Warm, emerald green waters lap at your ankles as your feet burrow deeper into the white sand. Sandpipers dare to inch their way closer to your lunch while the Floridian sun covers you with its warmth.
This is what the beach life is made of.
And if you just got orders for NAS Pensacola or Whiting Field, this will be your life very soon. If you don’t love the salt and the sand, though, Pensacola, Florida has plenty more to discover.
Climb the Lighthouse
Get a beautiful 360-degree view of the flight line on NAS Pensacola and Pensacola Bay by climbing up the narrow 177 steps of the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. The structure is located on base, so be prepared to flash your ID at the security checkpoint. Admission is only $4 for military, seniors, and children under 12 ($7 for adults). Learn about the history of the lighthouse in a self-guided tour around the museum before tackling the steep spiral stairs leading up the top. For the inquisitive climber, there is always an attendant at the top of the lighthouse to offer education on the old light…after you catch your breath, of course.
National Naval Aviation Museum
Just down the street from the lighthouse is the Naval Aviation Museum. With free admission, this is a great destination to bring visiting family and show off the history of naval aircraft. With a giant screen theater, dozens of aircraft exhibits on display, an indoor playground, and the Blue Angels 4D Experience, there is something to entertain everyone!
When you think of Florida, people often think of alligators. Ironically, it’s not until you drive just a half hour into Alabama that you encounter a huge alligator farm. Known as Alligator Alley, this family nature adventure allows you to walk along an elevated boardwalk to safely view dozens of alligators in a natural habitat. Catch the daily feedings at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m., and even get up close and personal by holding a baby gator!
Ride the River
Grab your paddles and see what Blackwater River in Milton has to entertain you and your family! Take advantage of Whiting Field’s MWR — which offers recreational rentals, such as paddleboards, kayaks, and boats — and plan a day out on the water. With little kids in tow, feel free to stay in the shallows at their wading area and playground while the adults enjoy volleyball, horseshoe, corn hole, and basketball.
Once settling into Pensacola life, you will quickly start seeing a bunch of colorful pelican statues all throughout the city. These are the Pelicans in Paradise, and they are painted all sorts of colors and in various styles to reflect a particular organization or sponsor. There are nearly 40 of these statues dispersed throughout downtown, as well as on Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. An incomplete list and map of the pelican locations is available, but it should only be used as a loose guide. Get to know your city and see how many birds you can find! You might just find some great local spots along the way.
Fans of cultural art, closed streets, and farmers markets are treated to one Friday night each month with Gallery Night Pensacola. This event closes down the main strip of downtown, Palafox Street, and fills it with booths from local artists, food vendors, and even public performances. Many of the local bars and restaurants will also take to the street with discounted beverage prices, so it’s a party for all! Just be prepared to circle the entire downtown area for those elusive parking spots, unless you’re willing to pay $10 or more for the convenient lots.
Tired of paying an arm and a leg for just a little batch of blueberries at Publix? Go pick your own, (for cheap) at Blue Basket Farms in Milton. Even though you won’t need much, bring cash to pay for the pounds of berries you pick. The owners are friendly and even encourage the philosophy: “One for the basket, three for my mouth.”
Pro tip: Freeze a batch of berries when you get home for a grab-and-go bite-size popsicle!
Alright, it’s about time to get back to the beach. As a military family, you must take advantage of your National Park Service card and get free access to Fort Pickens which is just an extra 15-20-minute drive from the always-popular Pensacola Beach. If you drive all the way to the end of the road, you will be able to explore the old cannons, tunnels, and armories of the old Army base. Or, you can stop a little short of the base and turn into any of the public parking lots on Fort Pickens Road to access the long strip of the national park beach. Because access requires a park pass, this strip of the Pensacola Beach finger is a whole lot less crowded and allows plenty of room to spread out, unload your paddleboard, plant your fishing rods, or just lounge.
Catch a Sunrise
For the early bird, set your alarm clock a little earlier than usual to drive to Pensacola Beach and watch the sun rise over the iconic beach ball water tower. You’ll beat the daily crowds that flock to the beach, and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a pod of dolphins making their early-morning trek through the shallow waters before the crowds scare them away. Once the orange, red, and purple hues have given way to the hot glow of the morning sun, make a pit stop at Bagelheads in downtown Pensacola for a myriad of breakfast bagel options and espresso.
The beach life is a good life, but if you just got orders to Pensacola, be sure to pack more than just your towel and sunscreen because this city has got a lot more in store for you!
Photo Credits: Renee Dolan | Eastern Sky Photography NC