Florida has been attracting visitors for 500 years

View from Florida's St. Augustine Lighthouse. European discovery of America's oldest city took...

View from Florida's St. Augustine Lighthouse. European discovery of America's oldest city took place in 1513, when explorer Ponce de Leon dropped in for a visit. (Handout)

MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:57 PM ET

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- His back to the Atlantic Ocean, Ponce de Leon, in stone effigy and full size, looks westward to the land he discovered five centuries ago.

The statue, in the Fountain of Youth Park, reminds visitors that the Spanish explorer was the first recorded European to set foot on territory that would become the United States of America. (Columbus never set foot on mainland North America; Vikings had briefly lived in a corner of Newfoundland around AD 1000).

There is some dispute over where Ponce landed in April of 1513, but St. Augustine claims him as their own. They have some documentation for their claim: His ship's log for April 2 says he was off the coast at 30 degrees 8 minutes north. He anchored there and went ashore the next day.

"The 30:8 site is the beach at GTM Preserve (a conservation area) about eight miles north of the Fountain of Youth Park ," says Barbara Golden of the St. Augustine visitors' bureau. "The site looks pretty much as it would have in 1513, a coastal paradise."

But not exactly the same as in 1513, for on April 2 they'll unveil a 5-metre-tall statue of Ponce, one day ahead of an April 3 reenactment of his coming ashore to claim the land for the Spanish crown. It was the Easter festival and flowers were in abundance, so he christened his new land Pascua Florida (Festival of flowers.)

The new statue and the reenactment are two of the events planned by St. Augustine for the 500th anniversary. But this city won't be alone in its celebrations, for the entire state, on the grounds that Ponce de Leon was the first "visitor," is making the 500th anniversary a peg for a huge tourist promotion, hoping to attract even more visitors than the usual 45 million annually .

Events will be staged all over the state under the banner Viva Florida 500.

"Viva Florida 500 provides us with the opportunity to let travellers around the world know that Florida was the first travel destination in the United States," says a news release from VisitFlorida, the state's tourist marketing organization. "We believe the best way for the No. 1 travel destination in the world to celebrate 500 years of history is by celebrating 500 years of visitors."

Viva Florida 500 will highlight events as diverse as a blues festival on Marco Island to "Blacksmithing for Beginners" in Tallahassee to historic home tours to battle reenactments. A roving courtroom drama will explore the question of where Ponce de Leon really landed. Other contenders include Melbourne, south of Cocoa Beach, and Ponce de Leon Inlet, near Daytona Beach.

Although the Spanish explorer visited other parts of Florida -- he later came ashore somewhere around Tampa Bay on the Gulf Coast -- St. Augustine has always laid the most claim to him, particularly because of the legend he was seeking the fabled "fountain of youth," that would grant eternal youth to those who drank from it.

In truth, historians believe he was more interested in gold and in enslaving Native Americans, and anyway the story of the magic fountain only emerged long after his death. But the legend persists. Indeed there is a spring in the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park, on the site of a 3,000-year-old Indian village, and, this being Florida, it has been pressed into service. Most visitors take at least a sip of the salty water.

My 20-something guide quipped: "I've been drinking it since Ponce left me here 500 years ago."

Elsewhere in the park costumed guides perform musket and cannon firings, and there's a shipwreck exhibit, a reconstructed Indian village and a planetarium which shows the heavens on the day Ponce de Leon stepped ashore.

NEED TO KNOW

For further information, check the websites visitflorida.com/viva/events (for state-wide celebrations); and floridashistoriccoast.com (for St. Augustine information).


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