8 Great Freebies Await Families on Florida’s Historic Coast
Save your gang some money on a multigenerational gathering in the St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach area, a sun-kissed vacationland known as Florida’s Historic Coast
Costs can add up for even the simplest destination reunion, so slotting in some free attractions and activities takes a little pressure off family budgets. Fortunately for clans choosing the St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach area, a sun-kissed vacationland known as Florida’s Historic Coast, many educational and purely fun options require not a single penny.
In St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement, it’s no surprise that intriguing historical attractions abound. Add in warm weather and beautiful beaches, and you have the ideal place to bond with your kin from across the miles.
Founded in 1565 by Spanish colonists, St. Augustine was up and running long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Here are eight places, historical and otherwise, that can be enjoyed for no charge:
St. George Street
With coquina-stone pillars marking the historic city gates, St. George Street for centuries has been the heart of St. Augustine. Families enjoy leisurely popping into quaint shops and galleries while absorbing the old-time ambience. Because St. George is closed to vehicles, kids can freely run from one side of the street to the other.
Governor’s House Cultural Center and Museum, overlooking historic Plaza de la Constitucion at King Street, offers the free exhibit First Colony: Our Spanish Origins in its grand lobby. Also worth exploring in the historic downtown district are side streets off this main drag.
Mission Nombre de Dios Museum
On the very spot where St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by an exploration party sent by King Philip II of Spain, families can learn about the early days of Catholicism in what would become the United States.
Walking around the beautiful grounds of America’s first mission, they may want to pose for a group picture with the 208-foot-tall Great Cross, the largest freestanding cross in the Western Hemisphere, which marks both the colonists’ landing site and site of the first Catholic mass in the U.S. Also on the grounds are a modern church, the Spanish-style chapel of Our Lady of La Leche and a bronze statue of Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who celebrated that first mass under an open sky at a rustic wooden altar.
St. Augustine Beach
This free-admission beach is the perfect place to relax or be as active as you want. It offers a beachfront park with an impressive fishing pier, large beachside pavilion, splash park and sand volleyball court; restaurants and shops are a short walk away. Ensuring family safety, lifeguards are stationed along the shore from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Fort Matanzas National Monument
A ferry from Anastasia Island goes to Fort Matanzas, a fortified watchtower built on tiny Rattlesnake Island by the Spanish in 1740 to guard St. Augustine’s southern approaches from British threats. Both the fort and ferry are free. Ranger-led tours of the fort are given, and an eight-minute film is shown in the visitor center on Anastasia Island. Boardwalk nature trails spotlight the island’s mix of ecosystems, which include maritime forest, coastal scrub, dune and salt marsh. The National Park Service unit is 14 miles south of St. Augustine.
Fort Mose Historic State Park
A National Historic Landmark, this is the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in what is now the United States. In 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida chartered the land as a home for slaves fleeing from English plantations in the Carolinas and Georgia. The only stipulation for gaining their freedom was that they had to declare their allegiance to the king of Spain and become members of the Catholic Church.
Although there are no remains of the earth and wooden structures from the early settlement of about 100 African Americans, visitors can stroll along the boardwalk over the marsh to see where it once stood and gain insight from the interpretive signage. Interactive exhibits in the on-site museum ($2 fee) tell the complete story. Birders come to view species such as the great blue heron, bald eagle and white ibis. Group tours of the grounds and museum are available. Admission to the park itself is free. The Military Muster event held the first Saturday of each month features musket firing and demonstrations of other historic weapons.
The gorgeous waterfront setting provides two picnic areas suitable for family reunions. Towering oaks and pine trees provide plenty of shade, and there is easy access for caterers.
Kids can let off steam scrambling around this 23,000-square-foot playground area at Francis Field, immediately across from the Historic Downtown Parking Facility. A city park, it has slides, swings, wooden forts and towers, and other interactive play/exercise equipment, plus a pavilion. SWING (St. Augustine’s Wish for Its Next Generation) was a community project built in 1997.
Splash Park at The Pier
The small children in your clan will have a ball cooling off while romping around the gushing plumes of water. While nearby St. Johns County Ocean Pier charges admission, the Splash Park (open daily until dusk) and beach access are free. On Wednesday nights from May through September, bring beach chairs or blankets for the free concerts featuring a variety of musical genres.
San Sebastian Winery
Florida’s second-largest winery, a few blocks from historic downtown St. Augustine, offers complimentary tours and tastings seven days a week. Its wines have earned more than 700 awards since the company started in 1996.
After a short video presentation in the theater, visitors take a guided walk through the production facility and learn the secrets of making wine. Children are welcome on the 45-minute tour, but wine tasting is only for guests 21 and older. Groups of 20 or more need to make reservations.
San Sebastian’s gift shop sells wine, wine accessories and gourmet foods. The rooftop Cellar Upstairs is a wine and jazz bar affording spectacular views; there’s live music on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The winery is housed in the impressive East Coast Railway buildings constructed in 1923 by railroad/real estate magnate Henry Flagler.