by Barbara and Jim Twardowski, RN
More than 450 years old, Pensacola, Florida is a town rich in history and culture along the banks of Pensacola Bay. Filled with interesting and accessible attractions, the most affordable time to visit is during, what the Convention and Visitor Bureau calls, the “Secret Season” after Labor Day and through February.
Boasting two snow white beaches, Pensacola Beach emits an old Florida vibe while the more secluded Perdido Key dedicates nearly 60 percent of its sixteen miles of beach to federal and state parks filled with wildlife, wetlands, and estuaries. Wheelchair accessible accommodations are easier to find at a hotel in the city or on Pensacola Beach. Perdido Key has no hotels and wheelchair accessible condos are rare.
History Lessons & Lunch
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 during the rabbit fricassee cooking demonstration. Only two of the buildings are wheelchair accessible–the Tivoli High House and the 1832 Old Christ Church. Adult admission is $6 and includes self-guided tours to the Museum of Commerce and Museum of Industry. Wheelchair users and one companion receive complimentary admission.
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. Live music is performed on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and 11 a.m. on Sundays. Handicapped parking is beside the entrance.
Downtown’s recent revitalization is partially attributed to the minor league baseball team–the Blue Wahoos. The new Pensacola Bayfront Stadium http://www.milb.com/ was named 2012 Ballpark of the Year by Baseballparks.com. The facility has several wheelchair seats. You can see the view of the field–before buying a ticket–by clicking on the online seating diagram.
The small downtown with green spaces and quaint shops in century old buildings is an easy walk and wheelchair-friendly. Have breakfast at the Bodacious Brew or at least stop by for a cup of their individually prepared coffees. Meet one of the more than 100 local artists whose work is sold at the Quayside Art Gallery–the first floor is accessible. Have lunch or a sweet snack at Adonna’s Bakery and Cafe.
Pensacola’s impressive array of downtown cultural offerings includes: an art museum and galleries, ballet, opera, theaters, symphony, and a jazz society. Take in a classic movie, 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. Wheelchair seating is available.
Blue Angels and Aviation
The beaches are the number one attraction in the area followed by the fifty-year-old
National Naval Aviation Museum. 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. 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. The first floor is wheelchair accessible.
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. A small wheelchair accessible museum contains interactive displays and videos depicting the historical and cultural history of Santa Rosa Island. Admission is $8 per vehicle or free for an Access Pass holder and his or her companions. http://www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm To reach the fort, take a slow (sometimes only 20 mph) scenic drive along the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Explore nature up close at the 678-acre Big Lagoon State Park which separates the mainland from Perdido Key and the Gulf of Mexico. Watch for migratory birds in the fall and spring from accessible boardwalks and a wooden observation tower. Fishing, canoeing and hiking trails are offered amongst the scrub oaks, slash pine, green wetlands, bays, and beach. Located about ten miles southwest of Pensacola, admission is $6 per vehicle.
After a day of sightseeing, sample the area’s signature cocktail–the Bushwacker–at the 50-yer-old Flora-Bama Lounge. An elevator and ramps make this watering hole wheelchair accessible.
The lure of northwest Florida is, of course, the beaches. To find a beach wheelchair, visit http://www.nps.gov/guis/planyourvisit/accessibility.htm or rent one from Funny Cars LLC.
Where to Stay
The Holiday Inn Resort on Pensacola Beach http://holidayinnresortpensacolabeach.com/property-amenities/ is a wheelchair-friendly property with great amenities like free WiFi, a mini-fridge, and microwave. Choose an accessible beachfront guest room with a balcony overlooking the water and the hotel’s 250 foot lazy river with a zero entry pool. An indoor pool has a lift, as does the outdoor whirlpool. The modern hotel is bright, friendly and offers special rates in the off season.
The Pensacola International Airport has more than 100 flights each day. To learn more about the area and find special deals, visit www.visitpensacola.com.