Bargains, beaches and Blue Angels beckon in Pensacola

Flanked by rough-hewn walls covered with bank notes from around the world signed by tourists, Peg Leg Pete's bartender Karina Foster peers over her reading glasses and gripes good-naturedly about the crossword puzzle she's working on this slow Tuesday afternoon. She consults a patron about whether topaz is a Scorpio birthstone (it is), then serves a plate of the eatery's popular Oysters Rockefeller.

A half-dozen fresh, fat and juicy bivalves pulled from the water near Apalachicola, down Florida's Gulf Coast, arrive on a battered metal platter. Topped with chopped spinach, bacon and Parmesan and served with a cup of melted butter, they're rich enough for a millionaire and a bargain at $7.99.

Prices tend to be reasonable in Pensacola, which this year is celebrating the 450th anniversary of its founding by Spanish explorers. Famed for miles of white beaches, sport-fishing, the nation's first Naval Air Station and the precision-flying Blue Angels, the historic city and its barrier-island stretches of sand offer a calmer alternative to more developed, shopping center-packed, high-rise condo beach towns on the stretch of coast in Northwest Florida and Southwest Alabama dubbed the "Redneck Riviera."

Sometimes hoity-toity customers with motor yachts will drop anchor by Peg Leg's, says Foster, 46, "and they'll want a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne. We don't have that. We're a laid-back beach with a small-town atmosphere."

Peg Leg's does sell bottles of good wine, including a crisp Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand for a super-reasonable $4.75 a glass, $21 a bottle. A bottle is just $10.50 on Tuesdays.

Army offspring Foster moved here in 1978 when her father, wooed by a vial of snow-white sand sent by a real estate agent, retired to Pensacola from Germany. It's a "poor man's paradise," she says, compared with ritzier Florida Panhandle communities to the south, such as Destin and Seaside. (Seaside is the cute planned community seen in the movie The Truman Show.)

Though it's easy to drop $100 on dinner for two at upscale Jackson's and $200 on Gulf-front chain hotels, you can find lodging that isn't cookie-cutter for less than $100 and noteworthy, non-fast-food meals that don't break the bank.

The area has an "Old South charm. You won't find friendlier people," says local resident Curt Bol, 53, enjoying a midafternoon Corona with pal Charley Voltz, 51, at the Oar House, a tiki-hut-like bar/restaurant by a bayou on the outskirts of the city. Oar House iced tea comes pre-sweetened, Southern-style, and Louisiana-style po' boy sandwiches are on the menu.

Fried green tomatoes and cheese grits are local restaurant staples, as is the red snapper, amberjack, shrimp and other fresh-caught seafood. Walk down Zaragoza Street in the historic district, and you'll pass a house with a hand-lettered sign propped above a porch table: "A.S.A.P. As Southern as Possible."

The city of about 55,000 residents once flew the Confederate flag, as well as banners from Spain, France and Britain.

It's billed as the first European settlement in what's now the USA, older than St. Augustine, Fla., or Jamestown, Va. Local lore says Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna landed in 1559. His fleet's attempt to stay failed after a hurricane and food shortages, giving St. Augustine the title of the oldest permanent U.S. settlement.

Historic district is reborn

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