Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.
PAT CROCE - PIRATE ENTHUSIAST EXTRAORDINAIRE
After four days of learning as much as I could about pirates on the east coast of Florida, I finally arrived in St. Augustine, just in time to interview Pat Croce, founder of the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. The museum used to be located in Key West but found a new home in the nation's oldest city, which is fitting, considering that St. Augustine was a strategic port and subject to pirate raids during its Spanish history.
Pat Croce is a modern-day renaissance man -- he's done everything from pioneering work in sports medicine, to serving as president of the Philadelphia 76ers and working as author and motivational speaker. But it's his passion for pirates, which he has cultivated since childhood, as well as his boundless and infectious enthusiasm on the subject, that inspired the museum. Over the years, he has collected authentic artifacts from all over the world, many of which are on display at the museum.
The museum was still under construction when I interviewed Croce. As busy as he was, he took a few minutes to speak with me. I think it was this conversation that really "hooked" me on pirate history. There's a real personal passion behind this museum; it's no ordinary attraction.
As fate would have it, I would return to St. Augustine in January during which time I had an opportunity to tour the museum fully completed and open to the public.
Located across the street from the fort (the Castillo de San Marcos, completed in 1695), the museum brings pirate history to life with beautiful displays, theatrical lighting, sounds and even smells. It's an interesting, more high-tech complement to St. Augustine's historic Spanish quarter, which is already a rich destination for authentic living history experiences.
Give yourself at least two leisurely hours to see and read everything -- interactive displays feature touch screens and video, making it easy to learn quite a bit of "serious" history in a fun way. Kids will love this, but so will grown ups. And while it has some magic touches by Disney Imagineers, it's not Disney in a kitschy way.
I especially enjoyed the replica of Port Royal, a prosperous yet decadent city in Jamaica that earned a reputation as the Caribbean's wickedest. Port Royal was also an infamous pirate stronghold and was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1692.
The Rogue's Tavern features paintings of many famous pirates, some of whom had dealings in Florida, including Andrew Ranson, who escaped execution in 1684 and helped build the fort across the street and Louis Aury, a French corsair who controlled Amelia Island just north of St. Augustine in 1817.
Particularly fascinating are photos from an archeological dig that prove English privateer Sir Francis Drake burned St. Augustine down to the ground in 1586. But Drake would not be the only unwelcome Englishman. In 1668, another privateer, Robert Searles, sacked the town, murdered residents and ransomed hostages. Those he considered not of pure Spanish blood were selected to be sold as slaves in the Caribbean. It was this raid that prompted Spain to build the fort that would eventually protect its interests in Florida.
This museum was definitely one of the highlights of my pirate journey. Not only was I standing on ground zero of past pirate attacks, but I could really connect the dots -- the Caribbean, the Spanish Main, riches and treasures, pirates, politics and war -- all of it deeply part of Florida and the amazing city of St. Augustine.
RANDOM FUN STUFF
History Miami museum did an exhibit about the Jamaican City of Port Royal in 2007. Read more about it at Miami Beach 411.
If you recall my Treasure Coast segment, Henry Jennings, who raided the sunken Spanish 1715 fleet, hailed from Port Royal. And speaking of the Treasure Coast, some jewels and artifacts on display at St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum are on loan from The Florida Division of Historical Resources. Chances are, some of those were probably salvaged from watery depths by Florida treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
How well do you know your pirate history? Follow the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum on Twitter and Facebook for weekly contests.
Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, Florida's Historic Coast and Hilton St. Augustine for supporting this part of the journey.
PHOTO CREDIT: St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum