Romance in the Ancient City

St. Augustine is one of those city’s that boasts romance around every corner. Whether the beauty of the outdoors inspires, or the luxuries only found indoors, the nation’s oldest city has abundant enchantment and entertainment to make date night special. Here are 10 ideas to keep in mind.

1. Set sail for romance

Catching a wondrous sunset is one of life’s great pleasures. But the chance to experience a sunset aboard a festive tour boat or even a pirate ship elevates the experience from enjoyable to extraordinary. St. Augustine has several sunset cruise options, all leaving from the Municipal Marina downtown. If privacy is a priority, charter your own yacht, complete with a captain and crew. Sip something sparkling as you cruise the Matanzas Bay and Intracoastal Waterway for a mesmerizing view of the ancient city’s architectural treasures.

2. Get carried away

Very few cities have old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage rides anymore, but St. Augustine has offered this timeless treat since 1877. Cuddled up in the back seat of a quaint carriage ignites the imagination. As you surrender to the slow pace, you can’t help but wonder what it might have been like if the two of you had met in the Henry Flagler era. His legacy lives on in the architecture of the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) and the Alcazar Hotel (now Lightner Museum and City Hall) you will pass on your ride. The cadence of clip-clop on the red brick streets of the downtown historic district will enhance the romantic reverie. Look for the carriages along the bayfront to set up a ride.

3. Dine in style

A candlelit dinner is good, but waterfront dining is oh-so-much more memorable. St. Augustine has at least a dozen restaurants located right on the water, with another 10 or so that are close enough for a glimpse of the shimmer. And where there’s water, there is seafood. The waterfront establishments teem with local oysters, shrimp, mussels and many varieties of fresh fish. Add a glass of wine, a well-worded sentimental toast, and the idyllic evening is complete.

4. Heighten the charm

A key to romance is a change of scenery. Rendezvous for a night, or a long weekend, at one of St. Augustine’s 24 historic bed and breakfast inns. The circa 18th-century charmers are the ideal combination of sexy and sentimental. Each inn has its own special old-world ambiance, but all of them share some things in common, too. They celebrate history with antique furnishings and décor, but fast-forward to the 21st century for lavish amenities, like hot tubs or in-room massage. Intimate and elegant havens, St. Augustine’s B&Bs are all within walking distance of downtown restaurants, bars, shopping and attractions. No airports required.

5. Chocolate and Wine

St. Augustine is home to several high-quality artisan chocolate shops with luscious candies made by hand. Head to King Street or St. George Street and watch chocolatiers dip chocolate-covered strawberries or create delectable fudge just for you and your sweetheart. There is even a fun chocolate factory tour. Then head to the San Sebastian Winery or enjoy one of the other wine tastings in area shops. Be sure to try the wines made with Muscadine grapes that are native to the St. Augustine region, dating back to the 16th century. Pair dessert wines with dark chocolate, cream sherry with milk chocolate and champagne with white chocolate, the experts say.

6. Stroll by the sea

St. Johns County has 42 miles of coastline, from Ponte Vedra Beach in the north to Crescent Beach in the south. The feeling of sand in your toes unleashes the primitive rush so essential for romance. Start at the Ocean Pier at St. Augustine Beach and take a walk with only the moonlight, the cresting waves and your shining love for illumination. And of course, pause to draw a giant heart in the sand.

7. Be a pampered pair

Everybody loves a spa day. But a spa day for two is the epitomy of togetherness. The sensuality of a couple’s or a “duet” massage is surprisingly bonding. There are more than a dozen places to indulge in the decadent spa day in St. Augustine. And perhaps this will provide inspiration for in-home massages in the future.

8. Go slow dancing

St. Augustine has so many live music venues — from a single guitar player to a full rock ‘n’ roll band — that it is truly a music lover’s dream. For this occasion, let’s call it a lover’s dream. Whether you’re looking for a sultry slow dance to the tickled ivories at a piano bar or letting loose to a more rocking beat, there are musical offerings in downtown St. Augustine for every mood and style. Because the couple that dances together romances together.

9. Pack a picnic

The beauty of a picnic is its simplicity. Many shops in historic downtown make it easy to fill a yummy, bountiful picnic basket with local delicacies like datil pepper jelly or Spanish ham. Select a spot on the lawn surrounding the Castillo de San Marcos for a setting no other city offers: 16th-century history, 21st-century people watching and a gorgeous Matanzas Bay view. St. Augustine is full of other quiet, cozy picnic spots, too, such as the Spanish fountain near the Visitor Information Center or on a park bench in the Plaza de la Constitucion.

