For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to see the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Fla. After learning about Ponce de Leon's discovery in grade school, I imagined a colorfully tiled Spanish fountain with refreshing, magical waters cascading down over its several bowls. But when I finally got there, the real thing didn't turn out to be exactly what I had envisioned.
The first clue that my fantasies were inaccurate came when I picked up a brochure of local attractions at the hotel and found the Fountain of Youth listed alongside the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum, an alligator farm, a wax museum and miniature golf.
I got the second and third clues during the tram tour of the Old Town district my family and I took to get a feel for the area. Instead of the fountain being the centerpiece in the small, perfect garden of my fancy, the site had been turned into a theme park. And instead of being free because it was a national landmark, the price of admission was $12 a head.
When the tram ride was over, we walked back to the park and went in under an archway with a sign that read "Enter the Discovery." Another smaller arch led to the stone spring house where the fountain was actually located. It was cool and dim inside, and the first thing we saw was a tableau of mannequins dressed as Spanish soldiers and a Timucuan Indian meeting over a rock with water bubbling up from it. Every camera in the place began to click -- including mine. There it was! I was seeing it at last!
A guide told us that what we were seeing was the scene being reproduced as historians believe it might have happened. The real spring, he explained, had long ago disappeared when the water table dropped. He also exploded the myth that Ponce de Leon had come to the New World seeking the fountain. It was secondary, he said, to the search for gold and the wish to claim land in the name of Spain.
"You mean we can't drink the water?" I blurted out.
Oh, yes, he said with a reassuring smile, the good news was that the water could still be piped to the surface. And with that he pointed to a stone counter from which a faucet sprouted. A stack of plastic cups sat nearby, and several servings had already been drawn. I picked one up and gulped it down. Yet another illusion shattered: The water tasted like all of the other sulfurous Florida water I had been drinking -- not that great.
With the anticlimactic moment behind us, we were ready to explore the rest of the park. A check of the list of events revealed that we were just in time for the firing of the cannon. We hustled to the corner of the park where the weapon waited and joined the crowd that had gathered. A family of ducks swam leisurely by, and a woman in the crowd fretted that they would be frightened or even hurt by the firing.
She need not have worried. A handsome young man wearing the uniform of a Spanish soldier stepped forth and demonstrated how the early explorers would have used flint to light the fuse. When his efforts were unsuccessful, he strode to the cannon and turned his back to the crowd for a few moments, apparently so that he could finish the job with a match or a lighter. Once the fuse was lit, he shouted "For Espana!" and a booming sound followed. No cannonball was ejected, however, and the ducks, obviously used to this performance, didn't even blink.
Our next stop was the Discovery Globe. The show had just started and the door was locked, but an employee of the park said he could use his key to let us in since it was too good to be missed. At the front of the small darkened theater was a two-story-high globe that turned on its axis while a disembodied voice talked about the settling of "La Florida." Then it stopped, a string of red dots from Spain to Florida was illuminated, dramatic music from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" played, and the lights came up. We were sitting there wondering what would happen next when the rest of the audience began to file out and we realized the show was over.
From there we wandered through the park, stopping at the American Indian burial grounds, some reproductions of Indian homes and a planetarium where visitors can learn about the early explorers' navigational techniques. It was late in the day, however, and the last show was over.
We snapped a picture of the statue of Ponce de Leon and were getting ready to leave when we came upon the peacock nesting area, which explained why the peacock motif was so prevalent in the park. Lucky for us, it was mating season, so all of the males had their iridescent green tail feathers spread and vibrated them in a dramatic courting ritual when interested females approached.
The exit route from the park led, not surprisingly, through the gift shop, where every variety of T-shirt and shot glass had "Fountain of Youth" stamped on it and bottles of the legendary water were for sale in every imaginable size.
We had snickered our way through the Fountain of Youth park, but here's the thing: The history here is serious. Within the site archeologists from the University of Florida still work on a dig that continues to divulge artifacts and information from a time when only Native Americans peopled the area and later when it was the site of the first Spanish settlement. And while I may have thought some of the exhibits were a bit kitschy, I came away having learned a lot about the Spanish influence on my own country. The park's mission, ultimately, is to protect what they've found and make it accessible to the rest of us.
The fact is I wouldn't trade my visit to the fountain for anything, and here's my guilty secret: I bought one of those gaudy little bottles of water to bring home, and just before we left the park I ran back to the spring house for one more drink -- just in case.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information on planning a visit to the Fountain of Youth, visit www.fountainofyouthflorida.com or call 904-829-3168. The park is located at 11 Magnolia Ave. in St. Augustine, Fla., and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $11 for seniors and $8 for children 6 to 12. Younger children are free, and so is parking.
A fitting place for a meal after visiting the park is the Columbia Restaurant, which offers authentic Spanish food and decor and claims to be the oldest restaurant in Florida: www.columbiarestaurant.com.
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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