Feeling fancy and fine in St. Augustine's luxury hotels.
Even though it boasts small-town appeal, St. Augustine actually began as a luxury resort location for the rich and famous. There were three luxury resorts that first put St. Augustine on the map: the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), the Hotel Alcazar (now the Lightner Museum), and the Casa Monica.
Today, the Casa Monica is the only one of these three hotels that still serves its original function. The Ponce de Leon Hotel is now home to Flagler College, and the Hotel Alcazar houses a museum, shops, a restaurant, and the government offices of the City of St. Augustine. While these buildings also serve visitors by offering tours and amenities, the Casa Monica offers a chance to experience pure luxury. This Kessler Collection hotel, restored to its original glory, has earned a Four Diamond rating from AAA. With 138 rooms designed for every sort of vacation budget, it's the only one of the three famous resorts where guests can stay and experience a pampered vacation the same way visitors to the Sunshine State did in the late 1800s. Casa Monica is so fancy, as you probably already know. But if you don't, here are a few reasons why:
Casa Monica Hotel has a rich history.
Franklin Smith built the Casa Monica around the time Flagler was building his hotels and is part of the reason that Flagler began investing in Florida. The Casa Monica is one of the oldest hotels in the country and is even listed in the "Historic Hotels of America" National Trust. It's named after St. Monica, the mother of the city's namesake, St. Augustine of Hippo. Shortly after the hotel opened, Franklin Smith ran into financial difficulties, and unfortunately had to sell the hotel and everything inside to his friend Henry Flagler. Flagler changed the name of the hotel to the Cordova Hotel.
During the 1960s, the hotel was turned into the offices for the St. Johns County Courthouse. The iconic window above the Casa Monica lettering was decorated with a stained glass window portraying the scales of justice. It served as a courthouse for years, until it was purchased by Richard Kessler for $1.2 million. Kessler had previously been involved with the Days Inn chain and was looking to bring the hotel back to its former glory. Construction and renovations took less than two years, and the hotel was reopened in 1999.
The architecture is inspired.
The Casa Monica was built by Franklin Smith, who also built the Villa Zorayda just down the street and had a deep admiration for Moorish and Spanish Revival architecture. Even though the hotel has changed a lot since its heyday, you can see the influence of Franklin Smith's Middle Eastern style throughout the interior, in the archways and other details. Tina Guarano Davis was commissioned to hand-paint the trimmings and decor in the main lobby, the Cordova Room, the Flagler Ballroom, and the guestroom corridors. Moorish design is known for its elaborate ornamentation, striking colors, and rhythic patterns, so the floral and geometric designs brought an authentic flair to the resort's woodwork. The Gold Room features hand-painted gold leaf across the room's ceiling, designed to reflect the light from the handmade Moroccan chandeliers.
When it comes to the rooms, they truly reflect the style of the original Casa Monica. Some window frames are placed low to the floor -- an architectural feature that was part of the original hotel. These windows may provide a little less lighting, but children will love to gaze out them, and the unique placement still provides a gorgeous view.
Visitors can learn more about the hotel's design via a complementary one-hour tour of the property. The tour schedule is posted on site at Casa Monica. For a deeper dive into the property's transformation, guests can read "The Casa Monica Story" - a curated booklet available in digital and print formats.
You can eat and drink like a king.
Casa Monica is home to three dining areas. Their full-service restaurant is Casa Brava, an elegant on-site dining room where guests can enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the year. The Casa Brava menu includes such mouth-watering entrees as Braised Pork Osso Bucco, Savannah Style Shrimp & Grits, and Bahamian Lobster Tail and Crab Risotto, as well as Black Angus steaks from the Kessler's Chophouse menu. Those who rise early, or anyone who wants a hit of caffeine or a light snack can visit Starbucks at Casa Monica's King Street entrance.
The Cobalt Lounge has a stocked liquor bar with wine, beer, mixed drinks, and a refined martini menu. They have daily drink specials and the menu is available every day from 11 a.m.
You can live the Suite Life.
