Picture this: You go for a morning walk. It’s December, and the sun still hangs low in the sky, but instead of reaching for a jacket and gloves, you slide on some sandals and a pair of shades.
Outside, it’s a brisk 62 degrees, and bright. Instead of snow, you wade through drifts of sun-drenched sand as you make your way down the shoreline, the waves lapping beside you and seabirds flying overhead in the sunny blue sky.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, you’re in Florida — the Pensacola Bay Area. The area is renowned the world over for its sugar-white sand beaches and crystal-clear surf. Aside from natural beauty, though, Pensacola stands out among its neighbors because of its storied past, vibrant culture, and laid-back, Southern charm.
Perdido Key, located just a half hour from Downtown Pensacola, exemplifies the relaxed atmosphere of the area. The island’s 16 miles of pristine shoreline makes it a favorite among winter travelers seeking respite from low temperatures up north. Visitors love to sharpen their golf game at one of the key’s signature courses, comb for shells on Johnson Beach and explore the historic Pensacola Lighthouse and the renowned National Museum of Naval Aviation.
Perdido Key has plenty to offer, but if you want a slightly different flavor of Florida you don’t have to go far. Pensacola Beach, located just 45 minutes from the key and 15 minutes from downtown, is a bit faster-pace, but every bit as friendly and relaxing as the key. At its heart is the Portofino Boardwalk, with year-round shopping, dining and live music. A short drive down Ft. Pickens Road takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk, and into Gulf Islands National Seashore, prime territory for bird watching. It also boasts a 19th century fort where Native American leader Geronimo was once imprisoned.
Speaking of the past, few cities can rival Pensacola’s history. One of the best places to get a sense of that rich heritage is the Historic Pensacola Village. The village, operated by the University of West Florida, is a massive, open-air museum featuring restored, colonial-era buildings and historic re-enactors. And Downtown Pensacola’s Palafox Street was just last year named one of the “10 Great Streets in America.” Take a stroll down Palafox today, and you will find shops, cafes and gourmet restaurants. The city also boasts a professional opera, ballet and symphony and numerous museums, art galleries and live music venues.
Mark O’Brien landed in the Pensacola Bay Area decades ago by way of Boston, and soon blended right in with the locals (if you listen carefully you might even catch a hint of southern drawl every once in a while). A seasoned historian and talented wordsmith, Mark wrote the book Pensacola On My Mind in 1987, and today writes an eclectic mix of family and business histories, blogs and other tomes. He loves traveling, driving his new convertible with the top down, catching up with old friends and—most of all—his family (most especially the grand kids).