In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was the first European explorer to claim Florida, on a hunt for treasure. There's still some debate about where he landed. Between all of the estimates, there's a 250-mile margin of error. Some experts say he landed a bit north of St. Augustine. Others say he landed around Cape Canaveral. What is clear is this:
He blazed a trail other explorers followed, each making landfall in different regions of the state. To mark the 500th anniversary of Ponce's achievement, Going Places revisits some of those explorers who made early contact with La Florida, with an eye on what they'd find if they arrived in those regions today.
If you've ever seen a map that's more than about 100 years old, you've probably seen distortions on the page. Borders get drawn and redrawn. Areas are annexed, areas are severed. And sometimes the geography is out of scale or just plain wrong.
It's the same with history. Sometimes the stories are out of scale or just plain wrong.
Some 500 years after Juan Ponce de León claimed Florida for the Spanish monarchy, we still don't know every detail about what happened next. Historians can take good guesses, and we can share their findings.
Likewise, the explorers who came to Florida five centuries ago had only a general idea themselves about what they might find here. They had some maps, some stories, and little else. But you? You're different. You live in modern times, and you have resources.
This special section is your advantage—a map of sorts for getting around in the Sunshine State. It aims to nurture your sense of discovery as you travel to any corner of Florida. On your next trip, you can try these popular suggestions, or plot your own course.
...That's what explorers would do.
The 1500s were a heightened era of exploration, as Spain sent conquistadors to the New World to reap treasure wherever they could find it. Gold and silver were being shipped by the ton from Mexico to Europe, but many ships never made it home, sinking in the waters off the Florida coast.
In 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano was challenged to set up a colony from which he could protect seaworthy Spanish ships from French pirates and set up an overland trade route. He managed to establish a settlement, Puerto de Santa Maria, at Pensacola Bay. However, various natural disasters—and general mismanagement—forced him to abandon the settlement only a few months later.
If de Luna settled here today, he'd find pockets of natural beauty and thriving tourism.
And he'd probably feel right at home, because a big part of Pensacola is about naval life. Not far from de Luna's settlement, you'll find the National Naval Aviation Museum, home to the world-renowned precision flying team known as the Blue Angels. Formally the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Angels have thrilled crowds since 1946, making it the world's second-oldest formal flying acrobatic team (behind Patrouille de France, founded in 1931).
Of course, Pensacola has a deep military history, counting Fort San Carlos de Barrancas, built by the British Navy in 1763—before the Revolutionary War. Pensacola Beach is a great place for swimming, fishing and other outdoor activities—a major component of the protected Gulf Islands National Seashore. But it's only a starting point for what locals call the Emerald Coast—a 100-mile stretch that entices snorkelers, anglers and sunbathers alike.
That stretch includes the popular resort communities of Fort Walton Beach (beloved by spring breakers and northern visitors) and Destin (known for convention-friendly hotels and excellent shopping and dining in the HarborWalk district), and small-town retreats such as Seaside (best known as the setting for the 1998 movie, The Truman Show) and Rosemary Beach.
Panama City Beach is especially hallowed territory for divers, with numerous scuba shops offering lessons and information about famous dive sites. But if staying on dry land is more your taste, Pier Park is a modern, 900,000-square-foot shopping and outdoor entertainment hub.