As you all know by know, I love kitschy roadside attractions, and what could be more kitschy than drinking out of the famed Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine? I had visited the 15 acre attraction in 2007 with my dad. I don’t remember much from that day nine years ago, but two things did stick with me. One was watching Dad drink the famed waters. Disgust was written on my face as I imagined him getting a parasite from the spring water instead of everlasting youth. I declined to partake on that trip. The other memory is the open grassy space that led to the waterfront that was dotted with historic cannons. I was left unimpressed.
Nine years later I approached the live oak lined street and came face to face with the same stone arch proclaiming I had arrived at The Fountain of Youth. The beauty of the street and arch had me reevaluating everything I thought I knew about this place.
We entered the park and walked right up to our first encounter with Juan Ponce de Leon and struck our best conquistador pose. Then we met with, Kit Keating, our tour guide for the morning. One thing is true about Kit; he has such a passion for this place it was impossible not to get excited as he told us the history.
One thing that I noticed on all of the marketing materials for Juan Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park was their slogan, “Where legend meets history.” And while Kit did point out the famed waters that we could drink later, he focused more on the history aspect.
As we walked towards the waterfront, what I remembered as an open field nine years earlier was transformed. History was literally unearthed before my eyes. In the years since my visit, it had been discovered that this 15 acres of land actually held the true origins of the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement.
This area, once called Seloy, was inhabited by the Timucuan Indians who gifted part of their settlement to Pedro Menedez de Aviles upon his arrival in 1565, thus establishing the oldest settlement in the country.
To honor Seloy and the Timicuan roots, there is also a replica of many of the buildings one would have found in the Timucuan village Menedez encountered. At this point for me, history was overshadowing the legend of Ponce de Leon.
Kit left us to explore on our own, and we headed to the weapons demonstration where first we were introduced to the quiet crossbow and then overpowered by the booming cannon which could have hit the Bridge of Lions about a mile away. Both demonstrations were preceded by historical significance and use.
Next it was time to hit the namesake of the park. We entered the building housing the spring claiming everlasting youth. Each of us with a plastic cup in hand sipped on the water; which to be honest, was actually refreshing on a 96+ degree day. I think I drank three cupfuls before we headed to the Discovery Globe for a 20 minute reprieve from the oppressive heat.
As we wound up our day, it ended up being the perfect mix of legend and history; in fact, I really love how they have played up their archaeological significance instead of the fictitious explorations of Juan Ponce de Leon. Fun fact: while Ponce de Leon did discover “La Florida” his ties with his search for the fountain of youth were not established until after his death.
Even though I loved learning so much about Florida’s history, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my absolute favorite part of the day was seeing the peacocks with their tails spread open calling to potential mates. Like blue and white snowflakes, they floated around the grounds earning their monikers of the proud peacock.
Unlike nine years ago, I walked back through the arch and into the live oak lined street with a renewed sense of respect for this little attraction. While holding true to their kitschy origins, legend has truly met history, and I think both Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez de Aviles would be proud as the peacocks roaming the grounds at this park.
Thanks to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park for hosting me. All opinions are my own.