Sunday, March 20, 2011

To St Augustine

The drive across Florida was by back roads, an easy choice as Florida lends itself to long straight stretches of smooth highway through the woods and speeds need not be that much slower than freeways.You can see how these roads would look good to people riding heavy ponderous cruiser motorcycles. There is something perverse about choosing to ride anything else in Flatistan. I find it restful driving (or riding, when not hauling my family) on these kinds of roads. Certainly I look forward to my annual holidays on two wheels hitting a few mountains here and there, but this is now home.Oops, here comes a corner... We arrived in St Augustine close to dusk after checking into La Quinta. Cheyenne was ready for a walk. I was a boy scout once. I'm still prepared though doing my duty for God and the Queen has fallen a bit by the wayside.St Augustine is a catholic city with lots of Spanish era churches littering the landscape. The Spaniards came here from Puerto Rico (rich port) in 1513 and the French showed up in 1562. However Spain made attempts at settlement on the peninsula in 1565. They came on the feast day of St Augustine of Hippo so that was, as was their practice, the obvious way to name the first permanent European settlement on the continent. As time has gone by it has become clear to historians that settlements up north, thanks to the adventurous Vikings tended to predate the more commonly accepted firsts of down south settlements. But lets not be niggardly, if this wasn't the first settlement it came pretty damned close.Parking is one of the features of this town that bear comparison to Key West and I was quite pleasantly surprised to find how different it was here. Key West charges till midnight, six days a week and till 8pm on Sundays...Score! Wandering the old town portion of St Augustine we noticed a couple of things compared to the Southernmost City. Clean, tidy and panhandler-free.The details in this town are apparently period correct, close as makes no difference, and neatly done.My wife felt a little awkward at first, comparing St Augustine to a stage set or a place pretending to be an imitation European town.Actually, she said, this is a European town. In North America.It is a tourist town of course, a place to come and enjoy as much or as little history or alcohol as you care to. Just like Key West.But unlike other historical cities, Key west, San Antonio, Santa Fe or even San Francisco, this town does not appear to have an indigenous culture that survives. For want of a better term it was not possible on a short visit to see or even glimpse any locals, Conchs they would be called in Key West. They advertise (no neon!) "unique" stores everywhere. However I did not see any t-shirt shops offering salacious mottoes or stupid pictures. A lot of the issues that vex people who visit Key West don't seem to trouble this town. There must be some residentially challenged but they weren't obvious. Street music didn't exist that I could see or hear and of trash there was none. Amazing. The people who run this town have also managed to create a criss cross of pedestrian-only streets that make strolling the sort of pleasure that Old Town Key West will never be.These pirates were in town from their more home base of Lakeland, enjoying a little costumed tomfoolery and bringing some color to a rather plain town.Ed Swift's much hated trolley tours are here too but much less loud and intrusive than those circling Key West endlessly. How they do that I'm not sure but the trolleys sound much louder in Key West.It makes you want to bring a bus load of people who hate Key West's chaos and color and have them take a look round this town. Is this what you want? They'd probably end up saying yes.For all the tremendous physical beauty, the Spanish history lovingly preserved and adapted to commerce, one has to wonder if St Augustine could use a little more chaos and confusion. For all I know they do have lots of confusion but it is a private thing if there is. Tourists don't get to see family political squabbles around here.St Augustine was ceded to the United States in 1819 and the changeover took place in 1822 when territorial Governor William Duval took charge of this place.This town became Henry Flagler's first Florida winter resort for his railroad passengers in the 1880s, thirty years before he reached Key West.In the early 60s St Augustine was a hotbed of civil rights protests- who knew?- and saw it's share of marches and protests and included a visit by Martin Luther King.Funnily enough the city has the same square miles as Key West (8 on land plus two in the water...) and hasn't had a problem with hurricanes since 1964. Now thats a nice statistic for a Florida town.Cheyenne and i had a great time wandering around and my wife, disappointed by early closing shops, was quite impressed by the buildings.The level of detail is quite astonishing.
The absence of bright lights is lovely too. As dusk fell the city filled with a warm glow. It was very pleasant, if a little on the cool side, quite a bit cooler than the Keys.
One should note that a Harley Davidson's proper place is in a trailer or the bed of a truck, so it seems all was well here. (Triumph Iron Butt riders are allowed to be snotty from time to time).Using her new iPhone my wife immediately got onto he favorite travel site Urban Spoon and found a nouvelle cuisine southern food restaurant. The Floridian is at 39 Cordova Street. We liked it. They have a silly rule in St Augustine that you can't have a glass of wine or a draught beer at a restaurant if it is within a certain number of feet of a school or a church. So much for self restraint, give'em a sniff of booze and they fall off the straight and narrow like flies in St John's County.So if you want alcohol with your meal you go into the back room speakeasy and buy a bottle and bring it back to your table...daft stuff. We weren't in the mood to drink for some reason so we stuck primly with water and enjoyed a thoroughly delicious dinner. Grit cakes came as an appetizer or with shrimp.We had a meatloaf sandwich between us and skipped dessert as my wife is not a fan of cheesecake. Not over full we went out into the night to look for our dog and our car, hopefully both in the same place. Flagler College by night.