On a recent short trip down to visit a friend in Orlando, Florida I had the opportunity to spend one night in America's oldest city - Saint Augustine - when the friend that I was visiting asked if I'd like to jaunt up there to visit the Saint Augustine Lighthouse and Museum while I was in the state. Are you kidding me? Lighthouse? One that I could actually go in and climb? Oh heck yea - let's do it! Once the decision was made, it was also decided that we'd spend one night of my vacation in Saint Augustine before wending our way back to Orlando via Ponce de Leon Inlet where another lighthouse - Florida's tallest - could be found. That made me double-excited as I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to lighthouses but putting all that aside, first things first - where were we going to stay? Quick! To the internet!
After looking at a few different hotels and the like in the area (Morgen on his end in Florida and me on mine in Connecticut), we finally stumbled (or Googled) across the type of place that I've come to really like and appreciate in my travels - an older, more-of-a-bed-and-breakfast-than hotel-type place with an interesting history and a personality. The Casablanca Inn on the Bay is a 2-story 1914 Mediterranean Revival-style inn located across from Matanzas Bay on Avenida Menendez - Saint Augustine's main thoroughfare on the bayfront - which some claim is one of the most haunted locations in the "Ancient City".
Originally known as the Mantanzas Hotel when it was first built, six years later in 1920 the structure changed hands and names after it was bought by a widow who first named it the Bayfront Boarding House before changing the name again after a few years to that which it retains to this day - the Casablanca Inn.
During the 1920's and 1930's, the Casablanca Inn was a popular boarding house offering clean and comfortable rooms and excellent meals. Most of the widow's guests were traveling salesmen, G-men (an early 1920s slang term for FBI agents of Elliot Ness' time who were also known as Government men), and some local people including a few children. In spite of the success of her boardinghouse, in the 1920's, the widow began to have financial troubles but soon came up with a bold plan to make more money. At the time, the country was going through Prohibition - that period of time from 1920 to 1933 when the 18th Amendment was in force and alcoholic beverages could not legally be manufactured, transported, or sold in the U.S. - so it was against the law for the widow to offer alcohol to her guests. That said, some of them still wanted it so - ever the gracious hostess - the widow worked out a deal with the bootleggers who were illegally bringing rum from Cuba into the city.
As the G-men who were trying to capture the bootleggers often stayed at the Casablanca Inn, the widow became the “eyes” and “ears” of the rum-runners. If the G-men weren't in town, the widow would go to the widow's walk on the roof of the inn and swing a lantern so the smugglers would know that it was safe to come into port and dump off their black market liquor then, after paying the widow handsomely, quickly leave. If there was no lantern visible, they'd know not to come into port and were able to avoid arrest. Additionally, the widow arranged to have a smuggler be a guest at her inn so he could sell the black market liquor to those of her guests who wanted to imbibe.
To this day, fishermen and boaters at sea, people walking along the waterfront, and some guests staying in inns next to the Casablanca Inn claim to have seen a lantern light swinging back and forth from the widow's walk on top of the inn as if to warn ships not to come too close. Additionally there have been reports of people observing a strange, wispy fog-like apparition appear in various locations on the inside as well as the outside of the inn along with the sounds of someone stepping lightly on the floorboards, people talking, and even the sounds of children playing in and around the inn.
As is often the case with ghost stories, there are several different variations of the tale of the enterprising widow but they all tell essentially the same story. For further information, you can check out "A Ghostly Tale" on the inn's website or should you ever find yourself perusing a copy of "Haunted Inns, Pubs and Eateries of St. Augustine" by Greg Jenkins, turn to pages 41 to 43 for more information on the haunting of the Casablanca Inn including the experiences of former innkeeper Jayne James.
Anyway, whether you believe the inn's ghost stories or not, the history is real as attested by the plaque above located on the inn's front veranda. Originally laid out around a central plaza , Saint Augustine was founded as a Spanish military base in 1565 making it the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. The present streets of the city are all in the original town plan and a number of the buildings, including the one in which Casablanca Inn on the Bay is located, have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. So whether you want to believe that the inn is haunted or not is entirely up to you but that the building is historic, there is no doubt!
