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Eat and stay awhile in St. Augustine

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By Debbie Stone

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Special to the Monitor

St. Augustine, Florida, is a treasure trove of historical attractions. The city has more than 60 points of interests, including Ponce De Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaological Park.

Visitors can enjoy the city’s many attractions but with all of this activity, it is a good time for sustenance. Not to worry, St. Augustine’s got you covered. Restaurants and bars dot the city and surrounding areas, offering a variety of cuisines.

Head to intimate and trendy Catch 27 for some of the most delectable seafood in town. The establishment prides itself on preparing and serving fresh, locally caught seafood, and everything is made from scratch.

Another special place is Michael’s Tasting Room, which emphasizes fresh, local and seasonal Spanish and Mediterranean inspired creations. This St. Augustine gem resides in a converted historic home dating back to 1764. Also memorable is lunch at Café Alcazar. This elegant eatery is situated in the Lightner Museum in a space originally designated for the largest indoor swimming pool of the Hotel Alcazar. The menu emphasizes entrees made from the freshest ingredients, local and organic.

For great “fast seafood,” make a beeline for newly opened St. Augustine Seafood Restaurant in the Colonial Quarter.

There you’ll feast on such dishes as conch fritters, spicy Minorcan clam chowder, shrimp tacos and freshly grilled fish. The restaurant even lists which boats brought in what seafood for the day.

Food tours, which have become all the rage these days, are plentiful in St. Augustine. To appease your sweet tooth, check out Whetstone Chocolate Factory. Those who do will be introduced to the history and making of chocolate, as well as to the Whetstone story. The best part is the four-tiered tasting, which brings out the characteristics of dark, milk and white artisan chocolates. It’s a decadently delicious experience!For aficionados of craft liquors, take a tour of the St.  Augustine Distillery, which includes a visit to the company’s museum, distillery, barrel room and tasting bar.

Learn how locally grown Florida agricultural products are turned into award-winning vodka, gin, rum and bourbon. And of course, visitors get to imbibe a variety of cocktails such as a Florida Mule, Rum Tiki and Old Fashioned. The building itself is notable, as it was Florida’s first commercial ice plant and dates back to 1917. The distillery has received much recognition for its preservation and restoration efforts, which accompany the many awards its spirits have earned.

In the evening, join highly rated The Tasting Tours, for its Corks and Forks Tour. It’s a three-hour strolling experience where diners get to eat and drink their way through St. Augustine. They learn where the foodies like to dine, sample farm fresh ingredients in creatively prepared dishes and sip boutique wines, while exploring the city’s beautiful historic streets. If they are lucky, they will get guide extraordinaire Donna Cowley, a St. Augustine native, who attended Flagler College. Donna is incredibly enthusiastic about her town and its food and wine culture, and is delighted to share her knowledge with visitors.

Our tour stopped at five establishments, including The Gifted Cork, a wine and gift boutique, where we tried a variety of  different wines from Australia and New Zealand (the wine destination of the month), along with a few cheeses. At the

Old City House, a well-known upscale establishment in an elegantly restored 19th century building, we were treated to a tasty dish of swordfish and crabmeat, followed by a sample of the restaurant’s NY style strawberry cheesecake. The Floridian was next on our “crawl.” This casual, popular restaurant focuses on high quality, local and sustainable ingredients in traditional Southern dishes with a twist.

We sampled cornmeal dusted fried green tomatoes and cheesy polenta grit cakes. At Odd Birds, an eclectic neighborhood bar, where “chill” is the mantra, craft cocktails take center stage, along with a smattering of bites like ceviche bowls and yucca fries. The tour ends with dessert at Peace Pie, my favorite stop of the evening. This family run establishment has several locations in New Jersey, South Carolina and now Florida. Each Peace Pie has a layer of ice cream and another of pie filling that are anchored between two hearty shortbread cookies.

Flavors abound with such delights as pecan pie, salted brownie, peanut butter chiffon, key lime pie, cookie dough, pumpkin latte, cinnamon bun and many, many more. These unique and ginormous ice cream sandwiches are simply amazing!

When it comes to accommodations, St. Augustine and the surrounding area offer a myriad of properties from full service resorts and boutique hotels to charming B&Bs and quaint, historic inns. I stayed at The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens, a collection of nine historic houses conveniently located on the edge of Old Town. Once the home of St. Augustine’s Dow Museum of Historic Houses, The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens weds contemporary luxury with impeccable historic preservation. Each of the property’s houses is different, as is each of the individual thirty rooms. All have been artfully and stylishly restored, and contain several historic features as coquina walls, original stained glass windows, refurbished hardwood floors and other period decor.

These details blend seamlessly with such modern amenities as rainwater showerheads, flat-screen LCD HDTVs, luxurious bed linens, bedside interactive iPads and kitchenettes with microwaves and mini-fridges.

The property’s grounds comprise a one-acre oasis of live oaks, lush gardens, outdoor sculptures, stone fountains, wrought iron gates and brick pathways. Sit by one of the outdoor fire pits at night for the ultimate in cozy. And if you want a before or after dinner drink, stop in at The Well, an intimate gathering spot in what was once St. Augustine’s first two-car garage. You can opt for a classic cocktail or something totally unique like an herb-infused elixir made especially to your taste. In the morning, enjoy the European Continental breakfasts; later in the afternoon, munch on the snack offering of the day in the Star General Store.

This building was constructed in 1899 by a local dry goods merchant and served as a general store. Today, it’s the lobby and reception area. The warm welcome visitors receive at the inn is indicative of the gracious, southern hospitality you’ll be shown throughout your stay in the nation’s oldest city.

For more information about St. Augustine, visit floridashistoriccoast.com, and for information about the Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens, visit thecollectorinn.com.