Prior to 2006, we lived for 7½ years or so in Santa Fe, the continent's second-oldest continuously occupied city, which will be celebrating its 400th year in 2010. Compared to most of the rest of the west—Denver turned 150 this year, for example—four centuries is old indeed.
Given our Santa Fe experience, and because it's only about 3½ hours from where we live now, we thought we should pay a visit to the oldest such city, Saint Augustine, which was formally established in 1565 by the second wave of Spanish conquerors.
It was "discovered" some time earlier by Ponce de Leon in the first wave. As the story goes, he, standing 56 inches in his boots, a typical size among his crew, felt vertically challenged—especially compared to the natives, who averaged well over six feet. The Spaniards, suffering inferiority complexes despite their armor and better weaponry, asked about the height discrepancy and were directed to a particular spring in the area. This so-called "Fountain of Youth" is still there, still a major tourist attraction despite its noxiously sulfurous water and despite the fact that nobody, to anyone's knowledge, has ever grown taller or lived longer than usual because of drinking from it, bathing in it, or taking expensive little vials of its water home to keep on their mantles.
Such is the tourist business, and it exemplifies the nature of this busy little city. Indeed, in many respects, parts of Saint Augustine reminded us of that more familiar bastion of tourist kitsch, Estes Park, where tee-shirt shops and cheap trinkets rule. In Saint Augustine they just pretend to be more historic (yes, even "historic" tee shirts).
Like so many early settlements in North America, Saint Augustine's history was written in blood, with, in this case, a liberal dose of mud thrown in. There's a remarkable fort—now a monument administered by the National Park Service—that withstood every attack by invaders over nearly three centuries (French; then natives; then English; then more natives; then more English, who finally won without taking the fort; then Spanish, who had left the fort to the English but changed their minds; then more natives; then the Union army). The fort was originally constructed of a local cement-like muck based on crushed shells and coral rock, stuff that was unlike anything anybody had ever seen. One English admiral gave up in disgust and sailed his fleet back home when his siege, punctuated with cannon bombardment, had no effect on the fort. It seems that the works would simply absorb the cannon balls, like mud does a rock tossed into it, and apparently heal themselves overnight. Very frustrating.
Saint Augustine is also home to the first, and largest, Ripley's Believe It or Not "museum," which is housed in an absurd-looking, castle-like structure originally built by novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings as a hotel. We didn't Believe It enough to pay the admission, though, so we can't comment on its exhibits—their motto, "Cheerfully Freaking Out Families for Fifty Years," was enough of a hint for us.
Nor is this building the only example of architectural narcissism. Flagler College now occupies, among other, more tasteful, buildings, a monstrosity originally erected by oil/railroad baron Henry Flagler as the Ponce de Leon Hotel. The associated museum devoted to the excesses of late 19th Century industrialist wealth is enough to make sensible folks long for Thoreau's little cabin by the pond.
We learned all this, and much, much more, during a two-hour tram tour of the city, perhaps the one really touristy activity that we can fully recommend. There are several trams, they let you get off and back on (so that you can change drivers if you don't happen to like the narration of one you're with, or so that you can buy more historic trinkets), and the tickets are good for three days. Used cleverly, it turns into a nice, narrated bus system around the central part of town. There are actually two companies doing this, one of them Ripley's, but, not wanting any surprises no matter how cheerful they might be, we picked the other one.
All-in-all, as tourist traps go, Saint Augustine is top notch, offering a wide variety of restaurants and charming bed-and-breakfast accommodations as well as the tourist attractions. With nearly 450 years of history as a base, they have had plenty to build on, so there's something for just about everyone, even those of us who aren't looking to get freaked out for fun.