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Snowbird season full of activities for Pensacola Bay Area

Snowbird season takes flight with culture, cuisine and history in the Pensacola Bay Area

Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and Downtown Pensacola welcome annual flock of snowbirds heading south for beaches, seafood and relaxation

Picture this: You go for a morning walk. It’s December, and the sun still hangs low in the sky, but instead of reaching for a jacket and gloves, you grab a pair of shades and hit the beach.

Outside, it’s a brisk 62 degrees, and bright. Instead of snow, you stroll through drifts of sun-drenched sand as you make your way down the shoreline, the surf crashing beside you and seabirds wheeling overhead in the blue sky.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, you’re in Florida — the Pensacola Bay Area, to be exact — and that churning, turquoise water is the incomparably beautiful Gulf of Mexico.

The area is renowned the world over for its sugar-white sand beaches and crystal-clear surf. Aside from natural beauty, though, Pensacola stands out among its neighbors because of its storied past, vibrant culture and laid-back, Southern charm.

Perdido Key, located just a half hour from Downtown Pensacola, exemplifies the relaxed atmosphere of the place. The island’s 16 miles of pristine shoreline and off-the-clock vibe have made it a favorite among winter travelers seeking respite from the low temperatures up north.  

Visitors can spend their hours sharpening their golf game at one of the key’s signature courses, fishing for snapper and amberjack in the teeming Gulf or combing for shells on the key’s scenic beaches.

For the latter, there is no better hunting ground than Johnson Beach. The park, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, has a reputation for some of the best shelling anywhere—arrive early if you want to beat out the competition for the rarest specimens. After you’ve filled your pockets, grabbed lunch and rested your feet from all that beach-combing, make a beeline for the Pensacola Lighthouse.

Located on the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola, it towers like an obelisk above the pine trees and scrub oaks. Climbing the spiral staircase to the top can be challenging, but those who persist are rewarded by panoramic views of Pensacola Bay, Santa Rosa Island and the great, gleaming Gulf.

After you’ve taken in the view — and climbed back down the stairs — cross the street to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, one of the most popular museums in Florida and the largest of its kind in the world. The museum boasts 350,000 square feet of exhibit space and more than 150 meticulously restored aircraft.

Perdido Key has plenty to offer, but those who want a slightly different flavor of Florida don’t have to go far. Pensacola Beach, located just 45 minutes from the key and 15 minutes from downtown, is a bit faster-paced, but every bit as friendly and relaxing as the key.

At its beating heart is the Portofino Boardwalk, which offers a year-round smorgasbord of shopping, dining and live music for every taste. A short drive down Ft. Pickens Road takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the boardwalk, back into Gulf Islands National Seashore.

The park, which features miles of secluded beaches and coastal forest, is prime territory for bird watching. It also boasts a 19th century fort where Native American leader Geronimo was once imprisoned, one of only four forts in the South that was never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War.

Speaking of the past, few cities can rival Pensacola’s history. Santa Rosa Island, where the fort is situated, was home to America’s first European settlement, founded in 1559 by Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano. That settlement was all but wiped out by a hurricane two years later, in 1561, and the area was not settled again until 1698.

Pensacola has seen many changes in the intervening centuries, coming under the rule of five different flags and weathering many storms. One of the best places to get a sense of that rich heritage is the Historic Pensacola Village. The village, operated by the University of West Florida, is a massive, open-air museum featuring restored, colonial-era buildings and historic re-enactors.

Pensacola’s past sets it apart, but the City of Five Flags is also a city on the move, with an urban core that is in the midst of rebirth. Downtown Pensacola’s Palafox Street was just last year named one of the “10 Great Streets in America,” and the city is fast becoming a political and cultural powerhouse in the region.

Take a stroll down Palafox today, and you will find a city bursting with life. Shops, cafes and gourmet restaurants line the streets, with new storefronts opening each week. The city also boasts a professional opera, ballet and symphony and numerous museums, art galleries and live music venues.

The winter months are also chock full of festivals and special events, so there is never a shortage of things to do. In December, Winterfest rolls into town, with trolleys and double-decker buses shuttling festival-goers to interactive holiday performances at 22 locations throughout the city.

If you plan to stay in Pensacola through the New Year, be sure to head downtown for the Pelican Drop this New Year’s Eve. The annual event, Pensacola’s take on the Times Square Ball Drop, features live entertainment, fireworks, street vendors and a giant, lighted pelican descending from its perch high above Palafox Street as you count down to the new year.

To learn more about area attractions and events or to begin planning your stay, go to www.visitpensacola.com/snowbirds. And once you arrive, be sure to visit an area welcome center and pick up a Snowbird Savings Card, for discounts and deals including $10 off a historical Segway tour, buy-one-get-one mini golf, 20% off retail purchases and many other snowbird offers from area restaurants, shops and entertainment.