Monday, April 13, 2009

Florida State Parks: Anastasia

When it comes to location, visiting Anastasia State Park is like finding the mother lode.

Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, this park has two main landscapes that are markedly different: On the one hand it features a wide, undeveloped beach 4½ miles long, while on the other it features a lush maritime forest filled with evergreen hardwoods.

And in between these two landscapes, curving inland from the ocean, it has a lagoon where kayakers set out in their crafts and fishermen always seem to be reeling in the big ones. Kayaks, canoes and sailboards are available for rent, as are other recreational crafts.

However, the kicker is this: Though Anastasia gives a feeling of seclusion when you spend time here, its entrance is less than 10 minutes from downtown St. Augustine. Therefore, you can experience some quality outdoors time and some quality city time on the same trip without any inconvenience.

And when you factor in that Anastasia’s campground is one of the best anywhere – and that you can get a good campsite here for one-fifth the cost of an ordinary hotel room in many locales – you will see that this place provides the perfect ingredients for an eclectic vacation that won’t break the bank.

Speaking of the campground, it has seven loops. Other than the Coquina Loop, they are laid out in parallel, elongated ovals with all of the campsites positioned around the outside, and every two loops share a large, clean bathhouse that is situated between them. No matter which loop you are on, you will be surrounded by shade-giving oaks rising above an understory that is dense with yaupon, a type of holly. The majority of the campsites are both spacious and private – two qualities that are important but rarely co-exist. When reserving a site, keep in mind that the Coquina Loop is used almost exclusively by RV’ers, while the people camping on the other six are divided about evenly between tenters and RV’ers.

Though the campground sits in the forest, the beach is close enough that we have heard waves crashing while lying in our tent at night. I recommend rising early and walking to the beach to watch the sunrise, for in addition to seeing the fiery colors it flings across the sky, you will see lots of seabirds and may have the beach to yourself.

When you’ve had your fill of the oceanfront, you should check out Anastasia’s two hiking trails. One leads to an abandoned coquina quarry from centuries ago, and the other meanders through a hilly section of the forest. The hills were once barren sand dunes, back when the sea level was higher and the beach farther inland.

Then, when it’s time to venture outside of the park and explore downtown, you can rest assured you’ll have a good time. St. Augustine is the oldest city in America, its Old World architecture is endearing, and it has quite a few pubs that are worthy of a visit. My personal favorite is the Mill Top Tavern, which actually is what its name suggests.

From the Mill Top you can see the Castillo de San Marcos, a fort built by Spain in the 1600’s using coquina stone harvested from that abandoned quarry back in the park. It remained in military use until the early twentieth century, under different nations, without ever being taken in battle. Today it is a national monument and you can walk through it and stand on its walls for a fee of $6 (children under 16 are free).

Meanwhile, not far from downtown is San Sebastian Winery, where you can take a complimentary tour, enjoy a complimentary tasting, and visit the rooftop bar where live jazz and blues are played every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

And back by the park, within walking distance of its entrance, stands the St. Augustine Lighthouse. You can climb the 318-step circular stairway to its top, where you step out onto a red observation deck to soak in a tremendous view in each direction. If you want to make the climb, keep in mind that children must be at least 44 inches tall. Access to the lighthouse, plus the grounds, museum, and audio tour, is $9. However, senior citizens are $8 and children under 12 are $7.

I can’t think of a better way to experience the Sunshine State than staying at Anastasia and experiencing both it and the historic town it neighbors. Campground reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance, either by going here or calling 800-326-3521. For more information about the park, go here or call 904-461-2033.

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