For most Sarasotans, Warm Mineral Springs in North Port is about as foreign as Ukraine—figuratively and literally, since Ukrainians now compose about 10 percent of North Port’s population. It’s a place most of us never go. I personally have avoided it for years, not finding myself drawn to what it promises: elderly Eastern Europeans dog paddling around a murky pond of smelly water.
Yet outside of Sarasota, Warm Mineral Springs is famous. The Huffington Post included it on its list of the world’s nine top natural spas—the only one in the United States. Its mineral content puts places like Baden Baden to shame.
A few months ago, I finally decided to head south and see the place for myself, and guess what? It changed my life.
Warm Mineral Springs is an ancient sinkhole, located at the northern edge of North Port, from which a natural spring flows. The water—said to be 2 million years old—is loaded with minerals spewing up from far below the earth’s surface. The place was sacred to the local Native Americans, and archaeologists have found amazing things in its depths: a 17,000-year-old human skull that still had brain matter attached, the bones of long-extinct animals, evidence of the oldest burial in North America and a Model T.
Legend says Warm Mineral Springs was the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Leon was searching for. Many places in Florida claim to be that, but Warm Mineral Springs does have one point in its favor: The famous explorer was fatally wounded nearby. The place remained a local curiosity until the 1970s, when the springs caught the attention of a group of vacationing Ukrainians. They apparently love rustic spas and earthy health treatments. More Ukrainians started coming, bringing friends and relatives. Today North Port has Ukrainian restaurants and a grocery store and five Ukrainian churches, including a Baptist one.
The springs are about a 40-minute drive from Sarasota and very easy to find; they’re just a mile or so off the Tamiami Trail. You park, enter a pavilion, and pay the entrance fee ($15 for Sarasota County residents). There are locker rooms with showers but no private lockers; the practice is to carry all your stuff in a tote.
The place was prettier than I expected. Tall Australian pines surround much of the pond—it’s 1.4 acres in circumference—and the grass is well-kept. On the day I first visited, the sky was bright-blue with puffy clouds. There are plastic Adirondack chairs (free of charge, but I suggest you move yours into the shade). I took a seat to peruse my surroundings. The first thing I noticed was a persistent but not unpleasant buzz of conversation in the air.
First surprise. That buzz is Ukrainian. I thought the Ukrainian presence was an exaggeration. There would be maybe a couple here and there, added for atmosphere, like the docents in costume at Colonial Williamsburg. Wrong. Everybody is Ukrainian. If you go during the middle of the week it seems that more than 90 percent of the patrons are Ukrainian or Russian or of some other Eastern European nationality. When you finally hear somebody speak English it comes as a shock.
But no time to linger under a tree. Let’s get in the water. You walk down a rickety ramp and slowly immerse yourself. I admit I was skeptical. But once the water engulfed me, the strangest thing happened. A deep, peaceful sensation came over me. This is it, I thought to myself. This is exactly what I have been looking for without even knowing it.
First of all, the temperature is perfect. They say it’s 87 degrees. It’s not too hot, not too cold, just perfect. You can feel the currents coming up from below. Sometimes a current is a little hotter or colder, but that just makes it even more pleasant.
Second, the water feels different from any other water I’ve been in. I would describe the sensation as “heavy.” There’s a syrupy quality to it—not sticky or salty, just very, very dense and loaded with stuff. I assume that stuff is all the minerals coming up from beneath the earth. I was put off by the pieces of slimy algae that float around until I saw the old ladies grabbing them and rubbing them on their skin. Soon I was doing that myself.
And much to my surprise, the experience also provides exercise. You propel yourself forward with your arms and legs—the depth around the edge is pretty much up to your neck—and the heavy water offers just the right amount of resistance. The little currents gently push you around. Every muscle in your body comes into play, including ones you haven’t used in ages. Strenuous it’s not, but keep at it for a couple of hours and you get quite a workout.
The standard procedure is to walk or dog paddle clockwise around the pond, which takes perhaps 20 minutes per rotation. After the first rotation I could feel my back stretching out. It was straighter than it had been in months. After the second rotation I was starting to burp, but in a good way. When I got home, I was exhausted and could still feel the movement of the water. I ate an enormous meal, then immediately fell asleep, passed out from a heavenly catharsis of water, sulfur fumes and the rough but poetic rhythms of the various Slavic languages.
Now Warm Mineral Springs is part of my weekly routine. It helps my back, improves my posture, and thanks to all that algae, I now have the skin of an elderly Ukrainian woman. I can’t believe that with all the aging bodies in Sarasota, more people don’t throw away their Aleve and take advantage of this gold mine of pain relief.
I have mixed feelings about recommending it, though. The last thing it needs is more Americans. The Ukrainians are clearly in charge of maintaining the tone of the place and they do a great job. There is no untoward behavior, no loud music, and I pity any children or teenagers who might get in their way.
There is some confusion about the future of the springs. It is now owned by the city of North Port and there are distressing rumors that it might be privately developed. There used to be spa services, such as acupuncture and massage, but they are long gone, along with the café. Nowadays it’s bare bones, shabby around the edges—and perfect.
Warm Mineral Springs is located at 12200 San Servando Ave., North Port, and open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Christmas. Info: (941) 426-1692.