“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”
Up until today, my previous travel posts have taken a long trip (pun intended) down memory lane to recount stories of budding wanderlust and early solo travel. This week, by contrast, I wish to share a travel story from just a few months ago, traveling in tandem with my life partner, Matthew. It's also a tale of traveling during COVID -- an undertaking that is by any measure both challenging and risky. (See my post "Travel in the Face of COVID-19.") Though the availability of the vaccine is making greater geographic mobility possible for many people now, in those final pre-vaccine months of December and January, travel was mostly discouraged. If you were going to get on a plane and spend any time in public, you had to commit to taking certain non-negotiable precautions to ensure both that you were not contributing to a public health crisis, and that you would have a safe journey and experience for yourself.
Sometime last November, Matthew's mother, Dianna, floated the idea of a family get-together in St. Augustine, Florida. The proposition of travel was made ten times easier for us by the fact that Dianna had, over the course of several weeks, researched and planned out everything. She made reservations at a bed and breakfast in the old residential area of St. Augustine, scouted out the best restaurants and booked two separate guided tours of the city -- long before we got on the plane. And so it was decided -- we would go! Matthew and I were determined to make the cross-country journey; we took the requisite safety measures seriously and applied the rules of social distancing and public mask-wearing unremittingly. There were several reasons we were so resolute in our decision to go to Florida, but I can boil it down to the two biggies: we really wanted to (1) spend some time with Matthew's family, and (2) celebrate our 15th anniversary together in a more or less exotic locale with nothing of our staid and soggy Arlington, Washington existence to remind us of the past year of self-isolation.
December 29, 2020 - Headed for Orlando
To save a little on airfare, we boarded a red-eye flight from Seattle directly to Orlando. Favored by a strong tailwind, we arrived in record time, spending just under five hours in the air. After picking up the rental car at the airport, we headed north out of Orlando along I-4 toward Jacksonville, a little more than two hours away. Jacksonville is where Matthew grew up and where most of his immediate and extended family still live. He moved out to Seattle in 1996. In Florida, we would be joined by Dianna's sister and brother-in-law, Vicki and Stephen, and Matthew's sister, Susan: making a total of six in our travel party.
Check-in at the inn wasn't until much later that day, so we decided to visit Wayne and Shirley, Matthew's brother and sister-in-law who live in Jacksonville near the Mayport Naval Station. As I was thundering north along I-95, about 30 minutes south of Jacksonville, and apparently oblivious to speed, I was set upon by a state patrolman who singled me out from the pack. I kept my cool and pulled over. When the patrolman approached the car, I provided a straightforward and honest defense -- I was only trying to keep pace with the traffic. It was my lucky day. When he returned with my license and rental car registration, he let me off with a warning. For the rest of our time on the road that week, haunted by my brush with a moving violation, I kept vigil on the speedometer.
Matthew and I spent several hours visiting with Wayne and Shirley. Waiting for us when we arrived was a sumptuous breakfast casserole, along with coffee and an assortment of cocktail options. Shirley's culinary techniques are legendary. She can take the most mundane dish and transform it into a wickedly rich and unforgettable masterpiece of Southern cooking. Always the doting hostess, she made sure we were well fed and happily plied with drinks. Since Matthew was the keeper of our holiday schedule, I was free to forget about time and let someone else manage the appointment calendar. At some point that afternoon, he signaled that it was time to make our way to St. Augustine. But first, we would need to make the 30-minute drive to Lake Mandarin and drop our rental car off at the house shared by Dianna and Susan. The four of us would drive together in the same car to St. Augustine. Vicki and Stephen would be rendezvousing with us at the inn.
The St. Francis Inn
The drive from Jacksonville to St. Augustine takes just under an hour to complete. The weather was, from the perspective of two Washingtonians fresh from the cold and dreariness of December, an absolute tonic. (During the four days we spent in St. Augustine, the daily temperatures ranged from the mid-70s to the low-80s with virtually cloud-free blue skies.) At around three that afternoon, all six of us converged in the parking lot of our hotel -- The St. Francis Inn.
