Pirate Soul in St. Augustine
A new Pirate Museum in America’s oldest city features plenty of peg legs and buried treasure but maintains its historical accuracy through a partnership with University of Florida.
by Shannon O’Neil
Tucked against the broad Atlantic coastline of Northeast Florida, St. Augustine packs 448 years of history into just under 10 square miles of cobblestone streets. From Spanish conquistadors to Civil Rights leaders, nearly every street corner comes with its own designation in the pages of a history book.
Growing up in the midst of so many cultural landmarks, I’ve watched the city’s museums and attractions evolve over the last few decades. Hoping to connect with the five million visitors who pass through the city each year, St. Augustine’s tourist-y institutions have struggled to find a happy medium between historical accuracy and entertainment value.
Enter Pat Croce.
The boisterous entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former Philadelphia 76ers president arrived in St. Augustine with fresh ideas (and the budget to back it up) in 2010. He brought with him an impressive personal collection of pirate artifacts previously housed at his Key West museum, Pirate Soul. Seeking a new location with actual pirate history, Croce purchased and remodeled a piece of prime real estate in the historic district.
On my first visit to the museum, I passed through the front doors prepared for heavy eye-rolling and the type of peg-leg pirates popular in current commercial lore. But I was pleased to discover the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum is not a corny blight on my city. Croce’s impressive personal collection of pirate artifacts includes gold, silver, grenades, guns, a 400 year-old treasure chest and one of only three surviving Jolly Roger flags in the world. Combined with items recovered from shipwrecks off Florida’s coast (currently on loan from the Florida Division of Historical Resources) the museum’s artifacts and the stories behind them are genuinely interesting, and notable pirates Sir Francis Drake and Robert Searles are both well documented.
But where the museum really excels in merging history with entertainment is in creating a truly interactive experience. From each visitor’s first steps through the cobblestone paths of Port Royale to the immaculate woodwork of the Rogue’s Tavern and the spinning helm on the Main Deck, Croce and his team created a multi-dimensional sensory experience. Museum explorers can flip through a virtual book of notorious pirates on a touchscreen, test their noses to guess the cargo items carried by pirate vessels and use the interactive map in the Captain’s Cabin to watch short videos where Croce himself gives guests a tour of former pirate strongholds in the Caribbean.
But the most captivating sensory exploration is a tiny compartment behind the Gun Deck where Disney Imagineers created a complete 3D sound experience. With headphones on, the dark room suddenly becomes the cargo hold of Blackbeard’s ship during his final battle. Exploding cannon balls, heavy footsteps and dangerously close splashes keep guests jumping through the three-minute show.
Each of these experiences transforms simple displays of historical events to fit Croce’s No. 1 goal for the museum – to create memories. Croce wants every visitor to the museum to leave with not only a new bit of historical knowledge, but with a lasting memory of a good day spent in St. Augustine.
That same sentiment is magnified for the pirate museum’s neighbor, Croce’s second endeavor in the Ancient City. The newly revamped Colonial Quarter takes tourists straight off the streets of 2013 and casts them backward in time, to life as it was in St. Augustine’s early days. Spread over a city block, the campus covers three segments of Ancient City history starting with 16th century arrival of Spanish conquistadors and travelling forward in time to the 18th century occupations of the British and the second Spanish reign.
Inside the coquina walls, musket drills take place at the garrison’s office while the neighborhood blacksmith forges his latest work over a blazing fire. Next door in the 16th century settlement, an interactive archaeological dig site overlooks a 50-foot wooden caravel under construction by an actual ship builder. In fact, all the craftsmen on the property are highly skilled in their trade of choice. When they’re not giving demonstrations, they build and maintain the Quarter’s structures from the hand-forged hinges to the intricate woodwork.
But the leather working, musket drills and climb to the top of a 17th century watchtower are just the beginning of the Colonial Quarter experience. Tastebuds deserve a trip back in time, too, and they can get their fill in one of the Quarter’s two restaurants on property.
Inside the Bull & Crown Pub on the British colony side, visitors can enjoy a pint of their favorite brew along with some delicious beer cheese soup or blue cheese topped kettle chips. Just down the path past the sunflower garden in the Spanish side of the settlement, the Taberna Del Caballo (pictured below) offers delicious seafood flatbread, hot Cuban sandwiches and refreshing glasses of red or white sangria.
Both restaurants provide a completely immersive, cultural experience. From the waitstaff in traditional attire to the flickering candelabras, every detail of both eateries was crafted with care to provide not only the tastes, but the ambiance of ancient times. Even the kitchen is minimal and as close to authentic as modern needs will allow – there are no deep fryers to be found.
Much of the authenticity in the Colonial Quarter is due to a unique partnership forged between Croce and the nearby University of Florida. A board of historians at the university worked closely with Croce’s team during the quarter’s new construction to ensure the entertainment factor did not overshadow the history represented within.
The end result was well worth the effort of both parties. Visitors to the Colonial Quarter aren’t subjected to the boring, vanilla halls and encased history exhibits – they are part of the action. Much like Croce’s multi-dimensional sensory experience at the pirate museum, the Quarter pulls guests from the spectator’s seats and makes them part of the storyline during three centuries of American culture.
When nightfall comes, the historical journey doesn’t end.
Under the shaded canopy of a sprawling live oak, visitors are treated to a variety show that gives lively color to St. Augustine’s history. Featuring singing, dancing, gunfire and magic, the Colonial Crew Revue is suitable for kids, but still enjoyable for adults. Certain scenes take the cast members into the audience, where unsuspecting viewers are invited to join the fun. Though it’s a fictional tale of a young Spanish Romeo-type hiding from the wrath of East Florida’s governor, the story still incorporates the daily life and familiar landmarks of St. Augustine’s 16th century.
In a short time, Croce’s nearly two blocks of St. Augustine attractions have dramatically raised the bar for the rest of the historic district. From pirates and treasure to blacksmiths and pubs, the Nation’s Oldest City has a new caliber of entertainment venues that still honor the area’s rich past.
And for this local, it’s a welcomed source of pride.
St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum is open from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Admission is $12.99 for adults and $6.99 for children (those under 5 get in free). Colonial Quarter admission is the same price, with tickets to both attractions priced at $21.99 for adults and $11.99 for children. Revue tickets are $29.99 for adults and $14.99 for children.
Photo Credits: Main deck and treasure chest courtesy of Pirate & Treasure Museum; all other photos by Shannon O’Neil.
Shannon O’Neil is a native of St. Augustine and author of novels highlighting some of the colorful characters and cities tucked away in The Sunshine State. Read her essay on Florida’s Identity Crisis here and account of St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights holiday attraction here. Look for her newest novel “Killer Shine” in September.