Bargains, beaches and Blue Angels beckon in Pensacola

Unlike neighboring beach towns — where malls with Wal-Marts, Targets, Dollar General stores and most every franchise imaginable line highways that parallel the stunning blue-green Gulf — Pensacola has a flourishing downtown historic district. Its pastel-painted 19th-century cottages now house boutiques, eateries and law offices. Artifacts from wrecked ships in de Luna's fleet can be seen at the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum on the Plaza Ferdinand.

Downtown is in the midst of a revival, abloom with art galleries, the just-renovated Saenger Theatre — even a 5-month-old boutique motel that was rent-by-the-hour in an earlier incarnation. Overhauled rooms at the Solé Inn and Suites have platform beds; bathrooms are updated with hip black toilets. Breakfast room walls are adorned with local artists' works for sale.

Patrons include crew-cut Navy cadets cracking open a brew or two — deterred from getting too rowdy by a sign on the check-in counter that states the phone number of the base duty officer.

General manager Mark Bodiford, 40, says Solé (rates start at $79) attracts value-minded business travelers and tourists. He's in Pensacola in part because "I've been all over the world, and these are the most beautiful beaches I've seen. Lots of places say they have white beaches. Here, the sand's white as a napkin. It's like walking on snow."

A few minutes' drive away in the North Hill Preservation District at Noble Manor Bed & Breakfast, transplanted New Jersey residents Bonnie and Bob Robertson welcome guests in their 1905 Tudor Revival home with four nicely decorated rooms for rent (not a doily in sight). Draws include Bonnie's French toast with strawberries and kiwi on the side and a hot tub and pool in which to wind down after a day of sightseeing.

Though rates aren't cheap — starting at $125 now — business is surprisingly good in hard times, Bob, 59, says, pouring a cup of his perfectly brewed coffee in the high-ceilinged dining room. Pensacola is a big drive-in destination, and "people are not taking those Caribbean and Mexican vacations," he says.

Tourists from overseas also come to Pensacola, Bonnie, 55, says. "They're interested in the history, and we're kind of unspoiled Florida."

While malls, strip shopping centers and billboards touting DUI lawyers dot the city's outskirts and beach lodgings typically are boxes without much character, downtown has tree-shaded parks, gallery nights, a block-square Seville Quarter with restaurants, bars, live music and New Orleans-style lampposts and wrought-iron balconies. The area has 52 miles of beach, says Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau director Ed Schroeder — 65% of that undeveloped national seashore. And tourists can scuba dive to the reefed aircraft carrier Oriskany 24 miles offshore.

See the Blue Angels in action

Most visitors drive to the Navy base, where admission is free at the impressive National Naval Aviation Museum. (Your volunteer guide may have flown a mission or two in the planes he's talking about.) The Blue Angels flying acrobatic team holds public practices most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November.

A hangar-like area holds dozens of aircraft, from World War I bombers to a "flying boat" used to transport troops, to a Soviet MiG fighter.

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