There are a lot of restaurants around the world that boast strange and dramatic settings: the top of the Eiffel Tower, a double-decker bus in London … But one of the strangest may be the Cafe Alcazar, in St. Augustine, Florida: where else can you dine in style at the bottom of a swimming pool?
How the Cafe came to be there is a story that stretches all the way back to the Gilded Age, in the late 1800s, and involves one of North America’s greatest builders. Back in 1889, Henry Flagler, the man who turned Florida into the nation’s playground, decided to build a second hotel across the street from his lavish Hotel Ponce de Leon in downtown St. Augustine. The hotel he built was the Alcazar, modelled after the royal palace in Seville, Spain. And in its way, it was just as classic as the Ponce de Leon.
The Alcazar was both a hotel and an entertainment centre, with almost every facility a lady or gentleman of the 1880s could want: a gym, a bowling alley, tennis courts, both Russian and Turkish baths, a casino — and a pool. In fact, it had the biggest indoor pool in the United States.
The pool was a technical marvel, as well, with balconies people could dive from and a glass roof that could be raised to let out the smell of sulphur from the local water (here’s a photo displayed in the Cafe). The pool was used for all kinds of events, from swimming championships to pool parties — one party featured a gondola floating in the water.
But all good things come to an end, and by 1930 the Alcazar Hotel closed its doors and the pool was drained. But the building was later resurrected and transformed into the Lightner Museum, a showcase of art and artifacts from the Golden Age. And in the deep end of the pool there appeared the Cafe Alcazar, serving lunch to museum goers in a setting that’s elegant, nostalgic and at the same time a bit unreal
Siting in the cafe, you’re surrounded by the handsome balconies and arches where ladies and gentlemen once looked down from all sides. But beneath your feet is the concrete floor that swimmers’ feet once touched. Dream a little and you can imagine them swimming above you, leaving little ripples in the clear water of the pool.
St. Augustine has more than a few surprises for the casual traveller, from stories of pirates and conquistadors to a lively bar and restaurant scene. But even in a place with a history dating back to the 1500s, it’s hard to beat the restaurant at the bottom of the pool.
& The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, on this trip