Now to be honest, when Morgen and I decided to book a room for the night at the Casablanca Inn, I didn't know about the place being haunted but a perusal of the website certainly made it look like a nice place to stay - even just for one night. The location across from Matanzas Bay with the beam of Saint Augustine Light visible at night was perfect, the veranda with it's Tini Martini Bar looked inviting, and photos and descriptions of the rooms on the website showed accommodations that were appointed with antique furnishings and interesting artwork. Add on the fact that the price - which included a full breakfast - was within our budget and we were sold!
Now ... if you're planning a visit to Saint Augustine, one very important thing to keep in mind when looking for accommodations is parking as even though I've only been to Saint Augustine twice, just that first short visit was more than enough to make me realize the importance of staying at a place that provides parking - preferably free parking if at all possible as otherwise the cost of it will drive up the cost of your trip considerably.
Parking at the Casablanca Inn is not on-site but it is included with the cost of your room and as its by assigned parking space, you don't have to worry about someone else taking your spot should you opt to use your car over the duration of your stay. Upon arrival at the inn, guests are allowed use of the spaces in front of the inn to check-in and unload; during registration you'll be given a parking assignment and directions to the lot closest to your room. Our assigned spot was a short walk down Hypolita Street and considering that we paid $8 to park for a very short period of time to meet friends for lunch prior to checking in, I figure we saved a good chunk of change that could be used for other things (like a t-shirt at the lighthouse gift shop!) by staying somewhere that included parking in the room rate.
Registration is located just off of the veranda in the Main House where guests will also find an afternoon tea and coffee service - as well as breakfast the next morning. The area is filled with antiques along with pamphlets and brochures for places to go/things to do while in Saint Augustine.
In the shot above I was just trying to get a little creative with the coffee service and a mirror nearby while Morgen got us checked in for the night! I call it "Reflections on Coffee" ... Stop that, I can hear you groaning!
Our room for the night was located in the Coach House, a short walk through the breakfast dining room to the rear of the Main House, which meant that we weren't going to get any views of the bay from our room but that we'd have a balcony overlooking Charlotte Street, an historic narrow brick-paved road on which could be found other inns, shops, private homes, etc.
When we were looking through the room choices on the website, Morgen and I decided on Room #19 which had both a queen-size bed and a twin bed. There were a couple other rooms that offered a regular bed and pull-out sofa sleeper options but we figured that two actual beds would be the most comfortable arrangement for both of us.
As we were on the second floor, there was an outside flight of stairs that had to be climbed to get to our room - something to think about should you be traveling with heavy cases and aren't fortunate enough to travel with your own personal valet who could get them up to your room for you. The stairs were very sturdy with good treads so even though they ARE stairs, they aren't bad stairs - at least in my own humble opinion!
Upon entering our room through a good sturdy door with wooden plantation shutters for privacy, we found ourselves in a mirrored entryway with an antique desk upon which there was a guidebook as well as informational book on the Casablanca Inn outlining anything we needed to know about the inn.
The marble-tiled bathroom was a good size and came complete with two robes, very plush and absorbent towels, and a European shower head in the over-sized whirlpool tub that rather looked like it might need an owner's manual to operate! As it turned out, it wasn't that difficult at all but convincing myself that I really couldn't sneak it into my bag and home with me the next day was! It seems there's always something that I find in a room that I wish I had back home and that shower head was definitely it for this trip! Ah bliss!
The entryway/bath of our room was separated from the sleeping area by two columns which were adorned with heavy draperies that I suspect could have been drawn should one have wished for more privacy. We didn't find it necessary but I suspect that some do.
The beds were adorned with duvet covers that had a Moroccan sort of feel to them and which I felt went very nicely with the rest of the furniture and artwork in the room. In addition to the Sleep Number Queen bed and the twin bed, we also had a couch and a swivel rocker that I neglected to take photos of - der! You can see it in the photo on the Casablanca Inn's website as well as a glimpse of the flat-screen TV and dresser. The only thing that was a little 'odd' about the room was the closet that seemed to have been added as an afterthought and stuck out far enough into the room that Morgen smacked his elbow on it at least once. Again - no photo - double der!
