These days, Florida welcomes more than 87 million tourists a year, but five centuries ago, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on what is now known as the east coast of Florida, visits from afar were rare. The Spanish explorer’s voyage, a failed attempt to find gold, brought European settlers to the land inhabited by Native Americans and launched a new era in Florida’s history.
To celebrate the New World discovery in 1513, the Sunshine State is hosting a long list of cultural and heritage events under the campaign “Viva Florida 500.”
“This is the first time in modern memory that Florida as a state is prominently promoting its history and cultural heritage,” said Kerri Post, deputy secretary of state in the Office of Cultural, Historical and Information Programs and one of the people guiding community efforts. “We’re known for our beaches and our theme parks, but our history gets overlooked. So we look at the anniversary as an opportunity to examine our heritage, not just Spanish but also African-American, Caribbean, Native American. Florida has always been multicultural.”
More than 300 happenings are on the calendar statewide, with some communities still in the planning phase.
“Our goal is to have events in all of Florida’s 67 counties,” Post said. “After all, this is our opportunity to talk about 500 years of history, something no other state can claim.”
Many of the celebrations focus on history, including reenacting milestone events, especially Ponce de Leon’s landing; others pay homage to Florida’s natural side, Post said.
One, called FLOR500, is a participatory art, nature, and history project being developed at Florida International University in Miami where 500 Florida artists are invited to depict 500 native wildflowers that were growing in 1513.
Others focus on coastal and inland waterways. “Our heritage is not just by land, it’s also by sea,” Post said. “And we want to spread the conservation message as well. We’re not just looking at our nautical history 500 years past, but also what our waterways are going to be like 500 years from now.”
Coastal stewardship is the main aim of Expedition Florida 500, arguably the most ambitious of Viva Florida 500 events. Led by Justin Riney of Vero Beach and sponsored in part by Quicksilver, a crew of paddlers from across the country is exploring the entire state by standup paddleboard. Along the way, they paddle with locals and organize waterway cleanups.
“The adventure is amazing, but I want people to know that it’s really about conservation,” Riney said on the phone during his second week out. That morning, as the paddlers approached Destin, on the Florida Panhandle, they were greeted by a pod of cresting dolphins, a scene captured on video and posted to Expedition 500’s Facebookpage, where the public can follow the group’s trip.
Following are some Viva Florida 500 highlights. Several are in St. Augustine, considered to be where Ponce de Leon first dropped anchor. All events and updates can be found at www.vivaflorida.org.
Through Dec. 31, Expedition Florida 500, statewide
This yearlong water adventure is a signature Viva Florida 500 event. Using standup paddle boards, Riney and crew are first traversing the state’s coastline and then will turn inland, exploring the rivers, lakes, estuaries, and marshlands that make up Florida’s freshwater ecosystem. Through its Facebook page, the expedition, whose goal is to highlight waterway stewardship, regularly posts invitations for the public to join them in paddling and cleanup efforts. www.xf500.org, www.facebook.com/xf500
Through Dec. 31, Navigating New Worlds: Identity, Perception & Politics in Florida, Tallahassee
The double-sided Secunda etas Mundi map from 1493 is among the rare maps and Florida historical artifacts spanning more than 400 years on display from the Michael W. and Dr. Linda M. Fisher Collection in this museum exhibit. The maps depict the influence of Europeans on Florida, as well as the continuity of various cultures and languages throughout the state’s transformation. Free. Florida Historic Capitol Museum, 400 South Monroe St., 850-487-1902, www.flhistoriccapitol.gov
Opening in March, Colonial Quarter, St. Augustine
This living-history museum commemorating the discovery of “La Florida” opens in the former site of Spanish Quarter Village, expanding the original site’s focus to include St. Augustine’s Spanish and British periods and the influences of African-American and Native American cultures. It will include exhibits, shows, taverns, and restaurants to immerse visitors in the historical experience. About $10-$30. 33 St. George St., 877-467-5863, www.colonialquarter.com Continued...