By Kathy A. Schaeffer
If you are an avid photographer, no matter at which level of the craft, there is an excellent choice of vacation if you want to get some incredible photographs. This ideal place for a photo shoot is in northeast Florida, just 40 miles south of Jacksonville and 60 miles north of Daytona and is the city of St. Augustine. Be sure to have plenty of film for a traditional camera or extra batteries and memory cards for a digital.
St. Augustine has the distinction of being the nation's oldest city. It was founded before Jamestown and before Plymouth Rock was ever stepped upon. "San Agustin" as it was called, was founded in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles after Florida's discovery by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. "La Florida," as it was then called, means "feast of flowers."
One of the main attractions in this city (there are many!) is what is lovingly referred to as "the old fort." The Castillo de San Marcos was built in the 1600s as defense against the British colonies that were springing up to the north of Florida. The Castillo has never been taken in battle and its impressive size and appearance is a photographer's dream for some incredible shots. Your photo portfolio at this location will include some very impressive shots of the outside of the fort, but visitors are also allowed inside. At the lower level of the inside, take your camera into the numerous rooms and enjoy the opportunities. After that, climb the steps to the gun deck to see the cannons and enjoy taking some superb photos of St. Augustine to the sides and back of the fort and the Matanzas Bay dotted with all kinds of boats to the front of the fort. Costumed reenactors are often onsite and offer photo ops.
The Mission of Nombre de Dios is one of the most peaceful settings in the country, and the most holy, according to John F. Kennedy. It was here where the first Catholic Mass was given by Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales in September of 1565. The grounds today are beautifully kept and manicured, and the photo ops are endless, starting with the arched foot bridge over the lagoon. There are statues, old tombstones, fountains, great shots of the bay, and the 16th century style shrine called Our Lady of La Leche. The building is quaint and quite striking with its ivy-covered walls and Spanish architecture. Another stunning sight here is the massive 65 foot high cross.
One of the most memorable things about downtown St. Augustine is the architecture. The "Flagler Section" of town cannot be sufficiently described in mere words, it's simply a sight that has to be seen. Be ready to gasp, though, when seeing it all for the first time. As a note of helpfulness here, it is a good idea to buy a trolley ticket and see the town in that way. The trolley companies stop at about 20 places in town and you can get off and on as often as you wish and move on to the next stop. Be aware that your trolley ticket covers three whole days of riding around the town, not just one day. This is a fully narrated tour around town as well as a perfect mode of transportation from one point to another. Each trolley driver has his or her own stories in addition to the standard facts, so each ride will offer more and unique facts and anecdotes about the city.
The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park presents lovely grounds for photo taking, resident peacocks that are known to "strut their stuff" when cameras are near, bayfront views, the fountain itself, from which visitors can drink, and a former Indian burial ground site and exhibit. There is also a planetarium found here.
There are three restored villages in St. Augustine, if that is the type of place you enjoy spending time with your camera. They are the Old St. Augustine Village, Colonial Spanish Quarter, and a hands-on museum basically for children called the Old Florida Museum.
There are a number of museums in St. Augustine if you enjoy taking inside photographs of exhibits. The Museum of Weapons and Early American History has Spanish and English artifacts from St. Augustine's history, many firearms, and there are some exhibits about shipwrecks and the Civil War. Potter's Wax Museum offers an opportunity for some unique photo shoots with some exceptionally famous people (more than 150) made into wax figures. Still another option, there are all kinds of photos possible at Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum (the original) including the building itself in which the museum is found.
Other sites of interest around the city include Zorayda Castle, modeled after the medieval Alhambra in Granada, Spain. It is a uniquely striking building. The Gonzalez-Alvarez House is called "The Oldest House" and is open for touring. The Oldest Schoolhouse is found on St. George Street. St. George Street itself is a shopper's paradise. No vehicles are allowed on this street and there is a definite feel of Old Spain in the air here. The best photographs will be available in the morning before the stores open and before the street fills with pedestrians.
To see the city from the water (including the cross on the mission grounds and the Castillo) try a Victory III scenic cruise. This provides a whole new perspective for pictures of those attractions as well as the lighthouse and Atlantic Ocean.
If you enjoy taking unusual pictures, you may like one of the ghost tours that are offered every night. Whether or not you actually get a shot of a spirit, it is something nice to do in the city in the evening. There is even a ghost tour from the water on a haunted schooner.
Another after-dark option is to hire a horse and carriage for a tour around town with the driver doing the narrating. Don't forget to try to get some sunset photographs, and there are plenty of palm trees to use as a foreground. Sunset pictures with the Castillo turn out well, too. Speaking of trees, the countless Spanish moss draped live oaks around the town will serve as backdrop for many of your photographs.
Across the Bridge of Lions from St. Augustine's historic district lies Anastasia Island. This is where to go for your photo shots of the Atlantic Ocean and beachfront. Also on the island is where you will find the very impressive St. Augustine Lighthouse. If you can manage climbing the 219 steps to the top, you can imagine what kind of photo shots you will able to obtain.
The Bridge of Lions itself generally has two massive white lions at the St. Augustine side of it, but they have been removed for safety in early 2005 while bridge work is being done, and they will not be replaced for a number of years.
Also on "the other side" of the bridge, on the island, you will find still another great opportunity for some unique photographs. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park houses gators, monkeys, tropical birds, crocodiles, and other wildlife that will provide some excellent pictures. Be sure to see all 15+ feet and 1250 pounds of Maximo, the croc that's already over thirty years old. You will also want to snap some pictures of the albino alligators. Legend has it that anyone viewing one of these creatures will be the recipient of good luck, so that's just a side perk.
Fort Matanzas is another option found on the island side of the city and about 15 miles from St. Augustine's historic district. This is where French Huguenots were massacred in 1565. Matanzas Bay got its name from this event; Matanzas means slaughter. The fort itself is small and the park service runs a ferry to the fort from the visitor center.
If you have seen everything you wish to see in St. Augustine and have some vacation time left over, you may want to visit some other points of interest along Florida's Atlantic shoreline. This would include many points of interest including the zoo beside the St. John's River in Jacksonville.
Another day trip from St. Augustine will take you about 115 miles south to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The things that will make good photography subject are obvious, and include the visitor complex itself with a rocket garden, shuttle replica, and a wall of remembrance (called Space Mirror) for astronauts who have lost their lives in the interest of space exploration. You will be able to see the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the International Space Station Center, and the Launch Complex 39 Observation Area. You may be able to snap a shot of an astronaut here because they offer an "Astronaut Encounter" program. Ask questions of the astronaut while snapping pictures.
Florida's Space Coast is actually more than 70 miles long, so if it is photography of beach areas and the ocean you seek, just start traveling south from St. Augustine and the opportunities will be plenty. All of these places including St. Augustine are easily reached via the I-95 corridor if this is a driving road trip.