Unexpected Florida: A road trip stop in St. Augustine

If the thought of a Florida vacation conjures images of drunken spring breakers and white-haired snowbirds shuffling around golf courses brandishing nine-irons, it might be time to broaden your view. The penultimate stop on our recent Florida road trip found us smack in the middle of the oldest city in the United States: St. Augustine.

We left downtown Orlando and headed northeast to the coastal city of St. Augustine. The farthest north in Florida we’d ever been, we knew that despite the fact it was late February, the weather might not be beach-worthy. We were right. But we weren’t quite prepared for were the extraordinary historic landmarks that make up this little gem of a town.

Founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1565, St. Augustine is sometimes described as the longest-established city in North America. However, St. John’s, Newfoundland here in Canada was established in 1497 and Mexico City in 1325. But it is the oldest “continuously-inhabited European-established settlement” in the US (at least according to Wikipedia). And that Spanish influence is evident throughout the little streets of the old town.

The town has a lengthy and storied history: invasions by pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a British loyalist haven after Florida was ceded to Great Britain in 1763, changing hands several times to one of the most interesting parts of its history: the “invasion” of tourists brought by the extension of the railroad in the late 1800s.

Henry Flagler, one of the owners of the Standard Oil Company (with J.D. Rockefeller) enjoyed winter in St. Augustine in 1883 after which he decided to form a new railway company to lure wealthy Americans from wintery places like New York and Boston south for the winter season. He built two hotels: The Hotel Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. He then bought the already-established Cordova Hotel and the town flourished. That is until the railroad was extended farther south to Miami where visitors could count on warmer weather throughout the entire season. St. Augustine was no longer the winter darling of the northern visitors.

Even today, though, those old hotels are triumphs of Spanish colonial architecture and are still wonderful to see experience.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon is now the beautiful home of Flagler College as the two photos below show…

…and the Hotel Alcazar is a museum, both worth visiting. We did. Here are two shots that evoke what it must have been like “back in the day.”

And then there’s the old Cordova Hotel that Flagler renamed The Casa Monica. Well, that hotel is now part of the Marriott Autograph collection of quirky hotels and it’s where we stayed. We spent two nights in the two-story St. Francis suite, a nice upgrade for two very loyal Marriott guests!

Art (in a down jacket and hat) in front of the Casa Monica Resort and Spa. It was cold!

Here’s what the St. Francis suite looked like…

The view from our suite…

…and the Casa Monica lobby…

We had already experienced a lot of “quirky” places on this road trip (Orlando, Sarasota) but this one was different. Although those little streets in the old town suggest it storied past, they largely house tourist “traps” that you might enjoy.

We enjoyed walking around and seeing what was there but we’re not really the tourist-shop kind of visitors. Instead, we walked miles over to the island and explored as many of the quiet streets as we could.

Ah for the tourists who prefer not to walk. We did not partake!

When it was time to pull out of St. Augustine, we were headed to our last stop: Fort Lauderdale, that hotbed of drunken spring breakers. No kidding!

From the biggest to the smallest: San Diego’s best attractions for discerning travelers

IMG_4476Sometimes a travel experience involves a tried and true tourist attraction; other times you find those off-the-beaten path places that no one else seems to find. Either way, they can have their charms.

Last month we visited San Diego for the first time in over a quarter of a century. When people think of tourist attractions in San Diego, the first thing that usually comes to mind is their zoo, and so we made our way from our hotel on the edge of the Gaslight District to the San Diego Zoo only to find ourselves in a morass of people. Having visited the Taronga Zoo in Sydney Australia within the last couple of years, we found the San Diego experience to be lacking in appeal, so we had to find other attractions. Enter the USS Midway.

For many Americans, visiting this floating museum, an actual post-World War II aircraft carrier, likely evokes feelings of patriotism and awe of the US military machine. For us non-Americans, it was an experience of quite a different kind.

There is no doubt about it: there is something awe-inspiring about the sheer size of a vessel of this kind. The hangar deck, the flight deck, not to mention the miles and miles of corridors. We marveled at how a young sailor or air man could possibly have found his way around the carrier on first deployment.

The carrier itself was commissioned a week after the end of World War II and had the distinction of being the largest ship in the world until 1955. During her 47-year career in the US naval fleet, she participated in many important actions including the Vietnam war and Operation Desert Storm. Walking around the ship and exploring its labyrinth of corridors, you get a real sense of history. The curators of this “museum” have done a spectacular job of evoking the life and times of this massive ship.

We arrived early – about 15 minutes before it opened at 10 am – and found ourselves in an already forming line. Once the gates opened, however, we moved quickly and spent the next two hours exploring. It is not a place for anyone with mobility issues – and for the love of God leave the strollers at home! There are many steep stairways and the corridors move from one water-tight space to the next requiring you to step up and over the barriers where the doors shut. Leave the very little ones at home if you want to really experience this museum.

So, we found that massive tourist attraction – then marveled at the opposite end of the size spectrum at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Fascinated by all things miniature (we’ll tell you about the Arizona Art Museum’s offering next week), Patty had discovered that this museum occupied a floor of one of the buildings at Balboa Park.

