Castillo red wine from St. Augustine's San Sebastian Winery sparkles in his crystal goblet as Joe Finnegan relaxes in the lush, sun-dappled greenery of his courtyard garden. The innkeeper glances toward the St. George Street entrance to his St. Francis Inn, circa 1791. Any moment now, he'll hear his wife, Margaret's, footsteps on the cobblestones as she returns from her day job as a professor at nearby Flagler College. "Maybe we'll take in that new movie at Pot Belly's Cinema Plus," he muses. "Or we might just head back to that new Bistro de Leon and check out chef Poinard's delicious offering of the day." Whatever Joe and Margaret choose to do with the rest of the evening, chances are they will thoroughly enjoy the nation's oldest city, as they've done for the past two decades.
New Englanders drawn south by their affinity for teaching the deaf, Joe was the principal at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine and Margaret was a teacher there when they met and married in the 1970s. The Finnegans soon found themselves part of the local scene, its colorful fabric indelibly woven into their hearts. "We raised our son and daughter here," says Joe, gesturing toward their century-old, two-story home adjacent to the inn. Described by historian David Nolan in his book Houses of St. Augustine as "about as good an example as we have of Victorian Italianate style," the Finnegan's wood-framed residence, with its concrete block veneer, is one of 10 structures in St. Augustine designed by architect John Wilson. "John Wilson bought the St. Francis Inn in the late 1880s and built our house for his family," says Joe. "He designed outside entrances for all four first-floor rooms. John felt that Florida living demanded easy access to the outdoors."
Walk the narrow streets of the neighborhood, and you'll discover dozens of historic homes of diverse size and archi-tecture quietly nestled beneath moss-draped oaks, including the Bronson Cottage on St. George Street. Perched in ghostly splendor behind a courtyard wall and tall private hedges on an unheard-of two-thirds of an acre, the 1870s detailed white-pillared Bronson Cottage is Florida's only example of famed architect Alexander Jackson Davis' work. Known for his innovative Italianate style, Davis is credited with designing homes that harmonized with their surrounding landscaping. The cottage is currently on the market for $2.4 million.
Founded in 1556 by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine has had more than four centuries to conjure tales about its colorful and often turbulent history. Stretching west from the St. Johns River, east to the Atlantic Ocean, north to State Road 210 (where Ponte Vedra Beach begins) and south to State Road 206 (Crescent Beach/Hastings), the diverse tract of land that encompasses St. Augustine is ecologically and historically exciting with well-preserved coquina city gates, the Castillo de San Marcos fort and antique churches. Today, with many of its 14,000 residents (whose average age is 49) involved in tourism, telling tales is an almost obligatory pastime. "A bunch of us meet on Wednesday nights to reminisce and ruminate at Scarlett O'Hara's" [one of St. Augustine's oldest watering holes in the heart of downtown], says local writer Randy Cribbs, grinning. "Tourists always join in to help us solve past and present issues."
A retired army officer, Cribbs grew up in St. Augustine and now lives with his wife, Sharon, "in the last zip code that qualifies as a St. Augustine address" on the banks of the St. Johns River in an old Florida Cracker house built by her grandfather. "We're right down the road from the Outback Crab Shack," says Cribbs. "Everybody knows where that is." (And for those who don't, it's on State Road 13, where it crosses 6 Mile Creek.) The motto of the restaurant sums up the area's lifestyle: "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem."
With equestrian activities a popular pastime in this section of St. Augustine, Sharon is often found tending to her six horses stabled at their nearby five-acre Three Filly Farms on County Road 208. Randy, on the other hand, prefers bike riding with his buddies along scenic State Road 13, parallel to the majestic St. Johns River, or into the historic downtown, where they travel along a nine-mile rural stretch of King Street. "King Street takes us from pure country to pure history in about 40 minutes," says the happy retiree, who loves to write about the city's history; his latest book is titled, coincidentally, Ghosts.
ARTS, CULTURE AND SHOPPING The rich history and warm climate are just some of the decades-old draws that have engendered a community bursting with artists, authors, academics and historians. The hamlet-like environment lends itself to regular art festivals; the First Friday Art Walk is where art collectors and antiques shoppers enjoy a dose of St. Augustine's artsy vibe. In the Butterfield Garage Art Gallery, an auto-repair-shop-turned-art-co-op, sculptures and oil paintings are showcased along with local artist Karen Victoria's Victorian beaded fabric purse necklaces. An ever-increasing number of small, thrown-together, one-room art galleries round out the scene. About more than just paintings, these art walks afford the opportunity to encounter the town's literati, like 92-year-old Stetson Kennedy, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963 and wrote about his experiences in Southern Exposure (his latest book is the Key West memoir Grits & Grunts). He and other authors appear for book signings at Anastasia Books, a charming shop featuring heavy wood shelves stacked with out-of-print books in addition to the latest novels.
ACROSS MATANZAS BAYSome homeowners prefer to cross the Bridge of Lions to Anastasia Island and the Atlantic Ocean for a more coastal life-style. When newcomers Jim and Janet Nelson finished raising their children in Union Town, Pennsylvania, they sold their wire-manufacturing plant and began surfing the Internet for a new home. St. Augustine realtor Teresa Jacalone introduced them to Anastasia Dunes, which Janet found to be strangely reminiscent of their old-fashioned, tree-shaded neighborhood back in Pennsylvania. "It's built among the actual dunes, with the natural vegetation and elevations undisturbed, making Anastasia Dunes unusually hilly for flat Florida," says Jacalone, "and there is an established, mature neighborhood feel to it that the Nelsons fell in love with." Just a few blocks from the ocean, salty breezes waft through the century-old oak-tree canopy shading the custom homes. The Nelsons bought two large wooded lots and hired local contractor Carey Bettis of Artisan Homes to build a formal French Country home for them and an informal cottage-style beach house for their daugh-ter and her husband. Condos are sparser in St. Augustine than houses, but if you prefer the condo lifestyle, you'll find the largest selection inland. Only about 25 percent of St. Augustine's condos are located on Anastasia Island. The average price point is $250,000 for a two-bedroom unit.
"You can buy a nice three-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home in St. Augustine for $150,000 [average home sale is $173,000] or go as high as $4.2 million for a home on the Intracoastal," says Jacalone, "but either way, it's a good life."