Imagine cruising on a sailboat from St. Augustine to the Keys and up to Tampa Bay and not passing a single high-rise condo, posh hotel or a seaside tiki bar. That's about 750 miles of sand dunes, sea oats, mangroves and rolling surf.
Those were the sights taken in by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon as he made his epic voyage 500 years ago this year. It was a beautiful sight, and de Leon gave the land a beautiful name: La Florida.
It was Easter 1513 when de Leon first spotted the beaches here and gave the land a name that stuck. Historians are still trying to unravel exactly where de Leon landed and traveled during his time in Florida.
The search for the fabled Fountain of Youth has been widely discounted as a myth, but de Leon's place as the first notable European to "discover" Florida has made him an iconic figure.
What makes it all the more frustrating is that half a millennium later we still know so little about him.
De Leon had been commissioned by the Spanish monarchy to find an island off the coast of Cuba that was rumored to have great riches. Instead, he landed somewhere on the east coast of what is now Florida and named the land mass after the Feast of the Flowers during Spain's Easter celebration.
Despite the fascination with de Leon, the site where he first landed still is anyone's guess, said J. Michael Francis, Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.
There is no archaeological footprint. No logbook. No record. The momentous landing is thought to be between South Ponte Vedra Beach and Melbourne in northeast Florida, he said, possibly St. Augustine.
The original logbook from the expedition was never found.
"What we have are much later sources," Francis said. "The principle account of that expedition came from a Spanish chronicler a century later."
He said the 500-year anniversary "serves to highlight the remarkable richness of colonial Florida's history. Within the state of Florida, there were permanent Spanish settlements that included many different ethnicities. The whole story unfolds into the traditional narrative of the United States."
He said European explorers likely visited or sailed past Florida before de Leon, as the peninsula appears on earlier maps, but de Leon's place in history has stuck.
"He named it," Francis said, "He gets to claim it."
Of course, indigenous people were here when de Leon came ashore. Several tribes, including the Calusa and Tocobaga called Florida home. The Spanish explorers and subsequent waves of missionaries had different first impressions. Some interactions were peaceful, some not, Francis said.
"There were a lot of Europeans who ended up living with the Indians in the Tampa Bay area and in the Calusa territory throughout the state," he said. "Some left expeditions or were captured and lived with the Indians. One was a 13-year-old boy who lived 17 years among the Calusa. He was later found by a Dominican friar."
Francis said the disappearance of the indigenous tribes over the years was only partly due to the Spanish influence. Other American Indian tribes were migrating into Florida during that time, as well, he said, and the indigenous tribes died out, fled to Caribbean islands or were assimilated into other cultures.
The Spanish explorers were looking for gold and riches, not the fabled Fountain of Youth. Francis said there is no mention of the Fountain of Youth in de Leon's contracts with Spanish crowns or in his writings.
"There is not a shred of evidence that he was ever looking for the Fountain of Youth, or that he even was aware of it," Francis said.
The myth was spun by a Spaniard who hated de Leon, Francis said, and floated the myth to make the explorer look foolish.
As the decades peeled away, the myth was embellished, Francis said. Eventually, the legend found its way into writings of historians and then history books.
Over the next couple of centuries, Florida's growth was sporadic. St. Augustine was established, but that was about it, save for a string of missions throughout northeast Florida and what later would become Georgia, he said. As other colonies began to emerge in Virginia and New England, Spain focused on its conquest of Mexico and South America.
In the late 1600s, the Spanish established a foothold in Pensacola, and that's when missions and sprawling cattle ranches began to appear throughout the state, he said.
"They were the first cowboys in what was becoming the United States," he said.
St. Augustine, which celebrates its 450th birthday in 2015 and is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the nation, was home to more than just the Spanish, he said, and started what would become the diverse culture on which the country is based.
"Thirty percent was Portuguese," he said of the first residents of St. Augustine. "There were Irish merchants, and the parish priest was an Irishman. There were French, Germans, Flemish. There were 50 Africans, both free and enslaved."
