St. Augustine

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club
Ponte Vedra Inn & Club

Surrounded by inland waterways and the Atlantic Ocean in northeast Florida, the quiet St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra corridor reminds me of gourmet Neapolitan ice cream—a highly compelling triumvirate of flavors. The cultural, golf and beach venues are intertwined so well that groups can easily take advantage of all three to satisfy the most disparate groups.

There are 42 miles of uncrowded sandy beaches, endless nature and America’s earliest history in St. Augustine one hour from Jacksonville International. In neighboring Ponte Vedra, the amazing golf and peaceful communities have their own special blend of traditional white-picket Southern ambiance.

Cobblestone streets echo with the clip-clop of hooves from the horse carriages swishing past historical sites in St. Augustine. In the center of town, tall trees dripping with moss majestically frame magnificent 18th century Spanish Colonial buildings. Here, three charming Spanish Revival buildings have stood regal since the dawn of the locomotive: the 5-star Casa Monica Hotel; the ex-Ponce de Leon Hotel—now Flagler College; and the ex-Hotel Alcazar, which houses Lightner Museum.

The Lightner makes for an exceptional event venue inside a serene, spacious lobby perfect for receptions, like the one held by Conan O’Brien during Super Bowl in ‘05. I was enthralled by Smithsonian-quality collections such as the old hotel’s Turkish bath and steam room. Another interesting setting for groups, the Spanish Renaissance Ballroom Gallery overlooks the converted swimming pool where you dine in the deep end. I love the cathedral-like ambiance where you can hold catered dinners for groups up to 150, or fabulous evening receptions for 300.

Tour trains, the Fountain of Youth, old forts, ghost walks—it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the historical splendor of this ancient city brimming with so much to do for groups.

The new Pirate & Treasure Museum is filled with artifacts and interactive displays. Attendees can fire off cannons and relive Blackbeard’s final voyage. Use their outdoor courtyard or take over the entire museum for a group function up to 100, overlooking the 17th century bayfront fort and river. I was captivated by the museum quality as well as the passion of the owner, Pat Croche, who moonlights as a motivational speaker.

Also check out the event listings at the Saint Augustine Amphitheater and the new Ponte Vedra Concert Hall for entertainment and casual function space. The music is as eclectic as the area; Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, the B-52’s and Arturo Sandoval have all performed here lately.

You’ll also find a range of really great group dining options in and around St. Augustine. At Aunt Kate’s, you’ll find tented group space for 100 pax to feast on a Low Country BBQ right by the river at a very reasonable price.

In the old city, book the rustic Pizzalley’s Pizzeria and their full-service Chianti Room for handmade fare for groups up to 60 in a fun casual atmosphere.

For more formal events, the Moroccan-themed Casa Monica is the city’s 5-star Kessler hotel, offering today’s meeting delegates all the comforts of home with a flair for the exotic. Try the lightly breaded rings of calamari topped with Moroccan aioli and a blend of tomatoes, olives, asiago and spices at 95 Cordova, another great place for events and dine-arounds.

Ponte Vedra hits a sweet spot for golfers. This is home to the World Golf Hall of Fame, the PGA TOUR Academy and one of the most photographed holes in the world: the 17th “Island Green” at The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass (TPC). Drinking in the lush grounds and scenery, you may glimpse a pro casually teeing off from one of their two courses, including THE PLAYERS Stadium Course on the PGA circuit.

Rebuilt in 2007, the Mediterranean-style Clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass is ideal for meetings, receptions up to 1,000, dinners, tours, wine tasting and cooking classes around the PGA TOUR memorabilia. I was awed by the huge paintings in the 2-story lobby telling the story of many great moments in golf, while we toured the private pro-only locker room.

Putting labs, club fittings, hitting bays, private lessons and unique high-tech analysis systems provide expertise to groups, the public and pros alike. The TOUR Academy offers a unique and exceptional combination of personal or group instruction and state-of-the-art analysis.

Non-golfers are equally drawn into the beauty and history of the game. Delegates will be fascinated whether you offer group tours of the nearby World Golf Hall of Fame, host a reception for 1,000+, or dine as a group in their Shell Hall (220 plated). Interactive displays add a fun dimension; even if you’ve never held a driver you’ll want to try the golf simulator, or grab a putter and test your skills on their indoor green. Renting the museum gives you access to the entire space, on all floors including the Hall of Fame Tower.

Consider functions in the Tower for breathtaking views and a remarkable display of one-of-a-kind trophies. With the sun setting over the golf courses, up to 40 can dine and admire the displays here (60 for reception). I marveled at the delicate intricacies on four Wedgewood cups, imagining them hoisted by greats like Arnold Palmer. The food is divine; the Florida Orange Dream cake bursts with ‘creamsicle’ flavor.

For mid-size room blocks, The Renaissance Resort at World Golf Village just completed a $10 million renovation. You’ll appreciate the fresh open atrium and views of the Village and golf courses from the 301 rooms/suites. It’s walking distance to one of the two adjoining courses, and with 108 holes of golf within 15 minutes, your group can play a tournament or find time on their own on the greens. Up to 3,000 can meet in their largest ballroom, part of the total 40,000 sf of meeting space.

Look at booking the nearby Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Simply known as GTM NERR to locals, it offers a compact environmental educational center, nature trails, fishing, pristine beaches and a natural setting for horseback riding, kayaking, canoeing, bird watching, surfing and private night events. And I can’t tell you how exciting it was to witness a dolphin jumping so close to shore!

For old school elegance with a beachside ambiance, the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club is a historic property with a classic, old-Florida feel. Rich cypress beams high overhead anchor sparkling chandeliers reflecting off magnolia planks. The warm light is further enhanced by the fire in the Great Lounge.

Every room makes the most of this hypnotic seaside setting. Rhythmic waves breaking on shore lull me to sleep each night at this 5-diamond, 250-room resort. Large windows frame a picture-perfect scene only nature could have painted. You can walk directly onto the virtually private beach from the oversize oceanfront rooms. Plus, only private club members and hotel guests have access to the amenities: fine casual dining, golf, tennis and the area’s largest spa.

Lovely meeting rooms enhanced by natural light and stunning views will satisfy the most discerning. The 30,000 sf of meeting space accommodate up to 450, and you never feel far away from the culture, beaches and verdant greens.