Anastasia Island awaits with inviting white-sand beaches, vibrant history and eclectic eateries
Pristine. That’s the first word that comes to mind as I stare out across the broad expanse of white sand that stretches north to the horizon. Biking this unspoiled Atlantic shoreline, it’s hard to imagine that just to the west lie the bustling streets of historic St. Augustine, Florida. That’s the magic of Anastasia Island. Part funky little beach town, part natural wonderland, it’s a quietly popular migratory getaway for all types of snowbirds, from plovers and ospreys to RVers like us.
Everyone is familiar with the Bridge of Lions that crosses Matanzas Bay, but only a small percentage of the tourists who flock to America’s oldest city make the trip across to Anastasia Island. A Florida barrier island a little more than 14 miles long with an average width of only 1 mile, Anastasia does not offer the high-rise beachfront condos or familiar restaurant chains of places like Daytona. But looks can be deceiving. In addition to unparalleled beaches, this island also offers history, entertainment and world-class cuisine in unexpected places.
On our visit we were fortunate to snag one of the 139 campsites in Anastasia State Park’s beautiful wooded campground. The maximum RV length at the campground is 40 feet, and all sites offer water and electric hookups. Even if you stay elsewhere (there are several full-service campgrounds on the island), this park is worth a day trip — and not just for its 4 miles of windswept dunes and undeveloped beach. For birders, it’s one of the sites on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, boasting a list of more than 200 bird species, including rarities such as the ruff, Franklin’s gull and glaucous gull. If you want to watch the wildlife from the water, paddlers can launch from a dedicated area on the sheltered water of Salt Run, a long lagoon that stretches behind the dunes to the St. Augustine Inlet.
There are picnic tables, a covered pavilion, restroom facilities and a boathouse to rent equipment on-site. The area was under renovation when we visited, but access was still available, and I was able to launch my inflatable stand-up paddleboard there. Wear water shoes or check the tides before you go — the Run is shallow and you might find yourself wading through some mud to get out to knee-deep water.
Visitors can also spend an afternoon hiking the self-guided nature trail through the park’s maritime hammock, experiencing what early Spanish settlers must have felt when they first landed here. One trail from the campground leads to the remains of a Spanish Coquina quarry, where the sedimentary limestone consisting primarily of coquina (small clam) shells was mined as early as 1565. You can still see where the long blocks were excavated to build the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, a project started in 1669. Non-campers can access the remains through a shorter trail near the park entrance.
Another bonus of staying in Anastasia State Park is the proximity to the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, within walking distance of the campground. Outdoor concerts are usually scheduled during spring, summer and fall months, but the Amphitheatre hosts a year-round weekly Farmers Market on Saturdays, where we found everything from goat cheese, organic honey and farm-fresh eggs to local artwork. Entrance to the market is free of charge, and we were able to enjoy live acoustic music while perusing the vendors’ tents.
Many of the shops and restaurants of Anastasia Island can be found on Beach Road, just a bike ride down the beach from the state park. Salt Life Food Shack, one of only two locations of the restaurant behind the Salt Life brand, provides a true beach experience with second-story deck seating, an outdoor bar and live music. The menu here is an eclectic mix of Caribbean-inspired dishes featuring fresh seafood. Like most of the restaurants on the island, there is no dedicated parking here for oversized vehicles, but Salt Life will provide transportation to campers in the area.
There are several other choices nearby, serving everything from pizza to crab legs, but our personal favorite was Café Eleven. A local hangout on 11th Street, the Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and specializes in quesadillas and tacos served with some incredibly delicious fried plantains. For music lovers, Café Eleven also has a large stage and presents live music several nights a week.
As if beautiful beaches, birding, biking, boating and food weren’t enough, we didn’t even have to leave Anastasia Island to do some sightseeing. While nearby historic St. Augustine is the most well-known tourist destination, the island offers two notable historic sites, the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum and the Fort Matanzas National Monument.
The lighthouse and its accompanying museum were within easy biking distance of the state park. Rising 165 feet above sea level, the lighthouse is St. Augustine’s oldest surviving brick structure, and its first order Fresnel lens still serves as a beacon for mariners. Visitors can tour the museum and walk the 219 steps to the top for a breathtaking view. If you feel the need for more recreation, the lighthouse is also adjacent to a public park, which includes tennis courts, a playground, picnic area and a boat ramp.
The only time we even needed to get in a car was for our trip to Fort Matanzas National Monument, a short drive south on Highway A1A. Built by the Spanish in 1742, the fort takes its name from Matanzas Inlet, famous for the executions, or matanzas, of the last of the Fort Caroline colonists there by the Spanish in 1565. While the visitors center is on Anastasia Island, the fort itself is on nearby Rattlesnake Island. Visitors must obtain boarding passes from the visitors center on A1A for a quick ferry ride to the fort. Admission and the ferry ride are free. Unfortunately, we didn’t check the website before making the trip. During our visit, the ferry landing and docks were still being repaired from the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, but repairs have now been completed.
Of course, any visitor will also want to spend a day in old St. Augustine browsing through the shops and museums, and visiting the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. The city offers a public parking lot for oversized vehicles within a few blocks of the bustling downtown waterfront, but the trolley company will also pick up campers who purchase historic district tour tickets.
With all that Anastasia Island has to offer, it’s no wonder that most of our campground neighbors were repeat visitors. One RVing couple from Michigan told us they have made it an integral part of their annual snowbird migration, staying two weeks on their way into Florida and again in March as they head north from the Florida Keys. It wasn’t one thing that kept them coming back, they said. It was everything. We had to agree, and we will definitely cross the Bridge of Lions to visit “The Other St. Augustine” again.
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