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Beyond the beach

It’s Saturday evening in Pensacola, Fla.

Past the shops and eateries that line Palafox Street downtown, a wedding reception fills one of several restored historical buildings with light and laughter. Guests spill out onto the sidewalk, while out back, couples dance on a terrace overlooking Pensacola Bay. Fireworks burst against the starry sky; they’re set off at the nearby stadium after every home game, win or lose, played by the Blue Wahoos, the city’s minor league baseball team. There’s a quieter, more romantic vibe as I skirt the wharf and stroll pass the boats. On the deck of one sailboat, lovers slow-dance in the shadows to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.”

I ran into this mix of peaceful intimacy and full-on partying throughout my stay in Pensacola. My husband and I came here for our niece’s wedding and quickly succumbed to its eclecticism. Nestled on the western edge of the Florida Panhandle, Pensacola has a small-town feel. This is “Deep South” Florida, not spring-break-college-destination Florida. It’s a slower-paced alternative to a typical Florida winter retreat, with the overt friendliness of folks who like to live it up and want to share the fun. (Day drinkers, here’s your haven – some happy hours start at 11 a.m. or even earlier.) Cheese grits are always an option.

The beach is not just famous and breathtakingly beautiful, with its sugar-white sand and turquoise water; it’s also clean enough to lure several rare species of sea turtles, it’s an inspiration to countless local artists, and it’s a geological reminder of the precarious purity of this region. The 2010 BP oil spill blackened it; its subsequent cleansing coincided with the upswing of growth downtown and a cultural and economic rebirth. Just about everywhere we turned – whether poking into galleries or cafes, or strolling the beach – we felt a buzz of creativity, whimsy and high spirits.

We’re not the only ones. Pensacola has become a magnet for young people drawn to the burgeoning business scene and affordable living. The city is responding with new construction. But you won’t find massive development here – yet. Some locals worry it may come to that. This seems to be a magical in-between time. For a once-sleepy Southern town, it feels like an awakening.

If you haven’t gotten enough of Pensacola’s sunshine, you’ll find a perfect copy of its blue sky painted on the ceiling of the Spanish Baroque Saenger Theatre downtown. This jewel of a building, with its soaring white facade and rococo architectural details, opened in 1925 as a vaudeville house and movie theater. The Saenger gradually fell into disrepair and disrepute, known for adult films. “Yes, those kinds of movies,” says Kathy Summerlin, the theater’s director of booking and marketing. After surviving attempts to turn it into a parking garage, it was renovated and is now home to Broadway touring shows; the local symphony, opera and children’s chorus; Ballet Pensacola and a summer movie series. The Saenger’s original pipe organ, with thousands of pipes hidden in the walls, is still played on occasion. Architect Emile Weil possessed a particularly Pensacolan whimsy: Summerlin points out the two plaster soldiers affixed on the walls near the stage, one with a plume on his head, the other with an iguana. One of the plaster ladies is bearded.

I’m driving on Via De Luna through Pensacola Beach, and I’ve soon left the condos behind. The name changes to Fort Pickens Road, running through unspoiled dunes and leading me into Gulf Islands National Seashore. Pensacola Beach is actually part of a barrier island across Pensacola Bay from the city of Pensacola. The west end of that barrier island is in this protected park, bordered by spotless white sand and bunchy green knobs of sandhill rosemary. Later, I remember my mission and drive to the island’s tip to tour Fort Pickens, construction of which ended in 1834. It was, in its era, a war machine, with more than 200 cannons as well as tunnels filled with gunpowder. You can catch a ferryboat from here; just last summer, a ferry system started shuttling passengers from Pensacola to Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens.

Pensacola loves its Blue Angels; you’ll find pictures of the blue-and-gold aircraft painted on local bridges. Head west of the city to visit their home base, Naval Air Station Pensacola, where practices start up again in March. The base also hosts the National Naval Aviation Museum, open year-round. At the museum’s heart is a 10,000-square-foot atrium, where four historic Blue Angels aircraft hang overhead in perfect formation. Admission is free.

In the midst of downtown’s busy Palafox Street is the Blue Morning Gallery artist’s cooperative, begun in 1997. It’s so full of artwork that when I first stepped in all I saw was a blur of colors; gradually my eyes adjusted to the large array of jewelry, paintings, blown glass, photography and ceramics on display, created by its more than 60 members. Pensacola offers endless inspiration, jeweler Diane Rennie tells me. “We are this little area of art,” she says. She’s a former president of the cooperative and a longtime member. “It’s such an inspiring environment to be in, and there’s a large retirement community here. People find fun things to do, and one of those things is making art.” David Williams is one of them. A jeweler who specializes in opals, he moved to Pensacola in 2010 after living in Georgia and western North Carolina, and says he’s found his forever home. He lives in a 1920s house near Bayou Texar and kayaks in the bay: “I see dolphins every morning.”

 

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