Sweet tea, southern drawls and small-town charm may prompt you to check your GPS, but even though Alabama has been hankering for two centuries to annex this stretch of aquamarine seas and white sugar-sand beaches, Northwest Florida remains firmly part of Florida.
Some call this point of the state the East Coast’s “L.A.” (Lower Alabama). In 1978, New York Times Editor Howell Raines dubbed it the “Redneck Riviera.” To the chagrin of many locals, the nickname stuck, despite the region’s rich history dating back to 1559, when Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna arrived at Pensacola Bay and established the first European settlement in the continental United States, ahead of St. Augustine (1565) and Jamestown, Va. (1607).
The Spanish settlement was short-lived. A hurricane wiped out most of the ships and cargo. The area hasn’t so quickly shaken its modern-day image as a southern vacation hot spot. In 1996, country singer Tom T. Hall affectionately immortalized the area in his song “Redneck Riviera.”
Gulf Shores up through Apalachicola
They got beaches of the whitest sand
Nobody cares if gramma’s got a tattoo
Or Bubba’s got a hot wing in his hand
Why fight it?
The fact of the matter is that Pensacola – the westernmost city at the epicenter of all this Southern hospitality and Florida history – is just a few miles from the Alabama border. That means visitors to “P’Cola” can revel in deep southern exposure while exploring some seriously diverse heritage drawn from the Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American flags that have all flown in “The City of Five Flags.”
The historic, 160-foot Pensacola Lighthouse, still operating today, has watched over Pensacola Bay since 1858, surviving Confederate and Union occupation during the Civil War. Open daily, visitors can reach the major Florida landmark via the west gate of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, where there are also passes to visit the adjacent National Museum of Naval Aviation. 2081 Radford Blvd., 850-393-1561; www.pensacolalighthouse.org.
WHAT TO DO
One of the most famous dive bars in the country, the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar straddles the state line between Florida and Alabama. Burned down in the 1960s and gutted by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the rebuilt beach bar stands today as a symbol of the area’s resilience. Whether it’s watching an outrageous bikini contest or a fantastic regional band, there’s always something fun in the works. 17401 Perdido Key Dr., 850-492-0611; www.florabama.com.
The Portofino Boardwalk on Pensacola Beach offers open-air bars and restaurants, shops, live music, wine tastings and dolphin tours. 400 Quietwater Beach Rd., 850-346-6525; www.pensacolabeachboardwalk.com.
The Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier & Observation Post, one of the longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,471 feet, is a prime spot for fishing and sunset gazing, with a restaurant and gift shop. Rental rods, coolers, bait and other equipment are available in the tackle shop (no fishing license required). King and Spanish mackerel, cobia, pompano, mahi mahi, flounder, tarpon and bonito are among the Gulf fish that have been caught here. 41 Fort Pickens Rd., 850-934-7200; www.fishpensacolabeachpier.com.
As the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” Pensacola Bay is home to the renowned U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, who put their aircraft through sophisticated and breathtaking paces for public viewings. Visitors to the National Aviation Museum have free access to bleachers on practice days. At 11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays, from March through November, visitors can meet the pilots, take photos with them and ask for autographs at the museum. 1750 Radford Blvd., 850-452-3296; http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org.
Five Flags Speedway is a paved half-mile auto racing oval that opened in 1953 and continues to host regional touring series and local classes during the regular racing season (March-October). The races are usually held on Friday nights every other week. The fast track’s signature event, the Snowball Derby, has run every December since 1968 and is considered to be the most prestigious Super Late Model race in the country. 7451 Pine Forest Rd., 850-944-8406; www.5flagsspeedway.com.
On Santa Rosa Island, one of the longest barrier islands in the world, Pensacola Beach has an Old Florida feel, with a natural shoreline, fishing and historic Fort Pickens. The shallow waters along Santa Rosa Sound are a popular hangout for families with young children; http://visitpensacolabeach.com.
Perdido Key, between Pensacola and Orange Beach/Gulf Shores in Alabama, is home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and two Florida state parks, which offer breathtaking natural beauty and rare wildlife; www.visitperdido.com.
Fort Pickens is a brick fortress originally built to defend Pensacola Harbor from foreign invaders, but during the Civil War, it was manned by Union troops, who used it to attack nearby Confederate occupied forts. The fort also is notorious for imprisoning Geronimo. There are guided tours and self-guided tours. 1400 Fort Pickens Rd., 850-916-5631; www.nps.gov/guis/planyourvisit/fort-pickens.htm.
