Pros: Clean white sand, The National Museum Of Naval Aviation
Cons: The jellyfish and dangerous surf kept us out of the water.
We truly enjoyed our stay... but we found the Pensacola Beach / Gulf Breeze area to be a rather ordinary tourist destination with just a few distinguishing features and attractions. The sole gem was The National Museum Of Naval Aviation.
The Pensacola Beach / Gulf Breeze area was the second of three major destinations on our family's August, 2003 summer vacation. We had just spent three days in New Orleans. From there, we drove ~200 miles to spend four days in Pensacola Beach before moving on to Gatlinburg, and then returning to Ohio. I wanted to include some beach time in our vacation. I considered Panama City Beach, Fort Walton Beach and Destin. I chose Pensacola Beach because it was the shortest drive from New Orleans... I found a cheap beachfront hotel there... I wanted to see the Museum Of Naval Aviation... and it was highly recommended by my friend Kay, who goes there once or twice a year.
Gulf Breeze is a thriving community located at the end of a very long peninsula just across the Pensacola Bay from Pensacola, Florida. Pensacola Beach is located just south of Gulf Breeze (across the bridge) on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, a 40-mile long barrier island. (See the photo accompanying this epinions category... Gulf Breeze is the larger land mass in the foreground. Pensacola Beach is on the skinny island in the background.) Although tourism is a large part of its economy, Gulf Breeze is primarily a residential community with many of the qualities of a typical American small town. We saw the local high school football team practicing as we passed through and the local citizens going about their daily lives. Located right on the Gulf of Mexico, Pensacola Beach is built almost exclusively around tourism. You'll find mostly hotels, restaurants, gift shops and other businesses catering to tourists. Pensacola Beach is clearly growing. A 25 or 30 story hotel was under construction during our visit and many of the restaurants and buildings appear to have been recently constructed. Since it's located on a 1/4-mile-wide island, virtually all of the community's businesses are on one main road and the road leading to and from the mainland. Pensacola Beach was a bit crowded during the day, but became considerable more crowded on weekend evenings as visitors came to enjoy the restaurants and night spots.
We stayed at The Best Western Resort in Pensacola Beach, so of course, we spent most of our beach time there. The clean white sand beach is very beautiful, but swimming conditions were terrible during our visit. Although we experienced mostly sunny skies, the beach was under a red flag (i.e. no swimming permitted) for about half of our 4-day visit due to Tropical Storm Erika farther south in the Gulf Of Mexico. Even when we were permitted to swim under green and yellow flags, the strong currents carried us quickly downshore, and at times, away from the shore. Upon entering the water, the beach dropped off steeply, so we couldn't walk very far into the water and still touch bottom. Therefore, boogie-boarding was very difficult and not much fun. My 10 and 12 year old daughters and I all suffered a few jellyfish stings. In fact, I was stung in the darkest, most remote area of my body's nether-region.YEEEEOWWWW! The stings were numerous, but not severe... like a sweat bee vs. a honeybee. Perhaps the jellyfish aren't always around and the surf is often gentler, but the beach conditions were miserable during our visit, and easily the worst ever in my family's limited beach experience.
But... If you normally don't spend much time in the water, the beach is very nice. Two beach chairs / lounges underneath a beach umbrella could be rented for $4.00 per hour or $22.00 per day. You just plop yourself down on the wooden chairs, and a kid on a 4-wheeler brings your cushions and umbrella and collects the money. There's great shell hunting at low tide. We found several varieties of seashell, including some fully intact conch shells. The eager seagulls swooped down to eat bits of bread out of our hands, and we had fun hunting small sand crabs along the shore after dark.
We did not dine out much. Since our hotel had a fridge and microwave, we nourished ourselves on deli meat sandwiches, chips, leftovers and free continental breakfasts. We did have these two noteworthy dining experiences...
