11. St. Johns County: Ponte Vedra Beach to Vilano Beach

If you like a mix of history, natural beauty, gorgeous architecture, tourist attractions, delicious food, and plenty of quirkiness, then you are going to love St. Johns County, home of America’s OLDEST city—St. Augustine.

Our first two counties, Nassau and Duval, provide travelers with much to see and enjoy, but the reputation Florida has a mecca for tourists becomes clearly evident in what is often referred to as “Ancient City” although when compared to other ancient cities in the world, it lags in age.

St. Augustine, founded in 1565 by Spanish soldier Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, did enjoy a huge 450-year celebration in 2015; Jericho, a city in Palestine that compares closely in population to St. Augustine, is over 11,000 years old and considered by some to be the oldest city in the world (It should be mentioned that these are cities still in existence).

Prior to the Spanish settlement in 1565, a Timucua community did exist for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, within what is by comparison modern St. Augustine, with archaeological artifacts discovered within the current city limits.

Nevertheless, St. Augustine fully embraces its superlative and since the late 19th century has been a major tourist destination in America. The number of tourists that visit St. Augustine and St. Johns County each year is in the millions (many of which are repeat visitors, but still, quite impressive).

At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, however, we should focus on the nearly 25 miles of A1A from the Duval/St. Johns County border to Vilano Beach, a portion of which in itself lays claim to antiquity.

St. Johns County is one of America’s fastest growing areas, and is known as the WEALTHIEST county in Florida. Traveling through Ponte Vedra Beach on A1A, it is hard not to recognize its affluency, and with it a connection to the game of golf. According to Golf Link’s website, there are 11 courses in Ponte Vedra Beach alone, including two at its popular Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, and two at TPC Sawgrass, home of the PGA’s Tournament Player’s Championship held every March on its Player’s Stadium Course.

From the TPC Sawgrass website:

“With its signature island green on the par-3, 17th hole being one of the most recognized in golf, this legendary track has captured the imagination of golf fans all over the world and is consistently named among the top golf courses worldwide.”

Though not considered one of the four major golf tournaments, TPC at Sawgrass carries the largest purse of all PGA tournaments, and with it a prestige equivalent to the majors.

Open to the public, the cost playing a round of golf for one at TPC Sawgrass is comparable to taking a family of four to Walt Disney World for the day. However, a tour of the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse and several of the holes at the Stadium Club, including the famous (or infamous) 17th island hole, is free.

For golf fans, the tour is guaranteed to be a wonderful experience.

“Blending elegant, old world charm with modern, upscale amenities, the clubhouse features a variety of dining options, an expansive gallery, beautifully appointed banquet and meeting space and a world-class golf shop. The clubhouse is open for the public to enjoy and discover, with storyteller docents on hand to help every guest explore the club’s wide array of PGA TOUR memorabilia.”

The clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass
One of several memorabilia collections at TPC Sawgrass, these are clubs donated by each of the winners of past TPC tournaments…
… including three clubs from three-time winner, Jack Nicklaus.
A fun photo op at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse
The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. One for two—not too shabby.

By the way, TPC Sawgrass is also home to the PGA Tour’s headquarters.

And yet another threat for golf fans traveling along A1A, about 25 miles southwest inland of TPC Sawgrass, is World Golf Village, home to the World Golf Hall of Fame and one of the two Murray Brothers Caddyshack restaurants (the other located in Rosemont, Illinois).

World Gold Village is home to two golf courses, one designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (King and Bear), and the other by Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen (Slammer and Squire); it is also the location of the PGA Tour Golf Academy.

Heading further south, you begin to leave behind much of the commercialization of Ponte Vedra Beach and approach a mix of pristine landscape and beach homes as A1A begins to hug the shoreline. A popular spot, especially for shark teeth hunters, is Mickler’s Beach.

From here, A1A enters the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM). One of 29 such reserves in the United States, GTM offers three beach access points ($3 cash), and an array of outdoor activities along the Guana and Tolomato rivers, both of which parallel A1A and the Atlantic Coast. Located within the reserve is a visitor’s center offering much information on the flora and fauna of GTM; kids will love the reptile room, which features a tank of feisty juvenile alligators and local, non-venomous snakes.

