Flying High

Originally published in VLife, May 2011 • Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis

Pensacola’s Naval Aviation Museum offers fun for everyone

My father was a Navy veteran and my mom has lived in Pensacola for years, but only recently did I make time to visit the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum (PNAM). I drove into the pristine Pensacola Naval Air Station grounds thinking I could see everything within a couple of hours. Was I ever wrong! A full day is not enough to experience all that this world-class museum offers, and I can’t wait to return.

Flying High • Photos by Mary Ann DeSantisAny pilot will tell you timing is critical and that holds true for your visit to the PNAM. If possible, visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning from March through November so you can see the famous Blue Angels practice their air shows behind the museum. The precision flight team gave its first demonstrations in 1946, and the famous fliers generate as much excitement today as they did then. A few bleachers are available so bring a chair and definitely don’t forget your camera. Following the Wednesday morning practices, the fliers come inside the museum lobby to sign autographs.

The other critical piece of timing is to catch the 11 a.m. outdoor Flightline tour. Tours are also scheduled 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m., but the 11 a.m. tour is a few minutes longer because it’s the only one that takes you inside the actual aircraft restoration hangar. Only when workers go to lunch are the tours allowed inside the hangar where you can see how precisely the all-volunteer teams restore the vintage airplanes. The Flightline tours will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation for what you will see inside the 285,000 square-foot museum.

After the tour, head inside where you will easily lose track of time. Have your photo taken inside the cockpit of a Blue Angel F18 or strap into the Top Gun Air Combat simulator for a heart-pounding experience.

Be sure to grab a snack at the Cubi Bar Café, a replica of the Officers Club at NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines where many squadrons stopped as they were transiting in or out of Southeast Asia. More than 1,100 plaques from the original club dot the walls of this eatery. And since you are on Navy soil, be sure to order the delicious house specialty—Navy
Bean Soup.

Admission to the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum is free, amazing in that the facility uses no tax dollars. Everything is paid for from grants and donations. Read more at


Sand Between Your Toes: Pensacola’s Other Highlights

The historic Panhandle city of Pensacola has a lot to offer, so plan on staying a few days.

First of all, don’t miss the powdery white sand beaches at the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Santa Rosa Island. Operated by the National Park Service, the Fort Pickens area is one of my all-time favorite beaches.

During your drive out to Fort Pickens, you’ll pass Jimmy Buffett’s new Margaritaville Hotel. Stop in for lunch at Frank & Lola Love’s Café inside the hotel’s sunshine-filled lobby. A new twist to the “Cheeseburger in Paradise” is the very Southern FGT Burger, as in fried green tomatoes. If you are craving seafood, you may prefer the iconic Peg Leg Pete’s, also on Fort Pickens Road. A favorite with locals, Peg Leg Pete’s recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

After a day at the beach, spend some time in the historic downtown area of Pensacola where you will find unique shops, galleries and more delightful restaurants. Definitely worth a stop is the Pensacola Museum of Art, which is housed in the former city jail at 407 S. Jefferson St. You can still walk into some of the “cells” and see works by John James Audubon, Emil Holzhauer, Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. Admission is $5 for adults, but free for everyone on Tuesdays.

Pensacola has a rich history, beginning with the first Spanish colony on the shores of Pensacola Bay in 1559. Although the settlement was abandoned two years later, Pensacolans lay claim to having the first colony six years before the founding of St. Augustine. This year also marks the 230th anniversary of the Battle of Pensacola, and several events and reenactments are planned for June 3–4.

Finally, if you are not too tired from all Pensacola has to offer, plan to stop at the Blackwater Heritage State Trail on your way home. Florida’s westernmost rail-to-trail paved path is great for walking, biking, rollerblading, bird watching, and, of course, picnicking. The main trailhead for the 8.1-mile trail is located at State Road 87 and U.S. 90.

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