While Tanya was at her conference, I decided to drive up to St. Augustine for a day at the recommendation of my friend Mike Krautkramer. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States, founded in 1565. Both Tanya and I love visiting historical places, so it sounded like a great place to visit, and it was.
When selecting on a route up from Orlando, I decided to stop at Washington Oaks Garden State Park and Fort Matanzas National Monument on the way up. I drove through a huge thunderstorm on the way up, and my visit to Washington Oaks was under the constant threat of rain from the storm passing just to the south. But I stayed largely dry and the storm made for a dark, dramatic sky. The garden was nice, but I imagine it has more blooming earlier in the year. I was most impressed by the large oaks draped with Spanish moss – so foreign and tropical looking compared to our trees up here in the Pacific Northwest. The state park also has a nice Atlantic beach with one of the largest outcrops of coquina rock on the east coast. While the outcroppings are very small compared to most bedrock outcrops on the west coast, the rocks themselves were quite interesting to my geologist half. My photographic half also enjoyed making some images of them. I also took the opportunity to stick my west coast feet in the Atlantic Ocean – though with the threat of lighting, I though swimming was not a good idea.
From Washington Oaks, it was northward several miles to Fort Matanzas. I knew little about it, other than it was a national monument. As it turned out, the fort is on an island, accessible only from a small passenger ferry from the visitor center. I arrived at the park right at 1:30 p.m. and immediately noted that the next ferry to the fort was leaving at 1:30 and the one after that at 2:30. If I missed the boat, I wasn’t sure I had time to wait around for the next one. I parked, and rushed to the visitor center to get a pass for the ferry. I asked if I was too late, and the ranger gave me a 1:30 pass and said to hurry. I rushed out and as I approached the dock, there was a crowd waiting to board. The ranger there was asking if anyone else had a 1:30 pass, and still some distance away, I raised my pass and waved. He separated the crowd to let me through and onto the ferry. I’m not sure why none of the people waiting didn’t have the 1:30 passes, but I was grateful. They did let a few people with later passes on after I boarded, then off we sailed across the Matanzas River to the fort.
The first thing you notice about the “fort” is that it is small. In fact, on the ride over, the ranger said that many people ask where the rest of the fort is. He said it isn’t truly a fort, but just a fortified outpost. The entire fort is only 50 feet on each side and only 30 feet tall. It was built by the Spanish to protect the back way into St. Augustine. Apparently it was an effective defense. The guns were fired once against the English in 1742, and no one challenged the guns again. Eventually the British took over the fort via a treaty, then later it went back to Spain, and eventually to the United States in 1819. By that time, not having been kept up, the fort was in bad shape, and the United States never used it militarily. Today, the fort has been preserved and has become a haven for wildlife as well as historic site. While there, I was lucky to see dolphins, a manatee, and even a large alligator (apparently very rare in the salt water).
After about 45 minutes at the fort, the boat sailed back, and I drove north on Highway A1A to St. Augustine, arriving over the bridge of the lions. After a leisurely late lunch at an Irish pub on the waterfront, I visited Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. Unlike Fort Mantanzas, the Castillo de San Marcos is a true stone fortress. It is the oldest masonry fort in the United States; construction on the fort started in 1672. Its mission was to protect the City of St Augustine, which it did for many years. It was used by the military for 251 continuous years, until it became a national monument in 1924. Like Fort Mantanzas, it was built by the Spanish and also used by the British and the United States. However, not all its history is noble; when used by the US military, it largely served as prison for Native Americans. The site is full of old cannons, views of the water, and staff dressed in colonial-era clothing – all stuff any travel photographer love.
After touring the Castillo, I wandered around the old section of the city, stopping to photograph the lions at the bridge, a tall ship at the docks, the local cathedral, and several other old buildings. I easily could have spent several days in St. Augustine, there was much to see and photograph, but time was short and I had to get back to Orlando to have a late dinner with Tanya. Whenever I get back to Florida, a repeat visit to St. Augustine will certainly be on my list.
Last weekend Tanya presented a seminar at a chaplains’ conference in Orlando, Florida. So we made a quick flight down (well not so quick, it basically takes a full day to fly from Seattle to Orlando). Though we stayed at the Hilton at Disney World, I had no desire to visit any theme parks. Instead, Tanya and I drove out to the Orlando Wetlands Park.
The Orlando Wetlands Park was of particular interest to me because of my day job. The wetlands there are man-made using reclaimed water (that is, water from a waste-water treatment plant). Photographically, it’s a great location as well.
The place is amazing and well worth a visit. First, compared to the artificial environment of Disney World, filled with people and mouse ears, the Orlando Wetlands Park is a natural refuge. In the two hours we were there, we only saw one other person, but we saw plenty of wildlife – in particular birds and alligators, but also deer and a raccoon. Secondly, it is easily accessible, with wide trails on berms above the wetlands, making viewing the wildlife easy. We also lucked out in that the rain and thunderstorms rolling through the area left us alone while there.
If you are ever in the Orlando area and want to get away from the crowds, I recommend Orlando Wetlands Park. It’s free and open daily from dawn to dusk.