The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitor’s Center.
Eastern Indigo Snake
A couple of youngsters at the GTM’s Visitor’s Center

The reserve offers an array of guided beach walks and hikes, as well as opportunities to participate in beach clean up days.

North of the Visitor’s Center are three beach access parking lots; the north lot marks A1A’s first point of interest in regard to explorer Ponce de Leon, laying claim as the location that he sighted what is now Florida on April 2, 1513. This is the first of several statues of Ponce de Leon, each positioned in an area believed to be a site associated with his discovery of Florida, and each that has been up for debate by historians.

The statue of Ponce de Leon at the GTM Reserve’s North Parking Lot.
Ponce de Leon statue, erected on April 2, 2013, the 500th anniversary of his discovery of Florida.

Roadside America provides a brief, interesting read on the statue. And while we are at it, an article from the St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra: Florida’s Historic Coast website, “Finding Ponce”, offers information on the statue as well as St. Johns County’s connection to the famed explorer.

The statue’s unveiling event is presented in the following video, which included Jimmy Ponce, the great-great-great-great-great grandson of Ponce de Leon.

Venturing beyond the preserve, beachfront homes, including vacation rentals, mostly obstructs the ocean view, while the Intracoastal side provides a narrow bike path on A1A that is heavily used on weekends. A virtual ride via Google Maps introduces you to rental properties such as Villa Aqua, The Funky Turtle, Hemingway Dream, Beach House Memories, Paradise Point, and Barefoot Bungalow.

But even with the oceanside development, this is a scenic portion of A1A, providing a wonderful coastal vibe.

Within a couple of miles from Vilano Beach is a precursor to the oddities to be found in St. Augustine, Castle Otttis.

Castle Otttis

Located just off A1A on Third Street, the castle, which is 50 feet in height, can only be viewed partially as it is surrounded by palm trees and palmetto scrub, greatly contrasting the landscapes of Ireland’s Abbey-styled castles, many built over 1,000 years ago.

Built between 1984 and 1988 by Ottis Sadler and Randy Ickes, the castle does not serve any residence purpose. It lacks water and electricity. It was built to be a piece of art and to evoke a sense of spirituality and peace.

Additional interior work was later added. From Atlas Obscura:

“Once they had completed the main structure of the castle, work began on the interior. This was handled by one man, Lee Carpenter, who took three years to complete all the interior woodwork, mainly working with cypress wood and some old southern heart-pine. Between 1988 and 1991, Carpenter built eight elaborate staircases, an altar, a pulpit, a series of pews, a choir loft and a bishop’s chair.”

Roadside America also offers a write-up on Castle Otttis.

Signage at one of the castle gates

The castle is generally unavailable to the public, though its website mentions that tours are offered to certain groups, and that the castle can be used as a wedding venue. Interdenominational Christian worship services, usually offered on the last Sunday of each month, are currently suspended due to Covid-19, according to its website.

Basically, the best one can expect is a roadside view, but it is definitely worth a look. Castle Otttis will offer A1A travelers with a nice comparison to two other sites close to A1A in South Florida: the Ancient Spanish Monastery (Miami) and Coral Castle (Homestead).

Nearby are three restaurants, each locally owned and offering splendid views: The Reef, located on the oceanfront, and two along the Tolomato River, Caps on the Water and Aunt Kate’s.

Of the three, Aunt Kate’s, with its connection to Henry Flagler, is most historic. From its website:

“While out sailing one day in February of 1900, Standard Oil and Railroad magnet, Henry Flagler stopped at North Beach and asked Catherine and Frank Usina if they could prepare a meal of roasted local oysters for himself and a group of friends. The Usina’s agreed. Afterwards, a hat was passed and they were presented with what was more than a weeks’ salary at that time.”

Aunt Kate’s Restaurant

At Aunt Kate’s, travelers and boaters can stop by for an Old Florida eating experience while watching a sunset over the Tolomato River. This is an ideal spot to take a break on the A1A journey—for our next stop, we will explore Vilano Beach.

Happy traveling!

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