The hundreds of retirees and bemoaners of winter are not the first to have journeyed to Florida in search of some great treasure. But before the Magical Kingdom set up shop and the retirement communities took root, one man in particular came searching.
Juan Ponce de León was one of the great Spanish explorers during the late 15th century and into the early 16th century. In the early 1490s, he was an accomplished soldier who saw action during the battles against the Moors in Granada and other conflicts in reclaiming Spain. With the control of Spain back in the hands of the Spanish monarchy, Ponce de León was in search for a new career. He joined Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World where they discovered Puerto Rico. In time, Ponce de León would lead many expeditions of the island and eventually became governor. His political career lasted less than three years and he soon returned to exploration.
In 1512, King Ferdinand of Spain (of Ferdinand and Isabella fame) gave Ponce de León a contract to search for the Islands of Benimy. A year later, he would land in Florida and claim it for Spain. He named it Florida since it was the Easter season, which the Spanish call Pascua Florida (Feast of Flowers).
The Islands of Benimy that Ponce de Leon searched for were supposed to hold another treasure more unique than natural resources. That would be the Fountain of Youth. As far back as the ancient Greeks, age-restoring waters have always been sought after. During the Age of Exploration, the mysterious Benimy was said to hold the Fountain of Youth. Though Ponce de Leon did not mention the Fountain of Youth in any of his writings, this has not dissuaded countless people from tying him to the legend.
No site takes advantage of this unconfirmed connection better than the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Here you can wander through the reconstructed Timucuan village and walk out to the location where Ponce de Leon is said to have landed and claimed the area for Spain. The first stop for most visitors is the Discovery Globe building. Here you can follow the many journeys of early explorers of North America and Florida. On a busy day, it fills up quickly so it might take you a few tries to get in. In the Planetarium, you will be able to see the stars as they were in 1513.
In an unremarkable building, lies the fabled Fountain of Youth. Mannequins of Juan Ponce de León, dressed in his conquistador regalia, and the friendly Timucuan tribal members stand over the bubbling spring. An employee stands nearby, offering free samples of the supposed elixir which has a bitter sulfur taste. In the corner is a sort of Hall of Fame, framed pictures of the famous people who have visited the Fountain of Youth. After tasting the magical waters, it doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence as you view the famous visitors. Quite a few are dead (Bob Hope, Gregory Peck). And one even disappeared off the face of the earth (Amelia Earhart). Not very reassuring!
With its wide open lawns, the park is a perfect place to bring a picnic and soak up the Florida sun. There are peacocks all around the grounds. You may even hear a rustling above and find some peacocks perched in the high oak tree branches.
A visit to the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is something you have to do when visiting St. Augustine. It is a stop on the trolleys that take you all around the city and it’s an entertaining way to spend a hour.
For more information, visit http://www.fountainofyouthflorida.com/.