Happy 500th Birthday, Florida: Let’s visit St. Augustine

For the record, water from the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine tastes like Hell, as in the “sulfurous pits of…,” thanks to its origins in Florida’s notoriously sulfur-laced artesian springs.

One retch-inducing sip and you’re thinking: Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for this?

Well, no.

It’s just one of many myths surrounding the legendary 16th century Spanish explorer whose name is commemorated everywhere in Florida, on subdivisions, a Panhandle town, the inlet near Daytona Beach as well as roads throughout the state.

Here’s what is true about Ponce de Leon: on April 3, 1513 — 500 years ago this spring — he first planted his boots on what would become a Florida beach.

In Juan Ponce’s honor, the state has kicked off a year-long celebration of his landing called Viva Florida 500. In 2015, the focus shifts to the 450th birthday of St. Augustine, the country’s oldest European settlement. (Take that, Jamestown and Plymouth.)

Florida’s quincentenary makes a good time to re-visit this breezy city along Mantanzas Bay, where history has steeped into the coquina walls and brick streets, while also clearing up misconceptions about this fabled figure of Florida history, Juan Ponce de Leon.

For example, he named Florida but he didn’t discover it. Native Americans accomplished that 12,000 years earlier.

Nor was he looking for a mythical fountain that restores youth. Like other explorers, Ponce de Leon had one thing on his mind: new lands and greater riches, especially during his 1513 voyage. Recently removed from his post as governor of Puerto Rico, he was hoping new discoveries would restore his reputation, say historians.

But Juan Ponce had a discoverer’s understanding that history remembers those who name and claim.

During Easter week five centuries ago, he came ashore on what he thought was a beautiful island. Naming it, “La Florida – The Flowering Land,” he claimed it for Spain, making his the first documented visit of a European to the shores of what would become the United States.

But where did he first slosh ashore?

Historians say he and his three ships anchored somewhere along the roughly 200 miles between Cape Canaveral and the St. John’s River, south of Jacksonville.

St. Augustine has long polished its claims to the explorer.

The city’s Fountain of Youth, one of the state’s oldest tourist attractions, maintains a tongue-in-cheek connection to the most enduring legend surrounding the Spanish explorer. There’s the magnificent 125-year-old Ponce de Leon hotel built by Henry Flagler (now Flagler College). The city also boasts several statues of Ponce de Leon with a new one to be unveiled north of the city in March, where tourism officials claim the landing occurred.

If you haven’t visited in a while, you’ll find St. Augustine attempting to dilute the carnival culture that spawned attractions such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not in favor of a new authenticity.

“We’re trying to draw attention to this epic moment in American history,” said Dana Ste. Claire, St. Augustine’s tourism director. “Old World culture collided with the New World and changed the rest of the world forever. And it happened right here.”

Here’s a few places and events to see during Florida’s 500th birthday.

1. Castillo de San Marcos: North America’s only existing 17th century fort squats on the city’s eastern edge, complete with a moat, daily cannon firings and regular re-enactments. Walk in the footsteps of pirates, a trio of signers of the Declaration of Independence and Seminole Chief Osceola, imprisoned here at the end of the Second Seminole War. www.nps.gov/casa.

2. Picasso: Art & Arena: emphasizing the connection between Spain and St. Augustine, a collection of graphic works and ceramics from the Spanish master will be on display February 1 through May 11, at the St. Augustine Visitor Center. www.floridashistoriccoast.com.

3. Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College: Henry Flagler created Florida’s tourist industry by opening this spectacular hotel in 1888, whose Spanish Renaissance architecture romances the city’s history. Tours of the mammoth building are available most days at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., which include the dining hall with its 79 Tiffany windows. www.legacy.flagler.edu.

4. Aviles Street: Part of the original colonial town plan, the narrow brick street is the city’s oldest, with several house museums, restaurants and shops and a quaint European look. Don’t miss the 1798 Ximenez-Fatio House. Two blocks from the bay front, north of King Street.

5. The Oldest House, which isn’t but Father O’Reilly’s, which may be: The Oldest House Museum has been a St. Augustine tourist attraction since 1893, even before it was one of the first projects restored by the St. Augustine Historical Society. The early 1700s complex today interprets what the city was like for the city’s Spanish, English and finally, American residents through architecture and domestic life.

A short walk away, the Father O’Reilly House is actually older, built on a 1580 foundation with a wall dating from 1691, but the house, owned by the Catholic sisters of St. Joseph, is filled with a cluttered, mostly unlabeled collection of artifacts relating to the Church’s history in St. Augustine. Oldest House, 14 Francis St.; Father O’Reilly House, 32 Aviles St.

6. Fountain of Youth Archeological Park: Go for the authentic history, not the hokey magic fountain myth. University of Florida archaeologists have determined the first European settlement in North America was built here, near a Timucuan Indian village called Seloy. Privately owned, the archaeological site doesn’t offer much except shell rock outlines of the original buildings, but visitors can walk where researchers say the real first Thanksgiving occurred, when Pedro Menendez and his soldiers likely shared a meal of venison, squash and garbanzo beans with the Timucuans. www.fountainofyouthflorida.com.

7. Ponce de Leon Landing Re-enactment: King Carlos I of Spain has been invited to the celebration on April 3, which includes historically-clad re-enactors coming ashore on the downtown bay front, the dedication of a new 15-foot Ponce de Leon statue and a replica of Ponce de Leon’s baptismal font which will be dedicated at the city’s Cathedral Basilica. www.floridashistoriccoast.com

8. Sir Francis Drake’s Sacking of the City: On June 1, watch (or participate in, provided you’re properly costumed) a re-enactment of English pirate Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 sacking and burning of the colonial town. www.drakesraid.com.

9. The New Colonial Quarter: Step back in time when this living history compound re-opens in March, depicting the city in the 16th through 18th centuries. University of Florida historians are ensuring the accuracy of artisans’ shops selling period items, blacksmith and military demonstrations and the popular Taberna de Gallo restaurant. Also new, a 35-foot tall replica of a 17th century watchtower early residents used to watch for impending invasions.

10. Ft. Mose: Before it ran north, the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves aimed south, to the marshes of Spanish St. Augustine. Here, the first free black settlement of former slaves in what became the U.S. was founded in 1738.


St. Augustine is located off I-95, 41 miles south of Jacksonville, Fla., and is about a 6-hour drive from Atlanta.

The city’s hotels offer a wide variety of accommodations, including the beautifully-restored 1888 Casa Monica built by Henry Flagler, from $179. Many quaint B&Bs are tucked into historic neighborhoods near the Old City.

Go to www.FloridasHistoricCoast.com and www.staugustine-450.com for news about Florida’s 500th birthday and St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary; www.VivaFlorida.org has information about statewide events.