Pensacola, Florida, the jewel of the Emerald Coast, is known for its sugar white sand beaches and water that shimmers a clear turquoise. The sand is pristine, glittering like crushed white diamonds, and the water is as inviting as a warm bath, yet refreshingly cool at the same time. At night, the beach is just as spectacular, the sand cool and glowing in the moonlight, the water dark, like onyx, the waves frothy and lapping your feet like a gentle caress—perfect for a romantic stroll along the sound.
To get to Pensacola Beach, take the scenic route by driving on Scenic Highway, where you will pass gorgeous homes on your right, with varying views of the coast on your left, though some of the foliage is so thick and green, it’s like driving past a wall of ivy. If you want to make a day of it, pick up a batch of perfectly seasoned, succulent fried chicken from the Apple Market deli, along with a pint of their chilled homemade salads, and a sweet tea or two to go. Farther down, there is a restaurant that looks like a Fifties diner, all chrome and neon, called “Scenic 90 Café”. There, you can dine in and cool off with fresh seafood like Potato Crusted Grouper, Grouper Margarita, or Shrimp and Crawfish Savannah, topping it all off with a bowl of Skopelos Bread Pudding with Vanilla Bourbon Sauce. Or you can sit at their old-fashioned counter and enjoy a handmade Scenic burger and a hand-dipped, black-and-white milkshake or a slice of homemade pie, like Coconut Crème or Cream Cheese Pecan. A meal there is a mouth-watering, melt-in-your-mouth event. There is also a large covered patio, where you can dine with your dogs as the breeze filters in off the Bay Bluffs, the smells of the salt brine mingling with the scents of Greek spices, the humidity making one feel just a little more languid, a little more relaxed.
Once back on Scenic, you will pass through the charming little town of Gulf Breeze, picturesque with its marinas dotted with white sailboats and the scrubbed cleanliness of affluence. In Pensacola Beach, on Via de Luna, there is snorkeling, sailing and parasailing available, but I recommend turning onto Ft. Pickens Road, where you will drive by fabulous beach homes in different shades of pastel–like rows of butter mints. In Fort Pickens Beach, everything is quieter and stiller. You can take a leisurely drive past sand dunes and sea oats until you get to the ruins, which are reminiscent of an ancient, abandoned church–a labyrinth, of sorts—with lots of dark, “secret” passageways. There are cannons and even a spot that looks eerily like the building where Rod Taylor in “The Time Machine”, kept his machine.
From here, you can see the Pensacola Lighthouse Museum in the distance—built in 1859, with 177 spiraling, cast-iron steps. I recommend The Light of the Moon tour, where staff and volunteers guide you through the historic 1869 Keepers’ Quarters, sharing historic tales of ghostly encounters. There are plenty of places on the way up that you can step off the steps and just collect yourself before you continue. At the top, you will experience a breathtaking, moonlit view of the Gulf of Mexico and Pensacola Bay. You can make a date of it by treating yourselves to the most romantic view on the Gulf Coast. Each reservation is for two and includes ambient music, sparkling non-alcoholic wine served in keepsake champagne flutes, and light hors d’oeuvres.
However, don’t forget to take a trolley tour to the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum, where the IMAX theatre rivals the Smithsonian. From sea planes, WWII aircraft to Spacecraft, and flight simulators, with so many high windows, it’s like being outside, inside. Sometimes you can catch the Blue Angels Airshow, but get there early. Watching the pilots cut through the azure sky with razor-like precision is like watching synchronized swimming (except in the air), and is pretty damn exhilarating.
For something more lighthearted, there are local bands on the beach who perform under the stars, and, after soaking in the sun, you can soak up a sangria at the Cactus Flower Café on the boardwalk. The sweetness of the drink, the air, and the music combine to create a headiness that will arouse all the senses.
There is also the Blue Wahoos baseball stadium. The park is right on the water, and the breeze is nice on a warm summer afternoon or evening. The stadium is perfect for a date or for a family fun day. Wait at the locker room exit after the game, and the players will sign balls for the kids and take photos. They have a free bounce house for little ones, free throws for the older ones, a variety of seating options…grass, seats, party areas–lots of fun for the kids and adults, along with shops with all kinds of cool Wahoos shirts, jerseys, hats, and toys. Of course there is popcorn, hot dogs, cotton candy, slushies, soda, and beer. You can even have them announce an anniversary or birthday.
If you’re into a more cultural visit, Pensacola won’t disappoint. There is the Quayside Art Galley, where local art, including window-framed quilts depicting beach themes, decorative ceramic tiles, and stained glass designs, among a myriad of other mediums, are on display.
Then there is the Palafox Market, which opens up downtown in the park on Saturdays. An open air market, it’s not just a place to shop, but an experience, too, where you can buy handmade soaps, jewelry, art, produce, and baked goods, among other things. And don’t forget to stop by the Bodacious Olive, which teaches gourmet cooking classes, sometimes taught by local renowned chefs.
As for the kids, there is the Pensacola Mess Hall, where visitors get to conduct experiments like actual scientists. Then, a little more low-key, is the Pensacola Children’s Museum, with two floors of hands-on learning, making it a day to do and not to watch. The second floor houses artifacts of Pensacola history geared for older children and adults, but also offers a train set, building blocks, a reading nook where parents can read to their children, and dress up clothes for the younger ages as well. The Pensacola Children’s Museum was designed to have interactive, imaginative, and educational play for all ages. Grandma Jenkins Story Tyme and family art programs are available, as well.
As for the Pensacola Little Theatre, it provides not only live entertainment, but also acting classes for adults and puppet camp for the kids. However, a perfect evening would end at the Saenger, which will remind you of all those beautiful historic theatres in many downtown areas. Classically elegant and beautiful, a remodel a few years ago brought the acoustics to a truly tremendous level. Now you can hear the melodies of Florida’s oldest, continuous symphony (The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra) or the arias from the Pensacola Opera, as they were meant to be heard.
Pensacola, Florida, is truly the place to let the good times roll.