Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun….
The lines above come from Pink Floyd’s 1973 song “Time” (Dark Side of the Moon). I chose these lines to provide one reason not to visit St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.
Drinking from it will not make you young, and most likely, the taste will not want you to consider consuming the water regularly. But, it is the only reason I can think of not to visit this fabled, historically misleading Florida attraction.
So, grab that $20 bill, get out of the house, and take a ride on A1A to St. Augustine to visit what “maybe” is Florida’s oldest tourist site, located in America’s OLDEST city.
Here are 12 reasons to visit the Fountain of Youth.
- The ride to get to the Fountain of Youth
A visit to the Fountain of Youth could not be complete without knowing about Ponce de Leon, the presumed discoverer of Florida during his Easter exploration in 1513. There is debate as to where Ponce first sighted America’s 27th state, but we can “assume” that it occurred somewhere between Ponte Vedra Beach and Melbourne Beach (okay, so this is not a walkable preview, but it does set the tone for a Fountain of Youth visit).
Along A1A, within about 125 miles of each other, are two sites that commemorate Ponce de Leon: Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve to the north of the Fountain of Youth and Juan Ponce de Leon Landing Park to the south.
While both lay claim to Ponce de Leon’s discovery, careful reading will show that neither site is 100 percent definitive. From the historical marker “30° 8′ North Latitude” at the GTM site:
“This site is believed by some historians to correspond with the offshore location where Juan Ponce de Leon calculated his fleet’s position when he first sighted Florida.”
The historical marker at the Melbourne Beach site, titled “Possible Vicinity of Juan Ponce de Leon’s Landing,” explains:
According to one researcher, the Melbourne Beach site trumps its counterpart in the north. This, from the park’s website:
“While there is disagreement among scholars, it is believed that this site may be in an area where Juan Ponce de Leon made landfall in April 1513.”
“Colonel Douglas T. Peck, a notable Florida historian and principal speaker at the park dedication on April 2, 2005, concluded from comprehensive historical research that Juan Ponce de León was not looking for a fountain of youth, and that he landed near Melbourne Beach—125 miles south of the previously accepted site of his landing, St. Augustine.”
Counteracting this fierce debate, the dedication of the GTM site holds this distinction over the Melbourne Beach statue: in attendance and performing as one of the reenactors?
James Ponce, the supposed great, great, great, great, great grandson of Ponce de Leon himself.
Touchée! But not so fast….
Although most will want to just get to the Fountain of Youth, those that want to delve into the decades-long debate on Ponce de Leon and his discovery of Florida might want to visit these two sites beforehand, at the least to enjoy some beach time along A1A.
But I digress.
2. Walkable distance to the Old Jail and and the Oldest Store
After crossing the Francis and Mary Usina Bridge from Vilano Beach to St. Augustine on A1A, it will not take long to recognize the Ancient City’s embrace of tourism. A very short ride westward brings you to a roundabout; from here you take A1A south on San Marcos Avenue for a couple of blocks before arriving at the first pair of a mother lode of tourist spots within a radius of a few square miles: the Old Jail and the Oldest Store, both of which make up the first stop of St. Augustine’s Old Town Trolley Tours.
This is a good way to start a complete day in St. Augustine. There is plenty of free parking, and a three-block walk on Williams Street will get you to the Fountain of Youth (free parking there also).
If you choose to use the trolley, it ventures for 20 more stops before arriving at the Fountain of Youth, the trolley’s last stop.
A nice way to plan a day itinerary is to save a trolley ride for later and spend a day at the Old Jail and the Fountain of Youth.
3. Enjoy the live oak trees along Magnolia Avenue
Here is how the St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra: Florida’s Historic Coast website refers to Magnolia Avenue’s Oak Tunnel:
“If you’re in the mood for a drive, be sure to take a slow ride down Magnolia Street, our natural tunnel of love created by ancient live oak trees covered in Spanish moss. The dappled light on the road is simply magical.”
While the previous reason to visit the Fountain of Youth is to split the day with the Old Jail and the Oldest Store, another way to get to the Fountain of Youth is to make a left on Magnolia Avenue once crossing the Usina Bridge, where a canopy of over 60 oak trees as well as some beautiful and quirky homes provide a welcome not to be missed. It has been mentioned that Magnolia Avenue is one of the most photographed roads in America.
4. And regarding the majesty of live oaks….
Another nearby oak tree not to be missed is The Old Senator, a live oak that predates the “supposed” arrival of Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth.
The Old Senator is located on the grounds of Villa 1565 Hotel, an easy walk from the Fountain of Youth.
5. Take your dog to the Fountain of Pooch.
Okay, so it’s just a bowl of water, but know this; St. Augustine is a very dog friendly town, and the Fountain of Youth is no exception. Expect your pooch to get lots of love and attention from the staff at the Fountain of Youth. Everything within the park, both inside as well as outside, allows four-legged companions to accompany you.
Probably one exhibit at the park to keep the dogs away from is the on-the-hour firing of the cannons, which are loud and can spook your loveable K-9’s.
