From our earliest schooldays we learned that the first Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth Rock. Well, Pilgrim, maybe they got it all wrong.
Forget the turkey, cranberry and all the trimmings. A growing number of folks from St. Augustine, Fla. think we should be feasting on a rich Spanish stew called “cocido” concoted with pork, garbanzo beans and onions.
Fifty six years before pilgrims shared a meal with native Americans at Plymouth, Pedro Menendez de Aviles stepped ashore in St. Augustine mesmorized by the splash of exotic wildflower colors. He invited the Timuca Indians to join his band of 800 Spanish settlers in a Thanksgiving feast in September of 1565.
The story is recounted in the 1965 book “Cross in the Sand” by retired Univeristy of Florida history professor Michael Gannon. Over the past four decades less than thrilled New Englanders have dubbed Gannon “the grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”
The tale is one of many told to visitors each year who enjoy the history, beauty and ambience of America's oldest city. In the years after St. Augustine’s founding, the city shifted to British rule for a period and then transferred back to Spanish control in 1783. In 1821 the United States purchased the area that included St. Augustine from Spain. It wasn't until the late 1800s that the city really began to develop as a popular tourist location under the entrepreneurial eye of oil and railroad tycoon Henry Flagler.
A community of 13,000 residents on Florida's northeastern coast, St. Augustine has managed to maintain its colonial charm. Take the Castillo de San Marcos-- for a couple of centuries its alabaster walls and crimson towers rose above the Atlantic waves and signaled another perilous voyage had ended. Violent storms and enemy firepower couldn't penetrate its walls on this 20.5-acre monument site. At the historical site of the Colonial Spanish Quarter, blacksmiths, leather workers and housewives go about their daily chores, circa 1740.
Not only is St. Augustine older than other American colonial sites, it's very distinctive with its Spanish architecture. Visitors feel as if they are strolling through an old village on the Mediterranean coast. Hop the trolley to visit the attractions or explore the narrow cobblestone streets of Old City, a 22-block district on the edge of azure blue Matanzas Bay, which boasts 36 original colonial buildings and 40 reconstructed buildings within its borders.
It is also home to the narrowest street in the United States. Just seven feet wide, Treasury Street connects the waterfront Bay Street to the Royal Spanish Treasury. The shady lane was purposely built to provide barely enough room for two men to carry a chest of gold to the treasury from ships docked on the bay. This was done to minimize the chances of a horse drawn carriage riding by and pulling a hold-up.
As the second richest man in America, the quest of Henry Flagler (a partner of John D. Rockefeller) in the late 19th century was to turn Florida into an American Riviera. He built the spectacular Ponce de León hotel that today is home to Flagler College. This architectural wonder contains Tiffany windows valued at over $30 million, and was one of the first buildings in the country to have electricity, installed by Thomas Edison.
Another masterpiece was the Alcazar Hotel that now houses the Lightner Museum. Known as the “Smithsonian of the South,” the Spanish Renaissance structure exudes the grace and culture of the Gilded Age. Its three floors house an array of art, costumes, furnishings, paintings, exhibits, and ornate music boxes. The collections also include exquisite examples of Victorian art glass and even some fine work by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Two cafes on site offer lunch and snacks.
Street names like Valencia and Cordova are tangible reminders of the city’s Spanish history, but today St. Augustine also possesses a little French gem. Bistro de Leon on Cathedral Place is the north Florida outpost of fifth-generation chef Jean-Stephane Poinard and his vivacious wife, Valerie, a winemaker from Domaine de la Fond Moiroux.
Innovative standouts on the menu include the duck filet roasted in cider and apple confite, the roasted quail “au choux” and the St. Augustine bouillabaisse, a local fish stew of shrimp, mussels and deep sea scallops. You will find an excellent and affordable wine list, and Valerie will gladly help with a selection. The bread is baked on the premises and the Bistro’s desserts and delightful appetizer parfaits are freshly made and displayed in the glass case at the front of the restaurant.
Columbia, which features authentic Spanish/Cuban cuisine, is a longtime favorite. Relax in the outdoor courtyard or Mediterranean-style dining rooms filled with hundreds of hand-painted tiles and Spanish-style fountains. Popular dishes include the Paella a la Valenciana and their world-famous 1905 salad. Prepared tableside, the salad is served with the century-old family dressing recipe of fresh garlic, oregano, wine vinegar and Spanish extra virgin olive oil. Be sure to sample a Spanish wine like Torres, Montecillo or Campillo.
Overlooking the City Yacht Marina and the Historic Bridge of Lions, O.C. White’s occupies the historic General Worth mansion dating back to 1790. We dined in the courtyard where a sprawling trellis overflowed with jasmine blooms as guitarist/singer Douglas Campbell entertained. Local favorites include shrimp Abaco, grouper and Jamaican rum jerk chicken.
They are all within easy walking distance of the St. Francis Inn where American and Spanish flags flutter from the balcony. Step through the metal gate and you will be tempted to linger in the private garden adjacent to the main house surrounded by lush banana trees, bougainvillea and other tropical flowers. Built in 1791, the inn now encompasses 17 well-appointed rooms that include suites, a private cottage and a beach house about seven miles away. The inn’s chef prepares a delicious, made-from-scratch hot breakfast, a sumptuous evening dessert and a late afternoon social featuring wine, beer and appetizers.
The Bayfront Westcott House is a true example of elegant Victorian architecture with its wrap-around porches, brick courtyards and fabulous views of Matanzas Bay. Each of their 15 guest rooms is furnished with period antiques, some with fireplaces and double jacuzzis. Enjoy the sea breezes from the wicker furniture on the verandas with a complimentary glass of wine where you might see dolphins and manatees at play along with sailboats cruising the Matanzas Bay.
Across the bay Anastasia State Park awaits. Comprising more than 1,600 acres it features four miles of pristine beach, a tidal salt marsh, and a maritime and upland hammock. There is also an archaeological site where coquina rock was mined to create the nearby fortress, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.
Eco Tour Boat captain and naturalist Zach McKenna introduces newcomers to local bottlenose dolphins, rare birds, sea turtles with a dazzling backdrop of St. Augustine. The boats have the capability of navigating the shallow waters of the lush salt marshes where you may chance upon spectacular eye-to-eye wildlife encounters.