10. Ride the Carousel

Round and round it goes. The St. Augustine vintage carousel transports you back to the simple joys of life. Carousels have been both a childhood delight and a quaint romantic activity since they began in 1886. The carousel’s location in Davenport Park allows you to keep the playful mood going by going to the playground, too. When was the last time you played on the swings? It is at its most romantic when the carousel lights up at night until 10 p.m. Plus, it’s a cheap date — only $1 a ride.

Former pediatrician Hopkins remembered for his contributions to St. Augustine

One of St. Augustine’s first true pediatricians, Dr. George Hopkins is being remembered after his death this week as a man well-suited to a long career in health care.

Hopkins, a World War II veteran and popular physician in town, died at 97 on Monday.

“He was a remarkable guy,” said local businessman Doug Wiles, who was a patient of Hopkins’ as a child. “He had a way of making things better. You didn’t hardly mind getting a shot.”

Herbie Wiles, Doug’s father, remembers Hopkins as somebody he could trust, as evidenced by the fact that he let him treat his children.

“Practically everybody that had children back in those days, he was their pediatrician,” Herbie Wiles said.

As businessman and community activist, the elder Wiles also dealt with Hopkins as a fellow leader in the city. Hopkins was a member of the school board and various civic organizations.

“He was right in the community,” Herbie Wiles said. “As most people back in those days in St. Augustine (who were) doctors, lawyers, all were involved in schools, politics, city, that sort of thing. That was the way it was. You knew everybody.”

Hopkins, who established his practice in 1951, had his office right next to Flagler Hospital when it was downtown on Marine Street before the current building was constructed on U.S. 1 — and opened in 1989.

He was credited with establishing the first nursery at the hospital. According to his family, Hopkins was the only pediatrician in the area for 23 years of his career in St. Augustine.

Among Hopkins’ other accomplishments were: serving 20 years as physician for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, acting as a pediatric consultant for the state for a decade and serving as health department director for both St. Johns and Flagler counties.

However, perhaps the biggest impression he made was when he moved from the St. Augustine bayfront to Vilano Beach. That’s because he took his house with him.

Both Len Weeks, whose father Claude was the administrator at the hospital during for much of Hopkins’ tenure, and former hospital CEO Jim Conzemius both remember the scene.

According to accounts, the Hopkins house was lifted up into a truck and then over the sea wall onto a barge. The house was then floated under the Bridge of Lions and across the bay to its new location on Vilano Beach, where it still stands.

“I was there watching it,” Len Weeks said. “And it was pretty interesting when that truck rolled off the property onto the barge. They had to do it at just the right tide so that the barge was at the right height and they could get in.

“That was a big event in my neighborhood.”

Hopkins and his wife Ann had four children, two of whom still live in North Florida.

Hopkins served during World War II as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where he met his wife of 52 years.

‘MAJOR STEP FORWARD’: Disaster recovery funds could be used for Home Again project

St. Johns County is one step closer to securing $47 million in disaster recovery monies through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program for some big-ticket projects that tie back to Hurricane Matthew.

The projects must primarily address unmet housing needs or clearly support low- and moderate-income individuals and families, while not duplicating any benefits.

Michael Ryan, spokesman for the county, told The Record on Thursday that the county has what is essentially pre-approval from HUD and the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity to proceed with proposed projects in three categories.

A scope of work for the commission’s consideration on Tuesday includes a housing program and public facilities program that, combined, could potentially cover all the capital expenses for a major homeless services center on roughly 13.5 acres at 1850 State Road 207. The anticipated influx of money could end Home Again St. Johns’ years-long wait to bring the project to fruition.

According to the county’s project description, housing program funds would be used to develop up to 80 new rental units (with all associated infrastructure) to serve low-income individuals and families.

Public facilities funds would go toward developing an integrated social services building serving low- and moderate-income as well as vulnerable populations, such as those experiencing homelessness or at the risk of homelessness.

This “Unified Services Center” would house administrative and supportive services, including kitchen/cafeteria facilities, offices, meetings rooms, temporary emergency shelter space, and medical and social service space for a food pantry, medical clinic, dental clinic and similar uses.

Troy Blevins, president of Home Again, said the potential funding is a “major step forward” for the organization and its many partners in the community that work with the homeless.