There are five suites at the Casa Monica hotel: the Anastasia Suite, the Ponce de Leon Suite, the St. Francis Suite, the Flagler Suite, and the Kessler Suite. The Kessler Suite is the largest, taking up four stories of the hotel's tallest tower. These suites are great for wedding parties and family reunions. They provide stunning views of the city, and one suite even has colored glass work from the original hotel, while another has the only walkout balcony at the resort. Even the iconic window above the main entrance peeks out from a suite.
Famous people have slept at the Casa Monica.
By Estonian Foreign Ministry [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This hotel is quite literally fit for royalty, with even the King and Queen of Spain as past guests. Former President Bill Clinton stayed here, as has former First Lady and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, rested his head at the Casa Monica. When the Gentlemen of the Road Tour came to St. Augustine, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes shacked up at Casa Monica along with John Fogerty and members of the Billboard-topping band, Fun.
In-room and outdoor amenities for work and play.
Amenities at the hotel include a gym on an upper floor and a swimming pool squared off in the inner courtyard by four walls of the hotel. Inside the rooms, guests can find tea and coffee, a safe, bathrobes, and a wet bar.
If you're driving, no problem. While most vacationers and locals are stressing about where to park, the Casa Monica offers a private garage and valet parking for an additional fee.
The Cobalt Lounge hosts live music every Friday and Saturday night from 8 p.m. to midnight, featuring local musicians, jazz, soul music, and more. It brings to life the lounge atmosphere prevalent in the original hotel. There is also an art gallery in the hotel complex, the Grand Bohemian Gallery, which showcases works by internationally renowned artists such as Stefano Cecchini, and paintings of local scenery.
USA Today has named The Collector as one of the Top 10 new hotels in America as it "blends luxury amenities with a sense of history." And it's gorgeous, and tucked away in beautiful historic Lincolnville just south of downtown, and has to-die-for gardens and and and ... you see where I'm going here. As a local, this is the place I slip into unnoticed so I can enjoy a beautiful slice of luxury while sipping the best cocktail I've ever tasted.
The Collector site has a deep history.
Spanning a city block, this storied site has been an integral part of the city's history. Located on the site of the former Dow Museum of Historic Houses, the Collector sits on a one-acre garden oasis comprising nine historic homes dating from 1790 to 1910. It has served as a 16th century hospital and cemetery, an 18th century Spanish defense line and it was the setting for the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation reading that freed Florida's slave population. Kenneth Worcester Dow purchased the oldest house on the block, the 1790 Prince Murat House, in the 1930s and, by the early 1950s, had acquired all nine homes on the site. Dow, an art, furniture, and antique collector, donated his entire collection to the Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1989. Following an 11-year restoration, the Dow Museum of Historic Houses opened in 2000, showcasing his collection.
Antonio Canova, a Minorcan who built the Dow House in 1839, also built the Canova house in 1840 which is the third oldest structure on the site. The Murat House is one of the oldest surviving Colonial buildings in St. Augustine. It was built in 1790 by Antonio Huertas and now bears the name of its most famous occupant, Prince Achille Murat -- Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew.
Built in 1899 by local dry good merchant Emanuel de Medici, the Star Building was first a general store and later served as a residence, kindergarten, toy story, and millinery. Today, it's the inn's entrance lobby.
Howells House is a large Colonial Revival home dating to 1909. It is named after William Dean Howells, the famous American author and editor, who wintered there in 1916 - 1917 and welcomed visitors Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis. Built around 1915, The Well Bar, once served as the Howells House garage.
Built in 1907, the Rose House is named after Jean Gordon, an authority on roses who rented the home from Mr. Dow for ten years, beginning in 1956. She operated a rose museum there and wrote many books about roses.
The Spear House was built in 1899, originally to house carriages. In 1900, Henry Flagler's bookkeeper, John Henry, purchased it and added a second story converting it into a rooming house. In 1906, Henry Flagler built the Worcester House for his new bride. An example of the Richardson Romanesque style popular around the turn of the century, it featured a large porch and balcony.
You can live La Dolce Vita with the Luxury Amenities.
