St. Augustine is celebrating its 450th anniversary this year, and during my recent visit it was hard not to get swept up in the city's rich history, from its early days of Spanish explorers and Indians to its key role as a protest site during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The journey through history begins along Highway A1A north of the city, where a wooden observation deck marks the spot where Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon came ashore on April 2, 1513. Along the highway, mangroves and multimillion-dollar mansions mix with shabby-chic bungalows and protected lands.
The nearby Guana Tolomato Matanzas Research Reserve includes 74,000 acres of pristine land and water, the perfect place for the whole family to explore Florida's wild side. The Environmental Education Center is a treasure trove of discovery on wildlife with interpretative exhibits, aquariums and a Nature Store.
One of the most popular activities is the guided Family Seining in the Guana River. I dressed in waders to scoop up fish, crabs and comb jellies from the river bottom and was lucky enough to find the first baby puffer fish in the river. Aptly named "Lucky," he now lives in the exhibit hall aquarium.
The authentic historical experience in Old City begins at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the original site settled by St. Augustine's founder, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in 1565. Here, visitors can find a re-creation of the Timucuan Indian Village that existed on the land where Old City now stands; it was built alongside archaeological digs where many ancient artifacts were discovered. Visitors can also drink from the Fountain of Youth.
The bullet-riddled outside walls of nearby Castillo de San Marco, a Spanish fort built out of coquina (a rock containing fragments of seashells), provide a grim reminder of the executions of prisoners carried out by Spanish soldiers.
The Pirate and Treasure Museum just a few yards away takes visitors back to when pirates ruled the seas off Florida. Kids are kept busy here with interactive activities and a scavenger hunt that is rewarded with "treasure" (stickers and small toys).
The Spanish Military Hospital Museum captivates guests with its realistic depiction of a colonial-era hospital, with surgical demonstrations and an "apothecary" who demonstrates how modern-day medicines evolved from remedies of days gone by.
Amid the brick streets adorned with specialty shops and local boutiques, St. Augustine reveals more of its historical charm on a leisurely stroll. The city is also home to an increasingly diverse dining scene, from the ever-popular Columbia Restaurant to local favorites such as the Bull & Crown Publick House, serving a pint of Guinness and British pub favorites, and Michael's Tasting Room, serving innovative global cuisine with Spanish flair. Hyppo, a gourmet ice pop destination, swirls flavors like cucumber lemon mint and melon and cracked pepper. Entrepreneur and native son Stephen DiMare opened the flagship store on Hypolita Street.