Exploring Florida’s history at Fort Matanzas

08/05/2013 1:19 PM

08/05/2013 5:32 PM

There’s a word that describes the vaguely musty scent of the cramped, unlit officer’s quarters in Fort Matanzas, the 18th century Spanish outpost on a barrier island south of St. Augustine.

That same word would characterize the experience of climbing the crude wooden straight ladder that leads to the fort’s observation deck, a route that requires passage through a circular opening in the coquina ceiling that’s perilously small for the generous girth of 21st century adults: It’s old.

A visit to Fort Matanzas National Monument, like many of the historic attractions in neighboring St. Augustine, is an exercise in sensory immersion. As Florida celebrates the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon’s landing on the east coast of the peninsula he called “La Florida,” a visitor can come to St. Augustine to see the past, smell it, touch it, hear it and taste it.

And Fort Matanzas is an appropriate starting point for modern-day explorers of St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city founded in 1565.

The massacre of French soldiers by Spanish troops in 1565 at Matanzas (Spanish for “massacre”) Inlet was Spain’s first move toward establishing a colony in Florida.

The construction of the fort, from 1740 to 1742, was Spain’s final effort to secure St. Augustine from British attacks. It became part of a defense system that already included the cannons of Castillo de San Marcos, the fort built in 1695 that remains one of St. Augustine’s landmarks. By that time, St. Augustine was more than 100 years old.

Operated by the National Park Service, Fort Matanzas’ modern home is part of a 300-acre park that also serves as a barrier island refuge for endangered and threatened wildlife such as sea turtles, indigo snakes, ospreys and pelicans. A ferry carries guests to the fort from the park visitor center, which offers souvenirs and a short film on the area’s history.

On the 10-minute boat ride from the mainland, passengers can watch fishermen casting lines on the park’s sandy shoreline or glimpse a pelican perched on the dock’s wooden pilings.

Although park rangers conduct the fort tours, there is time for guests to explore the living quarters, gun deck sentry box and rooftop deck, the latter offering a view of the Atlantic Ocean skyline.

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