By Sloane Stephens Cox
Consider yourself a world traveler whose wanderlust is constrained by limited vacation time? Northwest Florida, particularly the stretch from Pensacola to Destin, offers an extensive array of happenings and hot spots that rival some of the most elite retreats. During one short stay, you can satiate your inner foodie, fashionista, history buff, and outdoorsman by exploring the bustling downtown areas, bucolic settings, and pristine beaches.
Pensacola natives who haven’t returned to their hometown in recent years might steer you straight to the world-renowned white-sand beaches and away from downtown, recalling dilapidated buildings and sleepy streets they would not dare walk after dark. Ignore their advice!
Making a beeline for the beach is tempting, but you won’t want to bypass the burgeoning urban oasis on the north shore of Pensacola Bay. Downtown Pensacola is in the midst of a remarkable renaissance, and now it can add the accolade “2017 Greatest Place in Florida” to its other coveted claims, which include “America’s First European Settlement.”
The city’s welcoming nature and “refreshing blend of historical resolve and cosmopolitan progress” are among the many reasons for the recent win, according to the American Planning Association, which bestowed the award after a public poll.
Start your stay in one of nine spacious guest suites at the Lee House. This boutique hotel in the heart of downtown boasts all the modern comforts and amenities of new construction while retaining the look and feel of the 1866 home that once graced the property. Spacious porches overlook Pensacola Bay, and the hotel is flanked by Fountain Park and Seville Square, the magnolia-canopied setting often abuzz with free concerts and family-friendly festivals.
Stroll four short blocks west, past costumed docents leading tours of historic Victorian and French Creole cottages, to one of the “Ten Greatest Streets in America”—another epithet bestowed by the American Planning Association. Packed with posh boutiques, elegant eateries, and artsy exhibitions, Palafox Street is steps away from quaint museums, archaeological sites, and picnic-worthy parks. Its upscale ambience is similar to that of New York City’s swanky SoHo (short for South of Houston Street), so it’s no wonder that SoGo (south of Government Street) is the nickname given to Palafox’s shopping and dining district.
SoGo’s Scout is a must-see for any woman who wants to dress like a well-appointed A-lister in brands such as Self Portrait, Ulla Johnson, and Golden Goose. Owner and Pensacola native Julia Ussery’s rave-worthy résumé includes working as design director at Calvin Klein and styling celebrities such as Kate Moss for top runway shows. Ussery has an uncanny ability to glean your preferences and determine what looks best on you, minimizing your time in the dressing room and maximizing the time you have to hit other haute haunts.
Spacious porches overlook Pensacola Bay, and the hotel is flanked by Fountain Park and Seville Square, the magnolia-canopied setting often abuzz with free concerts and family-friendly festivals.
Cruise Palafox’s brick walkways festooned with fenced-in flower beds and whimsical bike racks. The north–south stretch of more than ten blocks of storefronts showcases many creature comforts, from modern kitchen gadgets to artisanal olive oils, custom jewelry, funky home furnishings, and designer fitness apparel. Downtown businesses are popping up so quickly that even locals have a hard time staying abreast of the developments. One of the latest clusters is slated to open soon at One Palafox Place, a century-old landmark that has been completely renovated for living, working, shopping, and dining spaces.
For a serious case of furniture envy, take a one-mile detour northeast to another downtown shopping mecca: Duh for Garden and Home. Can’t stuff a hand-carved armoire, plush chaise lounge, or cascading shell chandelier into your car? The store can deliver it to you. Or you can choose from plenty of unique items that are easy to stash in your suitcase. Fall in love with found objects from around the world, from Turkish towels to leather flyswatters, before you even know what they are. Duh even offers a new French-bistro-style restaurant, Jo’s, along with men’s and women’s clothing, stationery, jewelry, and many more items that evoke a luxurious lifestyle. Shoppers won’t want their time in the serene sixteen-thousand-square-foot space to end.
Head back to Palafox to hone your cooking skills in a class at So Gourmet & Kitchenry or unwind Cirque du Soleil–style in an aerial yoga class at Pure Pilates. You can learn more about Pensacola’s nearly five-hundred-year history under Spanish, French, and British rule (Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags), during a self-guided tour of buildings and museums in the nearby Historic Pensacola Village.
When shopping and sightseeing stir your appetite, Gulf-to-table restaurants await you on every block. Try the tasty mini tuna tacos on a bed of lump-crab guacamole at Nom Sushi Izakaya. Or grab an open-faced Spanish crab melt sandwich, homemade soup, and sweet soda bread at Carmen’s Lunch Bar, which was recently profiled in Forbes magazine. Both are intimate venues with impressive menus. From an outdoor table, you might catch a glimpse of a horse-drawn carriage, the Pensacola Pedal Trolley, or a group of Segway riders gliding past Plaza Ferdinand VII, where Andrew Jackson was sworn in as territorial governor.
Its upscale ambience is similar to that of New York City’s swanky SoHo (short for South of Houston Street), so it’s no wonder that SoGo (south of Government Street) is the nickname given to Palafox’s shopping and dining district.
For Southern cuisine with a contemporary twist, head a few blocks west to Union Public House. Signature dishes include grouper and shrimp corn dogs and mouthwatering wild boar sloppy joes. Diners wanting grab-and-go gourmet options can swing by the silver Airstream-style food trucks at Al Fresco on the corner of Main and Palafox Streets. For fancier dinner fare, make reservations at Jackson’s Steakhouse or Global Grill, which offers tangy jalapeño margaritas and consistently good tapas and entrées. Creative cocktails, stylish salads, and fresh fried oysters are only a few of the favorites at Restaurant IRON.
