Anyone who knows me understands that I LIVE for a sunny weekend getaway. As far as the beautiful state of Florida goes, I’ve done Miami, Orlando and even Hallandale, so when the opportunity came for a trip to St. Augustine, I was excited; however, I was expecting your run of the mill mini-vacay. You know, complete with palm trees, great weather and blue skies of course. Well, I got that and a whole lot more. My long weekend was anything but typical—unless your definition of typical includes decadent gourmet fare and luxurious accommodations—with a few surprises thrown in along the way.
For those unaware of the incredible history of this quaint and charming city, it has earned the moniker of being the oldest city in the United States of America.
A tidbit of history for you:
Founded on September 8, 1565 by the Spanish, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin in the United States. That means the city was established 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (Source: www.CityStAug.com). And because I’m a bit of a history buff (read: nerd) I loved the fact that I was visiting a place with a rich history—it always makes the adventure that much more interesting.
After landing at Jacksonville International Airport, I was picked up with a group of my fellow traveling companions (aka partners in crime) for the duration of my stay. St. Augustine is a 45-mintue to an hour car ride from the airport, depending on traffic, so either hiring car service or getting a rental is the best way to go.
I was hosted by the good people at Casa Monica Resort & Spa, right in the heart of downtown St. Augustine and overlooking Matanzas Bay. They served up a heavy dose of southern charm and Old World royal treatment, and I was all for it. Casa Monica is St. Augustine’s only AAA Four-Diamond accommodation and is a popular attraction among tourists and locals alike. The property has 138 exquisite guestrooms and suites and is beautifully decorated. I felt like I was staying in an authentic castle (but with modern amenities.)
Casa Monica has a fascinating back story, which I learned all about on the rooftop of the Lightner Museum during a champagne welcome reception shortly after my arrival. The property was first opened by Franklin W. Smith on January 1, 1888 with a whopping three guests. A few months later Henry Flagler purchased the hotel from Smith for $325,000, promptly changing the name from Casa Monica to Hotel Cordova. The hotel closed in 1932, was purchased again in 1962, and would then serve as the County Courthouse for next 30 years. Hotelier Richard C. Kessler, chairman and CEO of The Kessler Collection, acquired the hotel in 1997. Two years and 10 million dollars later, it was fully restored in 1999 and back to being Casa Monica Resort & Spa with all of the grandeur the name implies.
And after a long day of traveling, I was excited to see my room (and home for the next few days). Casa Monica did not disappoint. Spacious, clean, comfortable and modern but accented expertly with classical furnishings.
That evening we were treated to dinner at Costa Brava, Casa Monica premier restaurant. Chef Fred Mero prepared a feast for us where each course was accompanied by crafted beer from Ancient City Brewery. Everything was superbly prepared. And they were able to provide vegan cuisine options for me during my entire stay, talk about being super accommodating!
After a deliciously healthy breakfast (I love good room service!), I prepared myself for what ended up being a super cool day. I was in store for a day of sightseeing with a fun twist. We explored Historic St. Augustine via The Tasting Tour, a culinary sightseeing experience by horse-drawn carriage. We made stops at four favorite eateries: Athena Restaurant, Gaufres & Goods, The Floridian and Café Alcazar where great food and wine from around the world was in abundance. I highly recommend our tour guide Aaron, who was engaging and entertaining while giving us some interesting historical facts on St. Augustine.
Back at the hotel to unwind I had a personalized art lesson by the pool where we were able to create our own original masterpieces. Speaking of art, Casa Monica is also home to the Grand Bohemian Gallery. The Gallery features local, regional and internationally recognized artists.
No day in St. Augustine is complete without a VIP tour of the St. Augustine Distillery. At the end of our tour, after learning all the ends and outs, we watched the mixologists work magic with the distillery’s own vodka, rum, gin and whiskey. Getting to taste a “Florida Mule” for the first time was my favorite part of the tour (go figure). Next up was a casual dinner at the adjacent Ice Plant bar and restaurant (aptly named because the building is a former 1920s ice plant); the farm to table cuisine was hearty and delicious. Oh yeah, most importantly the creative crafted cocktails were so very good. It’s a great spot for happy hour or to chill with a group of friends for dinner and/or drinks. We ended the evening with a campy yet fun “Ghosts & Gravestones” haunted bus tour. A perfect activity if you are traveling with kids…or the leading ladies from the new Ghostbusters movie.
I knew my last full day in St. Augustine was going to be a busy one, so I wanted to start as relaxed as possible. After a quick breakfast at Café Cordova, I was excited to spend the rest of my early morning at the hotel’s Poseidon Spa where I had, undoubtedly, one of the best 50-minute full body massages ever. I highly suggest getting aromatherapy with your treatment. I had a Swedish massage with lavender and it was just what the doctor ordered. Thank you to my therapist Meghan, you are the true MVP.
What happened next was right out a luxurious dream. I spent the next few hours sailing on Captain David Wilson’s Semper Fi catamaran exploring the waterfront while sipping on bubbly. You can have your own adventure at sea with DEA Charters, rest assured that Captain David and his staff are the perfect hosts. Once on shore, we had a lot more sightseeing to do. We took a tour of The Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) and then climbed all 219 steps of the oldest maritime port. I was in awe of the view, but extremely exhausted (I don’t exercise…at all, but it was worth the climb). Then we visited Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and got to see an authentic reenactment and cannon firing.
Dinner later that night was in a gorgeous setting, we dined in the Sultan’s private dining room at Costa Brava. Chef Mero again worked wonders and took us through flavorful and imaginative culinary journey, expertly pairing each course with the ideal wine. After dinner, you know you have to make room for dessert. We moved to Casa Monica’s s Cobalt Lounge for not one, not two but three types of sangria and an array of sweet delicacies that made everybody’s mouth water.
Simply put, I was extremely reluctant to leave such a wonderful hotel and intriguing city. The beautiful lobby, in house art gallery, spa, outdoor pool, fine dining restaurant, a happening bar/lounge and casually chic café all help to make this the perfect spot to call home while exploring all the treats St. Augustine has to offer. Casa Monica and St. Augustine is the perfect place for a romantic getaway, a destination wedding, family excursion or even a girls/guys trip.
Casa Monica Resort & Spa
95 Cordova Street
St. Augustine, FL