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!

Unexpected Orlando: The Florida Road Trip Continues

It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been back from our winter road trip through Florida for a few weeks and the world has changed so dramatically. So, who’s interested in reading about travel when travel is verboten? Since we love to read about travel even when we’re between trips, we’ll continue to share recent experiences. The next stop on the latest road trip was Orlando.

What comes immediately to mind when someone says “Orlando, Florida”? If you’re like us, the words conjure an image of a certain mouse and a theme park. Of course, Disneyworld is the destination for so many people who venture inland in Florida from one coast or another. But not for us.

We were last in the Orlando area when our son was three years old. He’s now over 30 so you can tell it’s been a while!

Breakfast with Minnie all those years ago. This visit would be different!

However, the last time we were there, we stayed on the Disney site in their Polynesian Village hotel. This time we weren’t going anywhere near the Magic Kingdom. We headed straight from Sarasota to the Grand Bohemian Hotel in downtown Orlando. We did, however, stop at two outlet malls. One of them was mind-boggling.

The International Premium Outlets in the Orlando area was the largest outlet mall we’ve ever experienced. The parking lot was unbelievable. In fact, much of the parking there is paid parking if you can believe it. The place was so big, we just wandered around marvelling at the sheer number of shops then left with not a single purchase. We then set out to find our hotel – through hideous traffic.

The main draw for us in the city of Orlando was the Grand Bohemian Hotel itself. Across the street from city hall and the municipal buildings, the hotel is part of the Kessler Group of hotels, now owned by Marriott. It’s part of their autograph collection which consists of an international collection of quirky and often historic properties. Who would have believed that this was in the middle of Florida?

When we checked into the hotel, it became obvious that we’d have to step up our wardrobe a bit from places like Key Largo and Naples if we didn’t want to stick out here. The hotel was populated mostly by business people in suits. We do enjoy stepping up our wardrobes, so this wasn’t a problem.

Orlando was something of a surprise to us. With a population of over 2.5 million, Orlando is the third-largest city in Florida. Dating from the middle of the nineteenth-century, the city still has reminders of what it might have been like in the 1800s. In the Church Street station area, the old train station is still there alongside saloons and other historic buildings.

We spent a lovely morning walking around the parks in the middle of the city, Lake Eola Park being the prettiest. With its piped-in music, swans and various bird species, the lake is a wonderful urban oasis.

But one of the most striking aspects of downtown Orlando is its variety of public artwork. We certainly appreciated it as we expect the locals do as well. One of the things we noticed was that despite what might come to mind when thinking of Orlando, we didn’t see a single child and there actually seemed to be very few tourists around. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a convention city.

We spent two nights in Orlando – long enough to see the city. Then it was off to St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America.

Sarasota, Florida: The road trip continues north

Three days in Naples, Florida was more than enough, so it was time to get back into the rented Jeep and head north. Next stop: Sarasota.

After the sprawling suburb that was Naples, we were looking forward to a bigger city – we do love a big city. We were going to have to wait some time, though, since Sarasota, although its downtown does sport a high-rise or two, isn’t really a city either. With a population just shy of 58,000, Sarasota was incorporated as a town in 1902. A few older buildings remain in the downtown area, including a mission church.

We checked into the Westin which is, in fact, located downtown, and walked the urban landscape. It didn’t take long!

The view from our room at the Westin
The Westin’s rooftop bar

The Westin itself is a very pretty, modern hotel. It did, however, have a few “issues.” The elevators were a nightmare – the waits were horrific. And the entire place seems to be understaffed. From the single person at the front desk to the fact that our room wasn’t cleaned until 5 pm the next day (after we called twice) to the wait staff running around the restaurant at breakfast like chickens with their head cut off. All in all, they do have a management problem.

The following morning, we headed across the bay to St. Armand’s Circle, a collection of restaurants, bars and shops.

We then carried on to see the beach through a residential area of laid-back, sometimes quirky little houses until we reached the beach.

