From Ponce de Leon to spring breakers, travelers are ready to believe nearly anything about Florida.
For 500 years, Europeans and their descendants have traveled to Florida from somewhere else. For many, this is a hopeful trip. Spring Breakers come for a week of debauchery; retirees come for golden years of warmth and sunshine and no more gray winters of bare trees and snowy sidewalks to shovel. In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was (possibly) the first European to make such a trip. The popular legend claims he came in search of magical waters with the power to restore youth and vitality, but he was likely looking for gold. He didn’t find any. For five centuries now, Florida has been a place of promise. But the promise of a place can be a funny thing. As Ponce de Leon found out, it doesn’t always overlap with what you find there.
“Viva Florida 500” is Florida’s state-wide campaign to celebrate these 500 years. Throughout 2013, both proud Floridians and curious visitors can explore “signature” events, such as an exhibit on the state’s natural springs at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville or the Pensacola Jazz Festival. Viva Florida 500 is also a clearinghouse for any and all Florida history events. In March alone, visitors could see non-signature events such as sand sculptures celebrating the state’s history at the Brevard Zoo near Cape Canaveral; families could learn about the state’s long-gone pineapple industry with the Museum of Fashion and Lifestyle History in Boyton Beach.
My partner Rob and I went to St. Augustine to see the city most associated with Ponce de Leon. Historians disagree about where exactly de Leon landed along the coast, but St. Augustine has been most successful at claiming the landing for itself. St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest city in the United States, so perhaps we should have found the dilapidated nature of the San Marcos Inn a little bit charming. But, technically, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. And, technically, the San Marcos Inn was in the midst of a renovation, which is why Rob and I were able to score a room for $69.
An operating hotel in the midst of a renovation is a weird place to be. Our room was fine, as far as two-star motels go: two beds, cheap coffee, an iron. But to get to it, we had to pass by a long row of rooms missing their electronic key card doorknobs. The pool was filled with clear blue water. The in-ground baby pool, however, had been filled with cement. An orange traffic cone sat in the middle.
After we checked into the San Marcos, Rob and I headed over to the city’s historic district. We walked past sadder motels not in hopeful states of renovation, offering free wi-fi and rates of $44 for one person, $49 for two. We passed the city’s Ripley’s Believe or Not Museum. We walked the waterfront and saw the oldest miniature golf course in Florida. We eventually came to St. Augustine’s Spanish Quarter. The neighborhood is a collection of restored and recreated buildings from the city’s days as a Spanish colonial outpost. Today it’s filled with stores selling Panama hats and chocolates and beads and art glass to the many tourists who come to St. Augustine. The main street through the neighborhood is a pedestrian mall. We saw a group of senior citizens was being led on a tour.
“We have been sitting way too much today,” one woman complained to a friend.
“I’m tired of walking so much,” a different woman at the back of the group complained.
Henry Flagler came to Florida in 1878. Flagler had amassed a sizeable fortune as a partner in Standard Oil, and traveled to Jacksonville with his ill first wife. Her doctor believed the pleasant weather would improve her health. It did not. She died in 1881.
Flager remarried two years later and honeymooned in St. Augustine. He believed the right kind of hotel and better transportation would attract more northerners to Florida, so he bought the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad. In 1888, he opened the sprawling Hotel Ponce de Leon. Flagler built two more hotels in St. Augustine but eventually pushed further south. His Florida East Coast Railway brought snowbirds to his Hotel Ormond near Daytona and to his famous Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. Flagler extended his line to present-day Miami, almost single-handedly transforming that settlement into a major city. By 1912, his railroad extended all the way to Key West. Because of Flagler, visitors in the early 20th century could travel anywhere along the entire Atlantic and Caribbean coasts of Florida.
Flagler died in 1913 after falling down a flight of stairs at his home in Palm Beach. In 1935, a hurricane damaged much of the railroad in the Keys. The state of Florida bought the line there and rebuilt it as the Overseas Highway. A decline in tourists forced the Hotel Ponce de Leon to close in 1967. It reopened the following year as the home of the new Flagler College, a four-year liberal arts school. This year, the College is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the hotel with tours and talks. Rob and I watched a movie on Flagler in the hotel’s main lobby. The school had set up rows of folding chairs just to the side of the main entrance. Other visitors, mostly 50-somethings and older, watched with us, and sometimes looked at tourist maps to decide where to go next. Behind us, Flagler College students went about the business of being college students: shuffling in flip-flops and pajama pants, they carried books and were focused on their phones. They looked like college students everywhere else, except for the fact that they were college students attending college in a Gilded Age hotel that helped make the Florida coast the place it is today.
