Juan Ponce de Leon waded to shore with his men. It had been the first stretch of sandy beach he had seen in a long time- but it was the the palm huts that had caught his attention. Nestled among the thick vegetation, the huts almost blended into the scenery. Where there was civilization- there was food- and water. He and his men approached the settlement with caution. A young native girl gave out a shout and ran towards them carrying a hollowed out gourd. Water sloshed from the gourd as she stopped before him. She lifted the gourd to him, a gift to the new-comers. Juan took the gourd and lifted it to his lips. The water was cool and sweet- unlike any other he had ever tasted. He knew he had to see the source of this unique water.
The year was 1513. It was Easter-time and the Spanish explorer had become the first Florida Spring Hunter.
Florida’s Fountain of Youth
Whether that was how Ponce de Leon’s first visit to Florida began will always remain a mystery, but somewhere down a long shady avenue of oaks, tucked behind a wall of coquina in the northeastern coastal corner of Florida quietly sits one of the most important sites in American history.
This place remains shrouded in shadows, forgotten by textbooks, colored with a kitschy past, and overshadowed by the louder colonial settlements further north. The original settlement of St. Augustine was founded 42 years prior to Jamestown, and yet schoolchildren will spend months and many DBAs (document based assignments) focused on the Virginia colony, while this tiny corner stoically stands in silence, wrapped in mystery, history, and legends: Florida’s Fountain of Youth.
Finding History at the Fountain of Youth
The Fountain of Youth is argued to be Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, with guest-book signings that date back to 1868. But the truth of the matter is that this quiet little corner of northeastern Florida has been welcoming visitor’s since the 1500’s. There is a mineral-rich water source on the land- though whether Ponce de Leon was in search of rejuvenating life-waters of the Fountain of Youth during his expedition from Puerto Rico in 1513, or he was just happy to have any fresh-water after a long sail has been the subject of many debates.
Ponce de Leon- Florida’s First (non-native) Spring Hunter?
What Juan Ponce de Leon did find, however, was the Timucuan Indian settlement of Seloy and potable water bubbling from the ground in what was considered a wild and hostile landscape- making the Fountain of Youth Florida’s first spring discovered by Europeans. Excavations at the Fountain of Youth archaeological park uncovered evidence of the Timucua being there since 24,000 BC, so the Spanish explorer was actually a very late arrival to the party. Later in 1565 Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed on that same popular spot and founded the original city of St. Augustine on the Timucua Seloy site- (and problems with the locals ensued, as would be expected, and tragedies followed). The rest is, as they say, history.
Young Again at the Fountain of Youth
Although the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park gives a nod to the original old Florida attraction past in the coquina buildings of the Discovery Globe Theater, Spring House, the Timucuan Burial House, and the Navigator’s Planetarium, it’s the parks newer interactive additions that have garnered a younger-set of explorer’s interests.
These latest exhibit areas allow visitors to step back through time and fully experience America’s oldest settlement, while learning some important lessons of the past. Reenactors are hand to guide you back through time- and help re-define the notion of boring history-lessons.
You can wander through a Timucuan village, a nod to the original native Indian settlement of Seloy and explore the interior of an ‘anoti’ family hut, or a ‘nihi paha’ traditional meeting place and learn about fishing and farming techniques used thousands of years ago.
Climb the steps of the reconstructed Franciscan Nombre de Dios Mission church for a birds eye-view of the cypress and palm interior.
Visit the iron-mongers for a lesson in forging, the boat-builders to learn the art of wood-bending and the gun-smith to witness a musket firing.
At the Spanish watchtower the Spanish soldiers fire their cannon on the hour. You can learn the art of ax-throwing or all about the crossbow.
Climb the watchtower or take a stroll along the Founders Riverwalk for views that will make you realize why so many people wanted to call this little corner of Florida home.
Drinking the Waters of the Fountain of Youth
I first visited The Fountain of Youth as a gawky teenager. It had been a kitschy tourist attraction back then, and my parents piled my siblings and I into our station wagon for the drive to St. Augustine. I remember how excited we all were- and how we joked about turning into babies if we drank the water. The water smelled like rotten eggs. My dad assured us that it was sulfur- not eggs. Out of bravado, and wanting to out-do my sisters, I downed the water from the little dixie-cup. The 30+ minerals in the water give it that unique flavor. Like kissing the Blarney Stone, it’s that one thing you have to do if you are visiting St. Augustine- try those mythical eternal waters.
Though none of us reversed our aging that day, people do comment on how young I look, even to this day 😉
Today you can still taste the waters of the Fountain of Youth- it’s included in your admission fee, and if you want to take some home, they sell bottles of it in the gift shop. The water still comes directly from the Florida aquifer, but because of dropped pressure in the aquifer, it no longer bubbles up as it would have done when Ponce de Leon set foot on the land. Now they pump it up and filter it, making it more palatable- so you’ll be getting the same mineral rich water without having to suffer that sulfury-taste.
Things to Know Before You Go:
- The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is located at 11 Magnolia Ave, St. Augustine, Florida 32084
- They are open from 9 am to 6 pm 7-days a week.
- Parking is free.
- Admission fees: Adults $15; Seniors 60+ $14; Kids 6-12 $9; Under 5 free. Additional discounts are available for AAA, military, and local-area residents.
- Your drink from the Fountain of Youth is included in admission 😉
- This is a pet-friendly park, but leashes are required and their 30-or-so peacocks roam freely.
- This park is included in all of the St. Augustine tour trolley stops.
About St. Augustine
This 450+ year old city has been welcoming explorers from around the world for centuries. Located on Florida’s Historic Coast, St. Augustine offers sunshine state fun for everyone. With a fort, a walk-able historic district, museums, golf courses, restaurants, shops, local art, and beaches in every direction, it’s the perfect destination for a Florida getaway.
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