The Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés selected the site of Saint Augustine where the Mantazas River and Tolomato River converge and open up to the Atlantic Ocean at a broad inlet, providing an effective and safe harbor plus ample access to waterways north and south. In the Age of Sail, it was a very prudent location but one no less so today when water is as much sought for pleasure as for commercial or military needs. Saint Augustine’s marina bustles with sailboats, surfers come to catch waves at Saint Augustine Beach, Butler Beach, and Crescent Beach while the Mantanzas, the Atlantic, and many nearby creeks attract those who wish to engage in some fishing or birdwatching. Not only does the Saint Augustine area have some of Florida’s most beautiful beaches, but it has the infrastructure to offer visitors a multitude of water-based recreation.
The Mantanzas and Tolomato Rivers together form the local portion of the Intracoastal Waterway, allowing pleasure-craft access not only to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Augustine Inlet but also to go either north towards Jacksonville or south to Flagler Beach and eventually to join with the Halifax River near Ormond Beach. This situation has made Saint Augustine a natural haven for sailors, and its attraction to tourists for its history and beaches have also brought about interest in both river and saltwater kayaking. A local business, Kayak St Augustine, offers not only kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals but comprehensive tours of the local area by kayak, as well as kayak-based fishing. Another company, St Augustine Eco Tours, also provides kayak-based tours with an emphasis on local ecology and conservation; this business also offers boat-based tours of local waterways and out to the ocean to see dolphins, and its tours for photographers and birders are especially popular.
For the visitor wishing to get in touch with older sailing traditions, there is no better place than Saint Augustine to do that, as well: the schooner Freedom offers a variety of day and evening sailing tours of the local waterways, allowing tourists to experience how a classic sailing ship would take to the seas. Freedom even has very romantic full moon excursions and makes a point of spotting wildlife, including the area’s sea birds and dolphins, whenever possible. The entire ship can also be chartered for special events.
As much as sailing, surfing is a favored local pastime. While many think of surfing in relation to California and Hawai’i, Florida has a long and storied surfing past and has produced some of the world’s best professional surfers. New Smyrna Beach, the Daytona area, and Saint Augustine all offer quality waves. And of course surfers need a surf shop, and Saint Augustine Beach’s Surf Station certainly has them covered. This shop is the “east coast warehouse” for Channel Island Surfboards, one of the leading designers of surfboards today, and so Surf Station has the best selection of the CI boards you’ll find outside of California. Surf Station is also beloved for showing surf films in its parking lot at times—such as the 2010 premiere of the film Innersection—and allowing local food-truck favorite Nalu’s to open for business in that same parking lot. Over the years, Surf Station has become something of a second home to generations of local surfers and also operates a second store down at Crescent Beach.
Crescent and Butler beaches deserve some mention in any article about Saint Augustine. These small beach communities are located just south of Saint Augustine Beach and offer some contrast to the slightly built-up nature of the beach around Saint Augustine Beach’s pier. While massive condo complexes span parts of their shores, Butler and Crescent also are dotted with many small private homes, and the county has provided them with ample parks allowing for parking and restrooms near the beach. The aesthetic here is classic Florida beach, lacking in grand fanfare but high on fun, from the low-key atmosphere to the broad boardwalks crossing the fragile dunes. On the boardwalk, keep an eye out for gopher tortoises—these are not sea turtles coming to shore to nest but an endangered species of tortoise native to Florida that burrows in sandy soil. Round and robust creatures, they have nothing to do with the ocean despite its being within sight of their burrows and are attracted here not for the water but for the fine, white sand into which they can easily dig and build their homes.
The influence of counterculture sports that have an emphasis on the individual and creativity like surfing can be felt ashore and inland, too, with skateboarding having grown by leaps and bounds in the area in youth popularity. Both downtown’s streets and the custom-built skatepark Treaty Park are popular spots for local skaters. The feeling you get with as many young people as Flagler College has drawn to Saint Augustine and the general beach culture is that while Saint Augustine may indeed be “the oldest city,” it’s one filled with vitality and young energy, as well.
Something makes me think that were Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to walk, as if by magic, into Saint Augustine today, he might not understand our electric lights or automobiles—but once he saw sailboats in the harbor, he’d know for sure he was home. Some things, thankfully, never really change.
See More of Mike Walker’s Saint Augustine Surf and Sea Photos Here