It wasn't Christopher Columbus or Ponce de Leon who established the first permanent settlement in the United States—it was Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. He arrived on the shores of St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565 to remove the French from Fort Caroline near modern-day Jacksonville and establish a series of settlements on the Eastern seaboard. Menéndez's career began at the age of 12 in the Navy, and he later became the most powerful admiral in the Spanish Armada under King Philip. In that role, Menéndez oversaw a massive fleet of ships carrying treasure from China and Central America to the king, including silk, porcelain, silver and gold. So when a leader was needed to stake a claim for Spain in the New World, the king called upon Menéndez.
Here we are 450 years later, and St. Augustine has grown from a Spanish settlement to a world-class destination. For the 450th anniversary, we thought it would be fun to ask Pedro Menéndez, played by historical re-enactor Chad Light, how he would spend his perfect day in St. Augustine today.
How would you start the day?
A sunrise walk on the beach... before I go to morning Mass. There are so many wonderful places to get a great breakfast in St. Augustine, but as a Spaniard one of my favorite places is La Herencia on, where else but Avilés Street, the namesake of my hometown in Spain.
How would you spend the morning?
After a good breakfast I would stroll down St. George Street and over the the Castillo de San Marcos to see how things are going in the city from the wonderful vantage point of the high bastions. From there it is a short walk over to my 1565 settlement site located on the grounds of the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. They are always digging up something new. Besides, I like to check in with my 16th-century cannon crew to make sure they have everything they need.
Where would you have lunch?
For lunch I would walk over the the Colonial Quarter and eat at the Taberna del Caballo. The tapas are all great, and I know I would order their sangria, the best in town.
What is a must-see attraction?
The tall ship El Galeón is currently in port and open for tours. This authentic ship is about the same size as my large galeón the "San Pelayo," the ship that helped bring our group of 800 colonists here to Florida in 1565. So, I always love to make a visit and spend time with the friendly and knowledgeable crew.
What's a great spot for dinner to celebrate the anniversary year?
Ahh, dinner! We Spaniards love to eat and one of my favorites is Michael's Tasting Room on Cuna Street. First I would start off with a selection of tapas (Spanish appetizers), before selecting one of the Spanish cuisine-inspired entreés. And of course no meal would be complete without a selection of some of the best wines in the world.
What's the last thing you would do before turning in?
I would take a night tour of our own St. Augustine Lighthouse. The nighttime views from up there of our lovely inlet and town, especially with moonlight, are always inspirational. After that, a nightcap at one of our hundred or so local watering holes and then home to bed, because there is always so much to see and do tomorrow.