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The Night of Lights -- St. Augustine, Florida

After leaving Jacksonville, we traveled down the coast to North Beach Camp Resort in St. Augustine.

We had heard a lot about this charming city and it's "must see" annual Christmas light display. I must say, we weren't disappointed.

Having grown up in the northeast, I didn't learn much about the founding of Florida. Most of my early history education focused on the (much closer) English settlement of Jamestown, VA. Founded in 1607, it was the oldest permanent English settlement in North America. I suppose I hadn't thought much about it, but other European (and Scandinavian) settlers came to this country long before the English.

In 1565, the Spanish came and established a settlement in La Florida and named it St. Augustine. The purpose was to protect Spanish property in the area, provide a safe-haven for Spanish treasure ship and to stem the spread of English and French settlements.

The town has a rich and fascinating history. It was burned to the ground numerous times (including once by Sir Francis Drake in 1586), belonged to the Spanish for 200 years, then ceded to the English, ceded back to Spain and finally to the U.S. in 1819.

The fort the Spanish built in 1672, Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. It's massive stone walls withstood attacks by the English, French and a variety of mangy pirates. It never fell to an enemy. It is a fascinating attraction and a must see if you're ever in the area.

There is also the downtown area of St. Augustine that is chock full of interesting and unique shops, trendy restaurants and pirate-themed museums. It took Lorraine and I about three days to see it all. And if you come during the months of November - January, you will be treated to a feast of decorative white lights (per city ordinance). Every tree, building and horse drawn carriage in the historic district is covered with them. It's like walking through a white-twinkling wonderland. From roof-lines to doorway entrances, the buildings sparkle with a glow of holiday cheer. I would bypass the trolley tours and horse-drawn carriages rides, and find all-day parking (which can be found in the downtown area for about $10) and stroll through the Plaza de la Constitución and the surrounding area on foot. You won't be disappointed.

Flagler College is another MUST see. It began as an exclusive luxury hotel named the Ponce De Leon built in 1888 by an astonishing visionary named Henry M. Flagler. During it heyday, wealthy travelers ( including Frederick Vanderbilt and William R. Rockefeller, Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding and Lyndon Johnson all stayed there, not to mention Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Somerset Maugham, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos) paid almost $100,000 (inflation adjusted dollars) to winter here.

Henry made his fortune in Standard Oil working along side John D. Rockefeller (John Rockefeller referred to him as the smartest man he ever knew).

One day, when his first wife (he had three) took ill, their doctor recommended spending time in sunny Florida. It was on this visit that Henry saw the inherent beauty of the state and its woeful lack of adequate housing for the newly emerging millionaire class. He went on to open a string of exclusive hotels through the state (and the railroad lines to transport these visitors). He is known as the father of St. Augustine, Miami and Palm Beach, Florida! A remarkable achievement for the son of a Presbyterian minister.

The Ponce De Leon Hotel will project you back in time to the gilded-age. It is truly a Spanish palace, with courts, nooks for reading and repose, tropical gardens, fountains and towers – everything necessary to impress even the most expensive and luxurious tastes. You will marvel at the ornate, hand-crafted design. What's even more amazing is that this hotel was built in only 18 months. To put it in perspective, we couldn't get Lowe's to renovate my kitchen in the same amount of time!

By the way, if you do take the legacy tour, ask for Caroline. She did an amazing job and has an extensive knowledge of the hotel's history. She's a senior at the college majoring in Political Science.

One FINAL note of caution: Rule number one of casinos is: "The house always wins". St. Augustine is like a casino. Because of the variety of shops, restaurants and attractions, it will manage to suck every dollar out of your pocket. If we had stayed here much longer, we most assuredly would have gone broke!

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