There are probably not very many school children who haven’t learned of the Fountain of Youth’s pivotal role in America’s history. Back in the early 16th century when that audacious Spanish explorer named Ponce de Leon came to Florida’s shores, he was rumored to have been looking for a “fountain of youth” that would keep men (and women!) young forever. St. Augustine, Florida has played up this association since it became a tourist town, but it’s important to know what else you can find at this ancient site.
Unfortunately, that is all the Fountain of Youth is to many people; a myth and a legend. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park contains so much more than the fountain (although everyone *should* drink the offered cup of water from the spring, just to say they have). The park, located near attraction-laden San Marco Avenue in St. Augustine, is a beautiful escape from the souvenir stands and t-shirt shops in a few other parts of town. You can step off at the Fountain of Youth from one of the trolley tours or, if you’re lucky enough to stay at the Howard Johnson Express Inn as I was, you’ll be able to walk to the Fountain of Youth Park from there.
Before you even enter the park, you’ll be amazed at the natural beauty. Old trees join branches overhead to make the small street resemble an enclosed promenade. An old coquina wall (coquina is one of St. Augustine’s most well-known building components, comprised mostly of tiny seashells) runs the length of the park’s entrance. Once inside, you’ll hear the squawking of exotic birds that will transport you to the 16th century.
Back in 1513, before Ponce de Leon arrived, the site that is now the Fountain of Youth Park was inhabited by a Native American tribe, the Timucuans (pronounced TIM-uh-kwan or tim-UH-kwin, depending how you learn to say it). Much evidence of their occupation still exists, and you can find burial grounds, a huge statue of a former chief, Oriba, and exhibit areas that showcase everyday Native American objects.
Before beginning the tour, you can choose to stop for a bite to eat at the small lunch stand near the park’s entrance. Barbeque, chips, hamburgers and drinks are just some of the things sold here. Although I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the hamburgers, I do remember a tasty barbeque sandwich from one visit. To soak in the ambiance of Florida’s natural landscape, sit in one of the covered swings scattered around the lunch stand and enjoy nature. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll certainly see a lot of it here.
One of the things that makes the Fountain of Youth so special is the soft Spanish music piped throughout the park. As you walk among fountains, shaded pathways and calling peacocks, you hear these tunes that are very calming. This was definitely one of my favorite parts of the experience. If you walk down to the park’s boundaries, you will find the spot of the original colony, occupied from September 1565 to April 1566. It’s amazing to realize Europeans actually lived in America so many centuries ago. A marker to one of Menendez’s forts, San Juan de Pinos (Saint John of the Pines) shows the military strength the Spaniards strived to harness. This fort was burned by England’s Sir Francis Drake in the 1586, as the marker states.
At the site of the original settlement you’ll find a huge body of water, much calmer than the untamed Atlantic Ocean found nearby (from Anastasia Island). This is the Matanzas Bay, and its history is ominous. In 1565, France wanted parts of the New World for themselves, but the Spanish were not going to allow this infraction. The French Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, was the Frenchmen’s home base. In September 1565, when Fort Caroline was attacked by Spanish soldiers, some survivors made it to what is now present-day Anastasia Island, but they were slain by Menendez and his men. The Spanish name “matanzas,” which translates as “slaughters,” was given to this grim and bloody spot and the name still marks the bay that runs between Anastasia Island and St. Augustine.
On the way back from the original settlement, you will want to stop in at the extraordinary gift shop, affectionately known as Don Juan’s. Ship models, a big clothing selection, bottled Fountain water, picture frames, books, models; anything you might want for a St. Augustine souvenir, you should be able to find here. The prices are usually very reasonable.
By Lacie R. Schaeffer