Horse-drawn carriages await along the waterfront at the Bridge of Lions Photo by Miosotis, Shutterstock
They come from around the world to meander along narrow cobblestone streets in romantic horse-drawn carriages. Some want to walk the ramparts of the 350-year-old seashell and limestone fortress that goes golden just before sunset, and the cannons are decorated with the crowns and fleurs de lis of 16th-century Spanish royalty. Others come to sleep luxuriously in a tower suite of Henry Flagler’s opulent Gilded Age hotel or a charming centuries-old inn —perhaps to meet the ghostly spirits that may still linger within. And while they’re here (because why not?) to test the rejuvenating powers of Ponce de Leon’s still-flowing Fountain of Youth.
This time I’ve come to the nation’s oldest city, established 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, to immerse in my Minorcan heritage: to sit on the veranda of my grandmother’s childhood home, circa 1883, dappled with the shadows of its Gothic Victorian gingerbread trim. I want to walk the narrow lane of Little San Felipe (now called the Minorcan Quarter) where she played, and peek in at the steep hand-crafted banister she slid down when the grownups weren’t looking. I’ve longed for the taste of datil pepper-infused Minorcan clam chowder and my grown-up grandmother’s shrimp “perlow” (pilau). I want to immerse myself in the legacy of her ancestors, impoverished tradespeople lured from the Spanish island of Menorca in the 1700s as indentured servants on an indigo plantation. After a deadly voyage and brutal slave conditions, 600 survivors walked 70 miles to St. Augustine for asylum. In roughly six square blocks just inside the Ancient City’s gates, many of their homes still stand, and their descendants strive to preserve the culture of the homeland.
This visit is especially meaningful because my infant granddaughter will also be here for a traditional front porch photo op wearing the gossamer-weight christening gown with delicate lace trim and tiny buttons lovingly stitched by her great-great aunt a century and a half ago.
Left: Tolomato Cemetery and historic homes in the Minorcan Quarter | Karen T. Bartlett
Middle: Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel, now part of the Flagler College campus | Karen T. Bartlett
Right: Aunt Kate’s Restaurant | Karen T. Bartlett
As an extra bonus, this is the season of St. Augustine’s spectacular Nights of Lights, when millions of white fairy lights twinkle in the trees and illuminate the historic buildings along the Plaza de la Constitución and its side streets through the end of January.
How has it worked out? The days were misty and cold…and then sunlight filtered through. The nights were foggy… and then a full silver moon rose over the Ancient City. My granddaughter’s photo op was highly entertaining. And then it was sweeter than I’d dreamed.
In the historic district, savor Minorcan clam chowder in the romantic courtyard of Catch 27, or the tastiest black bean soup this side of Cuba, embellished tableside at Columbia Restaurant. For waterfront elegance, enjoy gourmet fare at the acclaimed St. Augustine Fish Camp. For casual, fresh-from-the-water seafood served up by Minorcan descendants for over a century (including Minorcan clam chowder and a mouth-watering she-crab soup), head for Aunt Kate’s overlooking the river on Vilano Beach.
Henry Flagler’s Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture, especially former Hotels Ponce de Leon (now Flagler College) and Alcazar, (now the spectacular Lightner Museum) where one can dine in the former deep end of the former hotel’s indoor pool.
Ximenez-Fatio House Museum, a 1700s Minorcan home-turned-boardinghouse. Offerings include docent and self-guided tours and professional late-night paranormal investigations.
Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, Florida’s oldest tourist attraction. Once hawking souvenir bottles of magical age-erasing spring water, it’s gone archaeological, cultural, and educational. Highlights are the Navigator’s Planetarium, demonstrating 14th and 15th-century astrolabes and quadrants, and the massive, 30-foot-high Discovery Globe, tracking explorers’ routes and settlements during that period.
Minorcan Heritage Festival
March is Minorcan Heritage Month, starting with a lively day-long festival hosted by the Menorcan Cultural Society, followed by weekly cultural events and tours hosted by The Minorcan Experience.
menorcansociety.net; Facebook/The Minorcan Experience
Casa Monica, circa 1888
Stay in the Ponce de Leon Tower Suite, with its private walk-out parapet. If you’re more royally inclined, there’s the three-story Flagler Suite, or if you’re actual royalty, go for the four-story tower penthouse. Or opt for my grandmother’s childhood home, Carriage Way Inn, voted St. Augustine’s best B&B six years running.