The treasures of Florida’s Historic Coast

TPC Sawgrass has a team of volunteer “storytellers” who share the history and countless tales of this impressive golf course in the community of Ponte Vedra.
TPC Sawgrass has a team of volunteer “storytellers” who share the history and countless tales of this impressive golf course in the community of Ponte Vedra.

With Old-World charm, lush resorts, championship golf courses, and 42 miles of pristine beaches, St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach boast a treasure trove of gems. Known as Florida’s Historic Coast, the northeast Florida area attracts more than 70 million visitors annually. The trend buoys hopes that the Historic Coast will become a top destination for meetings and events.

“Planners have always been aware of our unique mix of Four and Five Diamond oceanfront resorts, boutique hotels, shopping, dining, and historic assets,” says William McBroom, director of conference sales for the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “The latest developments here mark the beginning of what we hope will be a new era of growth for our meetings and convention business.”

Located in St. John’s County, the Historic Coast has 183,184 square feet of event space and 10,000 guest accommodations. Among the latest developments is the AAA Four Diamond Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Augustine Beach Oceanfront Resort. The resort sits just off the A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway and includes 12,000 square feet of event space and 14 meeting rooms. A spacious 5,000-square-foot ballroom with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Atlantic Ocean accommodates 580 people. Outdoors, the resort’s open terraces and manicured lawns provide additional space for 500 guests.
The property’s restaurant, Harvest & Reel, serves up some of the area’s best farm-fresh and sea-to-table fare. In addition to its current 175 guest accommodations, the Embassy Suites is expected to open 42 additional suites early this year.

450 years of history

History is alive in St. Augustine. Established in 1565 by Spaniard Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the “Ancient City,” as it is known, is the oldest continuously inhabited European-established settlement in the contiguous United States. Centuries-old structures and landmarks bear witness to a dramatic past that includes massacres, marauding pirates, and sanctuary for free people of color.

To establish St. Augustine as a winter haven for wealthy northerners, railroad magnate and Standard Oil co-founder Henry Flagler created the north-to-south Florida East Coast Railway in the late 1800s and later developed the Hotel Ponce de Leon
and Alcazar Hotel. The Ponce de Leon was later transformed into the campus of Flagler College.

In 1948, Chicago publisher and eclectic collector Otto C. Lightner created the Lightner Museum in the former Alcazar Hotel. Featuring one of the nation’s most exceptional collections of fine and decorative 19th-century art—including an extensive Tiffany glass collection-the Lightner is also a favorite event venue and can accommodate 400 guests.

Across the street, the elegant Casa Monica Resort & Spa was built in 1888. The palatial resort features Moorish-style architecture and offers 138 accommodations, along with 12,000 square feet of flexible space. The resort’s pool deck and Sultan’s Pavilion is 5,200 square feet and accommodates up to 250 guests. The 3,560-square-foot Casa Monica Ballroom holds 400 guests theater-style and 350 for receptions. Despite its landlocked historic-district location, Casa Monica guests can still enjoy the beach at the private Serenata Beach Club.

The city’s historic interior is filled with narrow cobblestone streets dotted with boutiques, galleries, pubs, restaurants, and historic attractions. Guided tours—including ghost tours—carry visitors by trolley or horse-drawn carriage. One of the best ways to experience St. Augustine is by boat. Several companies offer tours on the water, including Sabrage Charters, with a 63-foot catamaran that motors 110-passengers along the Intracoastal Waterway for stunning views of the city.

Strolling through St. Augustine’s historic Colonial Quarter, it’s not unusual to meet costumed actors portraying a crew of pirates or Spanish Minorcan settlers in 18th-century attire. The Colonial Quarter has living history demonstrations to create an interactive journey through the past. Colonial Oak Music Park stages free concerts every weekend and is available for private events
of up to 200 people.

Tasting Tours led by a knowledgeable local foodie offer three-hour custom food and drink pairings for up to 75 guests. And the St. Augustine Distillery lets visitors see how locally farmed ingredients are crafted into award-winning spirits.

On the city outskirts, the St. Augustine Amphitheatre includes a state-of-the-art 4,100-seat theater, a spacious plaza area, and additional outdoor space suitable for smaller social gatherings.

Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park near St. Augustine.
Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park near St. Augustine.

From alligator farms and pirate museums to old forts and even a Fountain of Youth, St. Augustine lets visitors drink in its fascinating flavors, all within reach of historic hotels and modern comforts.

“The great amenities at our hotels enable guests to enjoy whatever they like, whether it’s downtown museums or beaches,” McBroom says. The VCB works with planners to give groups “exactly what they want wherever they want to stay,” McBroom adds.’

Airstreams and ocean air

 A stone’s throw across the Matanzas River, along A1A, Vilano Beach has long been a favorite getaway for generations of locals and savvy travelers. The barrier-island community is said to have some of the best restaurants and waterfront views in northeast Florida. And don’t miss Vilano Beach’s Airstream Row. Occupied by the iconic silver capsule-shaped trailers, it hosts monthly outdoor music concerts and pop-up markets.

Soon, this laidback fishing village will have more guest accommodations and event space with the planned opening of the Hyatt Place early this year. The three-story hotel features art deco elements and will offer 120 guest rooms and 7,200 square feet of event space for up to 1,200 guests. Plans are underway for a hotel water taxi service to ferry hotel guests to downtown St. Augustine.

Continuing north on A1A, find the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. One of 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the country, the reserve operates as a “living classroom” with guided eco tours, interpretive exhibits, aquariums, and hands-on opportunities. The Reserve’s impressive 21,000-square-foot Visitor Education Center—complete with a full-scale model of a North Atlantic right whale—includes an auditorium and outdoor amphitheater.

Golf’s hallowed ground

About 30 miles south of Jacksonville International Airport, A1A winds into the seaside community of Ponte Vedra Beach. The AAA Five Diamond Ponte Vedra Inn & Club has 262 guest rooms and suites, two golf courses, 15 tennis courts, a beachfront cabana club, upscale boutiques, and north Florida’s largest full-service day spa. The property includes 25,000-square feet of adaptable function space and 17 meeting rooms. The inn has four restaurants and can cater anything from beachfront cookouts to black-tie affairs.

Get up close and personal with these massive reptiles at St. Augustine’s Alligator Farm.
Get up close and personal with these massive reptiles at St. Augustine’s Alligator Farm.

The community of Ponte Vedra Beach also boasts a robust culinary scene. For creative fresh-off-the-boat seafood in a laidback environment, there’s Palm Valley Fish Camp. And Valley Smoke serves up some of the best slow-smoked barbecue around.

But the main attraction in Ponte Vedra  Beach is golf. Known for its world-class golf courses, the community is home to the PGA Tour’s Players Championship, held annually at TPC Sawgrass—hallowed ground for golfers. The gold standard of golf, the championship brings the world’s top golfers to the iconic Players Stadium Course, named among the best in the world. Visitors can tee-off at the legendary par-72 course and test their game on the famous island green of the 17th hole, one of the most recognized in golf.

Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa is situated next door to the famed course. The resort has 514 updated guest rooms and suites and 61,000 square feet of event space, including more than 20 meeting rooms, 12,000 square feet of exhibit space, and a 15,741-square-foot ballroom that can hold 1,600 guests.

The majestic 77,000-square-foot clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass features 54,256 square feet of event space, including 21 meeting rooms; event space is also available along outdoor terraces and on the clubhouse lawn. There’s even a team of volunteer “storytellers” who give free daily tours, sharing the background of this storied course and adding a bit more history to Florida’s Historic Coast.

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