fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

Ponce Was Here

Discovering St. Augustine, the Ancient City

By Jordan Staggs

Five centuries ago this year, famed Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Léon landed on the shores of what he named La Florida. Legend says he found the long-sought Fountain of Youth after his arrival in the New World, and the people of St. Augustine insist it isn’t merely a legend. This timeless city on Florida’s northeast coast—the oldest continuously inhabited settlement established by Europeans within the United States—doesn’t seem to be affected by the march of years. And with its 450th anniversary approaching in 2015, I found the pull of St. Augustine stronger than ever.

A Royal Welcome

As I navigated the historic downtown section of the city to find the Casa Monica Hotel, I couldn’t peel my gaze from the buildings that lined the streets. The architecture of the city spans centuries. From the colonial charm of the oldest house in America to the Spanish, French, and American influences in its churches and museums, St. Augustine is a feast for the eyes. One jewel in its crown turned out to be my very own hotel.

After a couple of wrong turns and a trip down the narrowest backstreet I’ve ever driven, I pulled into Casa Monica’s parking facility. Its location beneath the hotel encouraged the feeling that I’d just driven back through the centuries, as did the sconces and lanterns illuminating the tunneled parking structure. As a valet took my bags, I stepped onto the cobblestones and then ascended a flight of stone stairs I thought would lead to the lobby. Instead, I was surprised to find a private courtyard oasis with a chaise-ringed swimming pool, stone patio, and covered, arched lanai. Though tempted to linger, I knew my group was waiting for me. Now, if only I could find the lobby…

VIE Magazine Discovering St. Augustine The Ancient City
Photo Shutterstock

The valet directed me through heavy wooden doors into a different kind of sanctuary: a large, inviting room with carved wooden beams overhead and a charming tiered fountain of Italian tile. Ornate wooden chairs, deep leather sofas, more elaborate wall sconces, and hand-painted murals done in the traditional Moorish style completed the lobby’s aesthetic.

Next, it was time to inspect my room. Each of Casa Monica’s guestrooms and suites is individually decorated, though they all combine traditional elements like rich woods and velvet headboards with modern conveniences such as single-serve Verismo brewers. Upon opening the door, I immediately noticed two things: a charming view of the palm-fringed park and jazz tunes emanating from the Bose sound system on the nightstand. The details? Perfect. VIE Magazine Discovering St. Augustine The Ancient City


After meeting up with the rest of my entourage in Casa Monica’s Grand Bohemian Art Gallery to peruse artwork and jewelry, we took the short walk to another gem in the shops adjacent to the hotel. The Ancient Olive is a boutique and tasting room featuring an extensive array of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The friendly experts on staff showed us around, made flavor recommendations, and even introduced us to an olive oil cocktail. It was a little strange but very tasty, in case you were wondering.

On our way to a five-course meal in 95 Cordova restaurant’s luxe Sultan’s Room, we encountered millions of sparkling white holiday lights lining the trees, buildings, and nearly everything else outside. Nights of Lights, which runs annually from November through the end of January, is a beloved tradition that has earned St. Augustine a spot on National Geographic’s list of the world’s top ten places to see holiday lights. Our eyes sparkling in wonder, we heartily concurred with that appraisal.

Over a succulent dinner paired with delicious wines, we learned that Casa Monica’s history includes incarnations as a courthouse, a civil rights landmark, and a warehouse. It was rescued in 1997 by Richard C. Kessler and restored to its former glory, becoming a member of the prestigious national luxury hotel group known as The Kessler Collection. Casa Monica is also St. Augustine’s only AAA Four-Diamond hotel. VIE Magazine Discovering St. Augustine The Ancient City


A Trip Back in Time

Not surprisingly, history was the recurring theme of the trip. We were in the Ancient City, after all, so why not journey back to where it all began? Our first stop the next morning: the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Before Europeans descended on the New World, St. Augustine was inhabited by the Timucua Indians. Visitors to the Fountain of Youth can get a glimpse into what the natives’ lives were like through re-created campsites and expert demonstrations of their hunting techniques. We even got a tour of the park from the founder of St. Augustine himself, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who looked pretty good for being half a millennium old. Obviously, that water is working for him. “Small sips every day,” he recommended. You can sample the fountain’s water for yourself and even grab a to-go bottle from the gift shop.

