Over the centuries, Amelia Island and St. Augustine have both seen more than their share of characters, both noble and notorious. Today, that bygone pirate past weaves its way into these two destinations where visitors can soak up the tumultuous history, fraught with plunders and pillages, via scores of tours, landmarks and attractions.
With a 400-year history that resembles a giant game of hot potato, this 13-mile-long barrier island has at one time been claimed by France, Spain, Britain and the Timucuan Indians, depending on which century you’re reading about. Named after Princess Amelia—the daughter of King George II of England—and appropriately dubbed the Isle of Eight Flags—due to the eight different flags that each flew here—the island hugs the coastline of Northeast Florida, making it an easy target for pirates, bootleggers and smugglers of slaves, liquor and stolen treasure. For centuries, the area with its inland waters and deep, natural harbor became a haven for pirates and buried treasure.
Of all the infamous visitors to the island, perhaps the most noteworthy was Luis Aury, who in the early 1800s unleashed his armada into Amelia Island’s Port of Fernandina and in three days hoisted the Republic of Mexico flag and declared himself ruler of the island.
In 1821, United States Naval forces took control of the territory from Spain and slowly restored order and respectability. Over the next century, Amelia Island became known as the “Queen of Summer Resorts,” where thousands of wealthy Northerners (including the Vanderbilts, DuPonts and Carnegies) laid claim to what became Florida’s first tourist destination and a hotbed for the shrimping and shipping industries.
You won’t see too many pirate ships or eye patches here these days. Amelia Island is now known for its sprawling beachfront resorts dotting the Atlantic coastline and its lavish Victorian-era mansions lining the streets of downtown Fernandina Beach, the island’s 52-block historic district. But the island hasn’t forgotten its stormy past. In fact, since 1965 Amelia Island has revived its raucous roots with the annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. Held the first weekend of May in Fernandina Beach’s historic district, the weekend-long festival boasts concerts, cooking demonstrations, boat contests, pirate lessons and a pirate “invasion” courtesy of members of the Fernandina Pirates Club. In addition, the Fernandina Pirates hosted the inaugural Fernandina Pirate Festival last fall featuring food, entertainment and a Pirate’s Ball.
Tours & Attractions
Old Town Carriage Company shares lots of pirate lore as it takes guests on an enlightening tour through the streets of Fernandina Beach where pirate pictures and statues pay homage to the island’s illustrious inhabitants.
The Amelia Island Museum of History is full of information and artifacts on the pirate history of Amelia Island. The museum’s new interactive children’s exhibit, the “Margery, ” gives kids the chance to learn nautical know-how such as knot-tying and navigation. The museum also offers self-guided, cell-phone walking tours, guided walking tours, ghost tours and pub tours.
At the state’s oldest bar, The Palace Saloon, which dates back to 1903, you can order the signature “Pirate Punch,” a secret recipe.
Be sure to take younger kids to Fernandina Beach’s Pirate Playground, a new public play area with a swashbuckling theme. Set in a shaded area behind the Atlantic Recreation Center Auditorium, the space is the result of years of work by the nonprofit 8 Flags Playscapes.
The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island also has fun with the pirate lore, offering treasure hunts on the beach and a weekend tuck-in service by Princess Amelia, Pirate Luis Aury and his very-own parrot.
In 1672, St. Augustine’s famous fort, Castillo de San Marcos, began to take shape. While today it serves as a fascinating national monument to peruse, its purpose was far more important in the 17th century: it was the city’s only laudable defense against pirates.
In the 100 years before the fort’s creation, pirates and privateers pummeled St. Augustine. Of its most-notable visitors was Francis Drake, who plundered the city in 1586, pilfering everything from coins to cannons and nearly burning it to the ground.
Almost a century later, legendary pirate Robert Searle attacked St. Augustine. With an aim to pillage the coffers filled with silver ingots, Searle and his crew laid siege upon the city in the dead of night as residents slept. They left in their wake 60 dead and many buildings destroyed, a devastation that finally prompted Spain to pony up the funds to pay for a massive stone fortress to protect St. Augustine.
Though it took 23 years to build, the endeavor was successful. Pirates never attacked St. Augustine again and Castillo de San Marcos still stands today.
“When you visit St. Augustine, you are literally walking the same footsteps as pirates,” says Pat Croce, founder of the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, which houses 800 artifacts dating back centuries. “When we excavated the land we found the hilt of a sword and 15th-century rum bottles. Pirates were a huge part of this city’s past.”
Tours & Attractions
A visit to the Pirate & Treasure Museum is a must for those fascinated by pirate history and artifacts. Filled with maps, found treasure and modern-day movie memorabilia, this amazing pirate history museum is one of the few places in the world to feel completely steeped in the Golden Age of Piracy.
Visitors can set sail nightly on the Pirate Ship Black Raven for a swashbuckling cruise starring Blackbeard and his nefarious crew. While on board, burgeoning rogues can take part in sword training, sing sea shanties and prepare for the battle at sea with the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Divers can explore six famous shipwrecks lie sunken in their final resting place off the First Coast with Sea Hunt Scuba, a local dive center offering lessons and guided trips into the deep.
The St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum offers a Lost Ships Tour, which takes groups on a daily lighthouse tour guided by archaeologists and researchers. Afterward, be sure to climb all 219 steps to the top of the tower to get a bird’s eye view of this picturesque, historic city.
For a family-friendly maritime stroll packed with pirate facts, consider the Pirate & Plunder Historic Walking Tour, offered on select Saturdays by St. Augustine City Walks.
It’ll feel like a step back in time inside the Colonial Quarter, a representation and reenactment of three centuries of St. Augustine’s history. This open-air museum, staffed by actors in historical garb, gives visitors a glimpse of life in St. Augustine in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
In the mood for rum? The St. Augustine Distillery makes its own rum on site, made with sugarcane grown in South Florida. Now, that's the spirit!
Finally, who could miss a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos. Built in 1668 to defend the city against pirate attacks, the monument site consists of 20.5 acres and is the oldest masonry fortress in the United States.