St. Augustine, Fla., prepares for state’s 500th birthday

A new boardwalk in St. Augustine extends 600 feet across the marshes to the ocean. The nation’s oldest city is preparing with a variety of projects to mark the 500th anniversary next March of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of La Florida.
A new boardwalk in St. Augustine extends 600 feet across the marshes to the ocean. The nation’s oldest city is preparing with a variety of projects to mark the 500th anniversary next March of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of La Florida.
PHOTOS BY ELLEN ALBANESE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — In preparation for the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s discovery of La Florida in March 1513, the nation’s oldest city is polishing its image with expanded tourist resources, new restaurants, and updated attractions, all of which add depth and substance to the legends that surround this storied place.

Scholarly studies indicate that Ponce de Leon first sighted and named La Florida on Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, and came ashore on April 3. Celebrations of the discovery that launched five centuries of Spanish, British, and American culture are underway and will continue throughout 2013.

At the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, said to be Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, a guide at the famous fountain, which is really more of a spring, acknowledged that the story of its discovery may be purely legendary. But continuing archeological excavations at the park have confirmed and expanded the site’s historical significance, said John Stavely, park manager. Kathleen Deagan of the University of Florida, a specialist in Spanish Caribbean archeology, has uncovered a defensive wall that shows the site was a larger and more structured encampment than had been thought, Stavely said.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The park has begun erecting signs at the newly discovered sights explaining how each area or building was used. “Our interpretation is going to become much more substantial,” Stavely said. Also new at the park are a 600-foot boardwalk that extends over the marshes to the ocean and a 16th-century Spanish boatyard where marine craftsmen using centuries-old techniques are building a chalupa, a small coastal boat used by the Spaniards for trading and military purposes.

At the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, a new zip-line course, Crocodile Crossing, takes fliers over seven acres of alligators, crocodiles, birds, and lemurs. An accredited zoological park, the farm claims to be the only site in the world housing all 23 recognized species of crocodilian, including the startling white alligator and the tiny, critically endangered Chinese alligator. In the vast rookery, cattle egret, roseate spoonbills, herons, and gangly wood storks live lives of leisure, thanks to the alligators that keep away the predators that would devour their eggs.

Bethany Pressler, 10, of Jacksonville had visited the alligator farm several times, but the zip line gave her a reason to return last spring with her cousin, Mateland Keith, 19, from Indianapolis. “It’s kind of creepy seeing all the big crocs,” Bethany said. But, yes, she would do it again.

The St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, which relocated from Key West in late 2010, manages to combine scholarly research with whimsical lore. The building is set up like a pirate ship. As you move from the captain’s cabin, with its interactive screens detailing the lives of famous pirates, through the gun deck and execution dock, a cannon booms and parrots squawk. The collection includes flintlocks and blunderbusses, a pretty scary surgical kit, an original jolly roger flag, and treasures such as Newport, R.I., pirate Thomas Tew’s treasure chest with its trick keyhole.

The former Spanish Quarter Village will reopen next spring as the Colonial Quarter Museum, a living history attraction being developed by Pat Croce, the creative spirit behind the Pirate and Treasure Museum. Plans call for an immersive, hands-on visitor experience through St. Augustine’s 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and a 35-foot wooden watch tower topped by a “virtual viewfinder” that will show a panorama of the city as it existed while it was under construction in the late 1600s.

The St. Augustine visitors center, one of the last buildings in the city constructed of coquina, a sedimentary rock composed primarily of oyster shells, has been reconfigured to provide space for rotating exhibits. The current display offers a look into daily life over the centuries through a collection of artifacts, including buttons, pottery, eating and cooking utensils, a 1650 bocce ball, musket balls, and a bayonet. A large Picasso exhibition will open in February. “Exhibition Picasso: Art & Sand,” organized by the Picasso Foundation, will include several works that have never been out of Spain.

Several new downtown restaurants highlight the city’s many culinary influences. The Tasting Room, a contemporary Spanish restaurant on red-bricked Cuna Street that opened in 2006, focuses on tapas and wines from the regions of Spain. The decor is marked by bold reds, glass art, and leather couches in front of a fireplace in the lounge.

In 2008, chef Jean-Stephane Poinard of Lyon, France, launched Bistro de Leon, a casual eatery with authentic country French food and pastries. It’s not unusual for separate dining parties to strike up a conversation — usually about their respective travels in France — in the cozy space. In 2010 The Floridian opened with a focus on locally sourced ingredients, fresh seafood, and old-time Florida flavors such as fried green tomatoes.

Except for the discreet logo, you would never know the Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront was a hotel. The property, which opened in 2005, looks like a neighborhood of Spanish houses. It consists of 19 interconnecting buildings that house 72 rooms and is the smallest Hilton in the Americas, we were told. Though it was built from the ground up, it’s historically accurate and an aesthetically pleasing addition to the Spanish-themed city.