You’re going where? Pensacola, Florida

|     Sarah Kaufman     |

IT’S Saturday evening in Pensacola, Florida. Past the shops and eateries that line Palafox Street downtown, a wedding reception fills one of several restored historical buildings with light and laughter.

Guests spill out onto the sidewalk, while out back couples dance on a terrace overlooking Pensacola Bay. Fireworks burst against the starry sky; they’re set off at the nearby stadium after every home game, win or lose, played by the Blue Wahoos, the city’s minor-league baseball team. There’s a quieter, more romantic vibe as I skirt the wharf and stroll pass the boats. On the deck of one sailboat, lovers slow-dance in the shadows to Ed Sheeran’s Perfect.

I ran into this mix of peaceful intimacy and full-on partying throughout my stay in Pensacola. My husband and I came here for our niece’s wedding and quickly succumbed to its eclecticism.

Nestled on the western edge of the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola has a small-town feel. This is “Deep South” Florida, not spring-break-college-destination Florida. It’s a slower-paced alternative to a typical Florida winter retreat, with the overt friendliness of folks who like to live it up and want to share the fun.

The beach is not just famous and breathtakingly beautiful, with its sugar-white sand and turquoise water; it’s also clean enough to lure several rare species of sea turtles, it’s an inspiration to countless local artists, and it’s a geological reminder of the precarious purity of this region.

People stroll down Palafox Street in downtown Pensacola
The iconic Joe Patti seafood sign stands out against he setting sun in Pensacola, Florida
Diners dig into a lunch of fried seafood at Captain Joey Patti’s Seafood Restaurant

The 2010 BP oil spill blackened it; its subsequent cleansing coincided with the upswing of growth downtown and a cultural and economic rebirth. Just about everywhere we turned – whether poking into galleries or cafes, or strolling the beach – we felt a buzz of creativity, whimsy and high spirits.

We’re not the only ones. Pensacola has become a magnet for young people drawn to the burgeoning business scene and affordable living. The city is responding with new construction. But you won’t find massive development here – yet. Some locals worry it may come to that. This seems to be a magical in-between time. For a once-sleepy Southern town, it feels like an awakening.

Go (Local Faves)

A colourful retro sign at the foot of the Bob Sikes Bridge points the way to Pensacola Beach. It’s topped with a striped sailfish and the proclamation ‘World’s Whitest Beaches’. That famous, wide sweep of sand is the result of quartz particles rinsed thousands of years ago from the Appalachian Mountains and swooshed by rivers into the Gulf of Mexico, where they formed a new shoreline.

You can spot sharks, dolphins, manatees and rays from the pier, a popular spot for sunset-watching and fishing. The beach boasts all the routine human comforts – seafood restaurants, hotels, paddle board and water scooter rental shops. But don’t miss its unique feature: The famous healing waters. By this I mean the slushy milkshake.

If you haven’t gotten enough of Pensacola’s sunshine, you’ll find a perfect copy of its blue sky painted on the ceiling of the Spanish Baroque Saenger Theatre downtown. This jewel of a building, with its soaring white facade and rococo architectural details, opened in 1925 as a vaudeville house and movie theatre.

The Saenger gradually fell into disrepair and disrepute. “Yes, those kinds of movies,” says Kathy Summerlin, the theatre’s director of booking and marketing. After surviving attempts to turn it into a parking garage, it was renovated and is now home to Broadway touring shows; the local symphony, opera and children’s chorus; Ballet Pensacola and a summer movie series.

The Saenger’s original pipe organ, with thousands of pipes hidden in the walls, is still played on occasion. Architect Emile Weil possessed a particularly Pensacolan whimsy: Summerlin points out the two plaster soldiers affixed on the walls near the stage, one with a plume on his head, the other with an iguana. One of the plaster ladies is bearded.

Guidebook Musts

I’m driving on Via De Luna through Pensacola Beach, and I’ve soon left the condos behind. The name changes to Fort Pickens Road, running through unspoiled dunes and leading me into Gulf Islands National Seashore. Pensacola Beach is actually part of a barrier island across Pensacola Bay from the city of Pensacola.

The west end of that barrier island is in this protected park, bordered by spotless white sand and bunchy green knobs of sandhill rosemary. Beyond, on either side of me, there’s all that clear, sparkling water. Suddenly I’m in my bathing suit, standing shin-deep in the gulf, watching little fish dart around my toes.

A few sandpipers pick their way to the water’s edge, and together we study the marine life beneath the waves. It doesn’t occur to me to do anything else. Later, I remember my mission and drive to the island’s tip to tour Fort Pickens, construction of which ended in 1834. It was, in its era, a war machine, with more than 200 cannons as well as tunnels filled with gunpowder. You can catch a ferryboat from here; just last summer, a ferry system started shuttling passengers from Pensacola to Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens.

Pensacola loves its Blue Angels; you’ll find pictures of the blue-and-gold aircraft painted on local bridges. Head west of the city to visit their home base, Naval Air Station Pensacola, where practices start up again in March.

