Shrunken heads, waxen gangsters, a carousel, street magicians, ice cream, and lots of reptiles. Just the right ingredients for a perfect vacation — and all available in St. Augustine, Florida. St. Augustine's attractions run the gamut from the weird and whimsical to the refined and romantic. There are some places, however, which lie comfortably between the extremes — activities, accommodations and restaurants where children are welcome, and where parents can still relax, have fun, hold hands, and, perhaps even feel pampered. Here are a few:
SIGHTSEEING CRUISE ON THE VICTORY III: The cruise, which departs from the Municipal Marina (just next to the Bridge of Lions), lasts an hour and fifteen minutes. Snacks, soft drinks, wine and beer are sold on board, and chances are good that you'll see some dolphins up close. For a little romance, take one of the evening cruises, and try to count all the colors the sky takes on as the sun sets over Matanzas Bay.
THE ALLIGATOR FARM (A1A South, 2 miles south of the Bridge of Lions): More than its name suggests. Yes, you'll see more alligators than that Crocodile Hunter guy will probably see in his lifetime, and if you've got a strong stomach you can watch them being fed. But there's also a wonderful zoo, and a truly beautiful wild bird rookery where, if you're there in season, you can see hundreds of gorgeous white egrets tending to their young. It all looks prettiest in the late afternoon.
The Kenwood Inn (38 Marine Street/904-824-2116/www.oldcity.com/kenwood): One of the few bed-and-breakfasts that welcome children (8 years and older), it still has enough charm and elegance to lend a family trip some second-honeymoon romance for the adults. The original house, built in 1865 and used as a boarding house/inn since 1886, now encompasses 10,000 square feet, but the Inn still retains its cozy, old-fashioned ambience. It's also unique in that there is a swimming pool in the shady courtyard. The sunroom is well-stocked with games, and wine, sherry, and cookies are served in the evening. Innkeepers Mark and Kerriane Constant are gracious, yet unobtrusive hosts, and the breakfast of bagels, fresh-baked muffins and cakes, fruit, yogurt and cereal is a beautiful thing to see first thing in the morning. ($95-$225/night).
House of Sea and Sun (2 B Street, off of A1A Beach Blvd./904-461-1716/www.oldcity.com/seaandsun) Another bed-and-breakfast with some unique distinctions: children and dogs are welcome in the spacious condo units behind the main house, and the inn is right on the beach, about 5 miles south of downtown St. Augustine. The main house was built in 1914, and innkeeper Patty Steder has given each room a character of its own. The condos each have a full kitchen and bath, a separate bedroom (the bed I slept in smelled of almonds and felt as if I'd fallen into a cloud for the night), a rollaway bed, and a fold-out couch. Breakfast is at 9 in the main house, where Patty serves fruit, pancakes, bacon and her famous scrambled eggs in a sunny room overlooking the beach. ($125-$225/night).
BARNACLE BILL'S (14 Castillo Drive and 451 A1A Beach Blvd.): Of the two locations, the one on the beach has the more elegant, serene atmosphere. Get the fried shrimp! There's a great children's menu, as well as a full bar. The restaurant is enormously popular (for good reason), and doesn't take reservations, so you may have to wait a while to be seated. SALTWATER COWBOY'S (299 Dondanville Road): It's casual enough so that a family with children can feel comfortable, yet there's an elegance to its "old Florida" décor. They don't take reservations either, and there's almost always a wait for a table. While you wait, though, you can sit on their porch, have drinks, and watch the sun start to come down over the marsh — it's always gorgeous.
HABANA VILLAGE CAFÉ: It's right across the street from the Marina, hidden away inside the Ale Works Building (1 King Street). Order the grilled shrimp, as well as some fried sweet plantains and some rice and beans (and, perhaps, some sangria for the grownups). They don't have a children's menu, but it's a great place for your children to try something new. On Friday and Saturday nights there's live Latin Jazz, and children are welcome. There's also a nice assortment of cigars for sale, if you're into that sort of thing.
And then, of course, there's always the beach. St. Augustine is 45 miles south of Jacksonville, on the eastern coast of Florida. The closest airports are Jacksonville, Daytona, and Orlando; if you take the train, Amtrak has stations in Jacksonville and Palatka. For more information: • St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors & Convention Bureau: www.visitoldcity.com • St. Augustine Chamber of Commerce: www.st.augustine.com • The city of St. Augustine: www.ci.st-augustine.fl.us: