Five hundred years ago, on April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sighted land he thought was another island in the New World. Because of its lush foliage and because it was Easter season, Ponce de Leon named it “La Florida” and laid claim to it in the name of Spain.
Today, of course, Ponce de Leon’s “island” is the state of Florida, which marks the 500th anniversary of that sighting — and other landmarks in Florida’s history — with dozens of events. Many of those will be held in and around St. Augustine, which has long claimed that Ponce de Leon made landfall just north of the city; some will be held in the Tampa Bay region, where Hernando de Soto, another explorer who had a lasting impact on Florida, came ashore.
And just in time for the anniversary, a major new attraction opened this month in the historic sector of St. Augustine, which is the oldest permanent settlement in what is now the United States. Called Colonial Quarter, it is a two-acre living history museum created by the University of Florida and former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce.
Colonial Quarter is a signature attraction highlighting three centuries of settlement under three countries, said Croce, who opened the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum here two years ago..
Within the complex, visitors can experience life in St. Augustine as it was in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Features include blacksmith and gunsmith demonstrations, a Spanish Garrison Town and taverna, a British Colony and Publick House (a pub), and a climbable 35-foot 17th century replica watchtower. Visitors can walk on a boardwalk under the 11 flags that have flown over St. Augustine. And from the boardwalk, which has explanatory text panels about each flag, visitors also will be able to watch construction of a 50-foot 16th-century caravel similar to ones sailed by Ponce de Leon on his discovery voyage and by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who founded St. Augustine in 1565.
To insure accuracy, Croce said, everything in the Quarter had to be approved by archaeological departments of the city, the state and the University of Florida. Admission is $12.99 adults, $6.99 children 5-12.
St. Augustine, which already is one of the state’s most visited cities, expects to draw even more tourists this year with the new Colonial Quarter attraction and the Ponce de Leon anniversary.
On April 2 — the day Ponce de Leon first sighted Florida — a permanent historical marker featuring a 15-foot bronze statue of the explorer will be dedicated at a site midway between St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach. Many historians believe the beach site, which is now an estuarine research reserve in Guana River State Park, is where Ponce de Leon landed, based on a navigational notation entered in the ship’s log
As part of the ceremony, a group in St. Augustine is converting a 72-foot shrimp boat into a caravel with three masts, which it hopes to have completed in time to sail it to the landing site on April 2.
“We’ll take a sighting with an astrolabe at noon that day from the caravel at 30 degrees 8 minutes [north latitude], just as Ponce de Leon did,” said Dan Holiday of the Krew, the volunteer group that is converting the shrimp boat into a caravel named Espiritu. Even if they don’t complete the vessel in time, or if the weather is too bad, Holiday said they still would conduct the astrolabe sighting from another ship. One of the Krew volunteers, incidentally, is James Ponce, a descendant of Ponce de Leon, whose forebears settled in Florida with the Minorcans.