Stepping out the rear door of our room, we found our lovely little balcony that overlooked Charlotte Street and gave us a view up to Hypolita Street which seemed to be very popular with the tourist trams! Our balcony boasted some nice white wicker furniture (whose cushions might have benefited from a wet cloth to remove some of the pollen and dust that had accumulated) and a nice overhead fan that I'm sure comes in handy on hot and humid summer nights.
The balcony pictured in the photo above belongs to Room #20 which was the room that our friend Barb, who decided to drive down from south Georgia and join us in Saint Augustine, was occupying. The photo below shows our balconies as seen from Charlotte Street. As the lower patios open directly out onto the street and get all of the foot traffic walking by right outside the door, I think that the second floor rooms at the Coach House are the best bet as it gives one a little more privacy - just remember that there are stairs to contend with (and no, there's no photo of the stairs - sorry!)
Later in the evening, after getting a recommendation from the front desk clerk on a good place to eat nearby, we left our rooms and took a short walk to the restaurant. The horse-drawn carriages were lined up along the curb on Avenida Menendez all lit up and waiting for passengers while the evening skies darkened over Matanzas Bay and the Bridge of Lions. All in all, I thought it was a perfect evening in Saint Augustine - especially having just left a snow-covered Connecticut behind the day before!
Following a very tasty dinner of Chili Rellenos at the Acapulco Mexican Restaurant nearby, we strolled back to the inn and spent some time (as well as the $15 bar credit per room per night that came with our room) at the Tini Martini Bar on the front veranda of the Casablanca Inn.
The bar does have an entertainment schedule but on a cool Monday evening in February, the only entertainment we had was each other but that was fine as the verandah was a lovely place to sit and talk with friends while enjoying a drink or two. Morgen ordered a Dirty Martini in honor of his grandmother, Barb had a Cosmopolitan (which was quite strong and needed some supplemental cranberry juice) while I had an After Eight Martini made with Three Olives Chocolate Vodka, Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, Creme de Menthe, and Bailey's Irish Cream as well as a few chocolate chips thrown into the bottom for good measure. Yum!
When we finally decided to call it a night, Morgen was a true gentleman and let me try out the queen-size Sleep Number Bed while he took the smaller twin-size as he knows I have back issues and he's a good friend. To be honest, though, I'm not quite sure I see what the big fuss is about the Sleep Number System however, it's probably hard to tell from just one night. I have to say that I slept pretty good with no ghostly disturbances of any sort (rats) but poor Morgen said he slept a bit off-kilter in his bed. I guess that's what he gets for being a gentleman!
After showers, we met Barb for breakfast and dined out on the front veranda of the Main House as the sun attempted to break through some clouds over Anastasia Island and Matanzas Bay. Breakfast consisted of assorted danish, waffles, an egg souffle, biscuits and gravy, home fries, fruit, juice, and probably a few other things that I didn't notice as I had more than enough on my plate as it was!
Barb quite enjoyed the egg souffle and complimented the inn's chef on it when he came by our table to say good morning. The coffee was good - though a little bit cold - and I certainly didn't leave hungry by any stretch of the imagination.
Of course, one of the best things about breakfast was the view of the bay and the Bridge of Lions from the verandah!
All in all, I quite enjoyed our stay at the Casablanca Inn on the Bay. It wasn't absolutely perfect as there were a few minor things here and there that had been overlooked (we had a couple of burned-out lightbulbs in our room and only one hand towel as well as the somewhat dusty balcony furniture) but I'm sure they were simply oversights as the inn was the recipient of the 2012 Donal A. Dermody White Glove Award for Outstanding Performance in Housekeeping presented by the Florida Superior Small Lodging Association (SSL) so they know what they're doing when it comes to running - and keeping clean - an inn.
The minor things that were wrong certainly weren't the type of things that make or break a vacation - or a single night away with friends - and they wouldn't stop me from recommending the Casablanca Inn to anyone who was traveling to Saint Augustine and wanted someplace nice to stay. If you ever do go, though, come back here and let me know if you noticed any lanterns swinging in the night or other strange activities; I'd love to hear about it!
If you'd like to learn more about Casblanca Inn on the Bay, be sure to visit their website (also available in a mobile format) or you email the innkeeper with further questions. Reservations can be made on-line as well as by phone by calling toll free: 1-800-826-2626.