Words and images by Justin Belichis and Connor Spielmaker
You won’t find anyone dressed like a conquistador on Anastasia Boulevard.
In St. Augustine, the Bridge of Lions marks the divide between tourists confined to a 16th Century aesthetic and locals at the beach, watching bands or singing karaoke at dive bars. Travelers searching to immerse themselves in the city’s local culture should look across the Matanzas River, where the food and sights are different from the tourist-centered world on the other side.
As in much of Florida, it all begins at the beach.
St. Augustine Beach, located south of the city central on State Road 312, is a two-and-a-half mile stretch of khaki-colored sand tucked underneath the Atlantic Ocean’s shoreline. A 7 a.m. sunrise amplifies the sky’s color with citrus hues, like pouring orange juice in an empty glass.
Visitors with trucks can drive right from asphalt to grains of sand for a brisk ride down the beach with the windows down. The beach also serves as natural flatland for exercise like running or yoga.
Further north on a club-shaped spit of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean is the pristine Anastasia State Park. Here, beach driving is prohibited. Instead the white sands are preserved in a natural state, with dunes and swaying sea oats serving as a protective barrier.
“What’s great about our park is that it’s three and a half miles of pristine beach. There’s areas you can go and you won’t see a building or structure,” said Park Manager Warren Poplin.
It’s $4 to $10 per vehicle to enter the park, which is home to 1,600 acres of natural preserve teeming with scenic views for savoring or taking selfies. The park also features remnants of coquina quarries, which 300 years ago would have been teeming with workers mining and hauling the shells for use in constructing buildings in St. Augustine.
For more than just a view, Anastasia State Park also offers its visitors with activities like hiking the Ancient Dunes Nature Trail, camping and fishing spots. The St. Augustine Amphitheater is a short walk or bike ride away from Anastasia State Park, where musicians like Robert Plant and Aretha Franklin will play next month. The amphitheater also hosts a farmers market every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to noon.
But even on this side of the bridge, St. Augustine’s timeless grip on its geography is inescapable. Rewind to the late nineteenth century to find the original St. Augustine Lighthouse, a 140-year-old wooden Spanish watchtower that helped guide ships into harbor.
A walk through the square-framed door greets visitors with a spiral staircase, with 219 steps climbing the wall up to the observation deck. On the way, mementos from earlier times will engage curious lighthouse dwellers, including a mock of the bucket full of oil the light keeper would have had to carry up the tedious steps each night. Today, a 1000-watt light bulb drives the beam of light guiding ships safely to harbor.
“I’m a native of St. Augustine, so just within my short lifetime I’ve seen the Lighthouse go from a sad state of disrepair to this iconic landmark all because the community came together and made it happen,” said Shannon O’ Neil, director of public relations for the Lighthouse and Museum. “It’s a testament to the spirit of this town.”
The museum features exhibits that give visitors insight to how a light keeper and their family lived in during a post-Civil War period in Florida. Pictures of the lighthouse throughout the years adorn its walls and the light keeper’s office is still furnished with desks, chairs and tools like binoculars, locks and keys.
One of the few remnants of tourist activity on this side of the bridge sits on A1A due west of the lighthouse – the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. From tree-hopping Lemurs from Madagascar to a 15-foot, 1,250 pound crocodile named Maximo, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm is home to several internationally diverse creatures. In fact, the farm features over 20 species of crocodilians.
“We’re the only zoo in the world that features every type of alligator, and our experience is up close and personal unlike anything in most of Florida,” said Park Director John Brueggen.
When sunshine and physical activity are combined, hunger is sure to strike. Where St. George and Hypolita streets meet sits Burrito Works Taco Shop, where locality and Mexican food create its quirky menu. “The Mexican UFO,” the restaurant’s bestseller according to its menu, is an amalgamation of cheese, meat, beans, sour cream and other fixings in a pentagon-shaped tortilla.
“Across the Bridge [of Lions], the drinks are cheaper and there’s a much more relaxed, less crowded environment,” said Flagler College senior Walker Jesse. “I’m just trying to have a couple beers, talk with friends and maybe see a show.”
For those who find themselves still wanting to believe, Jesse said he recommends people visit a cafe on the boulevard called Planet Sarbez. In a city that wears historical charm as its uniform, Planet Sarbez stands out. Murals with colorful, abstract geometrical patterns adorn its walls, while punk rock music and the sizzles and smells from the grill fill the air.
Planet Sarbez features a diverse selection of local and craft beers from companies like Bold City Brewery, Ancient City Brewery and 3 Daughters Brewery. But perhaps the most peculiar items on the menu are its custom grilled cheese sandwiches named after Power Pangers, which are served until 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Want a basket of bacon with a grilled cheese? That’s a thing here.
The boulevard is also home to local dives like British Pub and Shanghai Nobby’s. Travelers with a penchant for seafood can head next door to O’Steen’s Restaurant for some fried shrimp, or across the street at Black Fly for a New England clambake.
Though it’s only a short step away from downtown, St Augustine locals seem to pride themselves in being away from the hustle and bustle. The music is louder, the air is lighter and adventure awaits at every turn on the boulevard.
“We have our own character on this side of the bridge,” said Planet Sarbez kitchen manager Mark Garrison. “It’s cozy.”