It is the largest indoor model railroad exhibit in North America and its 27,000 square feet are pure pleasure. Just as we marveled at the sheer massiveness of the Midway, we were equally awestruck by the workmanship of the miniature worlds created by the model railroad artisans.

This is a place that you can take younger children who will be mesmerized by the miniature worlds and the trains making their way through various landscapes.

It was lovely and quiet there that day and we were delighted to have experienced it.

The Midway has to be seen to be believed, so if you have a moment, click through our video and then make plans to get there on your next trip to San Diego.


Two grand ladies of the sea: The original Queen Mary and Queen Mary 2

A poster for the combined Cunard White Star brand aboard the original Queen Mary.

When we crossed a trans-Atlantic voyage on a grand ocean liner off our bucket list last summer, we were hooked by the nostalgia of the grand ocean voyages of yesteryear. On board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 with us on that voyage was a lecturer named William H. Miller (aka “Mr. Ocean Liner”) whose standing-room-only presentations that week were so mesmerizing that we bought one of his books.[1] When we read his description of the original Queen Mary as the most “beloved” of the ocean liners, we wondered whether her “daughter” the new Queen Mary 2 might in some ways resemble her earlier incarnation. Then, several synchronicities happened.

First, our son said, “I’m going to be in Los Angeles in February. Why don’t you two come and meet me before you go to Hawaii?”

Second, we started to explore activities in the LA area and discovered that the original Queen Mary is docked in Long Beach, California, a 20-minute drive from where we’d be staying in Costa Mesa.

Finally, Patty’s 89-year-old mother said, “You know, I’m sure your father came home from Europe [after fighting in WW II] on the Queen Mary.”

…so we knew we’d have to visit her…and we did.

When the Queen Mary was launched in 1936, she was considered to be the grandest liner ever built, and over her long and storied career, she not only carried passengers back and forth across the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City, but was also refitted as a troop carrier during the second World War, ferrying some 800,000 troops from the UK, through Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Patty’s father disembarked), to NYC. Today, she’s a hotel and a point of interest if you’re ever in the Long Beach area.

The Queen Mary as she sits alongside today in Long Beach, California.

Stepping aboard the ship is like taking a walk back in time. Our visit was timed perfectly it seemed since the crowds were thin and our pre-arranged tour consisted only of three of us (Art, Patty and daughter Amanda who accompanied us to LA to see her brother dance) and two others who dropped out after the first five minutes lacking sufficient English skills to understand the guide (who was quite an actor). So we had a private tour.

Our guide explained the way the three classes of passengers were divided – a notion that has (almost) entirely gone the way of the dodo on modern cruise ships. (We explained how Cunard still maintains this partially in an earlier post). The classes were not segregated by level, such as one deck for first class, another for second etc. Rather the first-class passengers’ accommodations and public spaces were in the center of the ship – where a ship is most stable. The second-class passengers populated the stern (rear) and the poor third-class passengers were all the way forward, a portion of the ship that, as the guide explained, often took a nose-dive under the waves in bad weather. Those were the days before modern stabilization. There must have been a lot of nausea in the bow!

The QM's atrium as it is today, restored to its earlier grandeur.

As we moved through the large public spaces on the Queen Mary, we tried to imagine what those grand balls must have been like and couldn’t help but make comparisons to the Queen’s Room (the ballroom), the champagne bar and the theater on the Queen Mary 2.

Perhaps, though, it was in the engine room below decks in the stern that harbored the most ghosts. As we walked through the darkened passages, just the three of us (we did this part without a guide), we could almost hear the crew as they toiled away. Then as we walked into the cubicle that had been created through a cut-out area on the ship’s super-structure, we were confronted by the eerie underwater sight of one of the original propellers, still in place under the water. That sent us flying toward the light!

The ship is also used as a floating hotel these days, although, according to the guide, the walls are so thin you can hear everything going on in your neighbor’s stateroom. When we reached the end of the tour, since there were only three of us, we asked if it would be possible to see a first-class suite. They are usually not part of the tour since they are part of the hotel. The guide humored us and went to procure permission. Success! Taking our time in the suite, our guide invited us to sit in the sitting room to try to conjure images of who might have spent time in this room in the 1930’s, ‘40’s & ‘50’s.

The bedroom of the first-class suite.

The suite consisted of a master bedroom, two bathrooms with hot and cold running fresh and salt water choices, a sitting room and a maid’s room that was outfitted with its own sink but she would have gone down the hall for the toilet and a bath. The burled wood built-ins (vanity table, desk, dressers, and bedside tables) are all original to the suite – although the flat-screen TV’s are not! There is no doubt they’ve done a remarkable job of restoration to provide an experience that takes you into another era.

After the tour we repaired to one of the dining rooms for fish and chips for lunch while we overlooked a marina filled to overflowing with modern sailboats. All in all, one of the great tourist experiences for people who love the ocean. The Queen Mary’s web site says: “The ship no longer sails, but she can still take you away.” Amen!

The corridor evokes a sense of history.

[FYI: They offer a variety of tours from self-guided audio tours, through WW II tours to a Ghosts & Legends Tour. You should take at least one of the guided tours, and try to go when the crowds are thinnest for the best experience.]

Come with us on our tour…

[1] Miller, William. 2010. Floating palaces: The great Atlantic liners. Chalford, UK: Amberley Publishing.