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The Emerald Coast: No Theme Parks Necessary – Penscola, Seaside, Florida, USA

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The Emerald Coast: No Theme Parks Necessary Penscola, Seaside, Florida, USA

Beautiful Cottages in Seaside
Beautiful Cottages in Seaside

Tourists do not immediately consider visiting Pensacola and nearby Destin Florida while planning a Florida vacation. They stick with the tried and true: Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. But here is a secret – if you're tired of lining up for rides and fighting crowds, there is a bit of heaven in Northwest Florida. Here, the natural beauty still prevails. The beaches are of pure white sand, the water emerald green and the people are gutsy, down to earth and friendly as can be. I say gutsy because in spite of the terrible hurricanes that they have survived, they remain positive and hometown proud. If need be, they just rebuild and make their properties better than ever.

Some individuals are still waiting to come home. I met a few who told me that they were still living with friends or family after losing their homes to the hurricanes. Waiting for insurance claims to go through or homes to be rebuilt can be trying. But the people of Pensacola have always been tenacious. Known as the "City of Five Flags", Pensacola has been under the rule of the Spanish, the British, the French, the Confederacy and the United States since the first conquistadors landed in American in 1559.

The city is steeped in history. The National Museum of Naval Aviation is one of the three largest aviation museums in the world. Pensacola's military history began in the 1700s when both the British and the Spanish explorers built built forts. The forts changed hands over the years including during the Civil War when Fort Barrancas, which is on the Navel Air station, was held by the Confederate troops while Fort Pickens was held by the union troops. Today the Naval air station provides training to military aviators. Also, the city is proud to be home to the Navy's Blue Angels, a flight demonstration team that wows spectators with their weekly practices.

Another surprise was how amazing the food is on the Emerald Coast.

There are some fabulous restaurants in Pensacola. Now, I'm not generally fond of grits being a real Northerner but when I tasted the signature dish of The Fish House – known as Grits a Ya Ya, I was converted. That smoky gouda cheese made it into something more like risotto. They are a must try.

Another really fun place to eat is McGuire's Irish Pub. The food is plentiful, the waitresses really seem to enjoy their work and the place has all kind of strange traditions from kissing the moose to having visitors put single dollar bills all over the walls.

For a really elegant dining experience, I highly recommend Jacksons. The service is impeccable – I was dining with a group and they served us in waves with numerous servers who laid down each course at the exact same time.

Dress-up Time
Dress-up Time

The downtown area is fascinating to tour. The city's rich history lends itself to fascinating historical sites; giving tourists the chance to learn about Pensacola's varied and colorful past. There are plenty of period houses which span the centuries from the early Spanish explorers to the 1900s. Also, museums, specialty shops and art galleries make this area well worth spending some time in.

Pensacola offers a relaxed atmosphere with touches of the offbeat. Waterside restaurants look like funky seafood shacks where the decor might be bikinis on the wall or aviation memorabilia. Since the area is much closer to Alabama and Louisiana, the customs are greatly influenced by the old south and it doesn't feel like the rest of Florida. They celebrate Mardi Gras and most people have a charming southern lilt and the manners that southerners are famous for.

I was able to visit several of the planned communities that have sprung up along the beautiful beaches of the Emerald Coast. Seaside became famous with the film the Truman Show and it does appear to be the perfect place to live. There are cottages of various sizes and colours along streets which all end in community gathering spaces along the beach. There is a town square with shops and restaurants and even a school for kids that live here year round. I wished that I could stay to try out this example of the "New Urbanism".

Also very pretty is the town of Watercolor. I dined at the Watercolor Inn and toured the rooms of this beautifully designed lodging.

Rosemary Beach is another area that has sprung up with a similar concept. Here the feeling was more European along the main street. We tasted wine, shopped for souvenirs and enjoyed Northern Italian cuisine at the intimate Orano's Restaurant.

As far as more traditional resort accommodation goes, there is nothing in the area that compares with Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. It is located between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay. Literally, a city unto itself – Sandestin has everything you could possibly need in a vacation paradise.

There are five different areas: Beachfront, Beachside, Dockside, Village and Bayside and each has a different feeling and a variety of types of accommodation. I stayed near the area known as the Village of Baytowne Wharf and I loved the feeling of being in a little village within the resort. The atmosphere is created through the shops and restaurants and entertainment establishments surrounding a town square where people go to relax. I stayed in a condo-style suite with a full kitchen, living room and bedroom. The resort is huge and people rely on shuttle buses to get around as amenities are literally miles apart.

White Sand, Blue Sky
White Sand, Blue Sky

I was able to visit their wonderful spa one afternoon and had a fantastic pedicure from the attentive staff. Then on to fabulous wining and dining. For dining the choices are numerous from casual to their upscale award-winning restaurants. The village truly replicates the experience of walking around a small town and having shops to browse and restaurants to try out.

One of my favourite experiences at Sandestin was having a lovely afternoon tea service with a group of travel companions. Magnolia and Ivy is a Tea Parlour that is at once dignified and fun as customers are allowed to try on any of the hats, wraps, gloves and other accessories that are scattered around the tea room. We all sat around, thus costumed at a beautifully set table and feasted on scones with clotted cream, lemon curd and tiny sandwiches and delicious loose leaf tea. Getting a chance to dress up and play like this was an unforgettable experience. Sandestin offers the perfect combination of the facilities of a waterfront resort combined with the amenities of vibrant city.

So, consider trying out the Emerald Coast for your next vacation. I guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised by all this area has to offer.

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