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Historic St. Augustine on Florida’s east coast draws lots of attention for its past, but a look east across the downtown river points to a barrier island with miles of sandy beaches for families. What it means is you don’t have to choose between city sights or fun in the sun – you can have it all! Check out the highlights of a trip to the beaches of St. Augustine.
St. Augustine – The Best of Both Worlds
Proposing a beach vacation in a city seemed like a riddle, even for my adventurous traveling family. Turns out St. Augustine in Florida has broad appeal. For a multigen family, like mine, city sights plus beach activities spelled options.
America’s oldest city. It’s a source of pride for residents. Checking out St. Augustine’s historic sites with trolley tours and walking within old forts is one multigen way to examine centuries-old explorers and conquerors. And the beach provided us with a welcome spot for water sports and relaxation.
A Multigenerational Getaway
We ranged in age from 10 to 73. Nine of us in a beach house rental for a week. This particular combination had never all stayed together, just smaller, different groupings.
Some multigen travelers all go together, always same familiar family. Bunches of cousins.
In fact, I met a cousin/sibling crowd of 42 (!) on the beach. Nine matching royal blue tents huddled together. “We always set our beach vacation the same week, same condos, same spot every year,” they said. Obviously, the blend of an historic district city center plus St. Augustine beach fits that travel model too.
My group had plenty of fun, and we’re already plotting Nova Scotia together next summer.
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Getting To and Around St. Augustine Beach
Fly-in families can choose Jacksonville and rent a vehicle there. Driving distance: 40 miles. That worked for my family flying in from Manhattan.
Daytona is 57 miles away, another option.
The ocean is only a couple of miles away from downtown, but a car is important to get around.
The Matanzas River is almost always in view, alluring with schooner and ecotour opportunities. Pirate history happened here too, accessible on themed sails.
What About the Beach?
Island life is the way to think about the beaches near St. Augustine.
My multigen family liked the notion of spending our week on Anastasia Island. It’s 14 miles long and a mile wide. A1A South is a well-known coastal highway and on Anastasia Island, it’s A1A Beach Boulevard.
How did the island get that name?
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It was our obvious question and we guessed wrong.
The daughter of Russian Czar Nicholas II (our Anastasia idea) was born in 1901, long after the founding of St. Augustine and her barrier islands.
This island Anastasia was named for a fourth century healer and exorcist, with ties to Eastern Orthodox religion and remains reportedly in Croatia.
Good chance nobody will know if you ask around while touring the handsome Anastasia State Park!
Do Go to Anastasia State Park
Anastasia State Park is a mere four miles from historic downtown St. Augustine. And just as close in the opposite direction to our St. Augustine beach rental house.
Tent and RV travelers can stay overnight for $28.00; four of my group opted to roam about for a couple of hours.
Parking is ample for day trippers like us; entry fee is $8.00 per vehicle. Go solo and pay just $4.00.
Things to Do at Anastasia State Park
My 10-year-olds loved climbing the big swooping branches of the live oak trees in a shady spot with picnic tables.
We could have rented kayaks, sailboats and paddleboards from the watersports outfitter or beach gear from the park souvenir shop.
And we thought about hiking the nature trail or ancient sand dunes trail but got sidetracked by a great big gopher tortoise! They’re landlubbers, not swimmers.
Really cool to see because burrowing is what they like best and that means eight to 12 feet deep and 40 foot long burrows.
Indigo snakes and burrowing owls often join them in the deep land.
Glimpsing the Atlantic Ocean is possible in small bits while driving and walking Anastasia State Park. Earning the big view comes with a happy jolt at the end of a wide meandering boardwalk.
Of course we knew this was a beach access point but the oats and vines and flowers under and around us filled the horizons until – voila! We were beachcombers again!
How Many St. Augustine Beaches?
Florida’s Historic Coast — St. Augustine distinctive — offers six beaches. The four other than my beach vacation points are named Ponte Vedra Beach, Vilano Beach, Butler Beach (access through Butler County Park) and Crescent Beach.
That’s north to south with the state park and St. Augustine Beach in the middle.