Palafox Historic District is a cultural and entertainment center in Old Pensacola. Along with restaurants and shops, there’s the opulent, renovated Spanish Renaissance-style Saenger Theater, a 1925 movie palace that hosts performances by the Pensacola Opera and the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra. The Bear Block is a former wholesale grocery with wrought-iron balconies that are a legacy from Pensacola's creole past; www.downtownpensacola.com.
Historic Pensacola Village, in a corner of downtown, consists of 27 19th Century buildings in the Pensacola National Register Historic District; 11 are open to the public as museums and exhibits. There’s a two-hour walking tour led by period-costumed guides that stop at spots such as Lavalle House and Julee Cottage, the former home of freed slave Julee Paton. Included are the Museum of Commerce, the Museum of Industry and TT Wentworth Museum, an elaborate 1907 yellow-brick Renaissance Revival building that originally was City Hall. 120 Church St., 850-595-5985; www.historicpensacola.org.
WHAT TO EAT
Fried green tomatoes, gumbo, Gulf shrimp, Southern-friend oysters, collard greens and corn fritters are all southern favorites found at the Fish House, but you can’t leave town without trying the signature dish, Grits à Ya Ya, which features spiced jumbo shrimp atop sautéed spinach, Portobello mushrooms, Applewood-smoked bacon, garlic, shallots and cream over a bed of smoked Gouda cheese grits. 600 S. Barracks St., 850-470-0003; http://fishhouse.goodgrits.com.
Smothered pork chops, yams, collard greens, gumbo, peas and okra, and fried chicken wings are the soul food standouts at the H&O Resturant, one of the first black-owned restaurants in the area, with origins back to the 1920s. Rosa Parks, Senator Bob Graham, boxing promoter Don King and local champion boxer Roy Jones Jr. are among the celebrity patrons who have been served here over the years. 301 E. Gonzales St., 850-432-1991.
The crowded, massive Joe Patti’s is actually more of a fish warehouse than a restaurant, but you can get affordable, fresh sushi at the sushi bar and shrimp salad on French bread at the deli counter. Started by Sicilian immigrant Joe Patti in the 1930s and now run by his descendants, it’s a beloved market worth a visit just to check out the famous scene. 524 South B St., 850-432-3315; www.joepattis.com.
“No grits, no glory” is the motto at The Coffee Cup, a breakfast institution since 1945. Biscuits and gravy (sausage or tomato), hot cakes, fried eggs and, of course, grits are on the menu. 520 E. Cervantes St., 850-432-7060; http://coffeecuppensacola.com.
WHAT TO TAKE HOME
After dining at the Fish House, grab a collection of owner-chef Jim Shirley's recipes, Good Grits: Southern Boy Cooks. (See above.)
Southerners are nuts about pecans. Stop by J.W. Renfroe Pecans to purchase them by the pound or pick up sweet treats, such as pralines, chocolate-covered pecans and pecan pie. J.W. Renfroe, 2400 W. Fairfield Dr., 850-432-2083; www.renfroe-pecans.com.
A Flora-Bama T-shirt is a must. You can get one at the bar’s front trailer or online at http://store.florabama.com.
WHEN TO GO
During March and April, crowds of college students descend on Pensacola for Spring Break, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit year-round.
Oct. 1-6, 2013: The 5th Annual Pensacola Beach Songwriters Festival offers six days of singer/songwriter concerts, cruises, contests and workshops; http://pensacolabeachsongwritersfestival.com.
Dec. 6, 2013: The nautical Lighted Boat Parade celebrates the winter season Florida-style from Pensacola Beach Marina to Boardwalk, officially delivering Santa Claus; www.visitpensacolabeach.com.
March 1, 2014: The Pensacola Grand Mardi Gras Parade features beads, doubloons, moon pies and floats in the historical downtown; www.visitpensacolabeach.com.
April 25-27, 2104: The Flora-Bama’s annual Interstate Mullet Toss on the Alabama-Florida border draws nearly 25,000 people to a beach weekend party featuring competitors throwing a mullet from a 10-foot circle in Alabama across the state line into Florida; www.florabama.com/about-us/mullet-toss.
July 2014: The Pensacola Beach Air Show is the biggest event of the year, with aerial acrobatics and concerts; www.visitpensacolabeach.com.
Pensacola International Airport offers more than 100 flights connecting to major cities in the U.S., including the most recent additions of Dallas and Chicago; www.flypensacola.com.