Nation's Oldest Portsm Themes and Heritage Area Experiences
Welcome to a journey through the nationally significant themes of Northeast Florida, a region that has been linked to the sea far longer than the United States has been a country. Follow your interests along these ten themed trails and explore the distinctive destinations that give this maritime landscape its special sense of place. Visit our on-line map and list of heritage destinations for more information and places to experience across the region.
Multicultural Coastal Frontier
When French Protestants established a settlement at the Mouth of the River May (St. Johns River) near today’s Jacksonville, the Native American Timucua had been living there for thousands of years. Three years later in 1565, the French were driven away by the Spanish who reclaimed La Florida and founded St. Augustine. This was the first chapter in a long story of cultural struggle whose Spanish, French, African, English, Scottish, Jewish, Minorcan, Italian, Greek and Cuban imprint can still be seen on this maritime landscape.
Native American Lifeways
At the time of European contact, Native Americans had been living in the present coastal region for more than 9,000 years. This area is home to some of the nation’s most interesting examples of Native American cultural change. Today, archaeological sites in the region can be visited and the Native American story is told at annual festivals, museums and public parks. Artifacts reflecting native cultures are celebrated, displayed and interpreted throughout the area.
The Oldest City
St. Augustine was established in 1565 making it the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. Its town plan (1596) is listed as a National Historic Landmark and its bayfront offers magnificent views of a waterway used by Spanish conquistadors. Grand hotels with red-tiled roofs grace a city that features the site of Florida’s First Lighthouse, the impressive Castillo De San Marcos and the first free African settlement in what is now the U.S.
Fought over by European Powers, this region has suffered attacks by pirates, sheltered British refugees during the American Revolution, endured the Seminole wars and changed from a Confederate port to a Union stronghold during the Civil War. In World War II, the US military trained here and the beaches witnessed the incursion of Nazi saboteurs and the sinking of the Gulf America by a U-boat. Today an active US Naval Base and historic forts, museums, exhibits and sites, testify to its military significance.
Tourism and the Resort Era
Henry Flagler’s investment in St. Augustine as a resort destination in the late 1800’s established the area as a premier tourism destination. Today, the beauty of the area’s maritime environment and an appealing blend of elegant seaside resorts, B&Bs, family-friendly beachfront accommodations, acclaimed golfing, shopping, boating and fishing opportunities create the perfect place for a memorable vacation in one of America’s truly unique and historic regions.
For centuries, the Gulf Stream just offshore has carried ships along the trade routes from the Caribbean. Today, the area is home to the Port of Jacksonville – one of the nation’s most important. The first road in Florida, the Old Kings Highway, was built in about 1765 to transport naval stores such as pitch and turpentine from Flagler County in the south to the Florida/Georgia border. In the 1880’s, Henry Flagler brought his steamships and railroad to the area. Today, America’s Scenic Highway A1A traverses the region.
Coastal Arts and Architecture
The area’s rich diversity of architecture and its distinctive blend of craftsmanship and traditions reflect its subtropical setting, multicultural influences and development as a maritime region.
European and African traditions, Native American forms of expression and availability of unique
coastal materials have combined to create an atmosphere of unique creativity and innovation. From 17th and 18th century coastal fortifications to 19th century lighthouses and the grand hotels, this region’s style is nationally distinctive.
Unique Natural Beauty in the Coastal Environment
The region contains a diverse assemblage of habitat, animals and plants and public natural areas where natural beauty can be enjoyed. Rare white pelicans nest here as do pink ibis. The rare North Atlantic right whales calve here and fish thrive in the maritime hammocks and floodplain swamps. Public parks and forests, estuarine reserves and conservation areas offer museums, exhibits and recreational opportunities where visitors can learn about and experience local natural resources and stunning vistas.
Agricultural and Culinary Heritage
The Nation’s Oldest PortSM culinary experience is unique. The foundations of Florida’s agricultural heritage date to the seed stock and animals brought to Florida by Menendez in 1565. Heritage foods and recipes used today harken back to centuries-old practices. Seafood markets, farmers markets, farm stands, restaurants, local producers and vendors and annual festivals connect residents and visitors with the area’s unique products and food ways, including local shrimp, oysters, fish, datil peppers, citrus, specialty honeys, heritage cuisine and so much more.
Native American canoes first traversed these waters. Since 1564, merchant ships, privateers, explorers and warships flying the flags of many nations have docked here. Until 1765, no formal roads existed here. Steam ships ran up and down the St. Johns River stopping to unload Victorian tourists. In the modern era, a shrimping and boat building industry thrived here launching Florida’s seafood industry. The area’s coastal architecture is constructed from products from the sea -- coquina (shell rock) and tabby (oyster shells). Aids to navigation have guided mariners yet some 500 shipwrecks resting beneath the area’s coastal waters pay silent tribute to the maritime heritage that for centuries has been the key component of human existence in this special place.