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History Channel
Florida's St. Augustine and Amelia Island provide lessons on explorers, settlers, soldiers and vacationers.
Published: Jan/Feb 2003
By Tamra Willett-Johnson

Timucua Indians, Spanish explorers, French Huguenots, English traders, and Confederate and Union soldiers left their footprints on the northern Florida shore. Today, tourists leave their mark as they explore St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, and Amelia Island, the only piece of U.S. land over which eight different flags have flown.
 
About 60 miles apart, the two areas have very different atmospheres. St. Augustine has a distinct Spanish-colonial flavor combined with an attractive energy. The town's antique shops, boutiques, restaurants and hotels, many of which are housed in historic buildings, bustle with visitors. Amelia Island's aura, on the other hand, is coastal and relaxed. The island is edged with tall sand dunes and salt marshes, and Fernandina Beach, the only city on the island, features a 50-block area listed on the National Register of Historic Places perfect for an evening stroll.
 
St. Augustine

Juan Ponce de Leon landed here in 1513 in search of the Fountain of Youth, but soon moved on. Next came a French Huguenot settlement that drew the attention of Phillip II of Spain, who sent an expedition. After routing the French, the Spaniards founded the city in 1565 and named it after St. Augustine; it was the saint's feast day when the Spanish crew had made landfall in the area. The city was in that country's control when Sir Francis Drake and his forces burned it down in 1586.
 
The Spanish rebuilt the city and maintained it until 1763 when it was obtained by Britain through treaty. After the British were defeated in the American Revolution, the city was returned to Spain in 1784. It remained that country's property until 1821 when Florida became a territory of the United States.
 
The city's Spanish-style architecture, warm climate and natural beauty made it a popular vacation spot after the Civil War, and it continues to draw thousands of visitors each year. Those interested in historic sites can find something intriguing around every corner. St. Augustine is home to some of the oldest original structures in the United States including The Oldest House (1706) and The Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse (1804).
 
An entire city block of history waits at Old St. Augustine Village. The village contains nine houses dating to 1790, including some gardens and courtyards, plus archaeological ruins from 1572. Exhibits highlighting St. Augustine and Florida history are featured. Costumed interpreters make an occasional appearance.
 
Touch more of the past at the Old Florida Museum, where games, weapons, food and tools demonstrate life in the Sunshine State from pre-European to pioneer times. Folks can shell corn, comb cotton, plant seeds and write with a quill pen at the museum's Florida Cracker Pioneer program. Crackers, the tough settlers who homesteaded here, are believed to have gotten their name from the cracking sound their whips made as they herded cattle. The life of Timucua Indians also can be experienced here as visitors dig out a canoe, play American Indian games and grind corn.
 
To catch a spectacular view of the city and the surrounding beaches, climb 219 steps to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. One of only six Florida lighthouses open to the public, the 19th-century tower and keepers' house have been restored to their original Victorian style. It remains an active aid-to-navigation lighthouse.
 
Named after St. Augustine's mother, the Casa Monica Hotel welcomed presidents, kings and celebrities after opening in 1888. It was converted to a courthouse in 1968 and lost its 19th-century charm. Luckily, in 1997 plans to restore the Casa Monica to its original glory began, and today guests enjoy its Spanish-style furnishings, large lobby complete with ferns and a fountain, and restaurant featuring gourmet cuisine.
 
Amelia Island

Named for the daughter of King George II, Amelia Island has seen eight flags (French, Spanish, British, Patriots, Green Cross of Florida, Mexican, Confederate and the United States), slave smugglers and pirates.
 
Ruffians no longer patrol the waters or roam the streets. Instead, visitors find an assortment of specialty, antique and clothing shops in downtown Fernandina Beach. Other shops are located throughout the island including those offering resort wear, European wines, gourmet foods and designer jewelry.
 
History can be found at several island sites, the most unique being Fort Clinch State Park. Named for Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch, a participant in the Second Seminole War, the fort was started in 1847 and continued to be built through the Civil War. Its brick construction proved to be obsolete against cannon and improved gunpowder, and after being used in 1898 in the Spanish-American War, it was abandoned until it was restored in the 1930s.
 
Park rangers dressed in Union or Confederate uniforms are available to answer questions. Two or three times a year volunteers join the rangers in re-enacting life in 1864. The soldiers carry out their duties in the mess hall, infirmary, barracks and the brig.
 
The Silk Stocking District on Amelia Island is a collection of Victorian mansions; many are bed-and-breakfasts. A standout in the district is the Florida House Inn, which was built in 1857 and has been thoroughly restored. Each room has a private bath and several have fireplaces and Jacuzzis; all are furnished in comfortable Victorian style. The inn serves lunch and dinner in the boarding-house manner -- limited choices but generous portions.
 
At Kingsley Plantation, just a short hop from Amelia on Fort George Island, folks can tour an authentic plantation house and grounds. Slave quarters made of tabby (a cement made of oyster shells, fresh water and sand) still stand as do shell middens (refuse piles made by oyster-harvesting Indians) believed to be centuries old. Park rangers enthusiastically explain the difficulties and dangers of raising and harvesting sea cotton, corn, sugarcane and indigo.

Tamra Willett-Johnson is copy/associate editor of Home & Away.


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