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(2013 - Spring Issue)


While New England may have the Pilgrims, the first Europeans to make a mark on the New World were from Spain.

It was 1513 when Ponce de León hoisted his flag on the Florida coastline. Within 50 years, Spaniards settled in St. Augustine and Pensacola, creating a long-standing rivalry that lasted for centuries.

Both cities have a significant claim to fame. Pensacola was settled first in 1559 making it the oldest European settlement in the country. St. Augustine, founded in 1565, is the oldest continuously settled community. (Pensacola was abandoned for a short period of time.) When Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, the capital was moved to the halfway point in Tallahassee.

Given 2013 is the 500th anniversary year of de León’s arrival, it’s a great time to consider exploring these two destinations that made American history. Which side of the state you choose is purely a matter of personal taste.

Party on the Gulf Coast

Pensacola, a Gulf Coast resort town near the Alabama border, is all muscle, grit and good times. It’s home to NASCAR racing, naval aviation heroics à la Top Gun, rowdy country and western bars, and a veritable smorgasbord of fun-filled resort properties overlooking miles of snowy white sandy beaches.

The National Naval Aviation Museum is a showstopper, from the gargantuan biplane suspended in the foyer to the new aircraft carrier simulation studio. Those wanting to immerse themselves in the country-singing lifestyle won’t want to miss Flora-Bama, a massive oyster bar and grill in Perdido Key that attracts patrons by the thousands.

Historic Pensacola Village is worth the time for anyone interested in experiencing the colonial lifestyle. More athletic types can climb the local lighthouse and museum. If you time things right, you may use this vantage point to watch the Blue Angels naval aviation squadron run through their paces.

Nature lovers might prefer to go on a manatee-watching expedition, while foodies check out Joe Patti’s seafood market, one of the largest in the southeast USA and a Pensacola staple for more than 75 years. They’ll even provide the shipping materials should you choose to take home a haul of fresh fish. One of the best discoveries was the authentic soul food restaurant, Five Sisters Blues Café in the historic Belmont-DeVilliers neighbourhood.

An East Coast Gem

Six hundred kilometres due east along the I-10 and a few miles south of Jacksonville, St. Augustine represents the epitome of tranquility and grandeur. This historical gem stands apart from other tourist destinations for its opulence, remarkable architecture and outstanding cuisine. The inner city is full of stately Spanish-influenced deco-style buildings, cobbled streets, art and artisan shops galore, and electric trams that take tourists through the narrow pathways to visit the haunts of long-gone soldiers and citizens.

As you stroll through this pristine community, it’s hard to believe the turmoil that underlies its history. Once a strategic stronghold that controlled the flow of riches between the Caribbean islands and Europe, St. Augustine has always been a prized target for politicians and plunderers alike. It has been under siege, razed and resurrected many times over, changing hands not once, not twice, but four times—from the Spanish to the British, back to the Spanish, and finally to the U.S.

One devastating attack in the 1600s that levelled the community led to the building of the Castillo de San Marcos, an imposing stone fortress that is the only existing 17th-century fortification in North America. Today the national monument stands largely intact—except for the pockmarks made by cannon balls and bullets from attackers.

But that was then and this is now. St. Augustine’s more recent heritage is far more refined. Visitors are never at a loss to find some amazing riches within easy walking distance. Boutiques, art galleries, specialty food shops and international-style restaurants abound.

An overwhelming figure behind the town centre is Henry Flagler, a New York-born oil tycoon and one-time partner with John D. Rockefeller who designed and built a number of the magnificent properties in an effort to create a thriving winter playground for the rich. Today his architectural legacy can be seen at Flagler College (formerly the ultra-luxury Ponce de Leon Boutique Hotel), and the quirky, but fascinating, Lightner Museum (a.k.a. the Alcazar Hotel in former times), among other buildings.

The sights of St. Augustine are not just for grownups. In addition to the fortress, there’s the award-winning and interactive Pirate & Treasure Museum, along with experiential historical sites at the Fountain of Youth and newly-built Colonial Quarter (opening just in time for the 500th anniversary celebrations). Or you can always join family or friends on a guided ghost walk.

Whether your inclination is to party in Pensacola or take in the sights of St. Augustine, 2013 promises to be the perfect time to do so as these communities pull out all the stops to celebrate this auspicious anniversary. And if you happen to be in St. Augustine, don’t be surprised if a proud resident happens to greet you with the words “Viva Florida” (pronounced Flor-ee-da) or “VivaPonce de León” to mark the spirit of the occasion.

Where to go

In St. Augustine, the centrally-located Casa Monica Hotel is at the heart of the town’s historic district and a mere stone’s throw away from major restaurants and attractions. Favourite dining experiences include the authentic Spanish cuisine at The Columbia or sumptuous French fare at Bistro de Leon.

In Tallahassee, pick up a scrumptious lunch at Paisley Café at 1123 Thomasville Road, a popular gathering spot that serves the best grits around. And be sure to visit the Mission San Luis site, a reconstructed mission showcasing the social lives of the Spanish and Native American residents that settled the region.

The Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front on Pensacola Beach offers spectacular views and spacious rooms in a premier beachfront location. For fine dining, check out Jackson’s Steakhouse with Chef Irv Miller, or pick up some gourmet foods on-the-go at Nancy’s Haute Affairs.

Travel Planner

The best way to get there by air is via Atlanta airport, where you can pick up connecting flights to either Pensacola or Jacksonville due north of St. Augustine. It’s a six-hour drive from St. Augustine to Pensacola. If you’re up for the road trip, be sure to stop off in Tallahassee along the way for some rest and refreshments.

For more information, visit:

Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: VisitPensacola.com

St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau: floridashistoriccoast.com

Visit Tallahassee: VisitTallahassee.com

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