Ralph and Molly had been touring the city and were heading back to their truck. The trolley had passed close to the lot where their truck was parked, and they almost got off the trolley and walked the rest of the way but, at the last moment, decided to stay on the trolley. We had almost not stopped at the Fountain of Youth Park, but changed our minds at the last minute. Think about the little decisions that were made in order for us to bump into each other! We quickly made plans to meet for dinner that evening. We had so much fun, lots of laughs and a great meal at The Raintree Cafe. It truly is a small world after all!
We had been touring the St. Augustine, FL, area and stopped at Fountain of Youth Park. We stood outside the ticket office debating if it was worth $17 per person to enter. A tourist trolley pulled into the lot and stopped in front of us. Bob suddenly pointed toward the trolley and said, “Is that Ralph and Molly????” Sure enough, Ralph Wentworth, who grew up with Bob, and his wife Molly, jumped off the trolley and came running over. We were all amazed at the coincidence. The last time we had seen each other was at the Hartford RV show about 3 years ago.
St. Augustine is the oldest continuously-inhabited European settlement in America, having been founded by Spanish explorers in 1565. The city has worked hard to preserve it’s historic nature with narrow cobblestone streets and sidewalks and beautiful architecture from many periods. In the late 1800’s, the founder of Standard Oil Company, Henry Flagler, spent a winter in Florida on orders from his wife’s doctor. At the time, railroad lines stopped in Jacksonville, but Flagler went farther south by boat to St. Augustine. He found a run-down town with a beautiful harbor and lots of potential, so he invested several hundred thousand dollars to extend the rail line and build a 500+ room luxury hotel, The Ponce de Leon. He had artisan teams working around the clock for 18 months to complete the hotel with beautifully painted ceilings, 22 karat gold leaf, marble and jade mosaic floors and Tiffany windows. When the hotel opened in 1888, his efforts attracted the wealthy Newport tycoons who were willing and able to spend $4,000 for a room for three months in the winter (in today’s dollars, that would be about $120,000).
By 1894, Flagler had extended the rail line down the coast of Florida, building more luxury hotels in West Palm Beach by the early 1900’s, and his wealthy contemporaries took their money to West Palm. As tourism declined in St. Augustine, Flagler invited artists and authors to take up residence in The Ponce, and the city flourished as an artists’ colony. During World War II, the government used The Ponce as a training center for the US Coast Guard. After the war, the building returned to use as a hotel, but the city of St. Augustine never regained it’s original attraction. In 1967, the hotel was closed.
The following year, a distant relative of Henry Flagler took ownership of the building and opened Flagler College. Initially, the college’s mission was to train teachers (all women) for the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, but the curriculum expanded and eventually the school became co-ed. Those students now learn and live in one of the most beautiful group of buildings in the country.
A visit to St. Augustine isn’t complete without a couple of walks on the beach, which we accomplished on two very different stretches of beach only about 10 miles apart — Crescent Beach to the south and North Vilano Beach to the north. The tide was coming in at sandy Crescent Beach, and the surf was very high with rip current warnings. Ten miles to the north, we found the tide on its way out and a beach that was entirely made up of crushed shell. It was the oddest beach any of us have ever walked on.
All in all, it was a pretty laid back week at St. Augustine filled with friends, laughter, good food and interesting sites. Continuing southbound now to the Vero Beach area!