The newest hotel in St. Augustine is a throwback to the Gilded Age.
Three ornate Victorian turrets top a mansard roof at the Renaissance St. Augustine hotel. Multiple porches wrap around the sprawling three-story structure, which is painted in as many pastel colors as you'll find in the local ice cream parlor.
This popular seaside town on Florida's northeast Atlantic Coast is the oldest continuously populated city in the U.S. and thus takes its history seriously. Founded by Spanish explorers in 1565, it sports old-world charm and a wealth of architectural styles from its past, including a Spanish colonial fort as well as elegant examples of Moorish revival, Southern plantation-style, and British colonial architecture.
Furnishings are contemporary and interiors bright at the Renaissance St. Augustine. Seen here, the hotel's lobby and lounge area. Photo Credit: Renaissance St. Augustine Historic Downtown Hotel
The 89-room hotel, which opened in September, fits right in in that regard. But on the inside, it is thoroughly modern.
"The Renaissance hotel is a visual link to the city's history, but it's also as luxurious a hotel as you'll find in any major U.S. city," said Richard Goldman, CEO and president of the St. Augustine area visitors' bureau.
Furnishings are contemporary and interior colors bright. A Starbucks is tucked behind the stairwell, and an upscale bistro-bar serves farm-to-table cuisine and chic garden-to-glass cocktails.
Thanks to strict building codes, St. Augustine is diligent about enhancing and adding to its historical ambience, while appealing to visitors seeking a leisure escape. The city itself is small, with just 20,000 people, but it's part of the burgeoning Jacksonville metro area of 1.6 million people. Popular nearby attractions include the white-sand beaches of upscale Ponte Vedra and world-class golf resorts such as the Players Club.
Constructing a historic-looking hotel from scratch in St. Augustine took more than a decade and posed many challenges for local hotelier Kanti Patel, president of the Jalaram Hotel group that has developed nine area hotels.
Though the $32 million Renaissance replaced a generic chain motel, the idea was to build an architectural tribute to a famous Gilded Age hotel that once stood nearby, said Patel. But the architect also incorporated Victorian elements from two other period hotels, as well -- thus explaining the hotel's three ornately different turrets and design elements.
"Our intent was always to reflect the style of the surrounding Victorian neighborhood and the mood of this historic city," Patel told me, after I visited the hotel as a part of a media trip sponsored by the Florida Historic Coast visitors and convention bureau, which includes St. Augustine.
Whimsical touches at the Renaissance St. Augustine include a foyer chandelier made of dangling glass disks. Photo Credit: Barbara Redding
The striking hotel sprawls over several city blocks on a busy street connecting key tourist attractions. The historical fort Castillo de San Marco, the cobblestone streets of the "Ancient City" and the tourist offices are within walking distance. Nearby beaches are just a 15-minute drive away.
While Patel's group was responsible for the hotel's exterior, designers from Marriott's Renaissance group provided the interior with a modern twist. White columns, soaring gold ceilings, a marble staircase and minimalist gray furnishings project an ultracontemporary tone.
Whimsical design touches include a foyer chandelier of dangling glass disks and a seating nook with a bench shaped like a clothespin. About the only hint of history inside is a black-and-white painting of the old city at the top of the stairs.
Guestrooms, which include two suites with fireplaces and private entrances, boast soothing colors and luxury Frette bedding. Sliding doors covered in pop art conceal 55-inch LCD TVs. Other furnishings are sparse, with cubbies instead of dressers and lounging couches in place of chairs and desks. Several rooms also have balconies.
Bathrooms feature walk-in showers with dual shower heads, raised sinks, plush towels and Aveda bath products.
Castillo Craft Bar + Kitchen, the hotel's full-service restaurant and bar, is named after the city's famous fort. I spent a pleasant evening in the bar, which specializes in local craft beer and cocktails, watching a bartender fix smoked Old Fashioned drinks warmed with woodchips lit by a small blow torch.
The restaurant's innovative comfort food includes spicy chicken wings, crispy Brussels sprouts, a stacked caprice salad and my favorite, mussels served with sweet potato fries.
A king guestroom, one of 89 units at the Renaissance St. Augustine, which opened in September. Photo Credit: Renaissance St. Augustine Historic Downtown
Though primarily aimed at leisure travelers, the hotel has 9,000 square feet of meetings space that can accommodate business gatherings as well as weddings. There is also a fitness area and a small pool, which is scheduled to open in December.
Room rates at the Renaissance St. Augustine begin at $259 on weeknights and $445 on weekends.