Catch one of the best sunset views on the bay at casual Jaco’s Bayfront Bar and Grille. The west-facing patio is the perfect place to enjoy a cold glass of wine and a warm Bella Mushroom Stack, which lies on a bed of pesto risotto and is topped with Kalamata olives, feta, and tomato cream sauce.
When the streetlights turn on, Palafox continues to hum with family and adult activities. Enjoy a production at the historic Saenger Theatre or a big-name concert at the small venue Vinyl Music Hall. Impress (or embarrass) your spouse, kids, and friends by hopping on a mechanical bull at Wild Greg’s Saloon, or challenge your brain by solving clues in one of three themed escape rooms at Escape on Palafox.
The bass is always pumping at Blend Lounge, which connects to World of Beer. If beer is your beverage of choice, quench your thirst at one of the local breweries, including the newest, Perfect Plain Brewing Company on Garden Street. Wine lovers can kick back in the breezeway at the Wine Bar, where street musicians’ tunes often echo down the arched tunnel of bricks.
A “Glamping” Retreat
Nestled among the cotton fields, rolling farmlands, and longleaf pines in nearby Milton is a swank sanctuary called Coldwater Gardens. Named after the spring-fed creek that runs along its eastern border, the eco-agro-tourism resort boasts 360 acres that include sprawling gardens, a luxurious lodge, cushy cabins, and “glamping” (short for “glamorous camping”) tents. The lodge’s clean, contemporary lines evoke the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, who happened to be a close family friend of the owner.
A mod treehouse-style cabin even has a hot tub on its deck, and the glamping-area bathhouse won a prestigious state award for its dapper design. The six-hundred-square-foot cabins have mod furnishings, open kitchens, spacious bathrooms, generous screened-in front porches, geothermal heat and air-conditioning, comfortable king-size beds, pull-out sofas, instant hot water, and landscaped yards. From three of the cottages, guests can enjoy a fiery sunset over a cotton field.
The quiet getaway, which has managed to maintain a low profile in the rural North Santa Rosa community, is the perfect place to escape digital overload, though Wi-Fi is always available. Only four miles away is the Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center, where you can traverse a challenging ropes course, soar over treetops on about a mile of zip lines, or head down the water in rental canoes and tubes.
Landlocked beach lovers shouldn’t have to settle for ocean-sound mobile apps and seashell screensavers. It’s time to take a trip to some of the award-winning beaches of Pensacola, Navarre, Fort Walton Beach, and Destin—all of which are still relatively well-kept secrets.
Trying to determine which location has squeakier sand, bigger dunes, or the best spot to sprawl out on a beach towel is impossible and probably unnecessary, since picture-perfect places abound along the Emerald Coast, as the area is called. But, if you drive over the Destin Pass, you’ll almost certainly see water with clear turquoise color and clarity only the Caribbean can rival.
From the top of the pass, look north to catch a glimpse of the many boats that drop anchor on Crab Island, the famous underwater sandbar that used to be an island. Floating on the water’s surface during summertime is Crab Island Water Park, an inflatable playground that kids love. Destin’s Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park is also a family favorite with a lazy river, a wave pool, and forty play areas.
Popular watersports are available for rent everywhere. Options include stand-up paddleboarding, parasailing, paragliding, surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing. Adrenaline seekers can experience hydroflight, one of the latest trends in watersports, on a Flyboard at Destin Power Boats and Fort Walton Beach’s Power Up Watersports. The water-propelled hoverboards take riders on a thrilling excursion as high as thirty feet above the water.
Of course, even sunny Florida has its rainy days. When bad weather occurs, consider roaming the 350,000-square-foot military and aerospace museum in Pensacola. The National Naval Aviation Museum displays more than 150 restored aircraft, and kids can even hop into the cockpit of a retired Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet. The oldest and largest of its kind, the museum is among the most visited in Florida, and admission is free.
When bad weather occurs, consider roaming the 350,000-square-foot military and aerospace museum in Pensacola. The National Naval Aviation Museum displays more than 150 restored aircraft, and kids can even hop into the cockpit of a retired Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet.
Interact with dolphins at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach or charter a dolphin cruise with one of many operators, including Destin Snorkel. Deep-sea fishing adventures are also popular. The Gulf is known for its savory red snapper, so head out during snapper season in early summer to catch fish you can cook in your upscale Sky Home’s kitchen at Pensacola Beach’s Portofino Island Resort.
Other stylish places to stay include The Henderson in Destin and the Hilton Pensacola Beach, which offers a bountiful Sunday brunch. For live music, cold adult beverages, and an island vibe, swing by the Sandshaker Lounge on Pensacola Beach, which claims to be the home of the original Bushwacker cocktail. Or, sit under one of many thatched roofs at Navarre Beach’s Juana’s Pagodas, which is also a hot spot for sandy volleyball games and watercraft rentals.
Beach restaurants can sometimes be hit or miss, but here are some locals’ recommendations: TC’s Front Porch open-air café, a converted gas station in Navarre; Destin’s Louisiana Lagniappe, the Donut Hole, and Dewey Destin’s seafood, popular for its juicy fish sandwiches; Fat Clemenza’s brick-oven pizzeria in Miramar Beach; and The Grand Marlin in Pensacola Beach.
If you can’t get enough of the fresh seafood, stop in the spacious seafood market Joe Patti’s in downtown Pensacola to have some shipped to your home—not that you will ever want your Northwest Florida vacation to end!
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