Where the hell is St. Augustine?

I get that question a lot. Sometimes without the expletive, sometimes with. Even from Floridians.

If you know where St. Augustine is, that last bit’s funny. If you don’t know where it is, that’s okay; I didn’t know where it was for the longest time either. And I live in Florida.

A little history and geography for the uninitiated:

St. Augustine is located on the east coast of Florida, south of Jacksonville, and north of Daytona. It’s a lovely little coastal town wrapped up in historical significance. It also happens to be the oldest city in our Nation. Yep. You read that right.

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the closest thing we’ve got to a little slice of Europe. That’s because it was originally settled by the Spanish, invaded by the French (those bastards), then won by Britain in the 1700’s, eventually becoming ours in 1821 (with a lot of back and forth in between).

The blend of Spanish, French Provincial and English Colonial influence is unmistakable. There are narrow roads with uneven pavers, two story Tudor style homes beside large Spanish estates surrounded by coquina concrete walls. In the center of the historic district, there’s a criss-cross of pedestrian friendly streets lined by quaint shops with everything from hand crafted fudge to vintage clothing. For the artistic history enthusiast, there is so much eye candy, you’d feel naked without a camera. I’m not even kidding.

Aviles Street, St. Augustine

Aviles Street, the oldest street in the US, St. Augustine.

The crown jewel of the city in my opinion is the former Hotel Ponce de León. Originally built as THE premier luxury hotel in 1887 for the wealthiest elite of the era (think Theodore Roosevelt or Mark Twain), this is serious “Oh. My. God.” architecture. Today, it is home to Flagler College; the hotel rooms and suites are girls’ dorms and administrative offices, the grand ballroom now serves as the student dining hall. I was so struck by the expansive beauty of the dining hall, my chest actually ached.

Dining Hall at Ponce Hall

Dining Hall at Ponce Hall

The ceilings and walls are exquisitely detailed by legendary muralist, George Maynard, and the hall is surrounded by the largest collection of Louis Tiffany stained glass windows in the world. I still can’t believe that regular students eat there every single day. So fucking lucky. Makes me want to go to college. Almost.

Just across the street is the stunning Casa Monica Hotel (I have a paranormal tale involving a stay here BTW), and a few blocks down there’s the old military fort, which was impenetrable despite at least a few invasions. Add to that another couple dozen landmarks sprinkled throughout the city, and you can see that this is just a glimpse of St. Augustine. It is one of my very favorite places to visit, and is the backdrop of my debut novel, FINDING SAM.

There is an element of magic that is intrinsic in Sam and Emily’s story, which makes St. Augustine the perfect setting.