Another anniversary, another weekend getaway! I know this post is long overdue, but last week I promised I would still be posting about it so here I am!
Last year we spent our first anniversary in Savannah, GA, and this year Vikram surprised me with a long weekend in St. Augustine, FL. In case you missed it, I was live blogging about the lead-up to the big reveal of our destination – and just like Vikram promised, I didn’t know where we were going right up until we got there!
If you’re not familiar, St. Augustine is a quaint historic city on the northeast coast of Florida. It’s best known as one of the oldest cities in the United States, and for being the oldest continuously-occupied European settlement in the country (try saying that three times fast!). It’s small, unique, and beautiful; I can’t think of a better place to celebrate two years of marriage!
As I mentioned in my live blog, I was given next-to-no details about this trip – including how we were getting there. We ended up taking an overnight train – something I hadn’t done in almost 20 years! We ate before boarding, so once we settled into our seats we were pretty much set for the night. Vikram had had the foresight to download some movies for us to watch during the ride, but they turned out to be superfluous because there was free WiFi and outlets at our seats!
Since this was my first train trip since pre-Y2K, I can only compare it to the long-distance transportation that I’m used to: airplanes. While airplanes are the hands-down winners in the speed and bathroom departments, trains (at least the one we were on) took the gold in the areas of aisle room, leg room (you get a foot rest and a leg rest!), food variety, and outdoor visibility – the train was filled with big, beautiful windows!
The train car was a bit chilly, so we used my well-planned blanket scarf for warmth as we settled in for the night.
We woke up around 8:00 AM on Saturday, still cruising along the East Coast. I was greeted by a beautiful sunrise out the train window, along with an announcement that we were nearing a stop in Jacksonville, FL. We disembarked just outside of Jacksonville at a town called Palatka, which I had never heard of. During our half-mile trek to the car rental place, I noticed that the town appeared to have seen better days, but quickly brushed it off and turned my attention back to the fabulous weekend ahead.
We made the 40 minute drive to our destination, along which I saw signs for St. Augustine and finally figured out where we were headed 🙂
Since we couldn’t check into our hotel yet, we did some preliminary sightseeing in our travel-wear. Our first stop was Crave, a food truck that serves all-natural salads, wraps, smoothies, and kombucha. The food was amazing, but the best part of the experience was the people working there – unbelievably friendly, helpful, and accommodating. I’m sure we’ll be back next time we’re in the area!
After lunch, we headed to the Castillo de San Marcos – the oldest masonry (stone) fort in the continental U.S. Like many things in St. Augustine, the fort is made of coquina (pronounced ko-KEEN-ah), which is essentially a hard stone made up of thousands of tiny shells. Since there’s not a lot of natural stone available in St. Augustine, the settlers made do with what they could find!
The fort was interesting but rather small – we covered everything in about 15-20 minutes. Normally there is a $10 entry fee, but since it was National Parks Week, admission was waived – score! For me, the Castillo was something that I appreciated but would have been okay skipping, especially since it’s free to walk around outside the fort. We – like many other tourists – actually spent a good deal of time sitting on the moat walls outside the Castillo overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Before heading back to the car, I dragged Vikram to one of my favorite finds from a brief visit this past winter with my mom – The Hyppo, which serves gourmet ice pops in a cornucopia of fantastic flavors. I got Blueberry Lavender Lemonade and Vikram got Mango Habanero. Yum 🙂
We checked into our hotel and took a much-needed nap. Sure, sleeping on a train is better than sleeping on an airplane, but it still can’t beat a good old-fashioned bed. We freshened up and headed to historic downtown St. Augustine to roam around the bustling St. George Street, which is full of shops, restaurants, bars, and historical sites. We took in the sights, snapped some pictures, and grabbed a few snacks – hot chocolate at The Kookaburra and macarons at Le Macaron – before deciding where to have our proper dinner.
