The St. Augustine Lighthouse has been keeping its luminous eye on the Atlantic’s endless horizon since 1874. In the 130 years since, the tower of Alabama brick and Philadelphia iron has served as the home of light keepers, a beacon to sailors, and a target of arson, eventually benefiting from a 15-year restoration project that commenced in 1980. Today, a staff of historians and protectors is eager to share the rich history of the nation's oldest port, not only through education and preservation but also by letting guests explore.
Visitors can scale the 165-foot, black-and-white lighthouse's 219 steps to the bright-red observation deck to catch breathtaking views of St. Augustine and spot gangs of dolphins making trouble by the shore. Lens-room tours allow up-close access to the regularly off-limits Fresnel lens, built in 1873, which weighs 2,000 pounds and shepherds ships with a light that radiates for 25 miles on a clear night. The clink of champagne glasses adds an element of glamour to Sunset Moonrise events, whereas Dark of the Moon tours let guests in after-hours to hear the tales of paranormal activity that earned the lighthouse a feature on Ghost Hunters.
This shrine to pillaging and plundering greets guests with interactive displays of more than 800 items, including rare and authentic pirate artifacts dating back more than 300 years. Visitors can stop in and see artifacts such as Captain Thomas Tew's 17th-century treasure chest, which the museum boasts is the only authentic pirate treasure chest in the world, or view one of the only two authentic Jolly Roger flags left in existence. Aspiring buccaneers can view the journal of Captain Kidd's final voyage aboard the HMS Advice, a diary kept by Lieutenant Thomas Longish documenting the ship's log and the precise number of extraterrestrials spotted at sea. Pat Croce, a physical therapist, entrepreneur, and former president of the Philadelphia 76ers, opened the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum to share his passion for pirates with the public. This buccaneer's trove of treasures stands within easy walking distance to the historic homes and shopping along St. George Street.
Ripley's Red Train Tours range from daily explorations of the city to nightly supernatural adventures. Guests can get on and off the open-air Red Train Trolley anytime from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. as it stops at spots including San Sebastian Winery, Mission Nombre de Dios, and the oldest house. Alternately, they can embark on a Ghost Train Adventure to explore the city at night armed with an EMF Ghost-Meter. Other tours include seasonal Sunset Tours that take advantage of the long days of summer, the bay front’s cooler temperatures, and a recent peace treaty signed by the mayor of St. Augustine and the local merfolk. There are also Black History Tours that showcase local spots that were important in the Civil Rights Movement, including Zora Neale Hurston’s former residence and the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 arrest.
The Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach houses free art exhibitions, lectures, and events for the edification of the local public, and membership in its hallowed halls allows a household reduced prices on classes, retail discounts, and invitations to openings and events. Seven-week classes and one-time workshops for kids (member prices $72–$120) and adults (member prices $65–$260) instruct the artistically inclined in electives such as acrylic and oil painting, watercolor, and digital imaging. For those who prefer to work in a fleshier medium, yoga and dance classes whittle muscles into works of art worthy of permanently encasing in glass or spandex.
A year before her death in 1959, Ninah Cummer—an art collector, garden enthusiast, and civic leader—donated her riverfront home and art collection to the community, imploring her fellow citizens to help support the foundation of an art museum. In less than 10 years, the board of trustees transformed the abode into the verdant Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, adding to Ninah's original gift of 60 pieces until the collection included nearly 1,000 works of art.
Today, the permanent collection holds pieces that span more than four millennia, from 2,100 B.C. to the 21st century. An ancient Egyptian stone tablet intrigues viewers with cryptic hieroglyphs and stylized portraits while, nearby, Peter Paul Rubens' The Lamentation of Christ epitomizes the colorful, sweepingly histrionic style of the Baroque painters. American treasures include Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington—one of over 100 he painted in an attempt to perfect the likeness of the first president and design a killer mask for the White House Halloween party.
After getting their fill of indoor beauty, guests can head to the open air and vibrant scenery of the museum's gardens. Begun more than a century ago, the gardens crisscross with winding paths that take guests under the canopies of majestic oaks and alongside the Italian garden's shimmering reflecting pools.