Growing up, spring break never meant quite the same thing to me as it did to other kids. I was homeschooled for the majority of my childhood, and, as such, my family operated on a different schedule than most. By March, my mother was usually torn between the guilt that came from imagining us falling behind in our schoolwork or from imagining us toiling over books while other kids were tossing water balloons. Often times, her solution to this dilemma was a compromise. We would lug our textbooks to the beach, practice times tables between games of Frisbee or toss the books entirely in favor of an educational field trip.
Fortunately, we lived in a place where it wasn’t hard to mix learning with fun. Pensacola has long been viewed as a family-friendly alternative to raunchier spring break destinations to the east, but the city has a lot more to offer than lazy days spent lounging in the sun. For families looking to spend their spring break learning, as well as lounging, Pensacola simply can’t be beat. From 16th century Spanish settlement, to nesting sea turtles, to some of the world’s most advanced robots, here are five reasons the Pensacola Bay Area is one of the South’s best family spring break destinations.
1. Pensacola is home to America’s first European multiyear settlement
Just last year, archaeologists discovered the site of America’s first European multi-year settlement in Downtown Pensacola, founded in 1559 by Don Tristan de Luna. The site is not yet open to the public. However, visitors can view many artifacts from the city’s past — including an anchor from one of Luna’s ships — at the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum. Historic Pensacola Village, managed by the UWF Historic Trust, offers living-history interpretation depicting life from the early to late 19th century.
2. Pensacola is chock full of military history.
Let’s face it. Kids love forts, and Pensacola is home to a number of them. Fort Pickens, located on Santa Rosa Island, is the largest of four built to defend Pensacola Bay and its Navy yard. The fort, completed in 1834, once held famous Native American warrior Geronimo, of the Chiricahua-Apache tribe, who was captive there. Today, visitors can walk the grounds, take a ranger-led tour and even climb to the fort’s top.
3. Pensacola is the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.”
Naval Air Station Pensacola, located just west of downtown, played a major role in the development of the U.S. Navy’s air power and the training of countless naval pilots during the last century. The base is also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, the largest museum of its kind in the U.S. and one of the most visited in the state. The 37-acre facility, which is completely free, features more than 150 meticulously-restored military aircraft, as well as interactive exhibits and historical artifacts.
4. Pensacola is a hub for high-tech robotics innovation
The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, in the city’s historic Seville neighborhood, is one of the world’s leading robotics research institutions. The institute broke ground in 2015 on a brand new, multi-million-dollar facility. Once complete, the building will feature a glass floor on the second story, allowing visitors to peer down into a working robotics lab. Not far from IHMC is the MESS Hall, an interactive science museum dedicated to raising the next generation of robotics engineers. “MESS” is actually an acronym for “math, engineering, science and stuff.” It’s also an invitation. Kids are encouraged to explore, tinker and, generally, make a mess of things with interactive learning exhibits.
5. Pensacola is a naturalist’s paradise.
Gulf Islands National Seashore — voted Florida’s best beach by readers of USA Today — is home to mile after mile of pristine, unspoiled coastline, and Pensacola is located right in the heart of it. During the springtime, the seashore is a hotspot for migratory birds and, starting in may, a nesting ground for four different species of sea turtle. The seashore offers a variety of ranger-led programs throughout the year, including the popular Junior Ranger program, which allows kids of all ages to learn about the biology and history of the seashore.
Interested in learning more about vacationing in the Pensacola Bay Area? At www.explorepensacola.com, visitors can find out about all sorts of fun, educational activities, learn interesting trivia and even download an interactive scavenger hunt. Check it out.