St. Augustine Town - Daytona Decompression

Brraaaaack. Rrrrrowwwt. Vrrrroooom. Kachunk.It all gets to be a bit much sometimes, even for the most hardcore machine-head. But that's part of Daytona Beach Bike Week, isn't it? The Sound and the Fury? The Stench and the Vibration?

As a visiting biker, you learn to deal with it.

The thing is, you don't have to. Just 60 blessed miles away is a sweet respite from the popping cylinders and shredded tires. Within an hour's ride up the coast you can begin to regain volume control in a little town called St. Augustine.

Several paths head north from Daytona, and while they're mostly straight, flat and boring (like much of Florida's blacktop), the best visual trip is up state road A1A to St. Augustine. This more satisfying option hugs the coast for the better part of 40 miles in a salty, chilly kind of way that's more New England than Old South. The surf-tossed scenery you'll encounter is worth the journey alone, and somewhere around Flagler Beach, Daytona decompression begins to set in. Even my arrival over the fabled Bridge of Lions-spanning the bay from Anastasia Island to St. Augustine-appropriately reflected the change in tone as the blacktop deposited me between two marble lions guarding the drawbridge's entrance.

I might as well have landed on Mars, so different was the feel of this place compared to Daytona. For one, St. Augustine has genuine History (with a capital H) stretching all the way back to the New World's humble beginnings. This city clinging to the junction of the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway has the distinction of being the oldest permanent European settlement in North America. When you consider it was founded by the Spanish 42 years before the English hit Jamestown and half a century before the Pilgrims even left Ol' Blighty for these sunny shores, that's more than just a fancy footnote.

In the 21st century, however, St. Augustine basks in cool breezes coming off the Atlantic as well as swarms of tour wagons rumbling off I-95. Large packs of khaki-and-polo-clothed shutterbugs strolling the main drag of St. George Street confirmed this for me pretty quickly. It's understandable; the picturesque seaside town is chock full of narrow cobbled streets lined with 18th-century houses. The restored Victorian bed-and-breakfasts and ramshackle old inns I sauntered past are a history buff's wet dream, and right there on St. George I found the Oldest Wood Schoolhouse in America. Who knew?

Cobblestoned, car-free St. George Street is big on historical structures, yes, but there's a passel of trinket traders there, too, most of them specializing in faux pirate booty. That's probably because the area was a hotbed for bloodthirsty buccaneers plying the shallow waters in the 1600s. More interesting is the north end of the street and its Spanish Quarter Village, a series of ancient buildings full of residents dressed in 1740s period garb. I made a quick pass through this living museum depicting life in 18th-century St. Augustine (then an outpost of the Spanish empire), and found a blacksmith shaping iron, a costumed candle-maker crafting tallow and a gardener, um, gardening. The way I understood it, each modern-day resident is expected to offer a skill to provide for the village's needs, just as they did hundreds of years ago.

On the nearby main square, I ducked into the turreted Flagler College building and the Lightner Museum. From a docent, I learned that Flagler (formerly the Hotel Ponce de Leon), with its stately rotunda and huge dining hall, was the brainchild of Henry Flagler, the pioneer Florida developer who built the Ponce in a vain attempt to turn St. Augustine into the winter playground of the East Coast upper class. The eclectic, Spanish Renaissance-style Lightner Museum, meanwhile, is housed in the former Alcazar Hotel. The building wraps around a lovely colonnaded courtyard, and the museum holds the accumulated treasures of the late Otto Lightner, whose hobby was collecting other people's collections. One man's trash, as they say...

That may have been prime architectural design, but as far as I'm concerned, St. Augustine's main attraction is the fearsome Castillo de San Marcos, erected by the Spanish way back in 1695. America's oldest masonry fortress overlooks Matanzas Bay, which separates the city from Anastasia Island and St. Augustine Beach. Built of coquina, a rock composed largely of broken shells, it's repelled every siege launched upon it. Some say this is because coquina's porous structure is akin to a granola bar, allowing the walls to absorb a cannonball blow rather than shatter.

Climbing up on the gun deck and gazing over the sweeping view of the bay and city, it was hard not to imagine Spanish defenders huddled at the cannon holding off a redcoat attack in 1740. Inside the dank, windowless prison, long wooden platforms where soldiers once slept revealed themselves in the musty shadows. It smelled like old gunpowder.

Thus far, I'd managed to sidestep the town's most popular attraction-the insidiously tacky Fountain of Youth. But when it comes to cheesy crap, my will is weak, so inside an hour of parking the bike, yours truly was in line waiting for a wheezy old guide to dispense a plastic cup of the life-lengthening liquid.

After all (I rationalized), how could I bypass the fountain made famous by Ponce de Leon? It'd be like going to New York City and skipping the Empire State Building. I had to-even if the Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park is privately owned. The fabled spring has since been capped because it was drying up, so the water in those little cups is pumped in from a city source. And the water itself is high in sulfur, so it smells a lot like rotten eggs, even if it doesn't taste all that nasty. The bottom line, though, is that all this hokum has generated a ton of tourism, and the town treasury isn't complaining.

After ingesting the bulk of a Twelve Oaks southern barbecue platter (that's ribs and chicken with French fries, coleslaw and baked beans) at funky Scarlett O'Hara's on Hypolita Street, I began a relaxed ride down A1A back to Daytona. With a belly full of anti-aging elixir and toxic barbecue sauce, it occurred to me that America's oldest city has many more good reasons to visit than just as a Daytona day trip-for decompression or otherwise. What's more, you can deal with it, easily.
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Visit the Visitor's Information Center at http://www.visitoldcity.com or Visit Florida at http://www.flausa.com