Free Wheels, Fort Matanzas & Freshies

We wanted to make the most of Stephan's generous offer to let us use his Jeep. We had about four hours, so we planned our time carefully. We certainly rent cars from time to time, but having the use of a vehicle when it's totally unexpected is like manna from heaven. We'd been lugging supplies and groceries in our backpacks and shopping bags, using the local buses and foot power. No complaints, but this method limits the volume of the purchases, as well as the weight and is quite time-consuming. With Stephan's Jeep, we could buy to our heart's (and budget's) content in no time. Dangerous stuff! I made a list (checked it twice) and we headed into shore to meet up with Stephan … the list remained on the salon table. Duh! We found an Aldi's which is an interesting grocery store that we've seen around the world. (It's German-owned by the same company that owns Trader Joe's.) Their prices and quality are good; the variety of products offered is different than the run-of-the-mill grocery store and we like poking around there. Bring your own bags and you have to pop a quarter in the shopping cart which is returned to you when you return the cart. We bought all sorts of good stuff for the larder. We were hungry and didn't have our list … what would you expect?

We stopped at WalMart for some basics and mostly because we could. We found ABC Liquors … a great liquor store with more varieties of rum than possibly imagined. We found some rum for Neptune and some beer and wine for us and loaded it into the Jeep. We'd seen a wonderful roadside fruit/veg stand on one of our walks and stopped there. We loaded up on freshies … a huge, aromatic melon, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, red grapes, Honeycrisp apples … enough for an army. A few more stops and we were out of time. We headed back to the marina where we needed a dock cart to get all the stuff back to the dinghy. Stephan met us and asked if we'd like the Jeep for another day. Really? Absolutely!

fruit stand in st. augustine, florida

We were up early in order to get our morning chores as well as a round of sanding and varnishing done. We met Stephan at 0900 and headed to Fort Matanzas National Monument, located about 12 miles away on Anastasia Island … just over the Bridge of Lions and down “scenic coastal route A1A”. It's not very scenic actually. It's lined with commercial properties … hotels, motels, souvenir shops, strip malls, etc. It provides access, however, to the state park and all the local beaches … and the historic fort.

fort matanzas national monument st augustine, florida

Originally built by the Spanish in 1740-42, Fort Matanzas is small, coquina and limestone fort, which served as an outpost and first line of defense of the Matanzas Inlet to protect St. Augustine from a southern attack. Matanzas, by the way, is Spanish for “slaughters” and refers to several massacres of French troops by the Spanish that occurred here in 1565. When the US took possession of Florida in 1821, the fort had deteriorated and was unusable.

old fort matanzas post card

The national monument area is lovely … quite different from retail-ridden A1A. A grove of live oaks shades a large picnic area. There's a small Visitor's Center with a parks ranger to answer questions and an 8-minute orientation movie to provide insight and information about the fort. A ½ mile boardwalk loops through diverse coastal flora and, best of all, a short ferry ride across the Matanzas River deposits visitors on Rattlesnake Island for an escorted tour of the old fort. Both admission to the monument and the ferry ride are free!

fort matanzas visitor center

We picked up our ferry tickets, watched the movie and, since we had a 40-minute wait, decided to walk the short boardwalk trail through the coastal scrub and check out the “barrier island ecosystem”. A trail guide with numbered locations provided information about the local fauna and flora. Birds chirped, cicadas hummed and anoles scampered across the boardwalk, alarmed by our footfalls. The sun filtered through the trees above and the morning air smelled fresh and wonderful.

consulting the trail map

Though ospreys, eagles and pelicans ply these skies and gopher tortoise call these shores home, we saw very few critters. We could see tortoise tracks in the sand, but alas no tortoises. Except for the anoles, the only fauna to be seen were spiders ... which were in great numbers. Their intricate webs glistened in the sunlight. Spiders are not my favorite, but with a name like hairy-kneed golden silk spider, I couldn't resist the urge to photograph it. Thank goodness for the zoom.

hairy kneed golden silk spider

According to the Fort Matanzas website, “On October 15, 1924, using the power granted in the Antiquities Act, President Calvin Coolidge named … Fort Matanzas as a national monument. During the late 1920s, extensive repair was done on Fort Matanzas. The garita (sentry box), which had fallen off, was rebuilt. Iron rods were placed within the tower, and the gun deck parapet and lower walls were rebuilt. The land on Rattlesnake Island surrounding the fort was set aside as a bird sanctuary.” The fort was visible just upriver from the ferry dock.

fort matanzas st. augustine florida

We were amazed that about 50 people were waiting in line for the ferry. We had no idea this national monument would be so popular. They herded about 25 of us aboard for the first trip out to Rattlesnake Island. We saw no rattlesnakes, by the way. Manatees and turtles could be seen at a distance during our 5 minute trip upriver. A hungry, savvy, snowy egret, apparently unimpressed by the ferry's arrival, stood on rocks near the dock just above an eddy where small fish were easily snatched up for breakfast.

snowy egret fort matanzas st. augustine, florida

A ranger accompanied us ashore, provided information about the fort and its history, gave us a few admonitions, then she set us free to explore. The fort is tiny and the exploration didn't take long. We climbed steps to the first level where several weathered canons stood in place, at one time ready to defend the inlet. The re-attached garita (sentry box), an iconic feature of Spanish colonial forts, provided a good photo opp for many visitors.

garita of fort matanzas

On the same level, we checked out the soldier's quarters. Pretty spartan digs and probably quite a boring post. Upstairs, a smaller solitary room housed the officer in charge. He shared his room with the powder magazine and the ladder which led to the observation deck. The ladder had been declared unsafe just days before we arrived and was off-limits to visitors till it was repaired.

fort matanzas soldiers quarters

About 20 minutes later, we headed back to our ferry as another load of tourists was debarking. Hordes of tiny fiddler crabs with their big claws raised, saluted us as we headed back to the mainland.

waving fiddler crabs

We think St. Augustine might be a place we'd like to visit again and it's on the list for ports of call when we head back south next winter.