ST. AUGUSTINE -- — Where did that most ambitious conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon, wade ashore five centuries ago and name his prize "La Florida?" Inquiring minds all over our state would like to know, the sooner the better, for planning purposes.
With the big day approaching — the anniversary arrives on April 3, 2013 — what east-coast beach city gets to shoot off the fireworks? If King Juan Carlos I of Spain graces us with a visit, where will he and Gov. Rick Scott shake hands? This being Florida, where communities joust like 16th-century knights for tourist dollars, it’s important.
In a perfect world, someone would step forward, bow gallantly and unroll Ponce’s original log and answer all questions. Alas, the log has been lost to historians since before Shakespeare’s time.
Grab your sharpest rapier and don your shiniest armor. Load the blunderbuss and polish the shield. In a tale fit for the Bard, brace yourself for the Ponce wars.
For our purposes, think of the northeast Florida city of St. Augustine as the Capulets. Melbourne Beach, a few hours south, can serve as the Montagues.
Without evidence everyone can accept as gospel, folks from both cities can claim Ponce celebration rights.
Cities all over Florida have streets, schools and springs named after Ponce. But no place has celebrated the Spaniard as long as St. Augustine. Founded in 1565 by another famous conquistador, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, it’s North America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. In 2011, its reputation for Spanish colonial heritage brought in $669 million in tourism.
It’s always been mad about the mysterious dude who accompanied Christopher Columbus to the Indies on his 1493 voyage, battled natives, found gold, got filthy rich, became Puerto Rico’s first governor, lost his job, but somehow stayed in the good graces of Spain’s King Ferdinand I, who encouraged Ponce to do some more exploring.
He named the island he thought he had encountered "La Florida" because it was a verdant place. It was also around Easter, the feast of flowers in Spain.
St. Augustine’s best known tourist attraction, and one of Florida’s oldest, is named for the spring supposedly sought by Ponce, the Fountain of Youth. Florida’s first grand hotel, the Ponce de Leon, built by Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler in 1888, is now part of the Flagler College campus. Finally, no town in North America boasts as many Ponce statues, three at the present, with another to be unveiled in April.
St. Augustine will be celebrating Viva 500 all year. But on anniversary day it will hold a re-enactment and a ceremony at the Cathedral Basilica. Santiago Baeza Benavides — the mayor of Ponce’s hometown in Spain — is bringing a replica of the font in which the conquistador was baptized in 1474.
Take that, Melbourne Beach.
About a year ago, a publicist for the St. Johns County Visitor and Convention Bureau headed for New York to drum up some national media buzz. On her "come to St. Augustine in 2013" visits with newspaper and magazine travel editors, Barbara Golden brought a secret weapon.
Ponce de Leon.
His real name is Chad Light. A doctoral history student at the University of Florida, he works at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. In addition to serious history pursuits, he entertains tourists by playing Ponce in re-enactments. He’s 46, muscular and swash-buckling handsome, with a Spaniard’s dark hair and eyes. He dresses like Ponce and answers visitor questions as Ponce in Spanish-inflected English. For the record, he also speaks perfect Castilian Spanish, thank you.