The Creamery Cafe(in Gulf Breeze):
Located in a small non-descript Gulf Breeze shopping center, The Creamery Cafe is owned by a transplanted Chicago couple of German ancestry. Our noontime appetites were well-satisfied and we had plenty of leftovers for dinner. The restaurant features German specialties. Among their most popular are the weinerschnitzel and their wurst platter. They also feature a few southern dishes... I had the crab cakes served with a cole slaw-stuffed tomato. They also have hot sandwiches and HUGE salads. Mom had the roast beef au jus (a.k.a. french dip), served on a big chewy french roll. My older daughter had a gigantic taco salad. She couldn't even eat half of it. And my younger daughter had a personal-size pepperoni pizza. The Creamery Cafe also makes their own ice cream on site and serves enormous sundaes and banana splits. The restaurant is small and quaint. The have three booths and about ten small round tables for four with green gingham-patterned tablecloths. Lunch prices are quite reasonable, especially when portion size is considered. They also have a small gift shop. I found this place in the AAA Tour Book and it's easy to miss. This small, homey restaurant is undoubtedly popular with the locals, but tourists are welcome and appreciated. Creamery Cafe - 348 Gulf Breeze Pk. W, Gulf Breeze, FL (850) 932-1525
Barracuda's (in Navarre Beach):
Because we saw how crowded the popular Pensacola Beach restaurants were on Friday evening, we decided to eat just one big meal on Saturday afternoon. We took the very scenic 30 minute (15 mile) drive along Santa Rosa Island to Navarre Beach, east of Pensacola Beach. I believe Barracuda's Island Cafe to be typical of the area's most popular restaurants. It's a medium to large restaurant with a big bar, booths and tables with privacy partitions, sea life decor, gulf view window seats and a deck for outdoor dining. Classic rock music played in the background and they have live rock and roll in the evenings. The menu features seafood and southern cuisine. I had a delicious fried oyster po' boy with beans and rice. Mom ordered a seafood muffeleta (we both ate the leftovers for dinner). The girls got a regular muffeleta and a cheeseburger. (See my New Orleans Review for more southern cuisine info.)
Barracuda's Bar & Grill - 8469 Gulf Blvd. - Navarre Beach, FL 32566 (850) 939-0093
Although we didn't visit the following Pensacola Beach restaurants, Kay recommended Peg Leg Pete's, Boy on a Dolphin, Flounder's, The Jubilee Restaurant, Crabs and Sidelines. Pensacola Beach also has a Hooter's... at the end of the boardwalk.
Pensacola Beach abounds with shops, and shopping is always popular with my girls anywhere we are. Our favorite shop was The Palace, a big yellow building on the right side of the road just after you drive onto the island. This good-sized shop has lots of different t-shirt and fashion designs, both costly and cheap. They have inexpensive bathing suits, boogie boards, pool toys and everything you need to enjoy the beach. They have shells and plenty of other local souvenirs. They also provide personally-administered temporary tattoos. I saw the illuminated light bulb above my oldest daughter's head as she watched another teenager receiver her tattoo... but, oddly, she didn't ask me for one. Wait till next year...
Pensacola Beach has many other shops, but their highest concentration of shops, snack bars and restaurants (without having to drive) is at the Quietwater Beach and Boardwalk. We explored the boardwalk in the middle of a very hot afternoon. It was not especially crowded. Some of the stores were pretty lame... others were cool and unique. By the way, Quietwater Beach is a small shallow beach at the boardwalk. It's nestled on the island's north side, so it is not subject to the rougher waves found on the other side of the island and is more suitable for the wee ones. Quietwater also regularly features live music at their small amphitheater. Local trolley service is available.
We spent part of a day exploring the city of Pensacola. We enjoyed our time at the Cordova Mall just off of I-110. It had many unique shops and a great food court.
Pensacola Beach has several fun family attractions like miniature golf, go-carts arcade games and such. We played putt-putt at Tiki Island Golf, featuring lots of palm trees and waterfalls. If you can spend a few extra bucks, charter boats are on hand and parasailing services are available. There's a public fishing pier as well as areas ideal for snorkeling.
Aside from the beach, the area's best natural attraction is the drive across Santa Rosa Island along Route 399 between Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. Along the scenic drive, you'll see sparsely vegetated sand dunes on the north side of the two-lane road, and the gulf and beach on the south. It almost certainly looks quite different from wherever you came, and is worth the short drive.