The base also hosts the National Naval Aviation Museum, open year-round. It’s the world’s largest, and you can easily spend half a day or more among its minutely detailed aircraft carrier models and restored aircraft, including the World War II Corsair, nicknamed ‘Whistling Death’, with its unique inverted gull wing, and the Que Sera Sera, the first aircraft to land at the South Pole.

‘Home Front USA’, an exhibit of small-town life in 1943, re-creates a street lined with wartime grocery and barber shops, full of vintage treasures.

At the museum’s heart is a 10,000-square-foot atrium, where four historic Blue Angels aircraft hang overhead in perfect formation. Admission is free.

Eat (Local Faves)

“You turn the lights on, and they come every which way, like roaches,” says Renee Mack, speaking with crusty affection of her customers at Paradise & Grill. “They come by boat, by foot, by golf cart, by Jet Ski.” Paradise is an authentic little hideaway on the bay side of Pensacola Beach, a restaurant and vintage motel. You can swim up if you like. Bring a wet dog. Hang up your own hammock or lounge at one of the picnic tables under an umbrella. Paradise has an old-Florida feel. There’s no view of the high-rises, just a good look at that gentle bay surf. Evenings, locals gather to hear a live band and dance in the sand of the private beach. Mack moved to Pensacola in 1984 from New Orleans and brought some Big Easy traditions with her, such as a penchant for the blues and oyster po’ boys, featured on the menu. Her biggest seller is Renee’s Shrimp Salad, from her grandmother’s recipe, made with fresh, wild-caught Gulf shrimp. It’s kicky Cajun flavour comes from fresh herbs. Mack, as you might gather, likes to keep things simple. Bad weather gets a shrug. “We roll,” she says. “We don’t close down.”

Guidebook Musts

A sidewalk aroma tells you all you need to know about the fried-chicken haven that awaits you inside the 5 Sisters Blues Cafe. This stylish restaurant serves up comfort food galore: The black-eyed peas are soft and velvety; the collards have a tart punch; the grits are so creamy they’re like an emotion. Sweet potatoes raise to ambrosial heights, honeyed and warm. Wash them down with a drink: Garnished with okra and a fried chicken wing.

“It’s your fix for the day,” says co-owner Jean-Pierre N’Dione with a laugh. Born in Senegal, raised in France, he’s lived in Pensacola for 20 years. With his drinks, food, live music on many evenings and a Sunday jazz brunch, he strives to evoke the spirit of the restaurant’s Belmont-DeVilliers neighbourhood. Historically, it was an African American hot spot during segregation. “We owe it to those people,” N’Dione says, “to re-create that atmosphere.”

Seafood restaurants crowd the waterfront, but the bustling Joe Patti’s Seafood market stands apart, under a towering neon shrimp sign. Enter by the beignet wagon, and you’ll find an enormous fish market, which is worth a visit just to gape at the sea-dwelling varieties and their sizes. The humble restaurant next door is Captain Joey Patti’s Seafood Restaurant.

This low-ceilinged blue bunker has no view of the water. It has no atmosphere. Ceiling fans whirl overhead. You eat over paper place mats with plastic utensils. Start with the thick, fiery seafood gumbo but leave room for heaping platters of fried fish. Mullet – you might know it elsewhere as a bait fish – is a rich-flavoured specialty.

“Did y’all get coleslaw?” our server asks, sliding crisp, sweet bowls of it across the table. Everything here is fresh. Stick a fork in the fried oysters, and juice jumps out; the oysters melt in your mouth. Did the cheese grits descend from heaven? Maybe so; they are that luscious. My physiological limits vexingly got in the way of what I wanted to do here: Eat it all and then some.

Shop (Local Faves)

Waterboyz isn’t just a surf shop; it’s a community hub. When owner Sean Fell moved from selling surfboards out of his garage to a retail space, he knew he needed something special to compete against the Internet.

Along with the surfboards, rash-guard shirts, sunscreen, hats, sandals and any surfing supplies a beach-bound body could desire, he added an indoor skate park. Then the recession hit, followed by the BP oil spill, and as business began to slide, Fell came up with another idea: A cafe “to go along with our scene,” he says.

“We base it off food that we ate on surf trips to Central America and Hawaii – fresh and healthy, no fries.” Among Cafe Single Fin’s offerings are Sunzal chicken tacos, named for the famed El Salvador wave, and the Pavones acai bowl, after the Costa Rican surf spot.

In the midst of downtown’s busy Palafox Street is the Blue Morning Gallery artist’s cooperative, begun in 1997. It’s so full of artwork that when I first stepped in all I saw was a blur of colours; gradually my eyes adjusted to the large array of jewellery, paintings, blown glass, photography and ceramics on display, created by its more than 60 members.

Pensacola offers endless inspiration, jeweller Diane Rennie tells me. “We are this little area of art,” she says. She’s a former president of the cooperative and a long-time member. “It’s such an inspiring environment to be in, and there’s a large retirement community here. People find fun things to do, and one of those things is making art.” David Williams is one of them. A jeweller who specialises in opals, he moved to Pensacola in 2010 after living in Georgia and western North Carolina, and says he’s found his forever home. He lives in a 1920s house near Bayou Texar and kayaks in the bay, “I see dolphins every morning.”

