Bargains, beaches and Blue Angels draw visitors to 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

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.

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."