The next stop on our journey through history was Castillo de San Marcos. Originally constructed in 1672, it is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, although, like many grandes dames, it’s had a face-lift or two over the years. Following a history lesson from a park ranger, we climbed to the top of the battlements to watch the weekly firing of the cannons into Matanzas Bay, performed by local reenactors in full period costume.

 It’s part living museum, part time machine. With building and craft demonstrations, two authentic restaurants, and live entertainment, visitors can step right into the past.

Across the street from the Castillo is another St. Augustine must-see, the Pirate and Treasure Museum. A fan of pirates long before Johnny Depp donned the Jack Sparrow dreadlocks, I was practically giddy as we received treasure maps to guide us through this amazingly cool, interactive museum. Each room is a new place to explore, from the streets of the infamous pirate island of Tortuga to the decks of a buccaneer ship. We even journeyed into the dark cargo hold of the Queen Anne’s Revenge to relive Blackbeard’s final battle, a thrilling virtual reality sequence created by Walt Disney Imagineering.


After finding every secret stash of booty in each of the rooms and marveling over one of the world’s largest collections of authentic pirate artifacts, I reluctantly followed my group outside to the construction site beside the museum. The three-story guard tower overlooking the privacy fence intrigued us enough to prompt a walk around what’s sure to be St. Augustine’s new star attraction, the Colonial Spanish Quarter. Just in time for the Viva Florida 500 celebration, the city will unveil a hands-on exploration of its growth throughout the centuries. It’s part living museum, part time machine. With building and craft demonstrations, two authentic restaurants, and live entertainment, visitors can step right into the past.

I could recount many more sights, tastes, and tales of my sojourn in St. Augustine, but this is a place best experienced for yourself. No matter how often you come, each visit is an opportunity to create a new story in a city that defies time.

To start planning your trip or to learn more about the area, visit floridashistoriccoast.com.


— V —


Aviles Street, St. George Street, and King Street are all pedestrian friendly and jam-packed with shops, cafés, and art galleries.

The Ancient Olive Gourmet infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be found here in almost every flavor imaginable! Perfect for choosing unique gifts or spicing up your own cooking. www.theancientolive.com

The Grand Bohemian Gallery An elegant and unexpected mix of art and jewelry is available in the Grand Bohemian, the eclectic chain of acclaimed galleries that have become a staple of The Kessler Collection hotels. www.grandbohemiangallery.com


The Ancient City has an impressive array of cafés, restaurants, and pubs in the historic downtown area. Sample everything from traditional Spanish fare to mouthwatering burgers and brews.

95 Cordova Restaurant Casa Monica Hotel's premier dining experience, where a seasonally inspired new world and eclectic menu provides flavors that are sure to please. www.casamonica.com/dining

The Floridian Fresh regional Southern fare for “omnivores, herbivores, and locavores.” Enjoy favorites such as cornbread panzanella and grit cakes while taking in the charming country kitchen atmosphere. www.thefloridianstaug.com

Columbia Restaurant This Spanish villa, known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, is famous for its seafood, steaks, and traditional paella, as well as signature cocktails and sangrias. www.columbiarestaurant.com

San Sebastian Winery Guests can tour the building of this winery, one of Florida’s finest, and enjoy wine tastings, a gift shop, and The Cellar Upstairs rooftop bar. It just doesn’t get any better than live jazz and a glass of vino under the stars. www.sansebastianwinery.com


The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park www.fountainofyouthflorida.com

Castillo de San Marcos www.nps.gov/casa

St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum www.piratesoul.com

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail