Typically and predictably, and maybe a little bit lazily, we tend to define the Pensacola region by its King and Queen - Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. The Duke of Hipness - Historic Downtown Pensacola - also earns copious kudos.
But, there’s also their sweet second cousin, the Princess of West Pensacola, who is not as celebrated as the high royalty. Yet, she still has plenty of diamonds in her crown, as well as, how shall we say it, some sequins and rhinestones. Translation, the Kingdom of West Pensacola is a cultural and economic gumbo. It’s a blend of suburban and urban, swanky and funky, upscale and downscale. It’s bountiful in history, museums, eateries, golf courses and a haunted lighthouse that has shined since 1859.
Sure, we have a healthy smattering of rapid cuisine eateries, including, by the way, a new Chick-Fil-A and five of Pensacola’s 12 dignified Waffle Houses. But there’s also the ritzy Pensacola Country Club, with 18 championship holes, the world-renowned Naval Air Museum and the ultra-high-tech National Flight Academy, a $40-million-dollar facility that even Elon Musk envies.
Diversity. That’s West Pensacola. Intriguing and enigmatic.
The Royal Castle, to continue this silly metaphor, is unequivocally the Naval Air Station. It’s Pensacola’s heartbeat. Has been since it was founded in 1913 when we became the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” It followed Fort Barrancas, 1787, and Fort Pickens, 1834. Now, with 14,500 military personnel, NAS impacts everything. And, visitors are welcome. You can climb the 177 stairs of the spirited Pensacola Lighthouse. Just across the street is THE museum - a must see that’s packed with more than 150 retired flying machines. And it’s free! But the IMAX theatre will cost you a few bucks. Hanging majestically from the ceiling is a squadron of our beloved Blue Angels. The real, working Blues practice every Tuesday and Wednesday and the show is easy to find. Just look up. For the full body rush, you can experience a Blue Angels Airshow up close in early November. Parking is at the museum and earplugs are optional, but suggested.
Geographically, West Pensacola encompasses a huge swath of coast and uplands that connects historic downtown to the far reaches of the Perdido area. We have three golf courses, the western campus of Pensacola State College and Antique Row, a collection of shops that line both sides Navy Boulevard.
To the far west, nature enthusiasts get tingly at Tarkiln Bayou State Park, an unspoiled kayaker’s heaven and Big Lagoon State Park, a camping/boating/fishing Mecca.
The west side also boasts a $12 million, 60-acre sportsplex with everything from soccer to football to lacrosse that was built in 2013 and plays host to local and visiting sports teams.
So, when you tire of burdens like sunning on pristine white beaches or consuming gourmet food downtown, switch on your blinker and head west. Whether you prefer diamonds or rhinestones, or both, you’ll discover the mother lode in this fairly land of many personalities.
Eat Your Way Through West Pensacola
West Pensacola is replete with ethnic diversity. You’ll find everything from chic cuisine to downhome Bubba grub. For causal dockside seafood close to downtown, the Oar House always satisfies. On Barrancas Avenue near the Navy Base, Cub’s Crawfish has a loyal following of those who like to “suck da heads”. Continuing westward along Gulf Beach Highway, and marked by a plume of gray smoke is the always popular Brothers BBQ. Of course, their phone number is 850-455-4PIG. Along Highway 98, is the extremely popular Cactus Flower, for Cali-Mexican. Next door is Kyoto Japanese Steakhouse with plenty of sit-around hibachis. West Cervantes Street has two Vietnamese spots, the Yummi Deli and Saigon Oriental Market, both with 4.5+ ratings on Google. The point is, West Pensacola is a place for all tastes and palettes. To learn more, consult that little computer you have with you at all times. You know, ask Siri.
National Flight Academy
While it’s not a facility open to the public like the Naval Aviation Museum, the NFA is nonetheless an awe-inspiring 102,000-square-foot facility that holds one, three and six-day immersive learning experiences for 7th -12th graders. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum is delivered via theme-park style surroundings using advanced technology, flight simulators, virtual reality games and the world’s largest virtual aircraft carrier. Students eat on the mess deck, sleep in staterooms, plan missions with their squadrons and 30 networked flight simulators. Since 2012, more than 10,000 students from all 50 states and seven countries have attended. Parents are encouraged to rent a condo at the beach and have fun while their kids learn.