“Drive slow, sit low,” quipped Jerry Seinfeld while describing the habits of Jewish senior citizens in Florida. But there’s another Florida. Not the Florida of retired businessmen, Cuban clubs, alligator wrestlers or parrot jungles. A different Florida – one wherein Europe’s aspiration had met an untamed but bountiful land. Before there was a United States, a royal British invasion, a Huguenot colony or even buccaneers, one particular group of seafaring zealots had landed on our feral and bountiful shores. While to the indigenous tribes this marked the beginning of the end, to their nemesis, this was the onset of the ‘plunder years,’ an era of conquest and exploitation. These were the days of the Conquistadors – merciless marauders murdering in the name of a “merciful god.” Intent on expanding their realm and coffers, the Spanish crown sponsored these expeditions. And so they financed Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a grief-stricken Conquistador in search of his son. Having set sail for the same region some time earlier, Menéndez’s son hadn’t been heard from in months. Though presumed shipwrecked and, in all likelihood, dead, Menéndez was insistent. He intended to bring his boy home alive.
After crossing the ocean and scouring Florida’s Atlantic coastline, a desperate Menéndez came to a decision: since he couldn’t find his son, he would build him a world worth returning to, a dream made of wood and stone, an elaborate Eden he believed would one day house generations of Spaniards. And so Menéndez founded St. Augustine – a city destined to become the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the US. Named after a saint who rebooted Christianity when it was on the wane, St. Augustine represented Old World faith and New World ambition. It’s no coincidence that the saint it was named after was, incidentally, also the very same ideologue who came up with the concept of a ‘just war’ –a holy war capable of justifying all sorts of atrocities.
To understand Menéndez’s popup paradise (or Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, for that matter), it’s important to see what they had seen: lush terrains of avocado-green grass nuzzling up against pristine beaches; tilting palm trees hugging the shore like enormous fluttering eyelashes of a turquoise eyed sea. Just south of St. Augustine, this is still what the northeastern coast of Florida looks like. Here, the smoothly oiled shoulder of a wave rises from a sun-soaked sea and the refracted light becomes too much for one’s eyes to bear. And so, like many who had come before me, I averted my gaze from the shimmering waves and look inland. As my sight cleared, what I saw before me had the appearance of a mirage: an oasis with a palace at its center, an Eden known as Hammock Beach Resort. (I LIKE THIS PART)
Like a landscape found in a Sci-fi-fantasy film about a distant planet, the Beach around which the resort is built is an undulating cinnamon-hued quilt made entirely of seashells. It’s as if some deity had adapted Julian Schnabel’s broken plate painting series into a coastline. Cupping the glistening foam of the Atlantic in its soft alabaster palms, sand rises from the waters, disappears beneath the mass of shells, only to resurface on the edge of an all green landscape.
Recently restored, Hammock Beach Resort houses a massive estate – one whose quirky features are mitigated by a pink and yellow pastel facade. With muscular walkways and recherché trappings, the self-contained world feels less like a hotel and more like your own private oasis, nestled in luxury and comfort. Boasting Hydro-Grid clay tennis courts, squash courts, nine hole putting green, beaches, spa, garden, an immense water slide and a myriad of pools, it doesn’t take long to forget diurnal matters and lose oneself in hedonistic delights.
Borrowing a bike, I coast past the 140-acre golf course and head for the Marina. Whether sport fisher, kayak enthusiast or simply someone in the mood for a workout at the state-of-the-art fitness center, the ambient marina is your haven.
As idyllic settings go, Hammock Resort is a nature lover’s dreamscape complete with bird watching, hiking and the internationally renowned Marineland in close proximity. Founded back in 1938, Marineland is the oldest Oceanarium in the world. Initially designed for filming underwater sequences in big budget movies, the Oceanarium is a dolphin sanctuary where one can experience, study and interact with one of the most intelligent, emotional, sentient and playful beings on the planet. Though, many have questioned the ethics of aquariums, Marineland eschews circus-like phenomena, focusing instead on nurturing a true understanding between our two species. Whether touching, feeding or swimming with dolphins, the experience is likely to prove life-altering. With workshops, scientific research, organized excursions, conservation programs and even rescue missions, Marineland is less a theme park than an institution.
Despite the wide spectrum of oceanic data Marineland provides, when it comes to internalizing the rapture experienced by a dolphin being fed his/her favorite fish, Delfinos is a good way to go. As seafood restaurants are concerned, Hammock Beach Resort’s very own Delfinos performs a series of culinary backflips that will leave most guests smiling like dolphins. Relying on fresh local ingredients whenever possible, Chef Kevin knows how to maximize on regional elements. His seared sea scallops are buoyantly buttery delights that drift in on a bay of creamy Tuscan grits, riding one’s palate in wave upon wave of subtle flavors. Releasing a spray as fresh as the sea, the succulent morsels vaporize as they break on the shores of an earthy mushroom ragout.
Likewise, the main dishes are a trove of well-executed oceanic delights. Fenced off by a crisp growth of Fennel onion salad, a piquant creole Corn Machoux sits alongside a bay of Spicy Tomato Sauce that boasts a tantalizingly good blackened Salmon. As for the Charred Grouper, it’s crispy texture and subtle flavor bathes in a sea of citrus wine butter alongside a hill of sweet potatoes and Brussel Sprout Hash. But whether one opts for Delfinos, the Sushi Bar, the Latin infused Ocean Bar, the Atlantic Grille, or the well-honed continental Terrace, the resort has no shortage of diversity in cuisine and ambience. Dining under a moonlit sky, one gets a sense of the timeless world that reigns here. This is the very same sky Menéndez saw, the same dark heaven that called out to him as well. And so I looked at the odd blue-tinted world overhead and noted the sinking mesh of stars lost in a frozen wave. How odd that the thick dark sky mirrored the sea as much as our sea reflected her stars.
It was easy to sleep well here amidst the distant sound of the sea and the gentle breeze. With immodestly large villas and suites that sport king sized beds, spacious bathrooms with tubs and showers, state-of-the-art amenities, and covered balconies complete with tables and chairs, the resort is a lulling wave whose undertow becomes a lifetime’s worth of beckoning memories.
The following day, I decided to see the historic city of St. Augustine. Riding a horse-drawn carriage through the center, it was easy to understand how a city established in 1565 – one that continues to boast signature renaissance architecture – had need of a protective wall, a wall still on view at the historic Castillo de San Marcos. It’s equally evident why by the 18th Century, the Spaniards had grown so fond of the city that they added Fort Matanzas in a vain attempt to ensure that no one would ever be taking it from them. The conquistadors, ruthless as they may have been, saw value in this region. And though they may not have respected or valued others, they did spend a greater part of their lives enhancing the land they had stolen.
Standing atop the city’s prominent lighthouse, I once again saw what they worked so hard to keep: a lush tree-lined landscape extending its thick green torso over an endless vista of sea and sky. It was this that generations had fought for, this promise of a better future that made life bearable. Though Pedro Menéndez never did find his son, he had built a spectacular home for the future – a future his son did not live long enough to inhabit, a future that even his compatriots could not remain in for long, a future that we ourselves have occupied. And it is we who are the unintended heirs of this conquistador’s future.