Francis is among a handful of historians who have set out this year to educate the public about this culturally rich era in Florida's early history, focusing on the complexity and diversity of life here in 16th and 17th centuries.
After his landfall on the East Coast, de Leon sailed around the peninsula and came ashore near Charlotte Harbor and eventually near Tampa Bay. Historians say he landed on Anna Maria Island, which he named for Maria Anna von der Pfalz-Neuburg, the queen of Charles II.
Interaction with the locals here was less than cordial.
While repairing ships and laying in supplies on Florida's Gulf Coast, his party was attacked by Calusa Indians, and de Leon was forced to return to Puerto Rico.
In 1521, de Leon returned to Florida with a charter to establish a colony. Historians believe he landed near Sanibel Island near Charlotte Harbor but again was driven off by the Calusa. In the battle, he received a leg wound that became infected, and de Leon died in Havana a short time later.
Less than a decade after that, Pánfilo de Narváez led the first known exploration of Tampa Bay. He had received permission from Emperor Charles V to conquer and colonize the lands between the Cape of Florida and the Río de Las Palmas in Mexico.
Launching his expedition from Cuba in 1528, de Narváez landed on the Pinellas peninsula, marched overland to Tampa Bay, where he met and irked the locals.
To rid themselves of the Spanish, the Tocobaga told Narváez that gold could be found to the north, in the land of Apalachee. Narváez started overland with 400 Spaniards.
They never found gold, but continued on. Eight years later, only four survivors reached a Spanish outpost in Mexico.
Hernando de Soto, who made landfall along Florida's west coast in 1539, came ashore somewhere near Bradenton, historians say.
Today, there are counties and schools named for de Soto in West Central Florida, markers here and there, and an official Hernando de Soto Trail, roughly following the explorer's overland, historic trek up the Gulf Coast and on to the Mississippi River.
The Sunshine State is trying to capitalize on the fascination with de Leon with a tourism marketing blitz tied to the 500th anniversary.
The state is sponsoring 150 events commemorating the Spanish arrival and lasting contributions to civilization in the New World. This, even though that European culture played a part in the decimation, relocation and assimilation of the indigenous people who had laid claim to the peninsula for more than 10,000 years.
It was de Leon's arrival in April 1513 that "began a new era in human history that saw many nationalities come together as the foundation that eventually formed the United States of America," said the website for the Florida Department of State.
The statewide campaign, Viva Florida 500, includes a full-scale replica of de Leon's flagship scheduled to sail into Ponte Vedra in April, as well as a slate of events ranging from re-enactments to lectures to historical displays across the state.
Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation, hopes the campaign will persuade visitors to come here, and once here, extend their visits by a day or two so they can "explore some museum or historical site or visit one of Florida's amazing springs."
Tourism is the state's No. 1 industry, with 87.3 million visitors in 2011. Visitors this year will be encouraged to go beyond the beaches and theme parks, Seccombe said, and visit trails and dive shipwrecks; tour Spanish missions; and take in festivals and re-enactments.
Seccombe said notices have been placed in American Heritage magazine to hook history buffs, and several trade missions have been made to Spain to draw Spanish visitors.
"We've been working on the marketing for a couple of years," he said. The anniversary "is an extraordinary opportunity … to showcase the state's rich culture and diversity. Ponce de Leon was our first visitor.
"Clearly," he said, "Florida was the first U.S. travel destination."
De Leon's arrival in Florida marked the beginning of the end for the area's indigenous people. A spokesman for the Seminole Indians last week said there were no objections to the 500th anniversary of de Leon's expedition to Florida and whatever events are planned.
"The Seminole Tribe is fine with whatever celebration the state of Florida wants to observe," said Gary Bitner, spokesman for the tribe in Fort Lauderdale, "as long as people remember that the first Floridians were Indians."