By J.S. Holland
If you ever doubted William S. Burroughs' admonition that "America is not a young country", look no further for evidence in this magickal and marvelous city. History books tell us that it was first explored in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, but you know how history books are; there were already people living here before old Poncey's pointed shoes ever hit the beach. The Spanish, the French and the British all trounced and flounced around here for centuries, fighting each other and generally making a dreadful mess of everything, but now the dust has settled and it, like the rest of the Sunshine State, is firmly on our side, Comrade.
And speaking as someone who has lived in New Orleans, I'm here to tell you, the "old district" of St. Augustine with its confusing labyrinth of narrow pedestrian-only streets kicks the French Quarter's booty. Everything you need in life, my friends, is contained within this part of town. Well, everything I need, anyway: cigars, golf, girls, ghosts, pirates, theatre, secret agents, temporal dimensional deviations in the timespace continuum, you know, the basics. Two great islands just off the mainland, Vilano Beach Key and Anastasia Island, kept me enthralled with their beaches and piers.
No road trip south of Georgia would be complete without food and drink at one of the historic Columbia eateries, which I now unofficially nominate as the official restaurant of Interzone. The lovely Nichole tossed our salads and sangrias tableside, and it was there that I had one of the absolute best Cuban steaks of my entire misspent existence. Also had the good fortune to imbibe a couple of positively DNA-altering sazerac-absinthe combos. Life. is. good.
As I've expounded elsewhere, one of Florida's biggest problems is that of customer service. In many FL cities, everyone's a bit grumpy and cranky and jaded from the constant influx of snowbirds, spring-breakers, bikers and retirees. Never mind that Florida is essentially a tourist-driven state and that without these people their little cash cow would dry up quicker than you can say "Wicked Weasel", too many people down there whose job is to greet the public frankly suck at it and need to be removed from their post. Not so in the St. Augustine area. Only once did I get a glimpse of rude customer service, and that was at a restaurant that's a national chain anyway. 99.9% of the people I encountered in St. Aug were overwhelmingly friendly, helpful, and ran rings around themselves to make the customer experience the best. Everyone else in Flo-ville needs to take a tip from them. (And leave them one, too.)
Alas, I was called back to the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky early again this time, and had to omit a planned trip down to my traditional stomping grounds of Clearwater, Tampa, Bradenton and Sarasota. Next time. A deep-sea research excursion towards the Atlantic Garbage Patch had to be cut short due to weather, but I was there long enough to see some amazing and inspirational things.
St. Augustine also finds its way, inevitably, in the next two JSH Book Club installments - The Bartender, in which my love of the craft of artisan cocktails dovetails with my devotion for the proto-Beatnik word-hoard of the mighty nutcase Thomas DeQuincey, and The Seventeenth Island, wherein I assay the (ig)noble genre of classic pirate fiction (though applying about the same effort for historical accuracy as The Devil and Daniel Boone, which is to say, very little.)