As a boy I dreamt about going into space, but not just for the fun of it, I was fascinated by the technology behind it all, how physics could be manipulated to such an extent it still amazes me today. So naturally the first time we ever went to Florida I was straight at the Kennedy space centre and amazed by just about everything. I recall the guy on the tour bus saying “I came to the space centre some fifteen years ago and loved it so much I decided to stay” and I completely got that. The unfortunate thing is that despite us being in Florida maybe seven or eight times we have still not managed to catch a rocket launch as there has either not been one, or it has been cancelled. So, when one was scheduled for the 23rd July at 7.03pm we jumped in the car and headed for Canaveral where we could stand and not just watch, but feel the launch. The drive from Celebration (where our hotel was) is about an hour and we rocked up at around 5pm ready to see history. There is a perfect pull off point off the high way which looks right out over the sea and you can see the rocket waiting for launch. No sooner had we pulled up and a local enthusiast comes and tell us its been scrubbed due to mechanical issues. Turns out there was some fault with the cooling system. It had been re-scheduled for the 24th at 6.59pm.
The following day we headed East again, but this time to Cocoa beach where we nabbed some free parking and chilled out on the gorgeous white sand beach all afternoon. Come 5pm we grabbed a 16 inch pizza, some drinks and made our way back to the observation point. A huge truck was there belting out the countdown and all the communications, there was around twenty or so others there and it was great. We were all really excited and at 6.45 the launch was imminent. “T-minus fifteen minutes and we have two weather violations in the form of lightening and Solar light inconsistent with the parameters of the launch, we are on hold”. The launch window was until 8.05pm at which point it had to be cancelled. To cut a long story short we waited right until the window was over and the launch was again postponed until the next day. As we left we were all gutted, but the journey home was mesmerising, lightening hit the ground nearby, we were in the middle of the most amazing electrical storm any of us had ever seen, literally it was constant lightening all around us. It was like something from a movie, Charlie commented “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life”. Everyone agreed.
It was time to leave the Orlando area and we decided to head north to absorb a bit of history. I know that on the grand scheme of things, the US is about an hour old and has a really shallow history. Well thats not strictly true I guess, native Americans lived in the US for at least 14,000 years before Europeans turned up. But in true form none of that actually counts and so the first written history is of some fella with the unfortunate name of ‘Juan Ponce de Leon’.
Ponce was a Spanish explorer who had just conquered Puerto Rica and was convinced that a so called ‘fountain of youth’ existed in what we now know as Florida. He set sail with three ships and came into land at what is now called St Augustine in 1513 and declared the land to be known as “La Pascua de La Florida” which roughly translates into “Passion of the Flowers” or “Passion of the Christ”. After marking his territory, Ponce sailed south, around the Keys and back North to the mainland before getting chinned by native Americans, a slapping which convinced him to head back to Puerto Rica. Following the unsuccessful attempt at colonisation several other Spaniards fancied their chances but faced equally disastrous outcomes until eventually Ponce could sit back and wait no more. Eight years had passed and he felt the time was right to return to Florida and sort things out. It was 1521 and so convinced was he that he would be victorious he had in town a community ready to begin occupation including all the equipment required. Ponce was yet again chinned and this time retreated as far as Cuba where he would die from his wounds. Of course in modern slang we now refer to someone who is weak as a ‘Ponce’. Obviously, and eventually Florida did get occupied and a castle was quickly built so that the port could remain under Spanish Catholic occupancy. Those who listened in school will remember that the British sailor Francis Drake determined St Augustine belonged to him and so obliterated the place. Fast forward to the 21st century and St Augustine remains a small enclave whereby the cobbled roads are surrounded by centuries old buildings. Notably the oldest wooden school in the country, which being the oldest settlement in the whole United States is fairly obvious. But the town is quaint, it really does uphold that traditional feel where every store is named something straight out of the 18th century, churches still stand today and the castle is still standing on the banks of the port which now homes two restored pirate ships. Traditionally dressed locals walk around with muskets, hair looms and in the many stores you step right back in time the second you step through the door. From ballast, to ink powder, to quills, centuries old toys, and mock guns and canons it could easily be the cheesiest place on earth but strangely it pulls it off. It somehow manages to balance tourism with traditionalism which is inherently difficult.
The kids loved strolling the olde streets, nipping into shops, 18th century homes, 17th century churches and a 15th century castle. I was watching the kids use their inherent ability to apply imagination and be completely absorbed into their surroundings. It was a fascinating place to be and I couldn’t believe that we had never even heard of St Augustine before I started to research what we might do.
At $4 an ice cream its not the cheapest place to be, and hotels are equally ridiculous as Americans from all over the country flock to their own personal slice of history, but with Jacksonville nearby you can easily find a bed for around $30 which is below the US average.
But for us we had a great time, and it fitted in nicely with our ethos of stepping off the beaten path a little and doing things a little differently. Upon leaving St Augustine we headed north up the I-95 and I bet it wasn’t even five minutes before it was just me, a radio and three sleeping kids. And when kids fall asleep like that – You know you’ve had a great day.