No doubt the biggest happenings in Florida in 2013 will be the many events celebrating the state's first tourist, Juan Ponce de Leon. The Spanish explorer landed in Florida in 1513, 500 years ago. He named the state La Florida — land of flowers — and we've been blooming ever since.
One of the many events will be the Ponce de Leon Festival on March 23-24 in Punta Gorda, which boasts a statue of the explorer on its waterfront. There will be re-enactments and other activities marking his landing in Charlotte Harbor. For more information on statewide Ponce de Leon events, go to the Visit Florida website, visitflorida.com/viva.
Besides the Ponce de Leon quincentenary extravaganzas, there are other festivals and happenings that are worth putting on your calendar. Many are annual events that come and go and we say "Wow, I should go to that next year." This year you will. The following are some to consider and you'll find even more on visitflorida.com.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Where the birds are
The 16th annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, Jan. 23-28, in Titusville is billed as one of the largest in the United States. Grab your binoculars and drive across the state to get up close with all manner of winged creatures. There are seminars, night-time hikes and field trips to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Birders will learn about raptors and owls, plus get tips on photography. There's a $20 registration fee. For more information, go to spacecoastbirdingandwildlifefestival.org.
Treasured junk and stuff
If you've not tramped through the acres and acres of someone else's junk at Renninger's antiques and collectibles extravaganzas in Mount Dora, put Jan. 18-20 and Feb. 15-17 on your calendar. (Watch website for dates of fall show.) The antique-paloozas on U.S. 441, east of Mount Dora, attract some 1,000 dealers selling old iron gates, ceramic roosters, wagon wheels and all manner of glass and pottery. The antiques market opens each day at 8 a.m. and tickets are $10 on Friday, $6 Saturday and $4 Sunday or $15 for a three-day pass. Parking is free. For more information, go to renningers.com.
Love affair with food
Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival is Feb. 21-24 and for those four days, Miami and South Beach will be crawling with Food Network celebs and other culinary glitterati. Seminars, wine tastings, special dinners and a chance to get close with some of the food world's most famous folk draws thousands to the festival held at various locations. Tickets go fast to some events, like brunch with Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray's Burger Bash, but there are lots of other events and people to see. List of events, plus ticket prices and packages at sobefest.com.
Climb the lighthouse
There are more than 25 lighthouses in Florida, but the white-and-black barber pole beacon in St. Augustine might be the most recognizable. An active staff plans activities all year long but the 4 to 9 p.m. Night Fest on March 2 is a fun time to head over. There will be a 5K run and a restaurant cooking competition plus a presentation on navigation by stars. You'll also have a chance to climb the 219 steps to the top. Tickets are $5 for adults; $3 for children. For more information go to staugustinelighthouse.org. While you're in St. Augustine, stop by the Visitor Information Center, 10 S Castillo Drive, to see an exhibition of 39 works by Pablo Picasso (through May 11). The exhibition of the Spanish artist's work is part of the many events commemorating the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon landing in Florida. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children 6-12. Children under 6 are free. For information, go to staugustine-450.com.
Get your comic on
MegaCon in Orlando is the Southeast's largest gathering of comic book, sci-fi, anime, fantasy and gaming lovers. Some 30,000 folks, many in costume, are expected to descend on the Orange County Convention Center, March 15-17. The original cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation will be the big attraction at 6:30 p.m. March 16, among them Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) and Levar Burton (Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge). There will be plenty of authors and other celebs, plus sci-fi speed dating is back. Tickets are $30 at the door and $60 for a three-day pass; less if you order in advance online. And good news, kids under 10 are free with a paid adult. Just a kid at heart? You'll have to pay. There's an additional entry fee for the Star Trek event. For more information, go to megaconvention.com.
Who knew there were 2,500 varieties of mango? They do at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where some of the world's leading experts on tropical fruit work. Coral Gables becomes ground zero for mango madness each July as a big crowd heads to the botanical gardens to sample many of the varieties at the annual International Mango Festival, which is July 13-14 next year. Seminars on growing and cooking also draw people to the festival. There are even small mango trees for sale, and when the gates open on the first day, the race is on to get the coveted Nam Doc Mai, Mallika and the Cogshall, propagated on Pine Island. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for seniors, $12 for children 6-17. For more information, go to fairchildgarden.org. The facility is at 10901 Old Cutler Road in Coral Gables.
Come mid-July, when it's hotter than the blazes, Key West is crawling with men who look like Ernest Hemingway. And the one who looks most like the manly American writer who lived and wrote for a time in America's southernmost point, is named winner of the look-alike contest sponsored by Sloppy Joe's. Hemingway Days are July 18-20 with the doppelganger contest going on for almost the whole time with preliminaries and arm wrestling. It's as good an excuse as any to visit the always-entertaining Florida Keys. Make sure you check out the historic Hemingway House and visit the cats. The shenanigans on Duval Street are free, except for the drinks and raunchy T-shirts. More information at fla-keys.com.
Paddling in blue
Grab your paddles and kayaks and go south to Lee County Nov. 1-3 for the annual Calusa Blueway Paddling Festival. The Blueway is a paddling trail that meanders more than 190 miles through coastal and inland waterways. There will be demonstrations and lessons, a fishing tournament and children's activities, plus lots of local food. The main event sites are Causeway Island Park, 19950 Sanibel Causeway Road on Sanibel, and the Residence Inn by Marriott, 20371 Summerlin Road in Fort Myers. For more information, go to calusabluewaypaddlingfestival.com. Four-day passes are $75 and single day is $15.
Eat them oysters
The 50th Florida Seafood Festival along the Apalachicola River is Nov. 1-2. Thousands of visitors head to the small Panhandle town for the annual event and if you haven't been to Apalachicola recently, it's a good time to go. Besides the events at the festival, which include eating lots of local seafood, a parade, entertainment and arts and crafts exhibits, you'll find some delightful stores and other restaurants in the center of town. Plan to stay an extra day or go early so you can get the feel of this maritime town without the crowds. Oh, and there are blue crab races, too. For more information, go to floridaseafoodfestival.com.
Florida-Florida State football
Forget the NFL teams. The Biggest Show in Florida football is the annual Florida-Florida State game. This year, Florida hosts its rival Nov. 30 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the UF campus in Gainesville. Beg for tickets by calling FSU toll-free at 1-888-378-6653 or go to seminoles.com. If you will only give your money to Florida folks, call them at (352) 375-4683, ext. 6800, or click on gatorzone.com/tickets. Season tickets are on sale now; single tickets might be available later. Best bet is to cozy up to an alumnus or find students who want to sell tickets.