History flavors St. Augustine vacations

A trip to the Old City of St. Augustine wouldn't be complete without a look at the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda, Orlando Sentinel)

There's a word that describes the vaguely musty scent of the cramped, unlit officer's quarters in Fort Matanzas, the 18th century Spanish outpost on a barrier island south of St. Augustine.

That same word would characterize the experience of climbing the crude wooden straight ladder that leads to the fort's observation deck, a route that requires passage through a circular opening in the coquina ceiling that's perilously small for the generous girth of 21st century adults:

It's old.

A visit to Fort Matanzas National Monument, like many of the historic attractions in neighboring St. Augustine, is an exercise in sensory immersion. As Florida celebrates the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's landing on the east coast of the peninsula he called "La Florida," a visitor can come to St. Augustine to see the past, smell it, touch it, hear it and taste it.

And Fort Matanzas is an appropriate starting point for modern-day explorers of St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city founded in 1565.

Fortress of the past

The massacre of French soldiers by Spanish troops in 1565 at Matanzas (Spanish for "massacre") Inlet was Spain's first move toward establishing a colony in Florida.

The construction of the fort, from 1740 to 1742, was Spain's final effort to secure St. Augustine from British attacks. It became part of a defense system that already included the cannons of Castillo de San Marcos, the fort built in 1695 that is now one of St. Augustine's iconic landmarks. By that year, St. Augustine was more than 100 years old.

Operated by the National Park Service, Fort Matanzas' modern home is part of a 300-acre park that also serves as a barrier island refuge for endangered and threatened wildlife such as sea turtles, indigo snakes, ospreys and pelicans. A ferry carries guests to the fort from the park visitor center, which offers souvenirs and a short film on the area's history.

On the 10-minute boat ride from the mainland, passengers can watch fishermen casting lines on the park's sandy shoreline or glimpse a pelican perched on the dock's wooden pilings.

Although park rangers conduct the fort tours, there is time for guests to explore the living quarters, gun deck sentry box and rooftop deck, the latter offering a view of the Atlantic Ocean skyline.

Skyline and spirits

The coastline also makes a pleasant backdrop for the 14-mile drive north to St. Augustine on State Road A1A. It's only about a 20-minute trip from Fort Matanzas to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, a destination that offers its own hands-on link to the area's past.

Guests can follow a self-guided audio tour of the grounds, featuring stops in a maritime hammock, the lighthouse keeper's house, a 19th-century herb garden, a workshop that showcases the skill of antique boat-building and the interior of the lighthouse, built in the 1870s.

It's 219 steps to the top of the lighthouse, a trek that is rewarded by a breathtaking view of downtown St. Augustine landmarks such as the Castillo de San Marcos, the Bridge of Lions and Flagler College as well as the coastline.

At several points on the walk up the dizzying spiral staircase, would-be lighthouse keepers are invited to lift a 30-pound bucket, the typical weight of the oil once required to fuel the light. For most visitors, it's challenging enough without the extra burden.

At night the lighthouse becomes the backdrop for St. Augustine's plentiful ghost tales. Trolley excursions, such as the Ghosts and Graveyards tour, stop at Anastasia Park, next to the lighthouse, to recount sightings of spirits that range from plundering pirates to the children of lighthouse construction crews.

On a recent tour the guide, a college drama student, encouraged his passengers to shout "Be doomed!" at pedestrians and introduced the tour to a "ghostly" actor who convincingly portrayed a death-row inmate at St. Augustine's Old Jail.

An enduring past

In the oldest city, the past also flavors the lodging options. Bed and breakfasts abound in refurbished historic homes, tucked tightly into the narrow streets of the historic district, a compact assortment of restaurants and shops easily traveled on foot.