Sky's the limit in Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels

Chicago Tribune
Blue Angels raise the roof in Pensacola

Fat Albert — the airplane, not the cartoon character — is in town, and he's showing off.

The huge C-130T Hercules is warming up the crowd before a Blue Angels practice with maneuvers befitting a jet fighter, not a four-engine turboprop designed to carry military cargo. A couple of nearly 90-degree banked turns near the ground are impressive, along with a flyover less than 100 feet off the airstrip. Wrapping it up as the Blue Angels taxi into takeoff position, the Marine flight crew brings Fat Albert in, drops the plane onto the runway at an amazingly steep angle, reverses the engines and comes to a tire-smoking halt in just 1,500 feet.

Wow!

Pensacola may be best known for its Naval Air Station, home to the Blue Angels (www.blueangels.navy.mil). In summer and fall, when the Navy and Marine aerobatic flight team isn't out of town for performances, they put on their full show at Tuesday and Wednesday practices that can be viewed at the National Naval Aviation Museum, a place that can easily keep you occupied for a day or more. Of course, you also could just lie back on a blanket on one of the area's many beautiful white-sand beaches and enjoy the aerial spectacle.

Those beaches, just one of the area's many surprises, sprawl along miles of barrier islands, some of which are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Ninety percent of the powdery white sand is quartz crystals that once were granite in the southern Appalachians.

During my visit the first week in November, I walked barefoot on beaches whose dunes could be mistaken for snowdrifts, albeit snowdrifts in 70-degree weather. The summer months are peak season here, so I often had miles of seascape to myself, save for the occasional great blue heron or brown pelican.

On the west end of Santa Rosa Island, part of the national seashore, I nosed around the remains of Fort Pickens, built in the early 1830s to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. Though a variety of weaponry was installed at the fort over the years, the only true action it saw was during the Civil War, when Union forces that controlled it traded volleys with Confederates occupying Pensacola. The fort later was used as a prison whose most famous resident was the Apache leader Geronimo.

History is a big deal here in what's known as the City of Five Flags. About 400 miles east, on Florida's Atlantic Coast, St. Augustine claims bragging rights as the country's oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement, dating to 1565. But folks here will tell you Pensacola is older, since Spaniard Don Tristan de Luna sailed into the bay and set up a settlement in 1559.

A hurricane later destroyed the settlement, which wasn't re-established until much later, allowing St. Augustine the honors for being "continuously occupied." In addition to Spain, at various times in its history Pensacola has been under the flags of France, Britain, the Confederacy and the U.S.

During a Segway tour of downtown, Rick Brown of Emerald Coast Tours (850-417-9292, http://www.emeraldcoasttours.net) pointed out more history, such as the 11-story Seville Tower, completed in the early 1900s as the state's tallest building at the time. The tower sits on Palafox Street, a delightful mix of local shops, restaurants and entertainment that proves not all downtowns have died. In 2013 the American Planning Association named Palafox one of the top 10 great streets in America.

Also on Palafox I saw the Saenger Theatre, a Spanish Baroque structure from the 1920s that underwent an extensive renovation about five years ago and today hosts local talent as well as big-name entertainers such as Jerry Seinfeld.

That's part of a thriving arts scene here that includes the "big five" of theater, ballet, symphony, opera and an art museum.

West of downtown I stopped in for lunch at the Blue Dot, a fixture in the historically African-American Belmont-DeVilliers district. The area was in decline in much of the latter part of the last century, but it's on the rebound. Blue Dot has persevered since the 1960s, serving up just hamburgers (and ribs and rib sandwiches on Saturday). The building, with its bright blue front, isn't anything to look at inside or out, but the burgers are good and the sense of community and the welcoming "how are ya'll" from the constant stream of customers is refreshing.

Back at the Naval Aviation Museum (800-327-5002, http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org), which — amazingly — is free, the more than 150 aircraft on display will wow all ages. I also took a turn in a jet flight simulator that had us doing 360-degree rolls.

Tours are sometimes available for the Restoration Hangar. Here, dedicated workers, mainly volunteers, spend an average of five years to restore just one old military aircraft. More than 40 of them have been salvaged from Lake Michigan, where budding World War II aviators practiced takeoffs and landings from faux aircraft carriers.

This also is the site of the National Flight Academy, a fascinating education program for grades 7 through 12. I stepped inside a building that simulates an aircraft carrier in its looks, layout and even sounds, such as the whoosh of a jet being catapulted off a carrier deck. During their six-day stay, kids plan and execute simulated humanitarian air missions and in the process strengthen math and science skills.

Corporations also use the academy (877-552-3632, http://www.nationalflightacademy.com) to enhance team-building, and in 2015 the public also will be able to attend.

Just another of Pensacola's surprises.

If you go

Getting there

Pensacola International Airport is served by several major airlines and has nonstop service from a number of cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Washington.

Lodging

I stayed at:

•Lee House, a lovely boutique hotel in the city's historic district with just nine suites. Depending on the suite and the day of the week, prices run from $150-$245 per night. 850-912-8770, http://www.leehousepensacola.com

•Eden Condominiums, on the beachfront in Perdido Key, offers one- to three-bedroom condos. Prices vary by season. 800-523-8141, http://www.edencondominiums.com

Lots of lodging information on the Visit Pensacola website listed below.

Dining

Among places I'd definitely revisit:

•Jackson's Steakhouse, downtown, offers great steaks and seafood too. 850-469-9898, http://www.jacksonsrestaurant.com

•Bagelheads is popular with locals for its bagels, naturally, which include peanut butter and chocolate chip. 850-444-9661, http://www.bagelheads.com

•Sunset Grille's a down-to-earth spot for lunch or dinner with good seafood and sandwiches and a great location on the intracoastal waterway. 850-492-0555, http://www.tinyurl.com/o7qv36p

Info

The Blue Angels' practice sessions at Pensacola have ended for the season and resume in late March.

Visit Pensacola, 800-874-1234, http://www.visitpensacola.com

Note that the Pensacola area is on Central Standard Time.

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