Toast to the Fountain of Youth

300-FOY-HCN-ENTRANCEToast to the Fountain of Youth
Travel Writer Ellen Creager

On Sanchez Avenue, I discovered the Fountain of Youth.

“We offer glycolic facial peels and skin resurfacing,” said Amanda Bradshaw, esthetician at St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth Skin and Laser Center, her skin looking dewy fresh.

It was tempting, but I wanted something else. Something more. Something that didn’t involve peeling the skin off my face.

From Peter Pan to Norse mythology, eternal youth is an alluring quest. But few legends are more powerful than the 16th-Century tale that somewhere to the northwest of the Caribbean is a healing spring of water where you drink and never grow old, no more aches and pains.

Nearly 500 years ago, in April 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and his men came ashore near what is now St. Augustine. They dubbed the new land La Florida — the flower. Springs in the region, near the Timucua Indian town of Seloy, bubbled out of the ground, a liquid promise of youthful restoration.

Now, with my shriveling body turning more decrepit by the minute, I needed to find what they found, and fast.

Ponce de Leon landed here

In the next few months, you are going to be hearing a whole lot about the Fountain of Youth.

April 2013 is the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in Florida, the start of European presence in North America.

There will be re-enactments. Historical markers. A new private museum complex, Colonial Quarter, will open in St. Augustine, taking visitors back to the 16th Century.

Naturally, this being Florida, from Melbourne to New Smyrna to places on the gulf coast, various cities are already bickering about where Ponce de Leon really landed first. While there is no historical absolute, scholars believe it was somewhere north of St. Augustine, perhaps near Ponte Vedra, at exactly 30 degrees, 8 minutes latitude.

And where, exactly, was this Fountain of Youth they may have found during their foray onto the shores of the future Sunshine State? Nobody knows. But it was around here, somewhere.

Is this the famous fountain?

Leaving the laser center, I drove to Ms. Deborah’s Fountain of Youth Tattoo and Body Piercing Studio, a bright purple building on Lemon Street. Nobody home. I swung by the Fountain of Youth Elks Lodge No. 649, a famous spot where civil rights activists planned strategy in the 1960s. Nobody there, either.

Finally, driving up A1A, eureka! The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.

I paid $12 and went in, passing several handsome peacocks and stepping through a small door in a dark wood building. The flagstone floor was cool. The cave-like room was dim. Toward the back, a stone ledge held two dozen clear plastic cups of water. I heard a drip, drip, drip, like a plumbing leak.

My heart beat faster. The Fountain of Youth! No more aging!

I drank a cup. Then gulped another.

An end to aging for $1.75

The Fountain of Youth as a tourist attraction dates to the 1860s, and the first well was dug in 1875 to access the special mineral water that still shudders of sulfur. The park is Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, says manager John Stavely. And people still come.

These days, the park is being taken more seriously by archaeologists. They keep finding tantalizing hints of Spanish and native pottery and artifacts, mainly from the 1560s, suggesting that this was, in fact, St. Augustine’s first settlement in 1565.

The park has engaging historical interpreters and a replica native town. Every day at 4 o’clock, they set off a small Spanish cannon explosion. Visitors can walk a new marsh boardwalk that takes them through waving grasses to the peaceful estuary.

Also, the gift shop sells mini-bottles of Fountain of Youth water for $1.75 each.

Dreaming of eternal youth

As an antidote to the depressing irony of modern life, the Fountain of Youth Park is a hopeful spot, perhaps unfashionably so. It showcases the attractive lives of the Timucua Indians. They were the original inhabitants whose ancestors first settled here 3,000 years ago. The 15-acre park’s life-size dioramas, which debuted in naïve 1957, depict kind and friendly encounters between the native people and Ponce de Leon, never a cross word between the two groups.

On a wall opposite the drinking well is a painting by Augustus Heaton, commissioned by former park owner Walter Fraser. Many visitors may not even notice it. It depicts a slightly grizzled Ponce de Leon and his men asleep on the ground, with rapturous looks on their faces, while nearby a circle of naked maidens frolic and dance amid the trees, their skin glowing as if they just had a glycolic facial peel.

The painting is called “Ponce de Leon Dreaming of the Fountain of Youth.”

But ah, what a dream.

You may be interested to know that in the end, Ponce de Leon did not die of old age. But he didn’t live forever, either.

In 1521, when he was between 50 and 60 years old, he was felled by a poison arrow on the gulf coast of Florida.

I’m certain that won’t happen to me. So I bought quite a few mini bottles of Fountain of Youth water at the park. Don’t tell my family, but that’s what they are getting for Christmas.

I’m planning for us to grow young together.