5. See a pair of replica cannon guns from Old Ironsides.
Speaking of cannons, although not original, two replicas that were part of the 1906 restoration of the USS Constitution are located at the Fountain of Youth. Both are two of 33 known replicas from the restoration located across the country.
“Lack of funding was again an issue in the 1927-1931 restoration. By 1928, the decision was made to sell materials removed from the ship, including the replica guns, as a way to raise money for the restoration. Many of the items sold were inaccurately described as “original” (i.e. from the original construction of the ship in 1795-1797). This inaccurate description carried over to the identifying plaques of some of the 1906 guns as they found new homes across the country.”
The cannons add to the sense of history the Fountain of Youth provides, as well as enhancing the park’s natural beauty, and genuinely embraced, faux nature of the park.
6. “Pig out” at Smoked BBQ.
With 15 acres of space, a visit to the Fountain of Youth can work up an appetite. While visitors may bring food inside the park, they can also enjoy its outdoor restaurant, Smoked. Southern BBQ. Overall, Smoked receives excellent reviews from visitors. It also avails itself to locals and visitors not touring the Fountain of Youth. Prices will not challenge most price-conscious tourists. And after taking a few gulps of the sulphuric-tasting fountain water, Smoked offers several elixirs to wash down the taste, including wine and beer.
7. Or get juiced.
Just across the street from the entrance is the Fountain of Juice (open Saturday-Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
On another side note, for those that enjoy local coffee, nearby Screaming Peacock Coffee surely will not disappoint.
“At Screaming Peacock Coffee, we knew we had found the perfect location in the Uptown neighborhood of St. Augustine, about a half mile from historic downtown. As the story goes, this barn-like structure was used to store mattresses then was converted into an AirBnB, until we purchased and retrofitted the building into our roasting facility in 2019-2020. The main selling point of the barn was its location within screaming distance of the peacocks roaming the Fountain of Youth on the famous Magnolia Avenue just one block away.”
8. And speaking of peacocks….
Along A1A, you will find many sites that help make up the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail; the Fountain of Youth is not an official trail site, but it is close to several St. Johns County sites.
As for bird watching, one of the major attractions of the Fountain of Youth is interacting with the peafowl onsite..
From the Fountain of Youth website:
“Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park boasts a muster (or flock) of nearly 30 Indian peafowl. Their raucous calls echo from all areas of the Park, and their colorful displays are unforgettable. The blue peacock males spread their plumage in order to attract a mate and to warn off other males and the show is stunning – but it pales in comparison to the display of the white peacocks, which look like huge snowflakes!
“Spring kicks off the peafowl mating season, and if you look closely, you are likely to spot a chick or two being taught how to forage by a doting mother peahen. Towards the end of the day, you might spy a peacock in a tree preparing to roost for the night. Stop in for some prime birdwatching – no binoculars needed!”
9. and pigeons.
Near the gift shop entrance, feed a few coins in the peanut dispenser to nourish the peacocks, but also expect to be challenged by pigeons that may invade your space a bit.
10. Enjoy views along or above the Matanzas River.
Two of the popular exhibits at the park, the Spanish Watchtower and Founders Riverwalk provide spectacular views of the Matanzas River. Both also possess historical significance.
During the Spanish occupation of St. Augustine, watchtowers were used to look out for potential invaders. at times with backfiring results. The park’s website explains that a lighted watchtower prompted a raid on June 6, 1586 by Sir Francis Drake. Drake and his men burned downed and sacked St. Augustine of much of its riches.
The current watchtower allows gazers to enjoy viewing the river and the City of St. Augustine to the south, especially a wonderful view of The Great Cross, which towers over the Ancient City at 208 feet.
The Great Cross, along with a museum, a shrine to motherhood (Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche), and other memorials, are located at the Mission of Nombre de Dios, which is tour stop #20 of Old Town Trolley Tours.
Founders Riverwalk, which takes you 600 feet into the Matanzas River, provides an opportunity to see some marine life and enjoy bird sightings. The intention of the walk, however, is to provide a sense of what it was possibly like for the Spanish explorers to see upon arrival and eventually colonize what is now St. Augustine. It is within this locale that the expedition of Spanish soldier Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore in August of 1565.
“Even before Jamestown or the Plymouth Colony, the oldest permanent European settlement in what is now the United States was founded in September 1565 by a Spanish soldier named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in St. Augustine, Florida. Menéndez picked the colony’s name because he originally spotted the site on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine.“
From the park’s website:
“As you walk its length, simply turn around and you are instantly transported back nearly 450 years in time to the initial Spanish occupation. Looking back at the Park, you can see the watchtower and cannon as they defend the original 1565 site of St. Augustine – look further, and you see the Astillero which holds the chalupa that is under construction and the village of Seloy tucked back away from the shore.“
Once again, speaking of Ponce de Leon statues, nearby Founders Riverwalk is the park’s statue of Florida’s discoverer, one of four within St. Johns County.
