Jesse Smith: Florida’s Promise

Smith travels through layers of history and myth in the sunshine state @ The Smart Set.

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.
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