|Nowhere else in Florida or in the nation will
you be closer to the nation's roots than in this region of Florida which
likes to call itself Florida First Coast.
That "First" is a reference to the region's undisputed antiquity, not to mention its spot in history as the first place in the nation to welcome European explorers and the first foreign settlement in the nation.
Historically, Florida was born here, and it was here that the first tiny trickle of tourism flowed into what was to become a flood of visitors to the nation's number one vacation destination. When Jacksonville welcomed its first tourist, Miami was still a swamp. And long before that, when Jacksonville was just a forest of scrub pine and some lonely sand, neighboring St. Augustine was already a thriving colony.
Here on Florida's First Coast, you meet a part of the state that is like no other sector of this sunny peninsula. Its sand is packed hard enough to drive on; its lifestyle is as gentle as its Southern drawls.
Here mists drift over wide rivers, and "piney woods" and giant live oaks drip an odd, epiphytic plant called Spanish moss, that makes an eerie sight on a foggy morn.
This land was in the middle of a battle long before the Pilgrims ever dreamed of sailing off into the sunset. In those early days, the religiously persecuted were the French Huguenots, whose Protestant religion was frowned upon by Catholic Europe. In 1562, they set sail from France, arriving here months later and settling in a tiny colony that was to meet a violent end.
Long before that, in 1493, the region's favorite son, Juan Ponce de Leon, landed here as part of an explorative group led by another intrepid explorer of some renown, none other than Christopher Columbus, the man generally credited with discovering America.
Ponce de Leon, who went on the become the governor of Puerto Rico, must have liked what he saw on the First Coast: he returned here in 1513 on an expedition of his own, landing in nearby St. Augustine. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was seeking the famed fountain of youth - you can still visit the reputed site of his Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine and see if it works!
Pragmatists, however, claim Ponce de Leon had something much more prosaic in mind: gold. Whatever the truth of it all, the explorer certainly made a most lasting impact on the state: he landed on Easter Day, called Pascua Florida, or Feast of Flowers, in Spanish. He promptly dubbed this new land Florida, a name that, clearly, has stuck.
Ponce de Leon and his Spanish crew were followed by the French, the English and a crowd of rowdy Revolutionaries who called themselves "Americans." This part of the state and quite a lot of territory beyond was horsetraded among those nationalities for 300 years.
Cannons boomed. Men in armor clanked through the streets of St. Augustine. Seminole Indians died in grim battles and those pesky "Americans" kept things in an uproar about as loud as the cannon fire.
Those who sought their fortune here, whether it be gold or a fabulous fountain, have included both those benignly famed and the decidedly infamous. Pirates Jean Lafitte, Blackbeard and Sir Francis Drake pillaged and pirated their way along the coastline, sacking cities that now perversely honor those rogues with an oceanside road called the Buccaneer Trail.
Jacksonville's African-American heritage has long and strong roots here, too, most of them grimly tied to slave traders. Chief among those was Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave trader who built an enormous plantation here from profits in notorious "black gold," then married an elegant African princess and made her a free woman, an exceptionally rare creature in those dark days.
It went on like that, the famous and the infamous making their mark on the region. With them came glorious days when silk gowns rustled across the shining wood floors of great plantation houses, when champagne frothed and money flowed. With them came grim days when cannons thundered, guns roared, fires burned and men died to claim this land.
Great galleons filled with gold have sailed past this coastline, and some of them remain here still, buried forever beneath seas that betrayed them. Massive ships filled with the betrayed also slithered in here, unshackling cargoes of the black gold of slavery that was to leave its own infamous mark here and everywhere in the nation.
Waves of joy and jinx, victors and vanquished have rippled over this land, leaving behind towering fortresses and tiny houses, lacy gowns and gold doubloons, fragments and figments of a past that lives on proudly here in a multi-cultural heritage encompassing French, Spanish, English and African settlers.
Today, Jacksonville, whose urban sprawl has made it geographically the largest city in the nation, covering more than 800 square miles, is a bustling, booming banking and insurance capital where only two French words are now common: mortgage and champagne.