PENSACOLA, Fla. – While summer is the traditional slow season for tourist resorts in hot and muggy South Florida, it is peak season 600 miles (965 kilometers) northwest in the beach towns of Florida's Panhandle. From St. George Island in the east to Pensacola Beach in the west, there is plenty to explore in this sometimes-overlooked region.
Pensacola Beach offers gleaming white sand and warm turquoise waves. The beach is buffered on both sides by lengthy stretches of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a protected national park and wildlife sanctuary where visitors can hike, bike or kayak along more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) of pristine shoreline.
Pensacola Beach itself is an ideal location for a family vacation or a romantic getaway. Smaller than the popular Panhandle towns of Destin and Panama City Beach, there is still plenty to see and do on Pensacola Beach and in the city of Pensacola.
The hub of Pensacola Beach is Casino Beach, which sits under a giant water tower painted like a beach ball. In days past, food offerings on the beach's main fishing pier were limited to a single hot dog vendor. The new Casino Beach Bar in Grill offers a variety of dishes including shrimp and mango ceviche, seared ahi (yellowfin) tuna and fish tacos. The restaurant includes a full bar along with a covered beach patio with cooling sprayers. Visitors can enjoy their food while watching surfers go for breaking waves near the pier or cheering on an impromptu game of beach volleyball.
Downtown Pensacola has undergone a major revitalization in recent years. About 10 minutes away from Pensacola Beach, Palafox Street is downtown's main drag. The street features a variety of shops, bars and restaurants and is home to a regular Saturday morning farmers market with fresh food, vegetables, baked goods and items made by local artists and crafters.
Also new in recent years is the Blue Wahoos minor league baseball team and waterfront stadium downtown. The AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, the Wahoos' games offer a fun family outing with entertainment.
On most Sunday evenings during show season, six-F-18 fighter jets streak over the beach before heading home to Pensacola Naval Air Station, a U.S. Navy base. The acrobatic team of jets, called the Blue Angels, is based here and practices here, but they travel to other locations in spring, summer and fall for their performances.
The Blue Angels can also be seen doing morning practices at the base in West Pensacola on certain days. The jets can usually be seen from historic Fort Pickens across Pensacola Bay on the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island, the barrier island that encompasses the beach and Gulf Islands National Seashore. Those wanting a closer view of the elite pilots and their fighter jets can drive 20 miles (32 kilometers) to watch the team practices at the base.
For the practice schedule, check out http://www.blueangels.navy.mil/media/show/2015PracticeSchedule.pdf . Most practices are followed by autograph sessions with the pilots inside the nearby National Museum of Naval Aviation. The museum is home to a world-class collection of historic military aircraft and artifacts.
Most sections of Pensacola Beach and Gulf Islands National Seashore do not have lifeguard towers. Pensacola Beach is patrolled by lifeguards in trucks and ATVs, so it is best for inexperienced swimmers to stick to the main beaches where lifeguards are stationed.
Traffic to and from Pensacola Beach can get heavy on weekends during the summer season. If you are staying on the beach, plan to stay put during the weekends and make trips into town during slower times on the weekdays.
The shoulder months of April and October are also good times to visit — the weather is ideal and the beach is less busy because school is in session.
Pensacola Beach offers a variety of stereotypical beach bars where covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" can be heard day and night, and fried shrimp and oysters on the half-shell are menu staples.
For a little more music variety, check out Paradise Beach Bar and Grill. The popular local hangout sits on Santa Rosa Sound just across from the Holiday Inn, Hilton and other large hotels on Via De Luna. The bar features live musical acts. Many New Orleans musicians are frequent performers.
Of course, the ideal place to hang out is the beach itself. Every Tuesday night at the pavilion on Casino Beach you'll find Bands on The Beach, a sunset performance by various musical groups. Bring a towel, folding chair and picnic dinner and join the crowd in enjoying the music and the beach. Dancing is optional.