The Collector is an adults-only property offering daily afternoon and late night happy hours, an assortment of afternoon snacks with a flavored water station, and branded reusable water bottles. The hotel also offers valet service and parking, a European continental breakfast, history tours of the property three times a week, a heated pool, bicycles, and lawn games, And, besides WiFi, the Collector has Amazon Echo Dot with Alexa.
The Collector also offers wedding services for those eloping or planning an intimate destination wedding.
Completely renovated and positioned at the western edge of the Bridge of Lions, Marker 8 Hotel & Marina is the perfect bayfront location with magnificent views of the downtown skyline. The thing about Marker 8 is that it's understated and easy to miss. It literally sits next to the bridge, but because you're looking at the gorgeous views there's a good chance you're blowing right by the hotel. The other thing is that from the road Marker 8 is pretty nondescript looking, so it's definitely a hidden gem. However, don't let that fool you. What it lacks in curb appeal it more than makes up for upon entry.
It has a famous - and historic - neighbor.
Sitting literally right next to Marker 8 is the Bridge of Lions, so imagine sunset views over the bridge and bay. Not too shabby, is it? You can actually walk over the bridge from Marker 8 to enjoy more views as you make your way to historic downtown. But what about the bridge's history and those way cool lions? What are they doing there anyway?
The Bridge of Lions was built in the mid-1920s, so cars could go from "mainland" St. Augustine to Anastasia Island, where significant development was just getting underway. Developer D.P. Davis planned to use the same dredging techniques he'd used for his Tampa project to drain the marshy swamp at the north end of Anastasia Island and develop a residential area called Davis Shores. Soon after the project begun, however, the real estate boom burst, and construction stopped. Though the original development was considered a failure, it provided the impetus to create the Bridge of Lions, which was completed in 1927 and has been an iconic gateway to historic downtown ever since.
The bridge is a double-leaf bascule bridge, also known as a drawbridge, which allows commercial and recreational boats to pass through a center channel when the moveable portion is in the up position. In 1982, the Bridge of Lions was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2010, the City of St. Augustine renovated the bridge and it still serves as a major thoroughfare from downtown St. Augustine to Anastasia Island.
Now about those lions ...
The bridge gets its name from two white marble lion statues guarding the bridge on the west side. Commissioned and donated by former St. Augustine Mayor and doctor, Andrew Anderson, the lions are named Fiel and Firme, Faithful and Firm. In 2015, two new granite lions were added to the east side of the bridge, Pax and Peli, Peace and Happiness, commissioned and donated by St. Augustine residents, Wolfgang and Miki Schau. Guests staying at Marker 8 can take a short walk to get selfies with all four lovely lions!
Features fit for a lion and lioness.
With 26 elegantly themed rooms, Marker 8 is a secret treasure that offers unique waterfront views, intimate garden spaces, a beautiful boardwalk, and a gorgeous poolscape. Don't enjoy the relaxing, luxurious water's edge so much that you forget about the rain shower waiting for you in the room
Marker 8 also offers a fitness center, a heated plunge pool, complimentary parking, fresh cooked breakfast, daily housekeeping, afternoon social hour, triple sheet bedding, a Keurig coffee maker, and wireless internet. Local beers and fine wine are both available in the Driftwood Lounge which also overlooks the dipping pool and bayfront.
And let's not forget the marina which has 24 slips and can accommodate up to a 103' yacht.
The 1,700 square foot deck, bar area, and banquet room are unique, flexible spaces overlooking the bayfront and downtown that can accommodate intimate rehearsal dinners, small weddings, family reunions, and corporate events.
* voco St. Augustine (Anastasia Island) -- With popular establishments in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, this is the voco brand's first U.S. property.
* Guy Harvey Resort (St. Augustine Beach) -- The pool deck boasts a sandy "beach" with a fire pit, screened cabanas, tropical cocktails from the tiki bar, and an asado grill.
* Embassy Suites by Hilton (St. Augustine Beach) -- Beach side bar, pool, hot tub, fire pit, and a huge grassy courtyard with lawn games.
Amy Angelilli updated this article in November 2022.
As Content Editor for VisitStAugustine.com, Alex writes and edits everything from articles to business profiles to events. She likes manatees, orange juice, and getting into a hot car on a scorchingly hot Florida summer day after being in AC for hours.