enter armed with ghost-busting electromagnetic detection devices.

The Flagler Legacy

St. Augustine’s evolution didn’t end with the colonial period. Industrialist Henry Flagler may not have been as famous as his partner John D. Rockefeller, but he co-founded Standard Oil. He’s also credited with launching Florida’s tourism industry by developing the state’s east coast hinterland to create an American Riviera, and then embarked on a construction spree in the 1880s that extended from St. Augustine to the Keys. Flagler College (59 St. George Street; tel: 904-823-3378; legacy.flagler.edu/Tours-sp8.html; adults $10, kids 11 and under $1) and the Lightner Museum (75 King Street; tel: 904-824-2874; lightnermuseum.org; adults $10 adults, kids 12 to 18 $5), both initially opulent hotels, set the gold standard for what was to come.

Tours of the former reveal Flagler’s knack for stylish innovation: think lighting (a 19th-century novelty) provided by Thomas Edison with fixtures made by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Across the street, the Lightner Museum has a Night at the Museum quality that kids find intriguing. The eclectic collection includes a shrunken head, a dinosaur egg, plus assorted curiosities, much of it is displayed in vintage glass cabinets.

The Fountain of Youth

Families can’t leave without sipping from the fabled fountain that supposedly drew Ponce de León to Florida in the first place — which is why you’ll eventually wind up at Fountain of Youth Archeological Park (11 Magnolia Avenue; tel: 904-829-3168; fountainofyouthflorida.com; adults $12, kids 6 to 12 $8). Since this is where the St. Augustinians originally settled, the six-hectare site has genuine historic cred. It also has above-average animators who score points for their knowledge and ability to stay in character as they recreate life in a 16th-century outpost. You shouldn’t put much faith in the sulfur-y spring for which this park is named, however: there’s no evidence Ponce ever laid eyes on it.

The truth is that historians aren’t even sure which of the nearby Atlantic-lapped beaches he landed on. The upside is that their uncertainty gives you an excuse to explore the surrounding sandy strands: 68 kilometres worth on both the mainland and beautiful barrier islands. If you only have time for one, consider Anastasia State Park (1340-A State Road A1A South; tel: 904-461-2033; floridastateparks.org/anastasia; $8 per car). In addition to six kilometres of beachfront, it boasts facilities for canoeists and kayakers as well as enviable offshore breaks for surfers. The kicker is that the coquina stone used to construct Castillo de San Marcos came from a quarry within the park, proving that history in St. Augustine is literally all around you.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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