Pensacola: The Hidden Heart Of Florida - My Family Travels

From the Blue Angels air show to the sparkling green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Pensacola is more than a beach, it's a hot spot of culture, history, and fun. From the Blue Angels air show to the sparkling green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Pensacola is more than a beach, it's a hot spot of culture, history, and fun.

Most of the locals I met around Pensacola, Florida, had an unwavering confidence that their home was an excellent family travel destination — what they seemed less sure of was whether they wanted their little secret getting out. After all, the dazzling white beaches remain uncrowded; the surrounding Gulf of Mexico and Intracoastal Waterway are yet unclogged by jet skis and power boats. Come explore this great city!

The inhabitants of this coastal city know they have quite a story to share with the rest of the country, whether they want to let any more boats into the Gulf, or not. In fact, in April 2003, the Travel Channel featured Pensacola as the only continental US beach on their TV special, "Top Secret Beaches of the World."

In any case, Pensacola's culture is rich with history dating back to Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna's attempt to colonize in 1559; some residents are possibly even a tad boastful about the fact that nearby St. Augustine, dubbed "America's oldest city," was founded years later in 1565.

Birthplace of the Blue Angels

The community helped give birth to naval aviation as America knows it. The sprawling Pensacola Naval Air Station perched over Pensacola Bay once saw 12,010 aviators complete training in 1944, and produced four of the astronauts picked for NASA's Project Mercury, including John Glenn. Wide-eyed children listened in awe to aviators and Navy men at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, where boys and girls alike dragged their parents around and gaped at more than 150 restored aircraft from different eras, (including a very rare Japanese Zero) displayed both inside and outside of the museum.

A special favorite with the kids is the museum's affiliation with the Navy's Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team. Featured each day in the IMAX film "The Magic of Flight" on the premises, several replicas of the Blue Angels' stunt crafts are on display in their own atrium; if the family is especially lucky, you might just bump into one of the Angels in the flesh on the streets of downtown Pensacola.

Celebrating the 'Heart of Florida'

The strong connection between the Naval tradition and the outlying community was made very clear to me in my chat with former Pensacola Mayor John Fogg. Some called him the "Tom Cruise of Florida," a former Navy pilot and Blue Angel.

Mayor Fogg swelled with pride as he told me about the 10-day festival that kicked off my first evening there on the last Thursday in May, as I spoke with him in Seville Square, Pensacola's large entertainment and dining complex. Calling it "Florida's oldest annual festival," Fogg described how the sheriff would hand off the keys to the city to the "fiesta forces" (a majority of them dressed as gaudy versions of Mioki Indians), thus abandoning the city to Fiesta of Five Flags.

"If you don't think of Pensacola as the heart of Florida, you're about to learn," said retired Vice Admiral Jack Fetterman, as we chatted in a room draped in the American flag, listening to dueling pianos. After the "surrendering" of the city, an evening of outdoor family entertainment and music is offered.

Each November, the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival, a free juried visual arts show at Seville Square, is followed by a Kids Festival to encourage young artists. Throughout the year, Pensacola's many different festivals include events appropriate for the family such as Mardi Gras parades, banquets, food festivals, antique shows, and concerts.

History & Charms of a Riviera

Many of these festivals are held in conjunction with the Historic Pensacola Village. The village is among the oldest historical districts in the Southeast. Museums, such as the ca.1906 City jail, now the Pensacola Museum of Art, and well-restored and re-furnished colonial-style houses, maintain the memories. This region was once battled over, and conquered, by five different flags (that of the British, French, Spanish, the U.S., and the Confederacy).

Far beyond aviators and festivals, the most Pensacola has to offer the traveling family is on the beaches. The sands resemble snow, powdery, like in Sweden. All along the coast (and notable islands such as Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key), the most feet-friendly beaches my petunias have ever walked offer an outlet for boating, fishing, dives to an assortment of wrecks off the coast, snorkeling, and simple strolling. A variety of parks, bayous and rivers nearby offer such diversions as canoeing, hiking, biking, and nature-watching.

Children will also want to explore the canon-filled Fort Pickens (which saw a lot of action back during the Civil War), and the Zoo in Gulf Breeze, which the family should find will live up to its reputation as "the world's friendliest zoo." Many visitors also stop by the Wall South at Veterans Memorial Park (a replica half the size of Washington D.C.'s Vietnam Memorial), the Civil War Soldiers Museum, and the new National Missing Children's Memorial, a sculpture on Bayfront Parkway, entitled "The Sanctuary."

But forget about bustling around trying to see everything. As "Tom Cruise" the local mayor would say, the most important thing is to get yourself lost out in the Gulf waters.

Once you're far "out in the open," Fogg said, it's "nice and sweet, like a true, blue angel."

Details, Details

Two evenings per week, parents can take guilt-free leave of little ones courtesy of the gulfside Hampton Inn Pensacola Beach's (800/320-8108; 850/932-6800) "S. S. Kids Krew", a supervised pizza, clubhouse, and movie party for ages 5-12. ($20 for the first child, 10 for each additional child). Register early, as there are only 20 spots available. Meanwhile, enjoy incredible crab cakes at Jackson's (850-469-9898). You don't have to believe me; Jackson's has won the Florida Trends Golden Spoon Award as one of the state's top 25 restaurants.

Additionally, two typically friendly-to-families hotels, a Homewood Suites (850/474-3777) near the airport and two popular malls, and a Hilton Garden Inn (850/916-2999) right on the beach, opened in 2003. For more event information, contact the Pensacola Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/874-1234). Also, check here for a great website with more info about this area.

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.