Bargains, beaches and Blue Angels beckon in Pensacola

Alongside a restored Japanese plane from World War II is a captured frayed silk flag bearing a red sun, hand-painted tiger and dozens of names in Japanese. Japanese pilots carried these flags into battle for good luck, a guide says.

Visitors also can watch $8 IMAX movies of aviation exploits and enter capsules for $5 flight simulations. Those with military affiliation can stay on-base at the waterfront Navy Lodge.

Lovers of surf and sand drive over a causeway to Pensacola Beach, where the 1,471-foot fishing pier called the longest on Florida's Gulf Coast attracts walkers ($1.25) and fishermen ($7.50). The surrounding beaches and dunes, slammed in 2004 by a hurricane nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible," are snapshot-ready again, with new hotels and beach houses replacing older ones. In fact, Pensacola Beach was chosen a favorite beach in Southern Living magazine's 2008 Readers' Choice Awards. Before summer crowds arrive, you can walk for miles with only squawking seagulls for company.

Tourism folk prefer that Pensacola be known by the classier title of "City of Five Flags," saluting its Spanish/British/French/Confederate/U.S. heritage. But a Hooters restaurant, and tank-topped male visitors playing miniature golf — not to mention drinks available in plastic buckets — proclaim that there's still a little redneck in this white-sand Riviera.

"I don't have a fit when I hear (Redneck Riviera)," tourism chief Schroeder says, ticking off the city's highbrow attractions: opera, ballet, theater, symphony and art museum.

"But it's not a term we're going to use to market our area. Pensacola is so beyond that now."

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