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.
Pirate devotees have fun but take historical accuracy seriously. In St. Augustine, they were a friendly, welcoming bunch. I felt right at home even though this was my first festival.
My pirate journey ended with an inspiring weekend getting to know some of the nice folks who attended the St. Augustine Pirate Gathering, many of whom were part of a larger pirate community from across the country. About 5,000 people participated in the festival that took place in November.
For some, it's a lifestyle and a chance to leave behind everyday routine for a little role play, bedecked in gorgeous costumes. But it's also a public forum of sorts to learn about maritime history and culture. After visiting pirate-related locations for almost a whole week, it was truly something special to see that history come alive with other pirate enthusiasts and devotees.
The festival, then in its fourth year, set up on a field by the old Spanish Quarter and featured an all-day program for school-aged kids, a pub crawl and evening bash for grownups, a parade, battle reenactments, sword play, canon firings, music, dancing, entertainers and vendors selling pirate wares. There was even a letters of marque ceremony, presided over by the St. Augustine Royal Family, which claims lineage back to Spanish nobility. (A letter of marque is the official document of government-sanctioned piracy. Many pirates were independent, but some were privateers working for a nation's boss.)
This particular festival prides itself in authenticity, so many visitors were sporting truly spectacular garb and accessories. I felt naked not carrying a weapon or my own tankard for drinks!
This strapping pirate posed for me at the Castillo de San Marcos. Back in the day, pirates would never have been welcome here, of course.
It's not uncommon to see people walk around St. Augustine's Spanish quarter in period costumes on a regular basis as there are many reenactment activities in town. But on this particular weekend, the cobblestoned streets were crawling with pirates, providing non-pirate visitors with an extra thrill. If you were in costume, chances are someone asked you to take a photograph. It happened to me several times; I never stepped out of my hotel room in regular clothes.
And while there was much revelry and a spirit of shenanigans, none of it was over the top crazy -- St. Augustine's bars close at 2 a.m. I'll never forget the experience of walking through those quiet streets at night with a special pirate friend I made over the weekend ... or another wonderful moment just sitting on the sea wall at the Castillo de San Marcos on a beautiful cool but sunny day, gazing out into the bay, watching the Lynx Privateer sail by. (The ship is a gorgeous reproduction of a War of 1812 naval schooner and was docked in St. Augustine during its tour.)
So while the festival itself was bustling with activity, it was also possible to enjoy the old quarter in a leisurely way.
The Lynx Privateer sailing on the Matanzas River, as seen from the Castillo de San Marcos. That's Anastasia Island in the background.
The Pirate Gathering isn't just a good time; proceeds go to maritime education for kids. Read more about the cause in my interview with Captain Tom from the Crew of the Black Heart.
Enjoy the photos below.
A couple of pirates relax on the seawall at The Castillo de San Marcos. Many non-pirate visitors were doing the same. The reenacters at the fort were firing canons that afternoon. (Not real canons, mind you.)
The Brigands played fun, catchy music. They describe themselves thusly: "The Brigands be a musical minded group, performing songs, Sea Shanties and tunes, lore and fact, from the Golden Age of Piracy, 1650-1750 and beyond."
Drinking sangria at the Taberna del Gallo is good for you. This was a popular spot for pirates over the weekend.
Pirates gathered at the Taberna for music and song. Pictured here: Nasty Nate Cole on the concertina, member of Rusty Cutlass, a pirate band from Central Florida.
This lovely lass was one of the gathering organizers.
These nuns were part of a comedy troupe called Nun for the Road. Even a pirate deserves to go to heaven.
The Buccaneer Bash featured elaborate table settings and pirates dressed to the nines.
Pirates were savvy in recycling. Carry your own beverage container and don't pollute the environment with plastic cups or bottles!
More pirates at the Buccaneer Bash in their sartorial splendor.
A photo opp ship. The couple running it hailed from South Florida.
Vendors sold everything for your pirate needs.
This pirate wench, a resident of the Florida Keys, called herself Caribbean Pearl and wore elaborate costumes all weekend long. In case you're wondering what pirate needs are, look at everything that's hanging from her belt.
RANDOM FUN STUFF
Bilgemonkey, who runs an excellent pirate website and acted as festival DJ, wrote a detailed recap of the event at After Action Report.
Pirate Fashions N Fotos is a fun store in St. Augustine featuring a full photo studio with props. Take an individual or group portrait in your garb or theirs. Costumes, weapons and accessories are also available for purchase.
If you love pirates, the best weekend to visit St. Augustine is during the Pirate Gathering. But the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum is also open year-round and is a must. See my interview with Pat Croce, the museum's founder.
Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, Florida's Historic Coast and Hilton St. Augustine for supporting this part of the journey.