It came as a pleasant surprise that St. Augustine is essentially void of any chain restaurants – most establishments seemed unique and local. In fact, I don’t even recall seeing a Starbucks! This was both a blessing and a curse: we had so many fun options, it was too hard to choose! Our conundrum was helped a bit by the fact that many restaurants specialized in seafood (coastal city – no surprise) and didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian. We ultimately ended up snagging a late reservation at The Floridian, which offered plenty of unique veg options. With its adorable atmosphere and highly creative menu, I would absolutely recommend this restaurant!
We ended the night with a late stroll along the B&B-lined brick streets, and a trip to Kilwin’s to tackle a midnight ice cream craving.
Sunday started off with a late breakfast at the hotel, and afterwards we made our way towards a trolley tour we purchased the day before with Old Town Trolley Tours. The package we chose included a couple of historic sites at the trolley’s starting point, so we tackled those first.
First up was The Old Jail, which was a functioning jail up until the 1950s. The tour was quick but very fun and informative; the guide treated us as if we were being admitted as prisoners in the early 1900s – we even briefly got locked in a cell! Our next stop was across the train tracks at The Oldest Store Museum, where we were treated as early 1900s customers and offered a selection of the shop’s finest merchandise from the era. Again, another quick but fun experience. Our final stop before the trolley was a brief jaunt around the St. Augustine History Museum, again within the same area as the first two stops. Selecting these three locations only added about $15 to our base trolley package, and provided some great information and entertainment for about an hour and a half; I would recommend doing this if you plan an Old Town Trolley Tour 🙂
We finally boarded the trolley for what was promised to be a 90-minute loop around Historic St. Augustine, including stops at 24 key locations. We were free to get off at any of the stops and catch any of the next trolleys that came by every 5-10 minutes. We ended up stopping (again) at St. George Street for a quick lunch, then again at the beautiful Flagler College, and finally at the locally-renowned Whetstone Chocolate Factory* before completing the loop back to our car.
While it was a selling point for us that the trolley tickets were good for three days, we found that we only ended up taking one loop in total. Additionally, we noticed that some of the “24 stops” were simply to pick up riders from different parking lots, and many of the historical stops were within a few blocks of each other – easily walking distance. I would definitely recommend this tour for the interesting information it provides about the city during the drive, but I would caution any travelers to have realistic expectations about how much you will use the service.
After the tour we drove back downtown, luckily found a parking spot near the Intracoastal, and walked around a bit. I had wanted to explore Aviles Street, which is the oldest street in the USA. Unsurprisingly, it was just as beautiful as I thought it would be, with brick pavers, adorable nooks and crannies, and special details everywhere we turned! We ended up taking some impromptu portraits since the space was so perfect!
We followed up with a bit more browsing around St. George Street, a second trip to The Hyppo (different location this time, and different flavors – Strawberry Datil* for me and Cucumber Lemon Mint for Mr. Vik), and a sunset along the Intracoastal.
Remember how I mentioned that St. Augustine didn’t have any chain restaurants? Unfortunately we waited too long to get dinner and all the local restaurants were closed when we started looking! We ended up taking a 20-minute drive to get Chinese take-out and eating in our hotel room. But hey, it’s vacation, and every little adventure is still fun!
On Monday morning we strategically packed our bags, checked out of the hotel, and headed over to a less-touristy part of St. Augustine for some local shopping. I was pleasantly surprised at the adorable antique shops and fun boutiques that St. Augustine had to offer, my favorites being Red Pineapple and Declaration and Co. I am also a huge fan of mid-century design and vintage stuff in general, and managed to stumble upon Cool and Collected which embodied everything I could wish for in a vintage shop. I somehow managed to walk away from a pair of vintage Frye boots, and for that Vikram is eternally grateful 🙂
After shopping, we made our way across the Intracoastal Waterway towards the ocean. We stopped at the highly-rated Reef for lunch, and had a beautiful outdoor meal overlooking the ocean. The food was amazingly decadent, and the weather was beautiful, but a little windy – our umbrella blew right off our table in the middle of the meal! Luckily no one was hurt and everyone on the patio had a good laugh about it 🙂
We changed into our suits and enjoyed the midday sun on Vilano Beach – with plenty of sunscreen for both of us! Being at this beach helped me understand how so many things in St. Augustine could be made of coquina – the beach was almost entirely made of tiny shells! We had a blast splashing around in the water and enjoying our last few hours in the Sunshine State.
Before we left, there was one last treat I had to have – Dole Whip! Buckle up everyone, because I’m about to take you on a huge tangent.
If you’re not familiar, Dole Whip is a pineapple soft serve ice cream that is both to die for and impossible to find. Dole Whip is known for being sold at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Disneyland in Anaheim, and…that’s about it. Other than Disney, the only other place I’ve seen it is at the Minnesota State Fair (otherwise known as The Best State Fair). You might be thinking to yourself, “Allison, weren’t you just at Disney World in February? Didn’t you have Dole Whip then?” My answer to you is: yes, I was at Disney World in February, and yes, we did have Dole Whip, but the kicker is that Disney changed the recipe so it isn’t even the same anymore! Dole Whip used to be available in a few flavors that you had the option of mixing together, the most popular being pineapple and vanilla twist. It was creamy, fruity, and incredibly refreshing. When we were there in February, it was only available in straight-up pineapple that was less creamy and too tangy – most definitely not the refreshing treat I had so patiently waited for. Thankfully the ice cream booth in St. Augustine – on St. George Street, don’t miss it! – had the original version with pineapple-vanilla twist. It was the most perfect way to wrap up the trip 🙂
*St. Augustine is known for Datil peppers, which are very hot and sweet. We saw several dishes at local restaurants that incorporated Datil peppers, and we bought some hot chocolate mix from Whetstone Chocolates that has Datil pepper in the mix – so yummy! If you can handle a bit of heat, Datil peppers are a don’t-miss in St. Augustine!
Even though our train wasn’t leaving until 9:30 PM, we had to leave St. Augustine earlier than we would have liked because the car rental place closed at 6:00 and didn’t have an after-hours drop box to put our keys. We arrived back in Palatka around 5:45 PM, returned the car, and wondered what to do for the next three and a half hours. Before locking up, the rental associate gave us the card for the only Uber driver in the area, so we considered catching a movie at the local theater (which was only showing three movies in total) to bide our time. While we were waiting for our Uber request to be accepted, Vikram tried to coolly downplay some new information he was reading on his phone: “Huh, seems like maybe this isn’t the best city…it gets an F in crime rate…and education…and employment…and housing…A+ for weather though!” The town that had seen better days on Saturday morning was suddenly a not-so-welcoming place, and our trip took a whole new turn. Oh, and apparently the Uber driver was busy, because our request was never picked up. And no surprise, Lyft isn’t available in Palatka.
I suddenly noticed how out-of-place we looked with our brand-name luggage and Vikram’s preppy getup. Unfortunately the train station was only open during business hours, so we were left with the task of finding somewhere safe to go with no way of getting there. A few locals looked at us and, in so many words, reassured us that we shouldn’t be sticking around the train station. They advised us that the police station was right across the street, “not that they’d be much help.” To expedite our decision-making, there was a twitchy wide-eyed woman that was inching a little too close, so we decided to walk three blocks to the local Dunkin Donuts – the only place around with indoor seating and security cameras – to kill some time.
We ended up spending two hours sitting and eating in Dunkin Donuts, until it was pitch black outside and time to catch the train. We cautiously made our way past abandoned buildings and dark bushes back to the train station, thankfully without incident.
The platform looked exactly like something out of a horror film – poorly lit and abandoned with a single lonely bench – but after only a few minutes of waiting we began to hear the train’s welcome whistle. We boarded the train and sunk into our seats with a collective sigh of relief, happy to be slowly chugging towards home and leaving our tensed nerves behind in Palatka.
After a night of on-and-off sleep, we reached the Cary depot around 9:00 AM, where we were greeted by gray skies and gloomy showers. It turned out that the entire weekend had been rainy in North Carolina, which made us all the more appreciative for our sunny time in Florida!
I hope you enjoyed hearing about our amazing long weekend in historic St. Augustine! Have you been to St. Augustine? Been somewhere equally as charming? I’d love to hear about it! Please let me know your thoughts and feedback in the comments!