As a frequent visitor to St. Augustine, I’ve walked its brick streets studying the turrets of elegant Victorian homes more times than I can count, but on this warm afternoon in December, I’m fascinated by the ball of white netting perched on a bush wrapped with more white netting to resemble a snowman. It sits in the front yard of the Cedar House Inn. The owner placed a black felt hat, apparently from her personal collection, on the faux snowman’s head and tucked an evergreen sprig in the bowler’s brim. She meticulously sprayed the grass at Frosty’s feet with fake snow, stuck a branch in his side and rested a fragrant cinnamon broom next to the iconic figure. I can’t help but think: Floridians are quite the innovative bunch when it comes to creating a winter wonderland in 80-degree weather.
It’s Sunday afternoon, and the annual Bed and Breakfast Holiday Tour is under way. With map in hand I’m en route to explore 12 B&Bs, all draped in holiday splendor, in this historic town nestled between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville on Florida’s Atlantic coast. (I could have toured 25 houses if I had arrived on Saturday for this two-day event.) I have no guide, just a friend to assist me, as I navigate St. Augustine’s mazelike streets meeting and greeting others seeking the holiday spirit.
My first stop is the Cedar House Inn, circa 1893, home to Frosty, walkways outlined with bright-red poinsettias and wraparound porch rails boasting garlands and gold bows. Owner Cyndi Humphrey is all smiles and sparkles as she greets me in her gold metallic top that complements her home’s trimmings. She escorts a curious group of ladies, who I have joined, into the towering three-story house she recently purchased. The Victorian mansion’s pine floors, staircase and fireplace are polished to mirror perfection, so shiny that you can see the Christmas tree’s branches reflecting on the floor. Scattered throughout the house are Victoriana Santas and snow globes that contrast with Humphrey’s kooky reindeer figurines wearing stiletto heels. I can hear the hushed voices of the women as we meander upstairs to the bedrooms, “Oh this is adorable,” “What a clever idea” and “I’d love to do this in my home.” We’re all here to be inspired, and it’s working.
After admiring the bedroom’s intricately carved four-poster mahogany bed with lion’s-paw feet, we head down to the courtyard where chefs dish out samplings of chicken in spicy garlic sauce from Collage restaurant. Each B&B pairs with a local restaurant, so we taste everything from saffron-tinted paella to creamy-silk chocolates to local wines as we exit each house on the tour.
With the map as my guide, I continue on foot following the clippity-clop of hooves against the brick streets as smoothly groomed horses pull open-air white carriages to the waterfront. They park between old-fashioned street lamps wrapped with garland and red bows that skirt Avenida Menendez and the Matanzas Bay. Across the street is the Casablanca Inn, a 1914 Mediterranean Revival; evergreen branches twist around the two-story building’s white columns and balusters. Waiting in line to tour the house, the gentleman next to me says how he and his wife drive down from Palm Coast every year to do the tour. He feigns interest, but I can tell he’s dying to go smoke the stogie he tucked in his shirt pocket; however, instead he patiently follows his wife up the stairs as she collects decorating ideas.
I pop in and out of more inns checking them off the list as I make my way through the city. My tired feet finally give in, and I hop aboard the complimentary Old Town Trolley heading to San Marco Avenue on the other end of town. Here I mosey past a white picket fence into Dave Brezing’s Our House. This former newspaper editor has avoided the doily-inspired look of the traditional Victorian B&Bs, giving his 1880s house a modern holiday vibe. Silver snowflakes and clear glass ornaments dangle on invisible nylon cords above Brezing, who is seated at his black baby-grand piano playing a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells.” “I wake guests up for breakfast with piano music,” he tells me. Only it’s usually “Over the Rainbow” and not Christmas carols, he explains with a grin.
My next stop is the Spanish-colonial Casa de Solana built in 1763. The dining room here is the showstopper with its vivid yellow walls and contrasting candy-apple-red tablecloths. A setting of fine china repeats the colors, and candleholders and a crystal vase with fir branches and tiny baubles sit in the center of the table. Dark-wood ceiling beams and a fireplace add warmth, while old Spanish tiles grace the floor. The crowd lingers in the large courtyard, where on this hot day much-needed cold beverages flow and weary legs get a rest.
My last stop is the Bayfront Westcott House where I’ve booked a room for the night. Twinkle lights hang from its gingerbread-trimmed porch, and the staff is wearing fuzzy red Santa Claus hats as they greet the last of the day’s tour. I already love this place because it’s the only B&B with a spacious bay-front lawn where you can sit and take in sunrises, sailboats and a lighthouse in the distance. I retire to Catherine’s Room and sink into a cushy antique bed. The next morning between bites of French toast on the porch, I chat with Diane and Robert Rhodes. The couple from Orlando tells me they are celebrating their 14th wedding anniversary. “We come here every year—same room—for our wedding anniversary, but it’s also our kickoff to the holiday season,” says Diane. I can only nod and think “what a wonderful tradition.” collagestaug.com, staugustineinns.com
Purchase tickets ($25 includes both days) for the two-day tour held Dec. 10-11, from 1 to 5 p.m. at staugustinebandbtour.com.