Golfing families might lean toward Ponte Vedra and surfers and kite boarders toward Vilano. Crescent Beach is curvy moon shaped and, with its pristine beaches, is well suited for ecotourists and beachcombers.
Butler Beach holds important history — originally an African American beach, and the only one between Daytona and American Beach north of Jacksonville. Today the park and beach offer lots of amenities, including showers, lifeguards and pavilions. Vehicle entry fee is $10.00.
Games to Play
What’s a family vacation without games?
My family walked a block to play miniature golf. Anastasia Island has accessible options. Lots of families were playing too, many combinations of ages. This was a first for my ten-year-old grandson, even though he has a well used passport. For me: memory lane from lots of family mini golf games growing up in New Jersey.
I also encouraged the kids to cross the traffic-y A1A Beach Boulevard. Why would a loving grandma send her loved ones out into a busy street?
Orange flags were my reason.
At lights and intersections, always with bold white painted crosswalk stripes, buckets of orange flags hang on poles. Grab one and cross. High visibility with big family groups, each with a flag.
Leave the flag on the other side for the next crosser. Novel? Clever? Definitely visible. And easy to feel a bit smug or silly waving the orange.
We didn’t ride bikes on our Florida beaches holiday, but there were plenty to rent. Surf boards too.
The fishing pier beckons exploration because it’s so visible while playing in the waves. Wednesdays are special. In the morning, you’ll find a farmers’ market there. And return at night for music, one of the fun free things to do in St. Augustine.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Take a little cash to the St. Johns County Ocean Pier because there’s a small entrance fee. Walking the sandy beaches and jumping the waves all free.
Seafood to Eat
Road trips make it simple to pack groceries and eat in the rental beach house. We splurged one restaurant night out at Salt Life Food Shack for oysters and margarita happy hour, then fish tacos or crab legs or fresh catch of the day blackened.
The short drive to Fisherman’s Dock seafood store offered up lots of choices for cooking, and we opted for pounds of shrimp. Fishing ships unload on Riberia Street — real life way to get to know the fishing industry.
Two of my multigen family live in New York City, so they are at home with the notion of walking for what you need. That’s probably why they discovered Ocean Hammock Park Walkway and a beach route to the grocery store.
Beach to Park to Island Stores
Ocean Hammock Park Walkway feels like a mirage, but it’s real.
Detour while walking the beach to discover a boardwalk with shade, benches and a destination.
This one’s not expansively wide like the Anastasia State Park connector to the beach but you can hold hands while walking or feel comfortable when a bike rider passes.
Big vacation rentals are visible but mostly this is cool and shady. Skip the historic district ghost tours and imagine spooky things in the dense foliage patterns here.
Notice the benches too. Their substance and personality changes: beachfront park entry is casual, perched high sort of like lifeguard chairs; A1A Beach Boulevard entry is more like a metro wait-for-the-bus bench.
Coquina is the substance forming the arms of the city-side benches. That’s an important historic coastal building material using shells. Look for coquina in the state park quarry and multiple places on the Old Town Trolley tour.
Tour Downtown St. Augustine
Weigh the two trolley options before boarding. Red Train Tours, which hosted my family for the ride, cost $19.99; the tour includes the highlights in this city, quoting discovers and developers like Ponce De Leon and Henry Flagler often. Sixty minutes round trip.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Since history’s always in the making, listen to the tour narrative with an ear to new perspectives and understandings evolving too. St. Augustine is a wonderful learning laboratory about discovery and colonization and relationships with indigenous people. Old familiar stories can receive new chapters. Might talk about that with the kids ahead of time.
The green and orange Old Town Trolley Tours charge adults $29.99 and kids $14.99 with 22 hop-on hop-off opportunities. Saves parking woes for families wanting to go inside some of the attractions. 90 minutes round trip.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If getting back to the beach is the point of the week, hop-on hop-off might create friction. Explore the website and literature en route to St. Augustine Beach to already know if the aquarium or the Castillo de San Marcos fort or many museums are alluring this vacation.
Full disclosure: I love staying in the inns of the oldest city and dining in the restaurants. Flagler College architecture, the Lightner Museum, Villa Zorayda Museum and ecotours on the Matanzas River delight me and are some of my favorite things to do in St. Augustine.