“We’re talking millions and millions of dollars and it would have taken us years and years to raise that money,” he said. “It’s one bright thing that might have come out of Matthew, and there were so many bad things, but we’re very excited as a board and as an organization that this might happen.”

Blevins said they’ll be bringing in a number of partner organizations to handle different aspects of operations at the new facility and provide a wide array of services.

To illustrate the potential impact of this project, he said all they have right now is a facility that consists of minimal infrastructure and two portable buildings, one housing the Salvation Army, the other housing Home Again.

Another housing program would help qualifying owner-occupants of one- to four-unit residential properties apply for financial assistance for storm-related damage due to Matthew or Hurricane Hermine.

The range of services covered would include repair and elevation, reconstruction of properties that were substantially damaged, replacement of manufactured homes, temporary relocation of homeowners (and, if necessary, tenants) while repairs or reconstruction is completed, mortgage payment assistance, and buyout and acquisition for redevelopment pilot programs.

The county estimates this project will meet the low- and moderate-income national objective by serving at least 70 percent low- to moderate-income households with the 30 percent balance serving those meeting the urgent need national objective.

Ryan said more information on eligibility and how to apply for this assistance would become available as the county gets further along in the process, assuming the commission chooses to proceed with the plan as is.

An infrastructure program will address storm-related damage due to Matthew and/or Hermine. The project description includes funding of drainage improvements for the Armstrong area, N. Rodriguez Street, Orange Street, Avenue D, Lake Maria Sanchez and the intersection of St. Augustine Boulevard and Cypress Road. Also on the list: two phases of sewer improvements for Hastings.

Ryan said the county will have to add as many as eight new full-time employees in order to manage the obligations of the grant program and navigate the federal requirements involved. Of the eight full-time positions required, the equivalent of about 1.67 of those positions will not be covered by the CDBG monies.

Commissioners on Tuesday will consider bridging the gap by drawing down about $560,000 from the General Fund over the next five years. About $58,000 would be needed for the remainder of this fiscal year.

Ryan said once a grant agreement is signed, the money is made available immediately and the county has five years to complete the projects. He said the CDBG program differs from other disaster recovery programs in that it offers funding upfront rather than through reimbursement.

The county received the lion’s share of CDBG disaster recovery funding headed to Florida for Matthew and Hermine as it was deemed most-impacted from Matthew. Monies for Hurricane Irma have yet to be distributed.

Vonetta Flowers’ Olympic dream was realized, but not the way she expected

When Vonetta Jeffrey was 9 years old, her first track and field coach told her if she worked hard she could be the next Jackie Joyner Kersee.

At the time, Vonetta did not know who Joyner Kersee was, but she soon found out and the seed of a decades-long dream to be an Olympian was planted.

Vonetta did not become the next Joyner Kersee. Instead, she became the first person of African descent to win a gold medal at a Winter Olympics.

Vonetta, whose married name is Vonetta Flowers, has been living in northwest St. Johns County with her husband, Johnny Flowers, and three sons for the past 11 years. On the eve of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, Vonetta recounted her winding road from track and field All-American to bobsled gold medalist at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

Kersee became Flowers’ hero and inspiration as she became a track star in her own right. She earned a scholarship at her hometown University of Alabama-Birmingham where she was a seven-time All-American. Twenty years after her graduation, she still holds some school records.

In her junior year, she qualified for the 1996 U.S. Olympic track and field trials but finished 12th in long jump. Only the top three make the U.S. team.

She didn’t want her career to be over, so she trained four more years.

She went to the 2000 Olympic track trials in Sacramento, California, two months after undergoing ankle surgery. This time she finished 11th in long jump.

Flowers said she realized her goal of becoming an Olympian was basically over. But while packing to go home, Johnny, who was also a track star at UAB and played football for the Blazers, found a flyer recruiting track athletes for bobsledding.

“I went and tried out and I did well,” Flowers said of the tryout that consisted of runs of 30, 60 and 100 meters, the shot put, vertical jump and standing broad jump.

“A month later I was in Germany pushing a bobsled,” she said. “Two months later I was in my first race. And 18 months later I won a gold medal.”

That first ride did not go well.

“I felt like I was put in a trash can and rolled down a hill,” she said. “It was the worst thing ever. It was frightening. But each time it got better.”

Flowers, the brakeman, and driver Jill Bakken would win the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s bobsled.

“I remember crossing the finish line, looking up at the scoreboard, the excitement, the tears,” she said. “My family was there. My first track coach (DeWitt Thomas) drove form Alabama to be there. It was an amazing moment that words can’t describe.”

