MELBOURNE BEACH -- A park along this white sandy shoreline commemorates Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival in the land he would christen “La Florida.”
So is this county park the actual site where the first European explorer arrived in America? Maybe, maybe not.
Scholars remain uncertain about precisely where Ponce de Leon made landfall. But Brevard County, in southeast Florida, became a contender for that historic claim two decades ago, when a modern-day explorer re-sailed the path of the famed and fabled 16th Century one and determined Ponce de Leon likely came ashore just south of Melbourne Beach.
The Juan Ponce de Leon Landing park (4005 State Road A1A, 321-255-4400, www.brevardcounty.us/parksrecreation), which opened in 2005, celebrates that idea. And while it’s unclear where Florida’s -- and, by extension, America’s -- history began, the vistas from this shore make it easy to conjure images from that day.
A destination on Florida’s Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail, this unspoiled beach is home to mangrove-packed dunes and a couple of simple wooden walkways to access the sand from a lot that contains ample free parking. The park also contains a public restroom and small picnic pavilion.
A historic marker tells the story of Ponce de Leon’s voyage. Soon, a 10-foot bronze statue -- the work of Spanish sculptor Rafael Picon -- will be installed at the park to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s landing.
“When people say they’re celebrating the discovery of America by Ponce de Leon, we’re actually celebrating the person and his accomplishments,” says Samuel Lopez, chairman of the Florida Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and president of United Third Bridge, a Brevard County advocacy group.
“It means a slew of things. After Ponce de Leon landed, a whole sequence of events that unfolded after that -- the first city, the first ranch, the first university, the first hospital, the first school building. There is a lot to celebrate.
“For Hispanic people, it’s a footprint on this hemisphere, and the knowledge of what Hispanics have accomplished.”
Traditionally, historians have maintained that Ponce de Leon arrived at St. Augustine, the oldest continually occupied American city settled by Europeans. Though the city was not established until 1565 by Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Ponce de Leon was commonly thought to have landed here. Landmarks throughout the city bear his name and celebrate his arrival.
That notion was challenged in 1992, when Douglas Peck of Bradenton, Fla. -- a sailor and amateur historian -- consulted the documentation available for Ponce de Leon’s month-long voyage to America in the spring of 1513.
Peck used 16th-Century navigational tools, sailed at a comparable time of year, and determined that Ponce de Leon landed within five to eight nautical miles of this spot south of Melbourne Beach.
In a book he wrote after his voyage, “Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Florida,” Peck also challenges other widely held beliefs about the explorer.
“He was not the least interested in a fountain of youth, but instead was looking for a large and wealthy island called “Beminy,” Peck wrote. “Nor did he land at St. Augustine, but at a point more than 125 miles south.”
Making your own voyage to the Juan Ponce de Leon Landing park? Consider these other nearby stops:
· Located three miles north of the park just off State Road A1A, Melbourne Beach’s quaint Old Town Hall History Center tells the story of the Melbourne Beach area, from the Ais Indians to the town’s founding a century ago. “It’s very small and very homey, so we don’t even like it call it a museum,” says Ann Downing, who represents Melbourne Beach on the Brevard County Historical Commission. “But there is interesting history here about how Melbourne Beach was formed. It’s great because even a lot of people who live here don’t know about it.” The history center (2373 Oak St., 321-952-7322, www.melbournebeachfl.org) is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and, on occasion, by appointment.
· Pick up the essentials for a beach picnic at the Melbourne Beach Market (302 Ocean Ave., 321-676-5225). With an expansive and thoughtful wine selection, an olive bar and prepared Italian dishes available for purchase in the “Chef’s Corner” portion of the store, the market is an unexpected find in this little beach town.
· Another destination on Florida’s Spanish Cultural Heritage Trail is located just 12 miles south of Juan Ponce de Leon Landing. Sebastian Inlet State Park (9700 S. State Road A1A, 321-984-4852, www.floridastateparks.org/sebastianinlet) is situated at the tips of two Atlantic Coast barrier islands and is popular among surfers and fishermen.
· The most storied part of the region’s history occurred in 1715, when 11 Spanish treasure galleons sank nearby, killing 700 people. One of the survivors set up camp inside what is now the state park, and the McLarty Treasure Museum located inside the park is built on the former campsite.