There are not many places where you can get a free boat ride. But you can get one at Fort Matanzas, and even though the ride is short, it’s worth taking.
The historic Spanish fort, finished in 1742, sits on Rattlesnake Island in the Matanzas River, 14 miles south of St. Augustine.
A National Monument, it’s accessible only by boat, so a free National Park Service ferry shuttles visitors there eight times a day from the visitor center on Florida A1A.
The coquina fort has historic cannons, two observation decks, a soldiers quarters and an officers quarters that you can explore.
It’s a pleasant First Coast excursion – an adventure – a mini trip back in time.
Protecting the Inlet
After boarding the 35-passenger ferry one recent day, I enjoyed the balmy breeze that blew off the Matanzas River during the five-minute trip over.
After we landed, we followed ranger Jill Leverett up a short path to the fort, and then climbed stairs to the first level, where we had a sweeping view of the Matanzas Inlet.
Next, Leverett ushered us through a short doorway into quarters where Spanish soldiers were once stationed. After my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I saw side-by-side cots, a small fireplace and a wooden dining table.
“What do you think – pretty cozy?” Leverett said. “Do you think you could stay here a month?”
That was the typical length of duty for Spanish soldiers, she said.
An eight minute film in the visitors’ center gives an overview of the history of the fort, and since it has been restored to the way it looked when it was built, it’s easy to imagine what life was like for the soldiers who served there.
After Spain founded St. Augustine in 1565, the city was vulnerable to attack from pirates and European enemies, so a large fort called the Castillo de San Marcos was built on the bay front in 1695. Spain built Fort Matanzas to protect the back side of St. Augustine because enemies could get to the city by sailing through the Matanzas Inlet and up the river.
Matanzas means “slaughters,” and the Spanish captured and killed French invaders in that area before the fort was built. After it was completed, “it was very effective, because no one ever invaded or captured the inlet,” Leverett said.
The monument park is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas. The ferry sails every hour, weather permitting, from 9:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
After the ranger talk on the first level, visitors are free to explore the second and third levels on their own. Steps lead to officers’ quarters on the second floor. From there, you can climb a narrow wooden ladder to the top observation deck.
I highly recommend the climb up the ladder, if you are able. It’s worth the view. You can see for miles in every direction – just like the soldiers did.
The fort is usually open on two evenings a year for special Torchlight Tours, one in January and one in February.
For those events, reservations are necessary and there is a small charge for the ferry ride.
On January 18, Torchlight Tours will leave at 6:00 p.m. / 6:45 p.m. / 7:30 p.m. / 8:15 p.m.
A tentative date for February 15 has also been set, with tours departing at the same times.
The night tours are unique because there is no electricity on the island, so it is lit by torches and lanterns, and fires in the fireplaces. Volunteers dressed as colonial Spanish soldiers give the tours.
For more information or reservations, contact National Park Service rangers at 904-471-0116.