It was a moment she wanted to repeat. Her twin sons, Jayden and Jorden, were born later that year and when they were four months old, Flowers returned to the sled. Four years later, she competed at the Torino Games, where she finished sixth.

Jorden was born deaf and the family moved to St. Johns County to be near the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Jacksonville, where Jorden learned how to hear with his surgical implant. Jayden, a freshman at Creekside High and Jorden, an eighth-grader at Patriot Oaks Academy, are both active in sports, as is 8-year-old Jaxon.

None of them compete in track, but Johnny and Vonetta use track and field drills to improve their speed and agility for baseball, football and basketball.

Vonetta still goes on occasional speaking engagements to discuss her unusual journey to Olympic gold. She was a guest of Liberty Mutual on Friday to watchthe Pyeongchang opening ceremony at Park City, Utah, the site of her gold medal-winning run.

“Looking back at videos of my race I still get emotional,” she said. “I think about all the sacrifices, all the ups and downs. For me, my goal was never to go to the Winter Olympics. It was to represent my country.

“The reason I was successful was all the hard work I did in track and field. It turned out that this was God’s goal for me all along. I just didn’t know it.”

Menendez girls basketball team rallies around Special Olympian Caitlin Kirk

The best athletes take and make their chance. There may be only one opportunity for greatness and they shoot for it without reserve.

It does not take long to realize that Caitlin Kirk is many things, but, reserved isn’t one of them.

Caitlin is a senior Special Olympian who attends Menendez High School and is the most faithful Falcon on campus.

A part of the team

Caitlin, a senior, competes in paddleboard, track and field and softball toss; but, basketball has always been her sport. If the Falcons girls basketball team is playing at home, Caitlin is somewhere in the gymnasium.

“I’m happy she comes to the games,” said Falcons senior forward Aryelle Wagner. “Every time she comes to the games she says, ‘We got this.’ And when she says that, I know we’re going to win.”

So far, the Falcons have won five of six home games this year.

“It’s my favorite thing to do,” Caitlin said during the second quarter of a recent win. “Those are my girls right now.”

As Caitlin sat on the first row of the bleachers explaining why she loves the Falcons and their head coach, Kerri Robison Gallagher, and being a Menendez student, she munched on a slice of pizza that was too alluring to pass up after she spending the first quarter seated on the bench with the players.

Caitlin is as much a part of the team as seniors Wagner, Darrnisha Varnes and Vida Kohl.

Off glass, on point

Menendez hosted Palatka on Jan. 11 for Senior Night. Before the game, Caitlin and the rest of the seniors were honored with gifts in appreciation for their contributions to the program.

Most nights, Caitlin can be spotted wearing some type of Pedro paraphernalia. On this night, Gallagher had other ideas.

Caitlin would dress out. She wore was awarded No. 35 and would make the first field goal of the game.

“We did the national anthem, she warmed up with (the team) and we called she was one of the starting five,” Gallagher saidxplained. “We had a play and she rolled with it. She was supposed to pass to the wing and get to the post. But, she said ‘I got it.’ It was heartwarming for her. She deserved that moment. God was with us, because it went perfectly.”

Wagner in-bounded the ball to Caitlin at mid-court. She dribbled right toward aher teammate on the wing. As she approached the 3-point line, she brushed off the pass, got to the block and lofted a ball from six feet.

As is the case with another No. 35, Caitlin was unafraid to use the backboard from close range. Her shot tumbled into the hoop.

Her teammates as well as Menendez cheerleaders flooded onto the floor to congratulate her.

“I made it right in there,” Caitlin said. “It was crazy. We were going crazy on Senior Night.”

Favorite Falcon

The experience was further evidence just how crazy the Falcons are about Caitlin. The 20-year-old is beloved on the south St. Augustine campus.

“Caitlin never has a bad day,” said Yanetta Arnold, Menendez dean of students. “She comes to school excited. She is excited when you see her at lunch. She is excited when you see her in the afternoon. She consistently spreads love and sunshine throughout our campus.”

Caitlin’s journey to Menendez was a circuitous one.

Caitlin was born in Jacksonville in August, 1997, but has lived in St. Augustine her entire life.

“When she was four 4 months old, her pediatrician kept hearing a click in her hip,” said Caitlin’s mother, Nikki. “They referred us to Nemours (Children’s Specialty Care in Jacksonville.) We saw an orthopedic (surgeon) and they did X-rays. She has a muscular disease, congenital fiber type disproportion myopathy.”

