A 12th Stone travel post:
Cruising down Florida State Road A1A from Ponte Vedra Beach to St. Augustine, it’s impossible not to notice the lush natural scenery. Yet on a mission to shop, eat or both, it’s common to drive right by one of the most historic and picturesque spots in the country.
The northernmost of three beach parking lots of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve features the Ponce Exhibit, which designates the location where 502 years ago explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and his crew first saw a land so luxurious they called it La Florida for its abundance of flowers. Thanks to public and private efforts, the area is preserved as it looked when his fleet of three ships happened upon it on their search for the island of Bimini.
A stop with coffee—careful not to bring napkins or anything that could blow onto the inaccessible foliage—on a recent morning begged the question: Why haven’t we done this before?
From an observation platform high above the beach dune walkover, visitors have breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway/Tolomato River. Except for the unobtrusive exhibit and parking lot, and the road itself, of course, Old Florida remains as far as the eye can see in every direction. It’s gratifying to be surrounded by nature unchanged for the past five centuries, and countless more before that as the Timucuans knew the First Coast.
The Intracoastal Waterway/Tolomato River is visible behind the pristine foliage:
View of the Atlantic Ocean from the overlook:
A graceful egret perched nearby as we descended the wooden stairway from the overlook to the coquina sand beach. Undiscovered no more, it’s a popular destination but limited parking deters overcrowding. A glorious place to walk by the ocean, caution is advised for swimmers because of the absence of lifeguards.
For history buffs, the spot is a treasure. Merely a speck of the 73,352-acre research reserve that spans St. Johns and Flagler counties, the exhibit features a life-sized statue of Ponce de Leon, facing west and pointing toward what to him was a new world. Signs and markers in the parking lot tell the story of April 2, 1513, when the fleet, sailing from Puerto Rico, moved close to the strange shore. Using Ponce’s offshore calculations of 30 degrees 8 minutes North Latitude, historians pinpointed the location.
To safely cross the two lanes of A1A from the parking lot to the beach, visitors may push a button to activate flashing lights to alert drivers. Dune walkovers lead to the overlook platform with informational signs as well as to the beach below.
Just 29 miles from busy downtown Jacksonville and 18 from historic downtown St. Augustine, this oasis of tranquility is a peaceful escape for morning coffee, afternoon in the surf or evening stroll. For more adventure and education, the GTM Research Reserve’s Environmental Education Center—with its 10 miles of nature trails and various coastal and estuarine ecosystem displays—is seven miles south on A1A at 505 Guana River Road, Ponte Vedra Beach.
More information: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/gtm/