By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
If you want to experience a white Christmas in Florida, St. Augustine is the place to be.
The annual Nights of Lights celebration blankets the oldest U.S. city with more than three million tiny white lights from mid November to late January. White they are by official decree, a nod to the city’s Spanish heritage.
The old Spanish tradition was to put lighted white candles in windows during Christmas and other important celebrations.
The white vs. multicolored Christmas lights debate is just one more issue that divides this country. A survey conducted several years ago by Wakefield Research for BJ’s Wholesale Club found that 62 percent of 1,000 participants favored white lights.
I’ve always preferred colored lights. But in St. Augustine, founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers and still dominated by Spanish colonial architecture, there is no debate.
The white lights do create a winter wonderland effect throughout the city, even if the average temperature is around 70 degrees during the Christmas season. Nights of Lights is a spectacle that has been cited by National Geographic as one of the Top Ten Holiday Light Displays in the world.
The lights are impressive and I look forward to seeing them again. But the highlight of the visit to St. Augustine for me has been around longer and has also been widely acclaimed. Details below.
Naturally, popularity and publicity surrounding St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights has brought crowds that complicate lodging, dining and parking. My advice is to avoid weekends if possible. Keeping our visit in early December to weekdays made it tolerable.
We stayed on the outskirts of the historic district and walked everywhere. It’s not that big of an area.
The best way to see the lights really is on foot in the Plaza de la Constitucion and along the waterfront on Avenida Menendez. Spend all the time you want, it’s free. No need to spend $70 for a drive by on the sightseeing tram.
If you’re thirsty while strolling the waterfront, the Tini Martini Bar at the Casablanca Inn is a popular watering stop. They have a lengthy list of martinis — the Classic English Martini is $14.75 — and specialty cocktails. There was also a lengthy line waiting to get in.
One final note about the lights: Every year a single red light bulb is placed somewhere in town. It can be anywhere. Have fun searching.
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Standout dish at the Columbia Restaurant: It’s the 1905 Salad
We did make a dinner reservation for the Columbia Restaurant well in advance of our visit. The Columbia is a historic Spanish-Cuban eatery that originated in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa in 1905. The St. Augustine location is one of seven in Florida and ideally situated in the heart of the historic district.
The Columbia Restaurant is known for its authentic Spanish dishes, Sangria and Cuban bread. But the standout item on the menu is a pleasant surprise.
It’s a salad.
Specifically the “1905 Salad,” and it is on USA Today’s list of “10 Great Places to Make a Meal of a Salad.”
According to salad lore, it was created in the 1940’s by a waiter, Tony Noriega, using leftovers he found in the restaurant refrigerator.
It is now prepared and tossed at table side by your friendly waiter. Ours took obvious pride in upholding the tradition and making a show of it.
The Columbia is very accommodating about the secrets of its famous salad, posting the ingredients and 1905 dressing recipe on its website. See below if you want to make the 1905 Salad at home.
It is cool and crisp with a diverse blend of flavors and tangy aftertaste. I think the key was the Worcestershire sauce that was stirred in before the salad was tossed and served.
This salad can be a meal in itself. We paired it with the Tapeo Sampler — two seafood tapas and a regular tapas — and didn’t order an entree.
Pirates and other attractions distinguish St. Augustine
St. Augustine has always been my favorite Florida tourist spot. It is ultra touristy, but the history there sets it apart and makes it worth returning to.
There are historical attractions you won’t find anywhere else. If you want a pirate show or have the stomach for the Medieval Torture Museum, St. Augustine has it. The Pirate and Treasure Museum is a national treasure, featuring rare pirate artifacts in the world including Captain Thomas Tew’s 17th Century Treasure Chest and the Journal of Captain Kidd’s Final Voyage in 1699.
There are history lessons to be found in the old town that don’t require an admission fee. Such as the historic marker on St. George Street for the Salcedo House, former home of Jorge Biassou, who led a slave rebellion against the French in 1791 in what is now Haiti and became the first Black Spanish general in this country.
Biassou commanded the free Black militia defending Fort Matanzas, now a National Monument and part of the National Park Service south of St. Augustine. There is more to the story of a legendary historic figure that is worth checking out.
A visit to St. Augustine is full of surprises. In my view, none better than the 1905 Salad at the Columbia.
Guide to the 1905 Salad
Here are the ingredients of the salad, courtesy of The Columbia Restaurant:
(Makes 2 full salads or 4 side salads)
4 cups iceberg lettuce, broken into 1½” x 1½” pieces
1 ripe tomato, cut into eighths
½ cup baked ham, julienned 2″ x ⅛” (may substitute turkey or shrimp)
½ cup Swiss cheese, julienne 2″ x ⅛”
½ cup green Spanish olives
2 cups “1905” Dressing (recipe below)
¼ cup Romano cheese, grated
2 tablespoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce
Combine lettuce, tomato, ham, Swiss cheese and olives in a large salad bowl. Before serving, add “1905” Dressing, Romano cheese, Worcestershire and the juice of 1 lemon. Toss well and serve immediately. Makes 2 full salads or 4 side salads.
‘1905’ Dressing Recipe
1/2 cup extra-virgin Spanish olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
⅛ cup white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix olive oil, garlic and oregano in a bowl. Stir in vinegar and season with salt and pepper.
For best results, prepare 1 to 2 days in advance and refrigerate.