Pensacola is home to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, where the famous Blue Angels Flight Team is based. In 2003, the Blue Angels practiced every Tuesday over and around the Air Station. The Museum Of Naval Aviation has a viewing area where visitors may watch the team practice. Blue Angels website: http://www.blueangels.navy.mil/flashindex.html
Museum Of Naval Aviation:
If you visit only one Pensacola area attraction... this is the one. Located within the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the National Museum of Naval Aviation is one of the world's largest air and space museums. It is every bit as entertaining and educational as Washington D.C.'s Air And Space Museum or Dayton's Air Force Museum. The Museum Of Naval Aviation boasts over 140 famous and historically important aircraft from all eras of aviation, including the Triad, Sopwith Camel, Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" and a Japanese "Zero". Visitors may take a guided tour or explore the museum without a guide. Conducted by uniformed retired military men, the guided tour is very informative from both an historical and mechanical perspective, and is conducted chronologically. A large solarium is entirely dedicated to the Blue Angels. Four of the aircraft are dramatically suspended in formation. There is a small art gallery featuring many beautiful aviation-themed paintings. The kids especially enjoyed the collection of about 20 authentic cockpit trainers... front ends of actual airplanes and helicopters used for training purposes. Visitors may climb aboard and push buttons, turn knobs and pull sticks. The Blue Angels cockpit provides a splendid photo opportunity. Another section that the kids really liked was a series of historical dioramas (complete with sound effects) depicting scenes like a South Pacific Encampment, a WWII carrier interior, a typical American 1943 kitchen and living room and an astronaut planting the stars and stripes on the moon. Most of the aircraft and exhibits are located indoors in air-conditioned comfort. About 40 of the craft are located outdoors and are accessible by a free 20-minute bus tour. The museum has a stomach-turning flight simulator. These things are very cool, but not for those who are subject to motion sickness (I learned the hard way a few days earlier in Mobile, Alabama). An IMAX theater shows flight-related movies.
Admission to the Museum Of Naval Aviation is free, although visitors are met with a large donation box at the museum entrance. There is a charge for the flight simulator and IMAX theater. They have a small restaurant with aviation decor. And of course, there's a large gift shop. It's expensive, but many of the items are interesting and unique. The museum is handicap-friendly. They have three elevators, abundant wheelchairs and smooth floors. We spent about 3 hours at the museum, but one could easily make a whole day of it. The museum is open seven days a week from 9 to 5 and they're closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. As of 2003, access to the museum is only available via the west entrance to NAS Pensacola. It's not a tough drive, but it will add about ? hour to your round trip if you are approaching from the east. Museum Website: http://naval.aviation.museum/intro.html
If you're into lighthouses, the majestic Pensacola Light is just across the road from the Museum Of Naval Aviation. Built in 1858, this black and white lighthouse is rich in history. The tall, slender structure rises nearly 200 feet above sea level, and provides a spectacular view of the Pensacola area for those who are able to climb the 177 steps.
Other Area Attractions:
We visited none of these attractions, but they are listed here for informational purposes.
The Zoo - This small zoo about 10 miles east of Gulf Breeze on the Gulf Breeze Parkway has over 700 animals including lions, tigers, giraffes, bears, rhinos, primates, birds, reptiles etc. Adults and teens are $10.95, children (3 - 11) are $7.95 and senior citizens are (62 and up) $9.95 (www.the-zoo.com)
Fort Pickens - Built in 1834, visitors may tour this historical fort and its scenic surroundings. Situated upon the Gulf Islands National Seashore area, it is administered by the U.S. Park Service. The area is also home to a museum and a scenic campground. It's ideal for nature lovers. Admission (2004) is $8.00 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.
Pensacola Beach is a pleasant family getaway, but you'll find little more there than you'll find at any other popular US beach destination (exception: The Naval Aviation Museum). If Pensacola Beach is one of the closest beaches to your home, then by all means, make the drive. We had a good time, but it's likely that my children will best remember Pensacola Beach as the place where their dad sparked a new dance craze..."The Jellyfish Frenzy"...
My other Florida reviews:
Everglades National Park
Motel 6 - Fort Lauderdale (BLEEECCHH!)
Dry Tortugas National Park
Best Western Resort - Pensacola Beach
TO SEE OUR PENSACOLA AREA FAMILY VACATION PHOTOS, PLEASE VISIT MY TRAVEL WEBSITE:
Pensacola Beach Website:
Gulf Breeze Website: