The Pensacola Bay Area is about blue skies and emerald-colored water. And while some may be content to simply tan on the shimmering quartz sand, you're cheating your family and yourself if you don't check out all this area has to offer.
One of Florida's busiest attractions is the National Museum of Naval Aviation. With no admission fee, the museum is a two-story delight that serves as a tribute to the hometown Blue Angels as well as generations of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviators.
There are more than 140 aircrafts and enough displays – from engines to Medal of Honor recipients – to entertain grandkids and grandparents alike. The museum has countless factoids that are presented in realistic exhibits. One of my favorites was focused on Prisoners of War (POWs).
From the tattered clothing to the makeshift sewing needle made from a chicken bone, the display was so thought provoking you could visualize captured aviators communicating with each other by tapping against prison walls with their green enamel cups.
Details are the foundation of this treasure. Things like the reindeer skin mukluks (Eskimo boots) worn by Richard Byrd during his flight over the North Pole in 1926 will keep you moving from exhibit to exhibit. An evolving testament to aviation, you will find posters of Saddam Hussein from the current war in Iraq to money from the Desert Shield period.
Kids can play interactive computer games by answering questions about weather. They can experience a flight simulator. Or climb into dozens of cockpits like the ones used by the Blue Angels.
There is no denying the Blue Angels' significance in the Pensacola Bay Area, where roads and businesses are named after the high-performance daredevils. And the museum fosters this admiration with its flagship movie, The Magic of Flight, a dazzling IMAX film that covers the early days of flight along with the extremely difficult Blue Angel pilot training.
Another cool diversion from the museum's main events is the Cubi Bar Café. It is an intriguing restaurant designed to duplicate a former officers' club from a base in the Philippines. When the original Cubi closed in the 1990s, the Naval museum staff took on the task of re-creating it – using more than a thousand plaques, crew lists and other keepsakes to fashion a hub worthy of true combat pilots.
The museum is, after all, in the middle of modern-day aviation. It is all but impossible not to catch a glimpse of a training flight or hear the roar of engines from the parking lot.
During show season the Blue Angels practice above the complex, usually on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, often stopping by the viewing area to interact with fans. Their practice schedule is available online, so time your visit to catch these amazing aviators in action.
The Blue Angels are known for their jet-powered, precision flying. The pilots pull off graceful aerobatics with the four-plane Diamond Formation and the renowned six-jet Delta Formation. They can perform moves that make two planes appear as one. One of the big crowd-pleasers is a pattern that convinces people on the ground they are crossing so close to each other that they might collide.
Your eyes and ears will be impressed by this building-shaking treat that comes with high-speed stunts and controlled spins.
If you prefer more down-to-Earth attractions, head to The ZOO & Botanical Gardens in nearby Gulf Breeze. The ZOO is a 30-acre preserve that has been featured on Animal Planet and is designed to make you and the animals feel at home.
How often, after all, do you run into a pair of turkeys on the sidewalk? Yes, full-feathered creatures that seem to get a kick out of "gobbling" for giggling children.
Take your pick: goat, sheep, cow, pig, bunny. They are all there waiting at the petting zoo for young visitors to touch or feed them. (There's a hand-washing station when the kids are through.) If you're lucky, there will be hatchlings in the incubator area. If not, the zoo kitchen gives an inside look at the work involved in feeding more than 700 animals.
You can also view Gorilla Island from the elevated boardwalk or double the fun by checking out the grounds on the zoo's adorable train (train ride is an additional $3 per person). In between, you'll see otters at play, hear an African lion roar and watch coyotes behave like porch dogs. The zoo's bat house will even take the scariness out of vampire bats once you see the cute side of one hanging upside down.
Your wallet will appreciate the gift shop. There are dozens of darling, inexpensive souvenirs.
Still, it wasn't all that long ago that pioneers had to deal with nature outside a zoo. Signs throughout downtown Pensacola, one of the oldest National Register Historic Districts, remind visitors that the city has ties back to 1559.
The area's lush history comes from the influence of Spanish sailors, British soldiers and French Creole settlers. To get a real-life feel for the Pensacola Bay Area's past, you'll want to visit the Historic Pensacola Village. A walking tour, complete with the aroma of herb gardens, can be taken with or without a guide. Many of the stops are part of the Colonial Archeological Trail.
Key to this cluster of historic structures is the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum. It was built in 1908 and served as Pensacola's City Hall. The museum is known for its odd displays, such as a petrified cat, as well as local history.
Part of the Children's Museum, the Discovery Gallery has hands-on exhibits where children can dress up in costumes or play in a French Creole house.
The museums, like the rest of the Historic Pensacola Village, are located in downtown Pensacola. Wear comfortable shoes and roam from building to building.
You'll learn about brickmaking at the Museum of Industry along with how trains, fishing and lumber played an important role in the area's past. The Museum of Commerce uses storefronts to illustrate how early vendors sold everything from hardware to harnesses and there are even some old children's toys on display.
Continue to be inspired by places like the Julee Cottage, an 1805 building that is devoted to the memory of the "free woman of color'' who lived there. The Lavalle House is considered a typical French Creole home from the early 1800s. The day-to-day tools that made life pleasurable are inside, where a feather quill pen rests on a mantel along with the huge key used to tighten a sagging rope bed in the morning.
The Pensacola Museum of Art is also located downtown near the village. It offers workshops for kids the first two Saturdays of every month. The classes, which fill up early, give a brief tour of current exhibits and explain, in "kid-speak," the latest artwork on display. The children then create a project that is loosely based on that art.
After all this walking and mental exercise, though, you'll want to take a break. The Wisteria Café, now part of the Historic Pensacola Village complex on Zaragoza Street, offers tall ceilings, fresh fruit and overstuffed sandwiches. It's perfect for a mother-daughter lunch or dessert. It is a fine compliment to nearby Edi's Tea Room.
Looking for something a little livelier? You'll find sing-alongs, Irish hospitality and a great homemade root beer at McGuire's Irish Pub. The steak and stout brewed here are also worth the stop.
Keep the pulse rate up and head to the Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier. Although it is a great excuse for father-son bonding, the fishing here is so good you'll want to take anyone who can handle a rod.
The combination of the pier's length, clear water and the rich Gulf Stream creates a superhighway for fish. As a result, Pensacola's pier boasts catches that have included sailfish and a rare white marlin.
If the kids still need a little more excitement, rev up their engines at Sam's Fun City or Fast Eddie's Fun Center.
Sam's is reminiscent of a cozy county fair, with a Ferris wheel, laser tag and arcade games. The park's relatively new addition, Sam's Surf City, features water slides, a lazy river, interactive kiddie pools and more. You can try Hollywood Golf, with its Wild, Wild Wet hole, bumper boats and bumper cars.
Fast Eddie's also has miniature golf and its share of go-karts, including one that is designed to look like a sheriff's car.
And if you get tired from all the attractions the Pensacola Bay Area has to enjoy, you can always go back to the beach and stretch out on the sand.
For more information on the above attractions and other family-friendly activities in the Pensacola Bay Area, check out www.VisitPensacola.com or call 800-874-1234.