Searching for Florida’s fountain of youth
Ponce de Leon Springs is a “fountain of youth” in the town of Ponce de Leon, just south of the Alabama border. (Florida Department of Environmental Protection)
People have been travelling to Florida in search of eternal youth since Spanish explorers conquered the state in the 1500s.
Juan Ponce de Leon, who named the peninsula La Florida in 1513, was most likely the first European to encounter the area, already home to Native American groups including the Timucua and the Ais. After the conquistador’s death, records indicated that his expedition was motivated by the promise of a fountain of youth within Florida’s springs.
The story is a legend at best, but in 1535, historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo wrote that Ponce de Leon was vainly seeking curative waters in order to reverse his sexual impotence. Subsequent Spanish historians, intrigued by the existence of a fountain of youth in the New World, kept the story going.
Fast forward to the Florida of today, where many aging Americans go to live out their retirement in style. From Tallahassee in the north all the way to Naples in the south, elderly communities attempt to recapture the youthful energy of their past. With its sunny beaches, vast system of freshwater springs and enticingly storied history, it is no wonder the myth of eternal youth lives on in the Sunshine State.
Visitors can delve into this historical lore at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St Augustine, where the United States’ first permanent European settlement was founded in 1565. Drink from the park’s “Legendary Spring”, which has been a tourist attraction since 1904 when female gold rusher Dr Louella Day McConnell bought the surrounding land and charged admission to anyone wanting to sip from the natural fountain.
Other park attractions include a Timucua Village exhibition, focused on the Native Americans who had been living in St Augustine for about 4,000 years when the Spanish conquistadors reached Florida’s shores; a Spanish cannon exhibit, featuring firing demonstrations; and a planetarium, where park goers can see the stars that guided explorers in the 1500s.
Until the 1990s, it was widely believed that explorer Ponce de Leon first set foot in St Augustine when he arrived in Florida – which is why the city is associated with the fountain of youth. However, historians now believe that Ponce de Leon landed near Melbourne Beach, about 150 miles south. Located on the Space Coast (72 miles of coastline famous for the Kennedy Space Center), Melbourne offers plenty of opportunities to pump youthful energy back into your veins. World-class surfing, stand-up paddle boarding and beach camping are just a few fun youth-inducing activities.
In between St Augustine and Melbourne lies De Leon Springs, marketed to the public in the 1880s as “a fountain of youth impregnated with a deliciously healthy combination of soda and sulfur”. About 30 minutes west of present-day Daytona, the park area (named, of course, after Ponce de Leon) offers swimming in the 72F spring, a wildlife refuge and a sugar-mill-turned-restaurant where you can make your own pancakes.
De Leon Springs is not to be confused with Ponce de Leon Springs, a 68F “fountain of youth” 350 miles away in the town of Ponce de Leon, just south of the Alabama border.