In 1513, a Spanish explorer named Juan Ponce de León landed on a flowering peninsula he called “La Florida.” Was he wearing mouse ears and socks with flip-flops, like many of Florida’s modern visitors? All we can say with certainty is that 500 years ago, he was searching for the Fountain of Youth. Five centuries later, this hot strip on the tip of the Eastern US still attracts explorers, those still searching for youth and folks who can’t seem to effectively apply sunscreen.
For better or for worse, happy 500th birthday, Florida!
Between Florida’s focus on tourism and its legacy of intrepid exploration, it makes perfect sense that this is the land that made me who I am. Now that I’ve returned from my travels to explore my home state – at least for the next 11 months until my lease runs out – I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon as La Florida promotes this historic year with events and parties and exhibitions.
So here are 5 of my Florida favorites to help you experience 500 years of Florida – enjoy!
Florida wouldn’t be Florida without historic St. Augustine, so start your Sunshine State adventure here with a dose of Spanish history. While Ponce de Leon explored the area, now known as the First Coast, upon arrival in 1513, St. Augustine is regarded as the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States because Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés officially founded a settlement here in 1565. Home to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (1672), gorgeous Flagler College (1888), the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, the USA’s Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse and Nombre de Dios, a Catholic Mission founded in 1565, there’s no shortage of interesting sites and surprising facts in this town.
In a country where just about everything is relatively new, especially in comparison with say, Europe, it’s refreshing to visit St. Augustine and experience a walk back into US history. (Just beware where you stay!)
Some of Florida’s most ancient residents live in South Florida, and I’m not just talking about all those Yankee retirees! Of course, I’m referring to the American Alligator, of prehistoric descent. Did you know the word alligator is an anglicized form of el lagarto, the Spanish term for “lizard,” which the Spanish settlers in Florida called the alligator? How cool is that?
While you can spot these dinosaurs all over the state, in nearly every body of water, the best place for gator peeping is the Everglades National Park, where you can take a bike ride on the Shark Valley Loop off the Tamiami Trail. If that sounds a little too Steve Erwin for your taste, you can take a tram, or book a spot on an airboat for the ride of your life.
Walt Disney World & Universal Studios Florida
Folks either love or hate what’s become of Orlando, what with its plethora of larger than life theme parks and prominent bowing to tourism. I grew up in a world where a trip to Disney was as big a deal as Christmas, so I must confess, I fall staunchly in the “We’re going to a theme park today?! YAHOOOOOOOO!” category. The Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Disney Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Sea World, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and the new Legoland are the heavy-hitters, and you could spend quite a bit of money just checking those off your list. (Wizarding World of Harry Potter, anyone? My favorite!)
But don’t forget about the smaller parks, including Wet n’ Wild, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon and the Holy Land Experience. If you’re coming to Florida for the first time, even just for a few days, plan a visit to one or more parks. You won’t be sorry. (Your feet might. Bring bandaids.)
Far away from the theme parks and the historic attractions of Spanish Florida, you’ll find a town with a distinctive Caribbean flavor. It’s Key West, Florida, and it’s the southernmost point of the continental USA. In fact, Key West is closer to Havana, Cuba, than it is to Miami.
At just four miles long and two miles wide, Key West won’t take too long to explore once you get there, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth the spectacular drive on the Overseas Highway, crossing 113-mile chain of islands connected by 42-bridge, including one that’s a full seven miles long. Pastel-colored houses and cats and funky bars await at the end of the road, much like they did when Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams were residents.
Explorers founded Florida in 1513 and since NASA’s inception in 1958, explorers have continued to search for new frontiers using Florida’s Space Coast as a base. When I was a kid, my grandparents used to bring us down from Jacksonville to watch the space shuttle launches. The shuttle program was discontinued in 2011, but space exploration continues, so you can still visit Kennedy Space Center, its many retired spacecraft and the Astronaut Hall of Fame on your next visit.
So, are you all jacked up like Ponce de Leon on Fountain of Youth water? No? Come on! There’s no time like the present to come check out my home sweet home. And let me know if you do… I’ve got a million more recommendations, theme park secret tips and suggestions for the best restaurants to get alligator tail. And with all this research I’m doing on Florida’s history, I’m just a little bit excited to play tour guide =)
A historical note: there was a Native American presence in Florida long before the European influence, so I don’t want that to go unnoticed! The 500-year anniversary of course commemorates the beginning of the formation of the USA as we know it. Also interesting to note, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, Ponce de Leon was with him. Plymouth Rock and Jamestown were founded in the 1600s.
And a programming note: No, Visit Florida didn’t pay me to write this. I just love my home state and wanted everyone to know about it!