In St. Augustine—the oldest continuously inhabited European-founded city in the contiguous United States—reminders of our collective past are all around, from the Castillo de San Marcos to countless historic homes and the civil-rights landmarks of the Lincolnville District. Its history has long been a draw for Floridians, so when I got a chance to visit one of St. Augustine’s most historic hotels, Casa Monica Resort & Spa, I brought my mom and two sisters with me.
Even compared to the towering former Hotel Alcazar and Ponce de Leon Hotel (now the Lightner Museum and Flagler College, respectively) across the street, Casa Monica’s Moorish Revival style evokes the feeling of entering an ancient castle. Indeed, its builder, Franklin W. Smith, was greatly inspired by Moorish structures, including the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. After building his Villa Zorayda estate in St. Augustine in 1883, Smith became interested in constructing a hotel in the area. Industrialist Henry Flagler sold him the land on which he built Casa Monica, which debuted on New Year’s Day 1888.
But Flagler had already opened the Ponce de Leon, and Casa Monica failed to turn a profit. It went through several iterations, including as an annex to the Hotel Alcazar in the early 1900s and as the St. Johns County Courthouse in the 1960s. (A courthouse memorial is still present under the Casa Monica sign at the request of state historic preservation officials.) Hotelier Richard Kessler purchased and restored the property in 1997, and it reopened as Casa Monica Resort & Spa in December 1999.
The hotel’s history is notable enough to be mentioned on the hop-on, hop-off trolley tour I took with my mom and sisters on our first day in the city. The concierge secured our tickets, with stop number ten conveniently located across the street at the Lightner Museum. It was an ideal way to explore the city for my mom, who has mobility issues, and for us, her three daughters who prefer to explore any hot Florida city with our hair blowing in the breeze.
A walkable city waiting to be explored, St. Augustine is the type of place where people check into their hotel and immediately exit to head out on the town. But Casa Monica goes a long way to build the kind of atmosphere that makes people want to stay on property. Though the powder-sand shores of one of my favorite beaches in the state, Anastasia State Park, were just a five-minute drive away, we treated ourselves to the comforts of the outdoor heated pool and hot tub, where I took snapshots of our first family vacation in ages on a portable camera. My mom never smiles in photos, but she did in every one of these. Another reason to smile: our meal at Costa Brava, the hotel’s tapas-style Mediterranean restaurant nodding to St. Augustine’s strong Spanish influence.
After washing off the Florida humidity, we dressed for dinner and headed downstairs to the restaurant. We shared the seafood paella (only available on Fridays and Saturdays), and I ordered the Spanish Caesar salad and chicken with sherry-glazed mushrooms. Though the restaurant has an impressive wine collection, we opted for cocktails, including the Lavender 75 with Hendrick’s gin, lavender syrup, lemon and prosecco; the Smoked Blood Orange Margarita, with Ilegal mezcal, Solerno blood-orange liqueur, lime and agave; and the Costa Sangria, with Malbec, lemon, orange, simple syrup and brandy.
The next morning, as we waited for our luggage out front, I snapped one more photo of my mom in her wide-brim hat in front of the hotel facade. When I got the film developed, this became my favorite image: my mom looking away from the camera and flashing yet another smile with the golden letters of Casa Monica glowing above her head. Now framed in her living room, it is a reminder of a weekend that came and went, but its sweet memories continue to linger.