SAINT AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA - It's not the biggest fort you'll ever see. But if you like boat rides and wide, flowing rivers and big skies and walking on the beach, Fort Matanzas and the surrounding area is a great place to spend a couple hours.
About 20 minutes south of downtown St. Augustine on A1A, you'll reach the Fort via a small but pretty visitors centre that's surrounded by towering trees dripping with Spanish moss, which I was told once upon a time is a member of the pineapple family and is called Spanish moss because the elongated shape resembles the beards of Spaniards who came this way in the 16th and 17th centuries, just so you know. Anyway, you then take a small pontoon boat for a four or five-minute ride across the river to the three-story fort on Rattlesnake Island.
There are several long, sleek, black cannons pointed out towards the sea. They don't look amazingly powerful but I was told a good cannon master could hit his target 90 per cent of the time at distances up to 2 km or even a bit more.
Inside is a fireplace and an eating area and single beds that show what life was like for the six soldiers stationed here at a time, usually for 30 day periods. It looks fairly bleak and had to have been stiflingly hot in the summer.
Upstairs is a decent sized but still dark officers' quarters, and you can climb a short but steep ladder to the roof for excellent views of the river and tidal basin and out towards the Atlantic.
The parks rangers are dressed in old-time costumes with bright socks and vests and tricorn hats, and they're excellent at explaining how things worked. And super-friendly, too. The kids seemed to love it, and most of the adults.
Boats leave about every 20 minutes and the trip is free unless you go to one of the night-time cannon exhibitions, which sound pretty awesome. It's open 9 to 5:30 every day except Christmas.
Back on land, there's a one-km hiking trail that shows off the cool, forested areas of the barrier island ecosystem.
Back across the highway, you can pull into the parking lot and walk out (or drive, although why anyone would drive on a beautiful beach I can't for the life of me understand) to an immense beach that goes on forever. It's a great place to soak up the sun or contemplate nature or watch locals fish.
I also checked out the famous, black-and-white-striped St. Augustine lighthouse, which has 219 steps to the top and offers fine views of the city, the beach and the various islands and rivers and waterways that snake between the town and the ocean.
They also have a team of archaeologists who have helped dig up fascinating relics and can tell stories about the fascinating pirates, soldiers and civilians who have lived in the area since St. Augustine was established in 1565.
They're a little sensitive about that 1565 business down this way. Quite often you'll hear a local historian talk about how Jamestown in Virginia gets so much credit as an old settlement in the U.S. and how everyone talks about the Pilgrims in Plymouth Rock.
"Heck, St. Augustine was already undergoing urban renewal when the Pilgrims got to North America," locals will tell you.
It's a fair point. The settlers in Jamestown were mostly British, and Jamestown is close to Washington D.C. and the big cities on the eastern seaboard. St. Augustine is a good deal older (1565, versus 1607 for Jamestown and 1620 for the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock). But it was settled by Spaniards and Africans, who mixed with local native Americans. And it's way down in St. Augustine, about a half hour south of Jacksonville.
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