The St. Francis is perhaps one of the most charming, inviting, and undeniably unique properties I have ever stayed at. Located just a few blocks south of the downtown core, on the corner of St. George and St. Francis Streets, the main building of the inn occupies the northeast corner of the intersection. It is a three-storied structure that still retains the flavor of its original construction. There are 10 guest rooms in the main building. There is also a dining room on the first floor, a sitting area adjacent to check-in and registration, and a small gift shop across from the main desk. The second floor guest rooms have balconies that open up onto St. Francis Street, St. George Street and the inner courtyard. There is just one small guest room on the first floor, Marie's Room, with its own entrance from the outside of the building. This was the room Matthew and I shared for most of our stay. A narrow brick pathway leading from St. George Street to the pool behind the main building separates Marie's Room from "The Cottage" which is a two-story house unto itself with its own living area, kitchen, bath and two bedrooms upstairs. The Cottage has two sets of doors -- one that opens up directly in front of the door to Marie's Room, and another that opens up into the gardens and the adjacent courtyard. This was the space Dianna and Susan shared for the majority of their stay.
Photos of Marie's Room:
Across the street on the northwest corner is the parking lot and Wilson House -- another one of the buildings belonging to the St. Francis Inn. Vicki and Stephen stayed at Wilson House in Margaret's Room -- a guest room on the first floor with an entrance in the back of the house. The St. Francis Inn has another building, known as The 1894 House, just a few blocks away. On our last night at the inn, four of us needed to switch rooms due to conflicting reservations with other parties. Dianna and Susan moved from The Cottage across the walkway to Marie's Room, and Matthew and I moved from Marie's Room across the street to the Wilson House where we enjoyed the rather spacious and sprawling Saffron's Suite, complete with separate living room, seating area, and a bona fide en suite with jetted tub. Compared to the cozy Marie's Room, this new guest room felt decadent and luxurious.
If you are considering a trip to St. Augustine, please do plan on a stay at the St. Francis Inn. The hotel staff could not have been more accommodating or more considerate of our unique needs. To illustrate this point, Dianna had fractured her ankle just days before the start of our trip. She could only get around on crutches at the time, which made movement somewhat slower and more challenging for her. Her sister Vicki arranged for an electric scooter to be provided for her mobility. We needed a place to store the scooter and charge it when it wasn't in use. The staff graciously allocated a safe storage location on the hotel grounds, behind the Garden Hideaway, and an electrical outlet for recharging.
There are so many other reasons to stay at the St. Francis. Here are just a few:
The breakfast menu was different each day with an assortment of hot and cold dishes available. There were always two hot entrees, which consisted of scrambles, frittatas or quiches, served by one of the hotel staff while guests could help themselves to fruit, yoghurt, cereal, granola, coffee and tea, juices and freshly-baked pastries.
In the evenings, the hotel packaged up delectable homemade desserts in paper bags with the names of the guest rooms printed on them. They were left on a table in the dining room for us to collect at our leisure.
There is also a "social hour" from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. each night for guests to relax in the dining room over complimentary glasses of wine and beer.
A selection of ice-cold beverages is left out for patrons to come and take during the day, and a basket of chips, crackers and other goodies is available for late-night snackers after the front desk closes.
The swimming pool is open each day until 10 p.m. and kept warm even during the winter.
There is plenty of room in their private courtyard for having breakfast or just sipping a cool beverage in the warm Florida air. The courtyard is an inviting sanctuary of tropical plants and a koi pond all under the shade of towering live oaks. The space was meticulously decorated for the holidays when we were there, and the strings of lights created a feeling of enchantment as night settled on the courtyard.
Warm terry cloth robes are provided in each of the rooms, and are for sale to take home with you in the gift shop.
They offer many seasonal and holiday-related amenities; for example, on New Year's Eve, they left a split of champagne in our guest room.
