Among its offerings, one will be your oyster
PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. -- At 6 o’clock on a Friday, it’s jamming at Peg Leg Pete’s. I squeeze onto the last available seat at the bar and order a dozen oysters.
On my left, a birthday gal opens gifts, shouting “Thank you!’’ as colored wrapping paper flutters to the floor. At the far end of the bar, two beefy oyster shuckers hustle to keep pace with the orders. “Another day in paradise,’’ the guy on my right says, clinking beer glasses with his buddy over the din of ’70s rock ’n’ roll hits.
Paradise? Well, pretty close. If heaven has a beach, I assume it would be as brightly white as the sand along this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico that is composed, I’m told, of pure quartz crystal, polished and bleached during its million-year journey downriver from the Appalachian Mountains.
The community of Pensacola Beach is on Santa Rosa Island, a 40-mile-long barrier island. Its heart is Casino Beach, where a giant beach ball sculpture hovers in the sky like a second sun.
In this commercial part of the island, the Gulfside Pavilion hosts free concerts; a 1,471-foot pier is ideal for fishing, bird-watching, and strolling; and opportunities abound for shopping, eating, sailing, and kayaking. If you prefer a commerce-free beach, it’s an easy drive east to Opal Beach, or west to Fort Pickens, both federally protected as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
One worries that these pristine beaches were defiled by the oil spill. Although some tar balls washed up over the summer, the beaches are open, thriving, and welcoming visitors.
“Our beaches are beautiful, our water is clear, and our seafood is safe to eat,’’ Laura Lee, director of communications for Visit Pensacola said recently.
The Pensacola Bay area is more than just a beach getaway. Across a 3-mile-long bridge, the lively city of Pensacola, population 56,000, is the westernmost tip of the Florida panhandle on the border with Alabama. The first European settlement in the United States, Pensacola is known as the “City of Five Flags.’’ Since 1559 Spain, France, England, the Confederacy, and the United States have each ruled there.
It’s an easy place to navigate. The historic district, 40 square blocks of parks and plazas, tells the story of the city’s diversity through its art and history museums, cultural centers, architecture, and tasty local cuisine. Pack your sneakers and take your pick: There’s an African-American Heritage trail, a Colonial Archeological trail, the Navy Point walking trail, the Edward Ball nature trail, and Historic Pensacola Village home tours.
A good place to get your bearings is the Tivoli House on East Zaragoza Street. The first floor of this former 19th-century boarding house is the ticket office for Historic Pensacola Village. Even if you don’t take one of their three guided daily tours, you can pick up a map with descriptions of the 27 properties, some of which you can see on your own for free. However, if you don’t mind being guided, the 45-minute tour is worth the inexpensive ticket price, and includes entrance to a French Creole-style home, post-Civil War home, late-Victorian tugboat captain’s house, and Old Christ Church, one of the oldest in Florida.
Perhaps the quirkiest venue in town is the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum. The name alone conjures images of a carnival, which pretty much sums up this eclectic 150,000-piece collection of historical artifacts, Americana, and west Florida history. Located in the former City Hall, an elaborate Renaissance Revival building, the museum’s first two floors showcase permanent and changing exhibitions that are sure to entertain, including Florida’s first telephone switchboard, go-carts, a shoe of the World’s Largest Man, Boy Scout memorabilia, a shrunken head, an antique press from an African-American printing company, and a mummified cat. The third floor is home to the Discovery Gallery with hands-on exhibits for children.
Not wowed by the eccentric? The small but impressive Pensacola Museum of Art is just down the street, as are the Museum of Industry and the Museum of Commerce.
Or drive to the National Aviation Museum, a 300,000-square-foot wonder with more than 150 restored aircraft and 4,000 artifacts representing the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Upon entering, it’s hard to decide where to look first as the large atrium opens onto even larger spaces where aircraft cover the floors and hang from the ceilings and walls. In this free museum, you can ride in a Top Gun Air Combat simulator or go to an
Nearby is the Pensacola Lighthouse. Built in 1859 and still in use, the 160-foot lighthouse is the fourth tallest brick lighthouse in the nation.
On the way back to town it’s hard to miss the giant fish and lobster neon sign outside Joe Patti’s Seafood. In addition to a fish market, there are great to-go items for picnic fixings, including deli meats and cheeses, fresh produce, bread, wine, and sushi.
Pensacola has many independently owned restaurants. For waterfront dining, the Atlas Oyster Bar and its adjacent sister establishment, The Fish House, are good choices for oysters, sushi, and Grits a Ya Ya, a concoction of spicy jumbo shrimp served on Gouda cheese grits with sauteed spinach, portobello mushrooms, and smoked bacon.
The Marina Oyster Barn is a no-frills family-run restaurant with tables and booths overlooking the Bayou Texar. Originally opened as a boathouse and bait shop, it began serving food in 1968. The initial menu was raw oysters, boiled shrimp, gumbo, chowder and fried mullet, and it’s much the same today.
The gumbo is made with a rich fish stock, shrimp, and a little white rice. It’s tangy-spicy, with just enough heat on the tongue. The East Bay oysters are big, plump, and slightly salty.
At the Coffee Cup Restaurant, a Pensacola institution in business since 1945, the white-tiled walls, Formica tables, and Naugahyde booths are a step back in time, as are the simple menu choices of hot cakes, eggs, homemade biscuits with gravy, and grits. (“No grits, no glory’’ is their slogan.)
For late-evening fun, the complex of 19th-century buildings known as Seville Quarter includes eight entertainment venues with live music, karaoke, and an open-air courtyard bar. There’s also a community theater, an opera company, ballet company, and symphony orchestra in town.
Back at Peg Leg Pete’s, my oysters arrive and I ponder what to do tomorrow. The beach? Museums? A hike? More oysters? I choose all of the above. Another day in paradise? I’m ready.
Necee Regis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.