While residents of NYC and most of the tri-state area plan for a mass exodus to the congested Hamptons, highfalutin Fire Island, or the tourist-infused Cape called Cod, I recently discovered a more inviting and blissful retreat that is just a hop, skip, and a jump from JFK, LGA or NWK — Casa Monica Resort & Spa in St. Augustine, Florida.
I know what you’re thinking: Florida? In Summer? If you’re wise, you’ll drop your attitude, cool your jets, and pack your bags.
In the coming weeks, locals will suffer the traffic on the LIE, endure the great masses with screaming children on the steaming sand dunes of the upper east coast; they will navigate overcrowded activities like American Ninja Warrior and make dinner reservations equivalent to playing the lottery. Meanwhile, those in the know will be checking in to the luxurious, historic Casa Monica Resort & Spa. Think of it as an oasis for serious travelers who need to get away from… Well, everyone needs to get away from someone or something. Yes?
Erected in 1888, the resort has been renovated by Richard C. Kessler and part of the Kessler Hotel Collection. Under the terra-cotta shingles and beyond the ornate Spanish façade, the interior is appointed with frescos, fountains and chandeliers; the décor captures a blend of modern-day chíc with old-world charm. It reminds me a lot of southern Spain, with a distinct Moorish influence: wrought iron fixtures, tufted furniture and intricate inlaid tiling.
Following are a few insider tips and what you need to know about the once-up-a-time, battle-beaten land occupied by foreigners, pirates and homegrown tycoons.
Celebrating 450 years as the oldest city in the U.S., Saint Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spanish admiral and Florida’s first governor, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. He named the settlement “San Agustín”, as his ships bearing settlers, troops, and supplies from Spain had first sighted land in Florida on August 28, 1565 — the feast day of St. Augustine.
The downtown area is filled with historic architecture and peculiar landmarks including the first hotel with electricity, the country’s largest indoor swimming pool from the turn-of-the-century (you can dine in the deep end), a place of worship with Tiffany windows, as well as points of interest that hold artifacts from shipwrecks, battles and immigrant bounty. I recommend a tour of Flagler College and/or the Lightner Museum, learn about St. Augustine’s rich past, maturity and current revitalization as well as the Spanish Renaissance architecture.
I also recommend a tour of the old town via horse-drawn carriage. If you are a foodie with a passion to sample the local cuisine that has drawn new immigrants from all over the world, I strongly suggest The Tasting Tours. This excursion takes a couple of hours and you truly get a feel for the city and locals as you travel from one restaurant to the next. The stops include appetizing specialties from Greece to Poland to Latin and American fusion, etc. A few sips of the imported and domestic wines and beverages enhances the culinary trot. Tours can be tailored to your specifics but expect to stop by local (family owned and operated) businesses and the latest hot spots like Athena Restaurant, Café Alcazar, The Floridian and Gaufres & Goods.
Before heading back to the hotel, check out our country’s oldest lighthouse. The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program. It is the oldest surviving brick structure and port, the site is restored to the colors and materials used in 1888.
Tip: Go a little later in the afternoon to avoid the morning rush. It closes at 4:00 pm.
Be prepared to climb up many steps — It’s worth it. Once you reach the top, you will agree that the workout in exchange for a cool breeze and breathtaking views justifies the ascension. While you’re climbing the historic structure, imagine all of the vacationers back home who are still sitting in traffic. Naturally, going down is much easier.
It’s also noteworthy to visit The Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). A museum dedicated to the investigation of the maritime history and archaeology of St. Augustine. It has been in operation since 1999. They have drudged up many artifacts to include weaponry, chinaware and locks. Locks? I learned that settlers traveled to the new world with them to secure their homes. All of this is displayed directly across from the lighthouse.
After that educational experience, kick back with Captain David Wilson’s charter service and set sail on the salt waters in his Semper Fi catamaran. It is the only beach pick-up charter service in Florida. The captain will tell amazing stories while you relax and take in the beautiful vista, you will sip libations and nibble on charcuterie and possibly see a manatee or two. Visit this website for details: DEAcharters.COM.
When you return to the resort, it’s a good idea to visit the Poseidon Spa. Services include the option of various massages: relaxation, anti-aging, hot stone or pre-natal. You can upgrade with collagen eye, lip or face treatment. For men, I recommend the invigorating scalp massage and dry body exfoliation. If you are having a girl’s weekend adventure, check out their spa parties.
The dinner bell rings. Costa Brava is the elegant restaurant on premises — meticulously and creatively handled by Chef Fred Mero. The dining room and private alcoves are alluring, attractive and comfortable with stark white leather seating, nail tacked tables and plush furniture under a menagerie of lanterns while surrounded by the artwork of Peter Keil, Jean Claude Roy, Stefano Cechinni and more.
The menu is diverse with something for every taste, hunger pang and dietary restriction — the cuisine has a robust Latin influence. Above all, the Sunday Brunch is off the charts offering traditional breakfast fare along with beef tenderloin, fresh oysters, crab legs, shrimp, paella and an assortment of desserts.
In two words, brava and bravo!
Tip: Tourism is St. Augustine’s major industry and I advise that you shun the honkey-tonk attractions in order to gain a more sincere experience and authentic flavor of the historic and sun drenched community. In other words, avoid all museums preceded by the word “wax,” and any establishment with the moniker “pirate” will attract swashbucklers and rambunctious imps. Finally, no matter how thirsty or how much you imbibe, refrain at all costs from drinking from the popular Fountain of Youth.
Surround yourself with art and live music at Casa Monica.
Casa Monica Resort & Spa
95 Cordova Street
St. Augustine, FL