Even with the more historically fact that Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, not Ponce de Leon, landed at or very near this spot, it is Ponce de Leon that is honored. However, a pocket park is located outside the entrance gates to the park honoring Menendez, and is free for visitors to see.
11. Step inside for a spell
Much of what to see in the park is outdoors, and of course in Florida, the heat might get the best of you, and your pet. The park offers several places to cool off, four of which are exhibits: the Spring House, Indian Burial Ground, Navigators Planetarium, and Discovery Globe—and of course in the tradition of Florida attractions placed near the exit—Ponce de Leon’s Old Florida Gift Shop.
Before leaving the Fountain of Youth, you have the opportunity to purchase bottles of spring water from the actual fountain, among other items that clearly fall within the label of kitschy. However, the gift shop also provides a excellent selection of books and tourist material as well as drinks and other refreshments to help cool off and re-nourish after a few hours of exploring the park.
The planetarium provides an on-the-hour look at how the sky appeared the night before Ponce de Leon discovered Florida. Prior to entering the seating area is a model ship display, which I found more interesting than the planetarium show itself. Admittedly, I took a rest during how visit, as did our Oliver, who found marking the garden adjacent to the planetarium more to his liking.
While the planetarium, for me, mainly provided a chance to rest and cool off, Discovery Globe presented a fascinating look at the routes explorers took during their discoveries of the New World. A brief film presentation talks about the history of Discovery Globe, a 30-feet tall rotating globe that in its early days was considered a marvel, attracting long lines of visitors. Not as busy now, and certainly dated, it now provides a sense of nostalgia comparable to that of the older Walt Disney World attractions.
While the story of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth is most likely fanciful, the connection the 15-acre park has to Timucuan culture and heritage is very hard to deny.
In 1834, a gardener, while planting orange trees within the park grounds, discovered an ancient skeleton. In the following years, more ancient burials were discovered, with archaeologists discovering burial patterns that led to the claim that the original 1587 mission site of Nombre de Dios, the first Christian mission site in America, is located within the park.
While the skeletal remains are no longer in plain view, a 1954 mural by Hollis H. Holbrook depicting the introduction of European religion to the Timucuan natives of what was the village of Chief Seloy still graces the walls, making this site less morbid and more a place of reflection.
It should be noted that the park offers living history demonstrations as well as artifacts reflecting Timucuan life in this area prior to the arrival of the Spanish during the 16th century.
“We celebrate the culture of these proud Native Americans in a reconstructed portion of the town of Seloy. Our Living History Interpreters will help you to understand what day to day life was like in the village, how the Timucua hunted, fished, made fine pottery and shell tools, and how they finally slipped away into history.”
12. Take a sip from the fountain, and them some.
Following the purchase of land that included the legendary fountain, St. Augustine businessman Henry H. Williams, who bought the property from Paul Arnau, began to sell cups of the water to visitors for a nickel and maintained a guest book. This started in 1868, thus helping lay claim that the Fountain of Youth is the oldest tourism site in Florida.
Florida, of course, is known for its many springs that draws tourists from all over. It has done so since the 1830s, where travelers would go to White Springs and bathe in the waters of White Sulphur Springs.
While White Sulphur Springs is considered an abandoned site, the Spring House at the Fountain of Youth still serves up its legendary water to thousands of visitors each year.
While the fountain is what draws visitors inside the Spring House, there are other interesting things to see. The Coquina Cross of 1513, “supposedly” discovered by the Fountain of Youth’s third owner, Luella Day McConnell, is a cross with 15 vertical and 13 horizontal stones supposedly placed by Ponce de Leon to mark the discovery of the fountain.
The park’s website itself contradicts the above marker, stating on its timeline that in 1874:
“A cross made of coquina, 15 stones long x 13 stones wide, is unearthed by B.A. Pacetti, an employee of H.H. Williams. Pacetti would sign a legal deposition as to the circumstances under which he found the cross. Unfortunately, Williams was told that coquina was not available on the mainland in 1513, and had the cross re-buried.”
The Spring House also contains a fireplace, a Timucuan Village diorama, a fireplace display, and a guest book for visitors to sign—a tradition that helps support the claim of the Fountain of Youth’s longevity as a major Florida tourist attraction.
While much of the historical attributes of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth contains arguable counterpoints, contradictions, and inaccuracies, this is acceptable by the Fraser family that currently owns the park. The four siblings who currently own the park—John W., Elizabeth, Elaine, and Bryan—inherited it from their father, John R. Fraser, who himself inherited from his father, Walter B. Fraser, who bought it from McConnell in 1927.
With its archeological preservation efforts providing legitimacy as an ancient historical site, the Fraser family, along with its past owners, have established the Fountain of Youth as a historical tourist site in Florida, surviving for years even after modern theme parks has sucked the life out of many tourist sites that flourished prior to the 1970s.
Two articles worthy of a read are the following:
So, as you travel along A1A, make sure this attraction is listed as not-to-be-missed, as it is “Where Legend Meets History!”
Regarding age and youth, let me finish this Rode A1A entry with a song by Jimmy Buffett:
“I‘m growing older but not up.”