ANASTASIA STATE RECREATION AREA, St. Augustine—Thousands of years have washed over this slender sandbar of a barrier island called Anastasia. But only recently has man written his history on this coastline.
As you stand along the park's barren, wind-swept beach, squinting inland over light-washed marshes held apart from the sea by heaped dunes of sugar sand, you can feel the primal pull of the waves.
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The Timucuas must have known the allure of the water well. The Indians were the first inhabitants, fishing in inland lagoons, hunting in maritime woodlands, hunkering down along the shore of what one day would be known as the Atlantic Ocean.
Then, in the early 1500s, according to local legend,
Don Juan Ponce de Leon was delivered here on the Atlantic's rolling back. When he sighted this land, he named it "La Florida" and claimed it for Spain. During the next 50 years, the Spanish attempted to establish a settlement in the wild territory. They failed many times. But the French didn't. In 1564 they established Fort Caroline, a garrison at the mouth of the St. Johns River. In response, Spain's King Phillip II called upon Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the country's most experienced admiral, to colonize the territory and drive out the interlopers.
At the northern tip of Anastasia, at St. Augustine Inlet, you can gaze across the water at the mainland and imagine Menendez coming ashore there on the Feast Day of St. Augustine in 1565. He set about establishing a settlement on the Matanzas River at the Timucuan village of Seloy. He named his settlement in the saint's honor.
The Timucuas were friendly at first, but in 1566, they tired of the Spaniards and drove them out. The Spanish resettled on Anastasia. Eventually, in the 1570s, the settlement moved back to the mainland.
Many bloody skirmishes marked St. Augustine's infancy, and Anastasia was a quiet witness. Shortly after its establishment, the French sent soldiers south from Fort Caroline to attack St. Augustine, but a hurricane blew their ship south of present-day Daytona Beach, where it wrecked. As the French sailed, Menendez marched north and attacked the French outpost, which was easily vanquished.
Meanwhile, the shipwrecked French troops walked north toward St. Augustine in two groups, eventually arriving at a broad inlet that separated them from south Anastasia Island. The French surrendered, and the Spanish transported them across the inlet to Anastasia, where most of the French soldiers were executed when they refused to convert to Catholism. Thus the inlet and river gained their names: Matanzas -- "massacre."
The fledgling St. Augustine was repeatedly attacked by the British. In 1672, work began on a huge fortress that would help to defend the city. The massive Castillo de San Marcos, now a national monument, rose on the bay, enfolded in the arms of Anastasia Island to the south and a slim mainland peninsula to the north.
Anastasia gave up her backbone for the fort's creation. Timucuas and, later, enslaved Africans, toiled in quarries on the island, chiseling the building blocks of the fort from massive formations of coquina, a limestone formed from crushed shells.
Anastasia Island felt no pain as the stone was extracted. She dozed, as she does now, rocked into a timeless slumber by the rhythm of the slapping waves that both mold and erode her shoreline.
NATURE STILL AT WORK
When you stand on the east coast of Anastasia in the state park -- north of St. Augustine Beach, where the shore is unmarred by the high-rise condos and resorts found elsewhere in the state -- it is quite something to behold.
Indeed, the coastline of the island smacks of a Florida that hasn't yet succumbed to the supersizing of many other coastal communities.
The state park is at the island's northeast end, preserving a four-mile stretch of beach and a tidal lagoon. Winds leave Etch-a-Sketch squiggles in the sand of steep, undulating sand dunes, a ready medium for Mother Nature's artistic hand. Oaks have been shaped into full-size bonsais. They bend like hunched, weathered mariners with their backs to the wind and limbs outstretched, as if reaching for the mainland.
Inland, a shaded nature trail climbs and falls over the remnants of dunes more than 100,000 years old. Seashells crunch under foot as you tread through a tangle of maritime forest of yaupon holly, Southern red cedar, laurel oak, sabal palms and saw palmetto.
This strip of seashore is in constant flux, thanks to the constant pushing and pulling of sand by the sea's waves. The beach's history actually is a short one. Much of it developed after 1940, when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged a new inlet north of it. Conch Island and Bird Island joined like Siamese twins, and Salt Run, a saltwater marshland between ancient dunes and more modern ones, lengthened. The area became the state's domain in 1949.
There is little human activity on the beach on a blustery day in early spring. Surfers in black wetsuits bob in the water offshore like seals, occasionally rising on their boards for a short ride on a modest curl. Earnest beachcombers are out under the churning gray sky, eyes searching the sand for a gift from Poseidon. There are jellies here along with bivalves, washed up in gelatin death, attracting flies. Gulls pay little heed to the bounty brought in on the waves. Instead, they flock around visitors like dogs under a dinner table, begging for tidbits.
The dunes are heaped to a height of 10 feet and more, growing around a skeleton of picket fences. Signs planted in the dunes warn beachgoers not to walk on the dunes, but pocking their sides are small, shifted-sand craters -- evidence of man's ignorant disregard of the fragile dunes ecosystem.
