NORTH PORT — As weekend invitations go, this one was interesting.
Did I want to soak in a prehistoric mineral spring? It would be smelly. And dirty. And hot! And, you know, there are bones down there.
Look, if we’ve learned anything in recent history, it’s Say Yes To Life When Possible, Within Reason, If You Can. I admit I wasn’t familiar with Warm Mineral Springs Park, but I was willing to find out.
My date was Kristen Hare, who writes Epilogue obituaries for the Tampa Bay Times, as well as a series of books called 100 Things to Do in Tampa Bay Before You Die. Don’t you love the life and death connection? She’s working on the third edition, scoping out more of our region’s bucket list excursions.
The springs are in North Port, 30 miles south of Sarasota. There’s not much to see around town except houses, and GPS dropped us both in a neighborhood before we found the park.
Then, bingo. Clusters of people shuffled up toting colorful pool noodles (a key point, put in a pin in that), paying $20 for entrance through a gift shop.
Once a glam roadside attraction, the springs’ buildings are lost to time and hurricane damage. The bathrooms and showers have closed, replaced by clean trailer toilets. The City of North Port purchased the springs in 2014 for $2.75 million. The park is slated for a phased redevelopment, including trails and a boardwalk planned for the parkland around the waters.
But you’re not here for the latest shower tech. You’re here for the 30,000-year-old collapsed sinkhole plunging hundreds of feet into the earth. The site is marketed as the original Fountain of Youth, discovered by Ponce de León, which, uh, maybe? Archeologists have unearthed ancient human remains below the springs, plus bones of saber-toothed cats, sloths and camels. Camels!
Some believe the water has healing properties. It’s renowned for a high content of more than 50 minerals, from calcium to potassium to sulphur. Ahh, sulphur! You can’t miss it. But the smell is a vital part of the experience, and you get used to it fast.
On a smoldering Florida day, the parking lot felt like flagellation, typical. But where we sat in chairs under lush tree canopies, the temperature almost felt cool. Maybe it’s a trick of the water, which stays about 85 degrees year-round, but it was absolutely lovely.
Now, about those noodles. They’re available in the gift shop, but experienced floaters came prepared. One genius created an impressive floating scaffold of four noodles. We did not bring noodles — fine for Kristen, who is tall. I hung out on my toes around the edges, wishing I consumed more milk as a child.
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The Wilford Brimley movie Cocoon has been held up often to describe the clientele. The guests do skew older, but we saw a variety of ages. Loads of international visitors, primarily Russians, own homes nearby just for the springs. Accents flutter through the air.
We met Jarod Jacobs and his wife, Germaine Leonard, who visit from Boca Raton every two weeks. Jacobs, who calls himself the Mayor of Warm Mineral Springs (congratulations, Mr. Mayor!) has had multiple sclerosis for 35 years and can’t walk. He uses a motorized wheelchair. But in the water?
“I can go around and around for hours,” he said. “No problem. I feel so good.”
In other countries, soaking is a way of life. Americans, safe to say, are a little more hyper for action. If you’re looking for water slides and cocktails, you’re in the wrong place.
Jacobs tries to level with friends when they ask what he does at the springs.
“You get in the water.”
Yeah, yeah, but after that, what do you do?
“You get out of the water.”
And then what?
“You get back in the water.”
Instructions: stay in for at least 45 minutes. Don’t shower for a few hours, let the good stuff soak in. I’m generally skeptical, but as Kristen and I sat on the shore after an hourlong dip, my body felt warm and tingly, as if pressed against a coffee pot. My feet started peeling. Hours later, I had the skin a facialist once told me was only possible with $200 vampire injections.
Fountain of Youth? Let’s not rule anything out.
If you go
Warm Mineral Springs Park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas. Kids 10 and younger stay in a special area. $15 for North Port residents, $20 for non-residents, bulk passes available. 12200 San Servando Ave., North Port. (941) 426-1692.
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