“Protect our coast” proclaim the bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lot of Ever’man Cooperative Grocery & Cafe, which has carried environmentally sound products and catered to healthy lifestyles since 1973.

All of its items adhere to a strict green policy: No MSG, hormones, GMO ingredients, etc. You can grab local organic produce, sandwiches and other fixings for a picnic on the beach, and if you’ve stayed there too long, come back for a chickweed or comfrey salve from Coyote Moon Herb Company to soothe your sunburn.

Year-round flowers make honey a popular local product; tupelo flowers grow wild in the Florida Panhandle, and they contribute to a delicate honey that never crystallises. The coop moved into its current expansive location on West Garden Street in 2014; next door is its education centre that offers drop-in classes in cooking and meditation, as well as many tailored to the military community, such as yoga for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yvette Crooke-Avera started making soap in her kitchen and selling it online six years ago. Her pretty Belle Ame Bath & Body offers a dizzying assortment of brightly coloured soaps and scrubs made with pure essential oils and ingredients such as mango, shea butter and coconut oil.

In fact, the shelves, tables and trays piled with attractively homey, glistening and frosted products look (and smell) more like dessert than cleansers. I am partial to her Sugar Scrub Mousse Bar, which feels like a firm marshmallow; you break off a piece and lather up with it, and it becomes like foamy silk on your skin. She also stocks bath bombs and salt polishes, luxury shower caps and – of course – Blue Angels shirts, flags, hats and towels.

Stay (Local Fave)

Retro touches are Pensacola’s leitmotif and nowhere more so than at the Solé Inn and Suites. This once-ordinary 1958 motel got a vintage facelift, and now its 45 rooms sport modish black-and-white decor, zebra-print pillows and glossy furniture. It’s still a relatively simple place, but the location is perfect for exploring downtown.

Guidebook Must

The resurgence of Pensacola’s downtown in the past few years means several old factories and warehouses near the bay got spruced up and repurposed.

One of these was a former box factory, which has been converted into the New World Inn. It also houses Skopelos, a gourmet restaurant. Each room in this upscale hotel is decorated differently and named for a figure from Pensacola’s rich history.

The most popular, according to manager Amanda Kirk-Pennington, is the Rachel and Andrew Jackson suite, a favourite of newlyweds, with its California king bed, antique writing desk and separate lounge area. Other rooms – especially those on the second floor – look out onto the waterfront, such as the Vicente Sebastián Pintado, named for a Spanish surveyor who in the early 1800s drew up the plan for Pensacola’s streets. But, um, beware, “We do have a reputation for being haunted,” Kirk-Pennington says. “You’ll hear doors opening or doorknobs that’ll shake. We recently had a guest call down and say things were shaking in his room. But it’s all very benign,” she assures me. “The building is 120 years old, so it stands to reason it would have some quirks.”

Explore (Local Fave)

Downtown Palafox Street didn’t used to be anywhere you would want to wander, locals tell me. But this central avenue began to thrive in the past decade, with new restaurants and bars moving in. Some of the resurgence was due to the infusion of cash the community received as a result of the oil spill, says Rennie, the jeweller, of Blue Morning Gallery.

Palafox offers a lovely stretch for window-shopping, a long walk or serious buying: It’s lined with appealing eateries, specialty shops and boutiques, with a weekend farmers market at the north end and the bay at the south. The third Friday of every month is Gallery Night, when food trucks and live bands set up, and shops stay open until 11pm.

Early in the morning, you might walk all the way down Palafox to the pier, watch people fishing, then grab a coffee at the two-story Bodacious Brew. For USD3.50, they’ll put all the major food groups into a bowl of Bodacious Grits: Gouda cheese, green onion, roasted corn, olive oil and heavy cream. And blanketed under it all, grits elevated to an art form.

Guidebook Must

The petite, charming Quina House, built in 1820 or earlier, is the oldest house in Pensacola that’s still in its original location, now the heart of the Historic District.

“It has 1820s air conditioning,” says Ed Muller, docent for the house, “a front door, back door and 12-foot ceilings”. Muller is a treasure trove of history; he will tell you how the Spanish landed in what is now Pensacola Bay six years before they established St Augustine, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, which lays claim to being the nation’s oldest – but not first – city.

That colony was the first to survive beyond a few weeks – in fact, it lasted about two years. Soon after the colonists arrived, a hurricane sank most of their ships and wiped out their provisions, including livestock. (Muller says it’s his belief that most of the settlers died because they didn’t eat oysters.) Eventually even the survivors who had hung on to the shrinking settlement vacated. Over the centuries, the French and Spanish tussled over the region.

You can pick up some of those influences in the cottages of this pleasant district. Muller lives two blocks from the Quina House; he moved to Pensacola from New Jersey and says he’ll never leave. “Everyone comes to visit me,” he says, “and I don’t have to go anywhere for vacation.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post