A long stretch of white sand, the beach is located along an outer island that can only be reached, as we did, by crossing over a series of bridges that connect a series of keys. It was the weekend, the sun was shining, and the beach was busy.

Then it was time to stop for some rehydration (a beer) at ChaCha Coconuts, a funky little bar on St. Armand’s…

…before we headed back across the bridge toward our home-away-from-home. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we had walked 15.5 kms. All in a day’s vacationing!

The map shows Sarasota’s downtown connected to the keys. We walked there and back!

Spending two nights in Sarasota was a good way to see the city. But more than that would have been too much. Next stop: downtown Orlando!

Grand Old Hotels: Some are grander than others

There’s something so romantic about the idea of those grand, old hotels of yesteryear. The long, low buildings with those wrap-around porches overlooking a tranquil lake, palm plants in the lobby where a string quartet plays. And the guests are elegantly attired and enjoying a serene holiday away from the heat of the city. Epitomized in that 1980 film Somewhere in Time, these hotels have always held an allure for us. Remember that movie? Just look at the hotel!

Well, that hotel, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is still on our bucket list, but we’ve visited a few others and have just returned from one that we thought might be the luxury experience they advertise. We have just returned from The Sagamore Resort in upstate New York.

The Sagamore Resort with its porch facing Lake George, New York.
The entrance to the Sagamore. This is the historic hotel where we stayed, but there are many modern “lodges” on the resort property.

When we first visited their web site to book, we were enthralled by the drone footage of this incredible resort on a private island on Lake George. And there was the iconic hotel design. It was love at first sight. They refer to themselves as “Lake George’s premier luxury resort” and with a price tag of nearly $800.00 a night for a water view room in the main historic hotel, how could we go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Being on a summer road trip, we had just come from the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, another of the grand old hotels that we have visited many times.

Their grounds are not nearly so grand as the Sagamore’s, but their main historic hotel rooms are wonderful and the price? We paid less than $300 (Canadian) for what turned out to be a far superior room and a more luxurious experience. But, what about the Sagamore? Our story covers the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Let’s start with the good bits. When approached, the staff are, to a person, attentive, friendly and personable. From the valets parking our car to the housekeeping staff, we had not complaints in that department. Then there was the food. It was exceptional for hotel dining. We enjoyed La Dolce Vita, their main dining room as well as al fresco dining at The Pavilion.

Margaritas on the deck at The Pavilion.

But the pièce de résistance had to be the wonderful Grill at the golf course. Off-site, it was serene, peaceful and served wonderful steaks. And the service was impeccable. And the grounds are lovely (we enjoyed them as long as we stayed away from the pool, beach and anywhere that was populated – more about why in a minute).

A cruise on the Sagamore’s “The Morgan” is included in your resort fee. We highly recommend taking advantage of this.

So, those were the good bits. Now for the bad bits.

The room. Furnished in an historic style, the room was just a very ordinary, tired-looking hotel room. For the price, we have had so much better. Can we talk about dust encrustation on parts of the bathroom and dust in the crevices of the old dressers – and there were lots of crevices. The carpets were not fresh either. But the bathroom had been renovated and was acceptable (except for that dirt).

Patty enjoying a glass of champagne (which we brought with us) in our $$$ room. Yes, that’s how small it was.

The hotel is old so the noise tends to permeate, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if it were not for…the ugly bits.

The place was crawling with children. Loud children. Whining children. Children running amok through dining rooms, hallways, outdoor walkways, the “beach”, the pool. You name it, they made the experience like being in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who had just arrived and were surprised to see so many children. You see, they had read the promotional material and had left their children at home with the grand-parents for a brief, romantic getaway. At that point, it wasn’t looking so romantic to them.

Overall, we tend to be able to have a good time wherever we go, but this was such a disappointment that we will not make that mistake again. It is not a luxury experience in any way, shape or form. It is just expensive. We will head to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in the off-season and hope for that serene experience.