PENSACOLA, FLA. – Travelers flock to Pensacola in the summer to play on sugar-white beaches lapped by emerald water, get acquainted with historic attractions, and visit the National Naval Aviation Museum, home of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron known as the Blue Angels. It’s ‘round-the-clock, action-packed fun all summer long. But, after Labor Day, the town takes a deep breath and settles into a laid-back groove. The frenetic pace slows to a crawl. The weather changes from sweltering to pleasantly warm. Hotel rates plummet, and lines to attractions and restaurants get shorter. It’s the perfect time to soak up the Old Florida vibe of this picturesque Panhandle town rich in history and Southern charm.
National Naval Aviation Museum — 50 years of flying high
Many who have admired the power and precision behind the synchronized aerobatic maneuvers of the Blue Angels have dreamed of taking to the skies in one of those distinctive blue F/A-18 Hornets.
It’s possible to do just that at the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. For the ride of your life, strap yourself in to a two-person MaxFlight 3-D simulator, where you will plunge into a stomach-churning nosedive and tumble into vertical rolls, emulating the thrill of flying in a Blue Angels airshow.
This fall marks the 50th anniversary of what is now one of the world’s largest aviation museums. Like the technology behind the aircraft it exhibits, the museum has come a long way in half a century. When it opened in 1963 as the Naval Aviation Museum, (now the National Naval Aviation Museum), it exhibited only five aircraft in a humble, wood frame building. After numerous expansions throughout the decades, the 350,000-square-foot space now houses more than 150 restored aircraft that trace the evolution of U.S. military aviation from its beginnings to present day.
Museum spokeswoman Shelley Ragsdale says it’s unlikely that 50 years ago museum founders could have foreseen how much 21st-century technology would enhance the visitor experience.
“The museum has worked hard to bring the history and heritage of naval aviation to life with historic aircraft you can get up close to and touch and with tours guided by veteran pilots that tell it like it was,” says Ragsdale, “but state-of-the-art simulators and a giant screen IMAX really let visitors experience the magic of flight.”
The most exciting thing is yet to come. In November, the museum opens the Blue Angels 4-D Theater, featuring the film “Fly with the Blues.” This fully immersive, multi-sensory flight experience is the closest most will ever come to being in the cockpit of a high performance strike fighter.
Paradoxically, as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Blue Angels are blue indeed — grounded due to mandatory federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
The weekly Blue Angels Fan Experience normally kicks off with an exciting demonstration of aerial maneuvers. But this year, that portion of the program has been cut. The good news is fans still get to meet the pilots, who are always glad to sign autographs and pose for photos.
In the peak summer months, fans can expect a lengthy wait in line. But, with thinner autumn crowds, it doesn’t take long to get a little one-on-one Angel time.
Dolphin cruise is a big splash
In July, the Portofino I is usually at capacity (approximately 90 passengers) when it sets out from Santa Rosa Sound into Pensacola Bay for a dolphin watching cruise. But, after Labor Day, it’s likely that just a few couples will be on board. When the playful dolphins start jumping through the waves, there’s plenty of room at the rail for everyone. There’s no frantic elbowing by camera-toting cruisers determined to get that perfect shot.
There’s also no struggling to hear the captain’s comments about the osprey, pelicans, blue herons, pelicans and other birds that inhabit the bay.
History buffs will appreciate the two imposing military forts – Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas – built to protect Pensacola Harbor from foreign invasion. Both have storied pasts from the Civil War era.
Another historic gem is the 150-year-old Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. After admiring it from the water, you won’t be able to resist going inside for a tour, so make it your first stop after the dolphin cruise. If you have a fear of heights, keep your feet firmly on the ground and tour the museum, but to experience a sweeping, panoramic view of the Gulf Coast, start climbing.
The tower has 177 wrought iron stairs that spiral to the top. Because the passage is narrow, those ascending the tower often have to step aside to let others come down. With fewer visitors touring the lighthouse in the fall, this bottle neck is usually avoided.
Al Fresco urban dining
All that climbing works up an appetite, so head to Al Fresco Urban Dining, Pensacola’s unique take on the food truck craze. In the heart of historic downtown sit four gleaming aluminum AirStream travel trailers, each emitting an array of enticing aromas that mingle in a central, open-air dining plaza.
These vintage travel trailers don’t actually travel at all. Shoppers and office workers hungry for fast, affordable food happily come to them. During lunch hour, customers line up at their favorite eatery where they place their orders at a window and then take a seat beneath sunset-orange umbrellas until their name is called.
Z Taco Fresh Mex delivers a spicy mid day pick-me-up, and Gunshot BBQ satisfies the heartiest of appetites with plates piled high with tender pulled pork or chicken.
The mild October air makes outdoor dining a pleasure.
Pensacola’s off season is peak season for savvy travelers looking for pleasant temps, bargains and easy access to top attractions and activities.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Portofino Island Resort is a luxury property near miles of pristine beaches within the Gulf Islands National Seashore National Park. 10 Portofino Dr., Pensacola Beach, (877) 484-3405, www.portofinoisland.com. The Portofino 1 dolphin cruise is operated by the resort. To book a cruise, call (877) 484-3405.
Where to eat
Al Fresco Urban Dining is the newest outdoor dining hotspot in downtown Pensacola. It’s located on the south corner of Main and Palafox Streets and includes five restaurants, four in stationary Airstreams and one, Jerry’s Cajun Café, in a traditional building. www.eatalfresco.com.
National Naval Aviation Museum — 1750 Radford Blvd, Pensacola, (850) 452-3604, www.navalaviationmuseum.org. Admission, parking and guided tours are free, but there is a charge for some activities. The Blue Angels sign autographs in the Blue Angels Atrium at 11:30 on Wednesdays March-November.
Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum -- 2081 Radford Blvd., Pensacola, (850) 393-1561, www.pensacolalighthouse.org.