The City of St. Augustine
St. Augustine was founded in 1565 and is the "oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States." It is located directly on the Atlantic coast in northern Florida, about 40 miles south of Jacksonville and has a population of just over 17,000. It is a very popular tourist destination year-round with plenty of historical landmarks and lots of shopping and good food. Among the most notable of St. Augustine's attractions are Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, the Castillo de San Marcos (part of the National Park Service, a 17th century fortress on the water's edge), and the stunning architecture and grounds of Flagler College. The Castillo de San Marcos was constructed from coquina stone, a material readily available in quarries around the city. You'll find it just about everywhere in the city -- in the walls of buildings and houses and in the walls that surround parks and courtyards.
Owing to the city's birth in antiquity, the streets downtown and in the oldest neighborhoods are very narrow and can support only single-lane, one-way vehicular traffic. One major thoroughfare, St. George Street, is a pedestrian-only passage through downtown where you will find scores of restaurants, bars, gift shops, museums and other attractions.
St. George Street:
The Personalized Tours
Dianna had arranged for all six of us to go on two separate tours -- one on the evening of the 30th to take in the famed Nights of Lights festival, and the other during the morning of the 31st to see the city by day. The tours, provided by St. Augustine Gold Tours, are led by locals who are well-versed in the factoids, details and stories of the city's past and present. The tours are designed for smaller groups, perfect for our party of six, so we were treated to a very personalized experience from extremely knowledgeable and charismatic guides. We boarded an electric cart with two bench seats facing forward, and one bench seat on the back facing the scenery as it is moving away.
Both of the tours included curb-side pickup service right at our bed and breakfast! The evening tour led us first through the downtown area where we took in the amazing holiday extravaganza of Nights of Lights. The event has been running for 27 consecutive years and is now world famous as one of the best places to experience the dazzling spectacle of the enchanting holiday lights. This year, more than three million white lights were used to illuminates buildings and trees and windows in downtown St. Augustine. Each year, a single red bulb is placed somewhere along the Nights of Lights tour circuit and the organizers encourage everyone to see if they can spot it.
We finished our tour that night with a slow-rolling procession along Aviles Street, the oldest street in St. Augustine, and by extension, the oldest street in the United States.
The second tour took us through the oldest neighborhood in St. Augustine where we saw the oldest house (Gonzalez-Alvarez House on St. Francis Street about a block from the inn).
The tour rounded out with a drive-by of Flagler College and City Hall.
The Anniversary Celebration
I met Matthew just 30 minutes after the stroke of midnight, on January 1, 2006. Our visit to St. Augustine coincided with our 15th anniversary. We really hadn't planned on a formal celebration, but I wanted to do something special in light of (1) our being in St. Augustine with family; and (2) the fact that "15" is more or less a milestone number. The traditional gift for a 15th anniversary is crystal, but neither of us is really a collector of crystal glasses, crystal vases, crystal decanters, or crystal anything. What I did think might be fun was to get a bottle of Cristal to open up at midnight on New Year's Eve so that everyone in our group could share in a toast. And so began the mission -- hunting down a bottle of Cristal in St. Augustine.
Since I didn't share this plan with Matthew -- I wanted it to be a surprise -- I had to enlist someone with a car to help me. That person was Matthew's Aunt Vicki. There could be no better person suited for the job of hunting down something hard-to-find. That's exactly what it turned out to be -- hard-to-find. Vicki immediately took the reigns and made several local calls to liquor stores and outlets to see if they had any in stock. We came up empty over and over again, but that is exactly the kind of challenge that Vicki thrives on, nay, excels at! After nearly an hour of calling around, we found a place about two miles away on U.S. 1 where they did have a few bottles in stock. Vicki asked them to set one aside, and immediately, she drove me to the liquor store where I was able to purchase it and claim victory. She bought a back-up bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut for the upcoming celebration. We were all set for the surprise.
At 10 to midnight, I let Matthew in on the secret (the rest of the family was already in on it). We opened the bottle, poured out glasses for everyone, then toasted at the stroke of midnight, eager to say goodbye to 2020. It was my first ever glass of Cristal, and it went down very smoothly.
Dining in St. Augustine
Though we did have lunch out on the town a few times, I plan to focus more on the dinners at the restaurants where we dined.
