June 18: Where America Began

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It was a meager 75 miles of towing to our next destination, 4 Lakes Campground near St Augustine. The campground was located conveniently near the old city and it honored our Passport America membership for the three nights we stayed, making it the second cheapest full hookup campground for our entire trip. It’s a new campground, recently opened last year. Our site was a pull through and level, which is half the battle at most campgrounds. Were there four lakes? Look it up on Google maps satellite image and you decide.

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The view of 4 Lakes Campground from one of the 4 (or 3 depending on how you look at it) lakes.

On to St Augustine, lots of history here. And if you are a fan of the Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler, well this is the place to be because his influence is seen at every turn. While we visited, temperatures reached the mid-90s and typical afternoon storms blew in thwarting much of our sightseeing plans. We signed on for a one-day trolley tour, which was plenty of time to hear the city’s history from the well-informed drivers, all of whom have a gift for storytelling. But ask me if I remember anything from that oral tour of St Augustine? Not a thing, it’s a vague memory of dozens of facts and mini-stories rattled off one after the other as the trolley passed by several points of interest. After hearing the driver introduce himself as “Robert, the dread pirate” in a fake menacing drawl a dozen times to those boarding the trolley, we were ready to get off.

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The Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church was built in 1889, in dedication to Henry Flagler’s daughter who died during childbirth. He, along with his daughter, grandchild and first wife are buried in the adjacent mausoleum.

Of course, we wanted to take part in the free tasting at the St Augustine Distillery which comes with the tour. I mean, we do have our priorities! We exited the trolley in pouring rain and went inside the distillery lobby to get our tickets for the next tour. More people poured in as the rain worsened outside and loud thunder surrounded us. And then we lost power. Long story short, after an hour of waiting in the dark, we left the distillery in want of a drink and promptly boarded the trolley for its next stop, the San Sebastian Winery. Lucky for us, the storm blew over, the winery had power, we got our free tasting.

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Not a bad way to spend a stormy afternoon in St. Augustine.

The next day, we visited the Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument and where America began. Almost 350 years old, the fort is the oldest in the United States and looks pretty good for its age. It was built by the Spanish and taken over by the British a couple times. Pretty much done with Florida by this time, the Spanish handed the fort over to United States in 1821. After that, its walls served as a prison during the Seminole wars and one of the most famous prisoners was Osceola, a Seminole leader captured while attending peace talks under a white flag of truce.

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At the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, I like the presence of a park ranger over a prison guard.

Storms come and go quickly down here this time of year, so with a short reprieve between them we enjoyed a beautiful view from a roadside park along A1A south of St. Augustine. There, we struck up a conversation with a local fellow who pointed toward a strange looking building off in the distance. He said that was Fort Mantanzas and he highly recommended we visit it, so we did.

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Florida  in the summer, love it or leave it.

Fort Mantanzas is a national monument and free. Compared to Castillo de San Marcos, it is extremely unassuming. A ferry takes you a short distance to an island where the fort stands. The round trip ferry ride and self-guided tour of the small fort takes less than one hour. The part I enjoyed most other than the view, was the rickety wooden ladder that leads through a narrow opening to the top of the fort. I was so delighted to see a young girl climb up and down that ladder with only a simple encouragement from mom. No coddling allowed in this fort!

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A view from atop Fort Mantanzas.
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To reach the top of the fort, you must climb through a narrow opening.
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Vivian stays below and strikes up a conversation with a park ranger.

The forts and old St Augustine were the primary attractions for us, but the coquina rock coastline was the highlight for me. I left the RV one morning at 5:00 am and drove 45 minutes to the beach near Marineland. There, the beach is littered with large coquina (shellstone) rock and consequently among the most photographed beaches in Florida. Coquina is also the material used to build Castillo de San Marco and Fort Mantanzas. In the dark, I looked for rock and beach scenes to capture and waited for the sunlight to appear over the horizon. An hour later as I walked back to the truck, I realized I had walked past several fresh turtle nests in the dark.

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Founded by Spanish explorers in 1565, St. Augustine is claimed to be the oldest U.S. city. But there is a more recent and interesting piece of history to it. St Augustine was a hotbed of racial violence soon after Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1963. KKK as well as police violence gave St Augustine national attention and created an upheaval of sympathy for those at the receiving end of the violence and deep disgust for those invoking the violence. Long story short, the events in St Augustine (including the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr) were key in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At the end of our two days in St Augustine, we were ready to leave Florida.

RV and travel issues and concerns

Issue 1: Is the trolley tour and museum passes necessary to experience St Augustine? The historical city is relatively easy to get around by foot if you are capable and willing to do so. And as an alternative to a museum pass, reading the history ahead of time will give you all the history you need as you take in the architecture on your own walking tour. Frankly, we found a lot of the attractions to be too kitschy for our taste. I will admit, purchasing the trolley made it easier to get around in the heat and rain. It also gave us free parking and free distillery and winery tours, so we factored those costs into the deal. Bottom line – do your research before you start purchasing tours and museum passes.

Issue 2: So far on this trip, our Passport America yearly fee has paid for itself and our “America the Beautiful” pass will eventually pay off as well as we continue our trip. I recommend both for long term travelers. There’s another one I recommend as well, Harvest Hosts. It has in the past and will prove once again on this trip that it is well worth the yearly membership fee.

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