I think the first time we went to Florida was in 2009 when Dmitry worked in Atlanta and the drive down to the sugary beaches was only 5 hours. That one time was enough for me to fall in love with the beautiful beaches, relaxed atmosphere, and emerald salty ocean water. Since then we went to Florida, specifically Panama City Beach, two more times, both times now driving from Houston. The drive from Texas is a bit longer than Georgia, but it is still doable in under 10 hours.
This year we wanted to be a little more adventurous and considered flying to Mexico or Peru, but several factors led us into mid-June with no concrete vacation plans. By that time flights and hotels were charging outrages rates for July 4th weekend. In addition, Dmitry got hit with a new project and a strict deadline at work, so all we could afford financially and time wise was a quick getaway to Florida. This year we decided to save a couple of travel hours and hit the first sugary beach in Florida – Pensacola.
The plan was great, leave Thursday night, drive 4 hours, spend the night in Baton Rouge, LA (half way point), wake up early and drive straight to Pensacola Beach. Except it started raining as soon as we left the house on Thursday after work and it continued to rain pretty much all the way through Baton Rouge. And what happens on the roads when it rains? People get into accidents and cause traffic! Needless to say, we lost an hour staying in traffic, and 4 hour drive turned into 5 hours. But we made it safe to BR and that is all that matters.
In Baton Rouge, we had our first experience with airbnb. The guy we were staying with super flexible and accommodated us even though we were an hour late (I think it was around 10:30 pm at this point). The night was uneventful, I did wake up several times at night from the noise of passing by cars, but I am always on high alert in new/unknown places.
The next morning we got up around 8 am as planned and got back on I-10 East. This portion of the drive was a little bit easier since you actually go through 4 states in a matter of a few hours. I always get excited passing through Mobile, AL because it means we are that much closer to being at the beach and because last time we stopped there on the way back to tour USS Alabama battleship. We did pass by a terrible accident that morning though, which grounded us a bit and made traffic less painful to bare.
Well, that is until we got to Pensacola… To get from Pensacola to Pensacola Beach, you have to cross two bridges with one being 3 miles long and with a red light intersection at the end of it. It seemed like everyone from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana was going to Pensacola Beach. It took us all-in-all about 1.5 hours to cross both bridges, but we made it nonetheless. I see the beach! Woo-hoo! We went for a quick swim, but quickly realized that we haven’t eaten since the night before. So now we were on a hunt for food. We drove down the beach for a bit, but the main concentration of eateries was as soon as you get off the bridge. It probably took us another 30 minutes to find parking, but we finally settled on Crabs for food. We ordered crab cakes and a grilled fish dinner platter to split. To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed with the food, but at that point it didn’t matter, the setting was perfect: ocean breeze, fresh food, a cold beer (or too) and no Wi Fi (seriously, it’s a positive thing when you are on vacation!).
After that we went to “the other side” of the Pier, which was a bit less crowded and wedged out on the beach until the sun set. At this point even more people were at the beach, so we decided to keep our parking spot, got our $20 fishing rod from the car that we bought at Academy before our last trip, and headed down to the pier. It was surprisingly quiet on the pier, the view of the sunset was breathtaking, and it turned out to be the perfect spot to watch the fireworks. So we were fishing and watching fireworks, while everyone down at the beach was partying it up for the holiday.
But we had to get back to the main land of Pensacola. We were staying at another airbnb. Originally we thought we might need to stay at the hotel farther from the beach the first night, and then transfer to the airbnb location, which was a little bit closer, but our host was gracious enough and accommodating to allow us to stay with him the night of the fourth. Considering all the traffic we had already encountered and the driving we did, saving a transfer from hotel to the house was a huge convenience and time saver for us. But what do you know, on the way from the beach back to the city we encountered more traffic…. Seems like the theme of the trip. But we got to the house, an hour later than planned (again), but we made it! At the house we were met by our host, and his little helper – gray kitty Coco. Coco wished us a good night by letting us pet her and sining us a pouring lullaby.
Because we were so paranoid about traffic, on Saturday we got up around 8:30 am and headed straight down to the beach. We were so relieved when there was barely any road congestion! We were even able to stop midway in Gulf Breeze to get some breakfast. With breakfast in hand we headed to Fort Pickens. Overall, Saturday was a much better experience than Friday. Although it was a Saturday, there were a lot fewer people at the beach that day. And because Fort Picken is a paid territory at the end of Pensacola Beach, it was almost empty! Peace at last! (Btw, Fort Pickens is almost 200 years old, you can find more info here). We looked around the area for a bit trying to find a good spot to snorkel, but gave up after a couple of tries because of slightly muddy water. Plus Dmitry managed to get sick right before we left for Florida, so snorkeling was a bit of a challenge and out of the picture.
Instead, we found a nice quaint beach inside the National Park with very few people around. The water was clean, and the beach was blindingly white. We put on our sunscreen and vegged out in the sun.
We received a signed book from our airbnb host, called “Florida’s Northwest” for which he took photos. I laid on my stomach reading the book to Dmitry while he was sleeping. I tend to be a slow reader, especially if there are pictures. Before we knew it, a few hours went by and we were slightly more sun kissed than planned.
After the beach, we wondered around Fort Pickens. I really enjoy historic places that you can actually wonder around and touch. Don’t get me wrong, I think museums are great, but there is something magical about being able to feel the history with your touch. By the time we finished our historic excursion it was dinner time. We decided to drive East down the Pensacola Beach to Navarre, but quickly realized that it was a bit further then we expected (about 30 minutes) and there wasn’t really anything down that way. Except for beautiful, mostly unoccupied, white sand beaches! But the stomachs were growling and we returned back to Pensacola Beach to grab dinner at Red Fish Blue Fish, which is located on the bay side. At this point we were pretty sunburned, hungry, and tired, which can all be summarized in one word as “hangry.”
After some fried fish and fish tacos, we were too tired to do anything else. We walked a bit down the street, took a few pictures of the sunset and headed to the nearby bar “Shark’s”. They had perfect outdoor hammocks, which is where we spent our evening and said “good bye” to the white beach and emerald water.
We got back to the airbnb in the city around 9 pm, with no traffic on the way back. With less than two days at the beach, we felt like we had taken in as much as we could, and it was a good feeling!
Next morning we woke up around 8:30 am and hit the road. We stopped in Mississippi and had lunch at the Terrace Cafe (and it was good!) at the Beau Rivage hotel and casino. I also managed to win some money at a slot machine and we were disciplined enough to take the money and run! (This never happens!)
But the luck didn’t last. We hit more road congestion on the way home and didn’t get home until 9:30 pm. I am glad that I anticipated this and took Monday off from work ahead of time. Monday was filled with lots of laundry and “ouches” from sunburn. Although short and “trafficy”, it was nice to get away. In Florida, at the beach, the time just stops, you just get to be lazy, my favorite thing to do 🙂 .
P.S. Look here to find more photos from our trip.