It’s back-to-school season for kids, which means it’s back-to-the-beach season for boomers. Fall is the sweet spot for exploring surprisingly uncrowded beaches and resorts. Boomer travelers Barbara and Jim Twardowski have searched out your best Gulf Coast beach option where you can find mild weather and low rates.
Summer may be over, but there’s still plenty of time for a beach vacation. In the fall, the crowds are gone and the accommodation rates are significantly lower in the fall. We’ve explored the Gulf Coast and found three affordable seaside destinations with an abundance of activities that appeal to boomers.
Pensacola and Perdido Key, Florida
Over 450 years of old, Pensacola Beach emits an old Florida vibe, rich in history and culture. Meanwhile, the more secluded Perdido Key has 16 miles of beach, 60 percent of which is dedicated to federal and state parks filled with wildlife, wetlands, and estuaries.
The “Secret Season” for savings is after Labor Day and before Spring Break. From September through February, weekends are jammed with outdoor events and most are free. In September, it’s the 35th annual Pensacola Seafood Festival and the Taste of the Beach. Weekends in October are filled with a triathlon along the beach, wine tastings, haunted walking tours, Octoberfest, Greek Festival, and an interstate fair. November is the hugely popular eleven day Frank Brown Songwriters Festival, a marathon, the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival, the Creek Indian Tribe Celebration featuring Native American dancing, the Snowball Derby, and Winterfest Trolley Tours. The holiday season is special too with a lighted boat parade, surfing Santa parade and fireworks on New Year’s Eve followed by January’s daring Polar Bear Dip, when folks splash in the Gulf of Mexico.
To truly appreciate the City of Five Flags, begin your visit at the Historic Pensacola Village where costumed docents escort visitors through homes and buildings three times a day explaining why the city claims the title of “America’s First Settlement.” On Fridays and Saturdays, smoke billows from the outdoor kitchen and the smell of rabbit fricassee fills the air. Adult admission is $6 and includes self-guided tours to the Museum of Commerce and Museum of Industry. Take a short drive and have lunch–for under $10–at Five Sisters Blues Cafe. The hip restaurant plays soulful music, displays portraits of famous musicians, and serves a Creole inspired Southern menu.
Downtown’s recent revitalization is partially attributed to the minor league baseball team–the Blue Wahoos. With scenic views of Pensacola Bay, the new facility was named 2012 Ballpark of the Year by Baseballparks.com. Pensacola also has: an art museum and galleries, ballet, opera, theaters, symphony, and a jazz society. Take in a classic film, like West Side Story, for $5 at the Saenger Theatre. Designed in the Spanish Baroque Rococo style, the historic theater opened in 1925 and is the setting for touring Broadway shows, comedians, and concerts.
The easily walkable downtown is a great place to shop or snack. Have breakfast at the Bodacious Brew or at least stop by for a cup of their individually French pressed coffees. Meet one of the more than 100 local artists whose work is sold at the Quayside Art Gallery. Pick up a one-of-a-kind bath product at Belle Ame. The whimsical shop features a delectable handmade lemon meringue soap for $6.95.
The beaches are the number one attraction in the area followed by the National Naval Aviation Museum celebrating its 50th anniversary this October. Last year, nearly 800,000 people visited. One of the largest air and space museums in the world, it has some 150 aircraft on display, as well as, 4,000 uniforms, weaponry, and medals that aid in telling the history of Navy aviation. Admission, parking and tours are free. On Wednesdays, the Blue Angels sign autographs and pose for pictures. Typically, the well-known Flight Demonstration Squadron performs air shows. However, the remaining 2013 shows are canceled due to the sequester. The museum is housed on an active military base, Naval Air Station Pensacola. While on the base, you can also tour the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum for $6. Built in 1859, the lighthouse’s vertigo-inducing climb up 177 steps rewards tourists with an incredible view.
History enthusiasts can spend a morning exploring a massive pre-Civil War fortress that once housed Union troops and the Apache leader Geronimo. Managed by the National Park Service, Fort Pickens construction began in 1829 and was completed in 1834. Admission is $8 per vehicle. To reach the fort, you take a slow (sometimes only 20 mph) scenic driver along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Explore nature up close at the 655-acre Big Lagoon State Park. Watch for migratory birds in the fall from either the boardwalk or a tower. After a day of sightseeing, sample the area’s signature cocktail–the Bushwacker–at the Flora-Bama Lounge. Turning fifty next year, the bar is a coastal institution with three stages, a $5 cover charge, and a slew of crowd-pleasing events from the famous mullet toss to BINGO.
The lure of northwest Florida is, of course, the beaches. Whether you choose an accommodation at Pensacola Beach or Perdido Key, there are loads of fun attractions all within a half hour drive.
Getting to Pensacola
The Pensacola International Airport has more than 100 flights each day. To learn more about the are and find special deals, visit Pensacola’s website.