7 wild ways to celebrate Florida’s 500th


By Sarah Sekula, Special to CNN

(CNN) — From plastic flamingos to freshly squeezed orange juice to consistent balmy temps, Florida has a lot going for it. If you are looking for an excuse to visit, 2013 is the year to do it. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon setting foot on Florida’s East Coast.

As part of Viva Florida 500, there are more than 200 events designed to help you learn about Florida’s cultural heritage. We’ve added a few more to the list. Some scream adventure, while others soothe the soul. But all will have you acting downright Floridian.

Strap on scuba gear: Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival
Grab your flippers and head to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Not only is it home to a vibrant coral-barrier reef, but it’s also the spot for a wacky annual gathering where tunes are broadcast by speakers suspended from boats.

On July 13, hundreds of snorkelers and scuba divers will show up to see acts like “Britney Spearfish,” “Bob Marlin” and “Eel-vis Presley” toting along instruments like the “manta-lin” and the “Fluke-a-Lele.” It is all fun and games, but the overall message is one of coral-reef conservation.
Big Pine Key, Florida.; www.lowerkeyschamber.com

Airboat through the Everglades: Sawgrass Recreation Park
In the Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the continental United States, the most popular resident is the alligator. But did you know it’s home to crocodiles, too? This is the only place in the world where you can see the toothy reptiles living side by side. Seek them out by racing among the saw grass and cattails on a guided airboat tour.

At times you’ll hit 50 mph and other times you’ll sit still to soak up the scenery and learn about the invasive species problems. Prolong your visit by checking out animal exhibits where you can hold a baby gator and feed a pot-bellied pig. Or kick it up a notch with a nighttime tour where you’ll hear the hum of crickets and frogs while being surrounded by the red glow of gator eyes.
1006 N. U.S. Highway 27, Weston, Florida.; www.evergladestours.com

Party like a pirate: St. Augustine Pirate Gathering
Avast, ye mateys! November marks the perfect time to roam about like a rebel in the oldest city in the nation. The St. Augustine Pirate Gathering is November 8-10 and admission is only a “buck-an-ear.” See a re-enactment of a pirate mutiny, learn about authentic plundering weapons and visit the wee matey’s play area. Be sure to come ashore dressed in your best piratical attire to celebrate the Golden Age of Piracy.

If you can’t make this one, there are plenty of other gatherings. Take Gasparilla Pirate Fest, for example. It’s one of the most well-known pirate parties, and it happens in Tampa each year in late January or early February.
29 W. Castillo Dr., St Augustine, Florida; www.pirategathering.com

Walk on water: Zainojet
If you’ve ever wanted to feel like James Bond, here’s your chance. At several waterfront Florida locations you can hop into the water and launch yourself up to 30 feet in the air thanks to a water-propelled jet pack called JetLev. It’s part watercraft and part aircraft, and it sends you flying at speeds up to 30 mph. You can hover just above the surface, dive headfirst into the water or move horizontally while tip-toeing across the water.
7904 West Drive Harbour Island, Miami, Florida; www.zainojet.com

Pick your own oranges: Ridge Island Groves
Nothing says Old Florida like acres of citrus trees. Picking your own oranges is always refreshingly rewarding. For more than 20 years, family-owned Ridge Island Groves has touted all things orange, everything from freshly squeezed orange juice to homemade orange ice cream. Take a golf-cart tour of the rural groves and fill your bag with juicy Valencia oranges, plus honey Murcott tangerines and ruby red grapefruits. Then head to the charming outdoor store where shelves are stocked with Bone Hot Suckin’ Sauce, pear preserves, pumpkin butter, pickled okra and corn relish, among many others.
6000 Polk City Road, Haines City, Florida; www.ridgeislandgroves.com

Trek along the trails: Forever Florida
At this 4,700-acre wildlife haven the real attraction is the topography; we’re talking nine beautifully preserved ecosystems, to be exact. The easiest way to check out the sprawling conservation area is the way the founding settlers did, on horseback. As you mosey along the trails, some of which were set by native Americans in the 1500s, you’ll pass bromeliads above, neon-green duckweed crowding the ponds below and native animals galore.

In fact, the ranch is home to the largest herd of Spanish colonial cattle in the state, a critically endangered breed that the ranch owners are committed to protecting. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, snakes, bobcats, Florida scrub-jays, sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises.
4755 N. Kenansville Rd., St. Cloud, Florida; www.foreverflorida.com

Stand up and paddle: Jax Surf Training
One of the best ways to scope out Florida’s teeming marine life is to skim across its waters. More specifically, sign up for a stand-up paddle boarding lesson with Jax Surf Training. Participants hop aboard super sturdy, extra-long boards and scoot several miles down the St. John’s River.

Expect up-close encounters with manatees, dolphins, pelicans and fish of all sorts as you glide along. If you are in Jacksonville on July 4, catch a glimpse of expert paddle boarders making their way toward the Jacksonville Landing as part of Expedition Florida 500. After spending 185 days on the water circumnavigating the state, XF500 paddle boarders will mark the halfway point of their expedition. Oh, and there will be plenty of fireworks, too.