The disease has been described as one where a person endures a loss of muscle tone and muscle weakness. It has caused dislocated hips, something that bothered Caitlin for years until she had screws surgically inserted into her hip. It has also been found to cause delays in motor skill development.

Kirk said her daughter had multiple hip surgeries as well as surgeries on her mouth to fix a partial cleft palate in her throat.

“We would teach her how to walk. And then, in a month, or two, she would be right back in a body cast because her hips would come out. It was off and on teaching her how to walk. She was in a wheelchair for a while.”

In the classroom, Caitlin started high school elsewhere, but after a few weeks her mother applied for a McKay Scholarship. The scholarship allows students with disabilities to attend the public or private school of their choice. Nikki wanted Caitlin at Menendez. Once the scholarship was awarded, Caitlin enrolled. She has flourished ever since.

Kirk said sports were just part of Caitlin’s growth at Menendez. She has become involved in the school’s Sparkle cheerleading team as well as the Best Buddies program that fosters friendships between students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with their classmates. It’s through that involvement that Caitlin was connected with the basketball team.

“It warms my heart,” Kirk said. “At the beginning, I kept telling Caitlin, ‘Don’t worry about it, Caitlin. Let’s go.’ I was leery, but Caitlin kept on and kept on. When Caitlin has something in her head, she will grasp it. She will get it. The team, they love her to death.”

Menendez basketball player Aniyah Foster has been assigned relegated to scorekeeping this year after sustaining a knee injury earlier in the season. As disappointing as this season has been for the junior guard, Caitlin has been a bright spot.

“She is my friend,” Foster said. “She is supportive, loving, caring and crazy – in a good way. She loves me.”

Caitlin loves all the Falcons. And the Falcons love Caitlin.

As much as Kirk thinks Caitlin has been helped by the Falcons, Gallagher says argues the properties are inversed.

“It was amazing. She is always energetic,” said junior forward Darralela Tobler. “She is our biggest supporter. I was happy she got the first two points of the game.”

There are times where superlatives are superficial, but, in the case of Caitlin they are not. She really is the Falcons’ biggest supporter. Who else would show up to a basketball game hours after having hip surgery?

Menendez hosted St. Augustine that night and there was no chance Caitlin was going to stay be at home recuperating.

Joedy Ashton, Menendez’s maintenance coordinator, remembered looking at Caitlin and asking: “Really?” Arnold, who doubles as Caitlin’s on-campus godmother, recalled being “mad” at her. Gallagher was just as dumbfounded as her colleagues.

“We just got back from Jacksonville for the surgery and I had to bring her here,” Nikki explained.

“Nothing is going to stop her. If I didn’t bring her here, I would pay for it,” Nikki laughed.

It takes a village

Nikki said people like her mom, Carol, and aunt, Debbie Drozd, along with the on-campus support of Arnold, Ashton, Celeste Bowker, “Big Joe” Stewart and Karen Zupko “are angels from heaven. They are God sent.”

“I have a lot of fun,” Caitlin said of her on-campus adventures. “I love Mrs. Zupko. I get to do fun stuff: Sparkle cheer, Best Buddies and I have a lot of fun. I like working in the cafeteria with Big Joe.”

Caitlin said she cannot wait for Grad Night so she can take Arnold on Doctor Doom’s Fearfall at Islands of Adventure. Arnold, supposedlyallegedly, doesn’t go on rides.

Then again, Arnold has not had a student like Caitlin Kirk.

When Menendez has commencement this year, Arnold admitted she won’t be able to contain her tears. Her right eye will have tears of joy at how far Caitlin has come while her left will have tears of sadness that she will be flying away from the nest she has established in south St. Augustine.

“Ever since the surgery (to remove the screws) she’s been doing pretty (well),” Kirk said. “If you watch her run, you can see how she moves her hips. She has come so far. I’m very surprised. I’m glad she’s been able to do some of this stuff, Kerri letting her do it and the Special Olympics.”

In addition to being the Falcons’ best jump shooter – her perfect shooting percentage has yet to be topped – Caitlin and her team, the Pedro Menendez Hawks, will compete in the Special Olympics Florida State Basketball Championship in Tavares.

Caitlin and the Hawks have played at the state tournament and will do so again next weekend. She wants the Falcons (13-6) to have the same experience.

“We’re trying to go to the state championship,” Caitlin said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to help us go to the state tournament. I want them to beat Ponte Vedra High School and the Sharks.”