Gorgeous coastlines are just one reason to visit St. Pete Beach, Pensacola Beach and New Smyrna Beach, where funky vibes and friendly locals are par for the course; gathering spots for fresh sea- food and cool cocktails sit on the edge of the sand, while shopping and pool- side lounging await just blocks from the water.
The rainbow-finned sailfish with carnivalesque flashing lights atop the signage on the way to Pensacola Beach seems to be winking at me. Against a charcoal sky, this quirky sign designed
in the 1950s has become my beacon — and the guiding light, I’m sure, for millions of others who have traveled sans GPS to this cool retro beach town in the far northwest corner of the state. The dazzling light display directs me to turn right, which leads me to the bridge that drops me on a sliver of land nestled between Santa Rosa Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. My destination, the new Margaritaville Beach Hotel, is just another turn away, at which point I can see the island’s virgin white sand dunes hugging the road. Tourism officials tout Pensacola as the “world’s whitest beach,” and on my first impression, I concur.
At the hotel’s entrance, surfboards stand like sentinels, and colors from the beach and water drench the lobby. Jimmy Buffett lyrics posted on the walls subliminally suggest I stop at the bar aptly named Frank and Lola. For those who are not Buffett fans, the song is about a couple that takes a second honeymoon to Pensacola in hopes of jump-starting their love life.
Observing the couple next to me, I quickly conclude that that’s not their situation. Jack and Janet Hatcher from Baton Rouge have that warm, Southern-hospitality attitude and they tell me they come to Pensacola Beach often — as do others from Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia. (The license plates in the parking lot confirm it.) “We don’t have beaches quite like this one in Louisiana,” Jack says. “It’s one of the prettiest,” Janet adds in her Southern drawl.
At the first peek of daylight, I tear open the draperies in my room and gasp. The view is amazing: sparkling diamonds dancing on translucent blue water. A long, lean fishing pier extends into the vista. The first order of the day is to walk in the quartz sand. It flows like water through my fingers and doesn’t stick in between my toes when I put on my flip-flops. Kicking up my heels in the cool water, I stroll the shore, checking out the puffy dunes studded with sea oats and the blue chaises and umbrellas, all the while thinking: Why the heck did it take me so long to visit this piece of paradise?
Next on my itinerary is an old-fashioned bicycle ride. Perched on the cushy seat of a beach cruiser, I pedal along the developed stretch of the beach road that connects the two pristine segments of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It’s not long before I discover a string of oldschool beach bars and pull up in front of the Sandshaker. Seems the drink of the day — and every day — is the Bush- wacker. Beverly , who owns the bar, tells me that the concoction originated here in 1975. The recipe goes something like this: Mix white rum, coffee liqueur and crème de cacao with soft-serve ice cream, and then float the preferred Bacardi 151 rum on top for a serious kick.
Across the street at Flounders Chowder House, I hook up with some friends. A rusty shrimper’s boat at the entrance hints at the restaurant’s quirkiness. The bartender draws a draf beer from a scruffy old fire hydrant mounted on the bar, and a server scurries by with a slice of a three-layer Key lime pie. It’s a pleasure to discover Pensacola Beach’s carefree spirit — no golden arches or high-style boutiques, just an Old Florida beach town with a sprinkling of Southern charm.
Sunday morning, I fuel up at Native Cafe, a cozy breakfast joint, where the crab cakes Benedict is awesome. Local artist Jon Selby Winslow’s canvases of playful pelicans and lazy seaside cottages cover the apricot-colored walls. A few doors down, two blonde sisters from Germany run Geronimo’s Outpost. It’s brimming with nautical tableware and Florida souvenirs stamped with gators.
An afternoon drive to Fort Pickens, a redbrick fortress built in 1834, on the western end of the island, takes me past periwinkle-blue houses perched on stilts prior to entering the unspoiled Gulf Island National Seashore. The next few blissful miles are filled with sculpted dunes and views of sailboats on the placid Gulf water.
My last stop is the Grand Marlin Restaurant on Santa Rosa Sound. Upstairs at the oyster bar, Matt Brestan is prying open shells. “Since last year, I’ve shucked some 250,000 oysters,” he tells me with a look of disbelief. “All from Apalachicola,” he adds. After sampling the plumb salty-sweet bivalves, I order lobster fingers with a honey mustard that’s made with regional tupelo honey. Homeward bound, I pass the iconic sign, giving a wink to the beloved sailfish. — Patricia Letakis
- Where — Pensacola Beach is located in the northwest corner of the state, about 22 miles from the Alabama border.
- Stay — Margaritaville Beach Hotel
- Do — Gulf Islands National Seashore & Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier
- Drink — Sandshaker
- Eat — Flounders Chowder House, Native Cafe, Grand Marlin Restaurant & Oyster Bar
- Shop — Geronimo’s Outpost
- Rresources — Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau