St. Augustine, Jacksonville
Located across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum has really established itself as one of the city's premier attractions. Here visitors can learn a great deal about the lives of some of history's most notorious pirates, and about the lifestyles and historical contexts associated with piracy during the days of exploration and colonization. Aside from the gift shop, there are nine exhibit areas in the museum: Port Royal, Rogues Tavern, Main Deck, Gun Deck, Below Deck, Captain's Cabin, Execution Dock, Shipwreck Island, and Hollywood Pirates. Rogues Taven is my favorite part of the museum. Here, several touch screens provide access to an electronic who's who book of famous pirates, while the walls are adorned with portraits and accounts of the many pirates connected with the history of St. Augustine and nearby Amelia Island. Of course, the Main Deck serves as the centerpiece of the museum. Designed to actually resemble the main deck of a pirate ship, this room is equipped with a captain's wheel and barrels carrying the scents of what would have been common cargo smuggled on board ships of the past. Behind the Main Deck, the Gun Deck features a cannon simulator that visitors can fire, and a closet in which hangs a model showing what a skeletal corpse might look like after getting shot by a large, disemboweling shot of ammunition. Be advised that this is one of several things in the museum that may scare children. Other creepy models, diaramas, and animatronics that might bother children include a mock corpse enclosed in a gibbet and hung for all to see (as was a customary practice of communities that executed pirates and used their bodies as a warning to others), a pirate patient biting down on a leather strap after a surgeon has just plucked out his right eye, a "sleeping" pirate that appears to be breathing, and, of course, the talking severed head of Blackbeard. Below Deck is actually a dark chamber where visitors put on headphones and enjoy a sensory presentation developed by Disney about the defeat and beheading of Blackbeard. The museum is not just a bunch of creepy and scary exhibits, however. Rooms showcase a variety of artifacts including one of only two remaining Jolly Roger flags; a surgical kit with instruments used for such procedures as eye gouging, limb amputation, and kidney stone removal; proclamations, documents, a diary, and even the family Bible belonging to Captain Kidd; weaponry including deadly blunderbusts and cutlasses; actual treasures including coins, jewelry, and the world's only remaining authentic pirate treasure chest; and yes, even props and posters from pirate-inspired Hollywood films.
Located along the bayfront in St. Augustine's Historic District, about 45 minutes south of Jacksonville, the Castillo de San Marcos is perhaps St. Augustine's biggest attraction. It was built in the late 1600's out of coquina, an unusual local shell/stone material. Previously, St. Augustine was defended by a wooden fort, but the burning of that fort and subsequent devastation of the town at the hands of Robert Searles, a notorious English pirate, necessitated the construction of a more durable fortification. While "the fort" (as it is commonly referred to today) was primarily instrumental during the Spanish and British colonial periods, it also played a role in the American Civil War and was later used as a prison for a time. Today though, the Castillo is operated by the National Park Service, under whose watch it is routinely stormed by hordes of tourists armed with cameras. Visitors (who have paid the reasonable admission cost) may cross the drawbridge, wander through the fort's series of chambers, cross through its courtyard, and climb its staircase to the cannon deck to enjoy sweeping views of the harbor and city. Cannon-firing demonstrations occur throughout the day, as costumed "soldiers" carry out the procedural duties associated with firing a cannon back in Spanish colonial times. Even when you know it's coming, that "BANG" can still give you a jolt! Children may want to be advised to cover their ears. Overall though, it is a great place to explore an authentic part of history and enjoy some great scenic views!
While it is one thing to watch dolphins through underwater viewing glass, it is quite another to actually interact with them. Marineland Dolphin Adventure, located about 15-20 minutes south of St. Augustine and about an hour south of Jacksonville, offers a variety of programs by which visitors may interact with dolphins. The most expensive, of course, is to actually swim with dolphins. That costs over $200 per person. I have not done this, but my family did get to take part in another kind of interaction. The “Touch & Feed” program offers a very memorable experience without requiring that anyone gets in the water. Our family was assigned to “Betty,” a spry dolphin in her forties (old by dolphin standards) who really seemed to enjoy her back and tail rubs by human hands. She was even a bit ticklish on her tummy. We also had the privilege to feed Betty chilled fishy treats. (soap and water are close at hand), watch her perform a few trained behaviors, and listen to her squeaks.
Just to the south of the city about 25 miles is a wonderful town, which is the first founded in the US, and the oldest. Spaniards made this are defense position and built a fort at the point. Trade with Indians and later with settlers developed this town into a vibrant community. The fort defended the residents by surrounding the whole area with a high wall. Sites a plentiful in the town, and so many old buildings from the founding to about early 1800's abound. There also is a great college; Flagler, and Lightner Museum which was Alcazar hotel in late 1880's. Fort San Marco was built in 1672 by the Spanish, and enhanced over the years.
YOu could spend a couple of days here to see and tour sites, and that excludes shopping at 200-300 places, and eating at maybe 50 spots. You do have to "weed" through a lot of touristy type junk and "cruddy" things to do besides, though.
'A Ghostly Experience' is a 1 1/2 hour walk through the ancient streets of St. Augustine featuring a guide in period attire with candle lit lantern relating tales of legends, lore and ghostly experiences. This nightly tour begins at 8:00 p.m. near the Oldest Wooden School House at the water wheel on North St. George Street. Special prices for groups of 15 or more. You may look forward to a frightfully good time!