by Simon Calder, The Independent, February 27, 2017
How’s this for a slogan? Pensacola: the western gate to the Sunshine State, where thousands live the way millions wish they could. That was coined by a former mayor of the city, Vince Whibbs. And he has a point. Pensacola is Florida’s westernmost city, closer to New Orleans than Tallahassee. It’s where the Panhandle meets the Deep South and they go to the beach: Pensacola Beach, a sugar-white sandbank eight miles out to sea from the city. I stayed in a room facing the Gulf at the Margaritaville Hotel on Pensacola Beach, named after the Jimmy Buffett song (margaritavillehotel.com; for the first couple of months of 2017 it’s closed for renovation)
At the end of this barrier island is Fort Pickens — a great place for watching migrating birds, which use the fortress and the dunes that surround it as a pit stop on their long-haul trips.
Fort Pickens, Pensacola
Downtown Pensacola has echoes of New Orleans, the city just three hours’ drive away. And it also has a strong musical tradition — as you discover at the crossroads known as Belmont-DeVilliers. During the final years of racial segregation, the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers Streets was the heart of the Black community. Musicians from Louis Armstrong to Aretha Franklin played at clubs and saloons here, because Pensacola was an important stop on the so-called Chitlin Circuit — the crucible for rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll. Today there are echoes of that era in the Five Sisters Blues Café, where you can order food for body and soul such as gumbo, black-eyed peas and okra.
To infinity and beyond
If you dream of flying machines, or you just want to know how the space race was won, then follow a million visitors a year to the number-one tourist attraction on the Gulf Coast: the National Naval Aviation Museum (navalaviationmuseum.org). It’s free to get in, but as it’s part of a military base you’ll need to bring your passport. Inside, there are more than 150 aircraft — including Marine One: the helicopter that flew President Richard Nixon.
National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola
He was in the White House on what may have been the most momentous day in human history: 20 July 1969, when man first walked on the moon. After Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, President Nixon radioed Apollo 11 to say: “What you have done today makes the heavens part of man’s world.” Both Armstrong and the last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, trained in Pensacola as naval aviators.
The final frontier for Florida is a short way west — and you can’t mistake the state line because of Flora-bama, the bar on the border. This classic piece of Americana was established in 1964 at the western gate to the Sunshine State — where Florida meets Alabama and visitors meet locals.
It’s a great place to end a road trip — exhilarated by the diversity of a rich heritage, welcoming people and entrancing wildlife. Another Florida, indeed.
Seven days’ hire of compact car from Pensacola Regional Airport costs from £170 or upgrade to a Chevrolet Camaro Convertible from £331. Book with Hertz.co.uk
Discover more at Visit Florida