Pat Croce’s pirate museum came to St. Augustine in 2011. Croce is the energetic former president of the Philadelphia 76ers, as well as a physical therapist, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, writer, Olympic commentator, and “national TV star,” according to the website of the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum. He is the enthusiastic author of books including I Feel Great and You Will Too!, Lead or Get Off the Pot! and 110%: 110 Strategies for Feeling Great Every Day.
Croce first opened a pirate museum in Key West in 2005. Attendance apparently wasn’t too great, so Croce shifted to the more family-friendly St. Augustine two years ago. His business, Pat Croce & Company, also runs the Colonial Quarter. The two-acre village, just next to the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, replaced the city-run Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum. Croce’s version opened this month.
Rob and I paid $12.99 each to explore the Colonial Quarter. We did not upgrade to the $21.99 combo package that would have given us admission to the pirate museum, too. Colonial Quarter turned out to be enough. Paths lead visitors through scenes recreating St. Augustine as a settlement, fortified town, and garrison town under the Spanish, and as British colony, across three centuries. Reenactors demonstrate 17th-century musket use and blacksmithing. In an 18th-century Spanish soldiers home, an animatronic wife prepares dinner and worries about the safety of her husband. Rob and I climbed a replica of a 17th-century watchtower built of pressure-treated wood. It was pure historical grazing.
Colonial Quarter has two restaurants that are open to the public. The Bull & Crown Publick House has a British pub theme. Rob and I went to the Spanish-inspired Taberna del Caballo. The restaurant’s website suggested we would be “fully immersed in the taberna experience, from clinking carafes and Spanish song to servers in period clothing and unexpected visits from 1700s Spanish garrison soldiers.” Our bartender was dressed in period clothing, but this was a weekday afternoon, and we didn’t hear any clinking carafes or Spanish songs. No garrison soldiers visited, but Taberna servers who weren’t on shift sat next to us at the bar and complained about a homeless man who kept causing problems out on the street.
As it celebrates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s landing, St. Augustine is also planning its own 450th anniversary for 2015. This has not been an easy or pleasant process. First, the foundation established by the city to fundraise and plan the anniversary failed to raise funds and plan. Critics accused it of maintaining a shroud of secrecy. The city stepped in, and last year laid out a new master plan for the celebration. The plan acknowledges that fundraising remains an issue. It also notes that much of the public remains skeptical of not just the city’s ability to execute the event, but whether or not there should be a celebration at all.
“There is much concern and there are many misgivings about the entire process,” the plan notes. “There is concern that St. Augustine streets will be clogged with tens of thousands of unwanted vehicles. There was a published article warning that 450th visitors might carry dengue fever and other diseases to St. Augustine.”
“Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar is common,” the plan continues. “It is imperative that the endeavor is viewed as a means of economic and cultural renewal for the community rather than an expensive celebration geared toward unwanted visitors.”
Promise is always clashing with reality in Florida. After St. Augustine, Rob and I followed the route of Flager’s railroad south along the coast. In Fort Lauderdale, we had drinks at the Mai-Kai, a full-fledged tiki bar with live shows. We drank Mai-Tais and Planters Punches and listened while the female bartenders in bikini tops and grass skirts gathered at the end of the bar and complained about how cold they were and about how the bad the tips were, but that they would probably be better the next night, when the restaurant puts out a sushi bar. In Miami, a drunk, naked guy came down to the lobby and told the front desk clerk that he had come back to the hotel with some people but got lost trying to find the bathroom and was locked out of the room. He wasn’t staying there, so the clerk wouldn’t let him back up to the rooms or give him any information about guests. The clerk gave him a towel to wrap around himself and put him in a cab back to his own hotel.
We ended our trip in Key West, which was full of Spring Breakers, many of whom were staying at our motel overlooking a Waffle House. Our last night, we took the motel’s shuttle downtown to Key West’s main street: Duval Street. The shuttle was full of drunk college students. A bunch kept yelling at the driver to turn on the radio. One started screaming the lyrics to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” as loud as he could and then everyone else joined in. The driver didn’t say anything until this guy started pounding on the bus windows with his fist. The driver pulled over and threatened to make everyone get out right there, still a ways from Duval Street. The guy stopped pounding so the driver finished the route. Everyone stopped screaming, and as they got off the bus they thanked the driver. He pointed the way to Duval Street and told them to have a fun night. • 26 March 2013
Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.