SEAFOOD, OF COURSE
Northwest of the state park's entrance and the coquina quarries, the Bridge of Lions spans the Matanzas River between mainland and the island. Here is Davis Shores, a residential area that bears the moniker of Dave Davis' dream-gone-bust. In the mid-1920s, Davis, best known for developing Davis Islands in Tampa, had planned a 1,500-acre luxury resort. In preparation, he mowed down most of the land's vegetation. But the Florida land bust that preceded the Depression descended, turning Davis' dream sour. Instead of a plush resort and golf course, a quiet neighborhood, composed mostly of modest ranch-style houses, stands on the acreage.
From here the island tapers in a long southbound waist, and the state seashore gives way to the stilt-legged St. Johns County Fishing Pier and the city of St. Augustine Beach. Beachside, balcony-wrapped houses are clustered along snippets of streets, the names of which work downward from 16, then gracefully segue into alphabet soup.
Mixed between the dwellings are the occasional vignettes of touristed beaches: a snack and rental shack, jutting out into the sand like the set jaw of a pirate; a miniature golf course with a Spanish galleon; a sprinkling of convenience stores and mom-and-pop motor courts; a luxurious Holiday Inn; tight clusters of low-rise condos.
Eateries on the flipside of State Road A1A serve Minorcan chowder, flavored with scant bits of gritty clam, and huge platters of steamed seafood. Salt Water Cowboys, which heaps patrons' plates with gator tail, barbecue and fresh seafood, is nestled in a marsh south of St. Augustine Beach. It is so popular on a Saturday night that an attendant works his way down a row of gridlocked vehicles, telling the occupants of each that there is more than an hour's wait for a table.
Things are slower over at the tin-roofed Dunes Cracker House in St. Augustine Beach. Maybe the unkempt landscaping and the weathered buckboard out front keep people away. Whatever. The steamed seafood served inside is cause for celebration. Even a sextet of raccoons -- which dine in a garbage bin out back, heads popping up and down like a Whac-A-Mole game at a kiddy arcade -- relish each morsel.
A SLIVER OF LAND
As the island continues its slow slide south, larger neighborhoods fall behind you and the island tapers into a long, pointed finger.
Here, the beach and the Matanzas River become kissing cousins, just one dune out of sight of the other. One good storm and Anastasia might well one day be divided in two.
Roll on into slow-paced Crescent Beach, where sea and marsh hold land in a tight girdle. Stand on a dune, and you can gaze out to the Atlantic, then glance over your shoulder to see the rippled water of the Matanzas River.
Since the 1890s, the place has been the beach getaway of choice for inland residents from Hastings, Palatka and Gainesville. It even lured Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of Cross Creek, who in 1939 dipped into the earnings from her acclaimed book, The Yearling, to purchase a rambling house perched on a dune above the frothing Atlantic. She could have lived anywhere, but she picked Anastasia and the dwelling a friend dubbed "Crawlings-by-the-Sea" for its plentiful spiders.
Here she wrote Cross Creek and was visited by such literary luminaries as Robert Frost, Zora Neale Hurston and Dylan Thomas. Ernest Hemingway stayed several times as a guest of Rawlings when he passed through on his way north from Key West.
In 1953, Rawlings died in the long, narrow house by the sea, which, she confided to a friend in a letter, would sometimes get on her nerves. Apparently she occasionally needed the quiet reassurance of inland forests, like that found near her home in Cross Creek.
That Rawling's beach house still stands in beige anonymity on a one-lane road paralleling A1A is a testament to one woman's commitment to saving an important literary landmark.
The late Mary Elizabeth Streeter, a retired professor of children's literature from Indianapolis, bought the sagging house in the early '80s for more than $300,000, and put at least that amount toward its renovation. Her children now own it.
Back when Rawlings occupied the house, Crescent Beach was a blink of an eye on A1A. Now several convenience stores dot the highway, and a stoplight does a slow wind-propelled waltz above the intersection of A1A and S.R. 206.
The place these days is more populated with condos than cracker beach houses, but it nonetheless retains a certain charm. That's probably because its residents, regardless of the modernity of their dwellings, want to keep the pace slow. When the state proposed a project in 1997 that would four-lane A1A from St. Augustine Beach south to S.R. 206, residents protested and St. Johns County Commission voted to ask the state to kill the plan.
The excitement most days is no bigger than seeing Steve Spurrier, former Gators football coach and Crescent Beach resident, out for a jog.
At the island's southern extreme is the Fort Matanzas National Monument. The fort, actually on Rattlesnake Island to the west, was built in 1740 to protect Matanzas Inlet. As you take the ferry across the river and through the marshes, you can turn your face back into the salty wind and gaze east to the very tip of Anastasia and imagine the fate of the hapless French soldiers who died here on the stark-white dunes.
The sea, of course, erased signs of the conflict from the dunes long ago, but Anastasia will forever wear the ugly scar of its history.
Ghosts may walk the sand, though they leave no tell-tale, shifting footprints on the dunes. Be still and you can almost feel their presence on the wind that ruffles Anastasia's fringe of sea oats, mingling with the long, forlorn cries of gulls that circle overhead.