December 30, 2020 - Forgotten Tonic, 6 Aviles Street, St. Augustine 32084
Dianna called ahead and made reservations for us. The restaurant was about a 5-minute walk from the inn, located right on the nation's oldest street -- Aviles Street. One thing I should pause to note here is that Florida had a very relaxed stance on social distancing in restaurants (which were fully opened for business everywhere) and on mask-wearing in public. When we were seated in the restaurant, there was a table full of people jammed right up next to us. We all felt quite uncomfortable. This was all happening at a time when infection rates were soaring to all-time highs in the post-holiday weeks. If we really wanted this dining experience, it was clear we would have to accept certain risks. To mitigate those risks as much as possible, our party crammed into the seats furthest away from our neighboring diners. Of course, we had no idea if those precautions were going to work, but a week later when we were all still healthy, we realized that we had dodged a bullet.
First the praise: The food at Forgotten Tonic was very good. I ordered the shrimp and grits étouffée which was rich and savory, as I expected it would be. The ambience was lively, energetic and warm. Now for the medicine: The service was adequate at best -- I wouldn't say this was one of their strong points. The restaurant management clearly did not give priority to safety by positioning tables a safe distance from one another. The place was crowded, which meant they also did not attempt to place a cap on the number of people inside the restaurant. If I had to give a rating, factoring in the "profit-over-customer safety" issue, it would be a C-.
December 31, 2020 - Dog Rose Brewing Co., 77 Bridge St, St. Augustine 32084
Though we didn't have dinner here, it is an honorable mention as one of our favorite lunchtime establishments. It is located just two blocks from the St. Francis Inn and turned out to be the perfect place for our party to relax over beers and games and have friendly conversation. The space is very open with high ceilings and plenty of tables with self-service seating. In the far corner are two shuffleboard tables and a couple of dartboards. Food is not prepared inside the brewery -- instead, there is a food truck just through a side door and out toward the back of the property where you can order burgers, nachos, tacos, burritos and the like. They will even bring the food inside to your table when it's ready!
December 31, 2020 - Old City House Restaurant, 115 Cordova St, St. Augustine 32084
Dianna made reservations for us here as well. It was also just a 5-minute walk from the inn, located on a quiet side street just a half block from the very commercial and traffic-choked King Street. Prices are on the high side, but the food was quite good and exquisitely prepared. I had the pork osso bucco which was tender and juicy and falling away from the bone. The atmosphere of the restaurant was significantly more sedated, tables placed appropriately distant to ensure customer safety. The dining area was brighter and more festive in its decorations, and our wait staff was accommodating and punctual with orders and check-ins. I would give this establishment a B+.
January 1, 2021 - Columbia Restaurant, 98 St. George St, St. Augustine 32084
The Columbia Restaurant is located in the heart of the retail and nightlife section of town on the corner of St. George and Hypolita Streets. There was a slight mix-up with the reservations when we got there -- it required a nearly 30-minute wait while they located a table to accommodate our party. They had seating on two levels, but with Dianna's diminished mobility from a fractured ankle, we requested a table on the ground floor.
People were filtering in and out of the restaurant -- some with masks and some without. The tables, fortunately, were spaced apart. Our party was seated at a large circular table at the crossroads of busy aisles where waitstaff was traveling from the kitchen to their assigned guests. It was definitely more kid-friendly; we saw lots of families dining there. The fare was Cuban and Spanish with lots of seafood and pork choices. I ended up with the baked stuffed grouper which was heavenly and rich and flavorful. It was so rich, in fact, and so abundant on my plate, that I ended up taking most of it home with me in a take-out container, finishing the remainder for lunch the next day. Our waitstaff was extremely friendly and engaging. If I were pressed to give this establishment a rating, it would be an A-.
When it came to planning this great getaway, Dianna left no stone unturned. She thought of nearly everything to make our stay as comfortable and enjoyable and memorable as possible: the amazing bed and breakfast, the lineup of fine eateries, the guided tours and even the city itself. We left St. Augustine on January 2nd with fun, enduring, warm memories of family and new experiences.
Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!