Life is a Beach in Pensacola
Graham McKenzie visited Floridas Panhandle and found a gem.
In a Nutshell
The drive from the south along the Gulf Islands National Seashore Road is like a fairy-tale ride as you become surrounded by the whitest of sand edged by the blue water of the ocean within a stone’s throw either side. The experience is so unique It is something everybody should try to enjoy at some point in their life. For beach goers, wind surfers or plain old pleasure seekers this is Nirvana. The magical route, the J Earle Bowden Way, leads to one of the most interesting destinations on the Gulf Coast which couples national attractions with a small-town feel – Pensacola.
Why your clients should go
Pensacola is a little off the beaten track as far as the majority of UK visitors are concerned but is well worth the effort as it just that little bit different. For a start it is the panhandle’s westernmost city and is in the Central Standard Time Zone so for the majority of the year it is 6 hrs behind the UK which, for intellectually challenged travellers such as I, can cause surprise. Secondly it has some of the best beaches on the entire continent made up of the famous gulf sand that is so fine you could rub it all over and use it as a cosmetic exfoliant. When your feet hit the golden white particles, they are so delicate they emit a squeaking sound as if to protest at your presence.
What to see and what to do
The National Museum of Naval Aviation is situated in Pensacola which is hardly a surprise given that it is the base, and has been since 1914, for almost anything that goes on within US Naval Aviation. The training school boasts some incredible alumni including John Glenn and Neil Armstrong who are perhaps better known for their activities outside the earth’s atmosphere. Within the museum more than 150 aircraft and spacecraft are on display. Given that its mission is to “to select, collect, preserve and display appropriate memorabilia representative of the development, growth and historic heritage of United States Naval Aviation” it’s hardly surprising. Fascinating is an understatement.
Just across the bay you will find some military heritage of an older vintage with Fort Pickens. Designed by a Frenchman it was originally planned as a defensive outpost after the war of independence. After this the Union army took ownership during the early stages of Civil War and despite many attempts by the Florida Militia coupled with the resources of the Confederate army it remained under their control. It stayed in military use right until the end of the second world war shortly after it had been rearmed as a deterrent to German U-Boats. The entire area surrounding the fort is a haven for birdlife and it is common to see osprey at close quarters alongside other species that would be unique and new to the eyes of a rank amateur British ornithologist.
One of the outstanding aspects of the Pensacola area is the ability to be active and I don’t mean just jogging. Kayaking, snorkelling, cycling and hiking are just a few of the things you can do. All of them are generally completed under a blue sky within striking distance of white sand and blue water which adds to the sensation of freedom. I went for a short walk around Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park which has the additional benefit of an elevated boardwalk that allows easy viewing of rare plants and animals, including turtles, without disturbing the eco system. For those that are keener to stretch those legs just a wee bit more a day hike across to Perdido Bay beckons. The access, openness, and ease with which one can get about under your own steam, close to nature and feel away from the madding crowd is extremely praiseworthy.
Food and Drink
It would be easy to write a whole guide to the food and drink possibilities so I will restrict it to two of each. Firstly drink.
A short cab drive from downtown Pensacola you can reach the state border with Alabama where lies one of the most infamous bars in the region – Florabama. Built on the state line in 1964 it has over the years gained a reputation for fun, music, mullet toss competitions and a whole bunch of irreverent fun. If you go, and you should, make sure you have at least a sip of one their famous Florabama bushwhacker cocktails which is in essence an alcoholic milkshake. Second on the where to drink catalogue is Garden and Grain situated downtown adjacent to the historic district of the city which itself is full of older properties and independent retail outlets. Here the cocktail list is forever changing but the atmosphere is consistently friendly and fun. I highly recommend it as I do their very extensive range of Rums.
Fish, Fish and Fish is the order of the day in Pensacola. Like many coastal destinations in Florida, Pensacola benefits from a ready supply of fresh seafood and here they make the most of it. The Grand Marlin of Pensacola Beach restaurant is a fine example of how to prepare, cook and service fresh local ingredients from the ocean. Sophistication is the name of the game with elegant presentation but above all authentic flavours that complement the beachfront location. Another flying the flag of fresh seafood is Red Fish Blue Fish, Here the atmosphere is less formal, but the food is still noteworthy. They make no secret of the fact that they do not use frozen ingredients as they do not own a freezer. The laid-back atmosphere extends to the outdoor seating where most is made of the views across the Santa Rosa sound. Excellent service that even in the land of high standards stood out as exceptional and friendly.
Where to Stay
As one could imagine there is a tremendous choice of accommodation. I stayed across the bay from downtown in the Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach. This is a no-frills functional hotel but as you could imagine is based right on the beach. In fact, it has a beach at the front and a beach at the back! Rooms next April start from around $200 per night
Do Not Miss-
Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink – well don’t drink it, go to Garden and Grain instead for that, but do take a trip on the briny. There are lots of opportunities to do so be it a dolphin watch experience, fishing or just a cruise around the bay waters. I was lucky enough to take sail and given the nature of the waters and the prevailing winds it is an ideal location to break out your Sir Ben Ainslie persona. In fact, it was so good that one of Ben’s America’s cup rivals, American Magic from the NYC Yacht Club, was out testing a brand-new yacht. What a treat, as was Pensacola
Related News Stories : A taste of Pittsburgh Sacramento: the ultimate stop on a California road trip STB launches Made in Singapore global campaign Hidden attractions of Florida’s Historic Coast Autumn events in Okinawa WTTC and Saudi Arabia expand tourism partnership
Graham has demonstrable history of working in the leisure, travel & tourism industry. 20 years leading one of the worlds leading online B2B travel publishers TravelMole , non-executive director of UK's leading Travel Brand agency designate.com. Strong professional with a BSc (Econ) focussed on Economics from London School of Economics and Political Science.