CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
The Cheapest Places on Earth: Pensacola, Florida
Want to know why Pensacola ranks among America's most astounding bargain beach destinations? Go to your kitchen. Open the canister that contains the sugar; put your hands inside, and feel the cool white substance as it sifts through your fingers. Imagine that sugar, with just a hint of beige, covering miles and miles of seashore, lapped by limpid cobalt-blue waters and piled up on dunes from which wild grasses and sea oats sprout. Now, imagine paying a fraction of what a customary vacation on such world-class sands would set you back. Instantly you know why we regard Pensacola as very possibly the best beach vacation value in the United States, a potent attraction that is also one of the "cheapest places on earth."
Why so cheap?
Even during its peak season, anytime between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Pensacola offers plentiful hotel rooms at less than $45/night for a double room, scores of eateries where getting your belly well-filled extracts less than $9 from your wallet (it helps if you're a fan of Southern cookery and/or exquisitely fresh seafood), and a genuinely seductive local culture and history (the latter, as you probably know, doesn't automatically come with beach resorts).
But then, at the end of the day, Pensacola isn't a resort town, with accompanying prices; it has no oceanfront behemoths shoveling in tourists who are carefully protected from the everyday life of the city. (In fact, much of its prime beach real estate is made up of the governmentally protected Gulf Islands National Seashore.) Instead, it's a down-to-earth place that just happens to have some of the most ravishing coastline in the United States. And it's precisely this lack of pretension that keeps the area so endearingly cheap.
It helps that Pensacola is markedly less dependent upon tourism for its economic survival than most Florida beach towns. In addition to the massive military presence here (23,000 federal jobs pump around $1.7 billion annually into the local economy), so alluring do many service people find the region that it currently serves as home to approximately 30,000 military retirees. These veterans form the core of a large pool of inexpensive part-time labor, which in turn fuels another of the area's economic engines: a sizeable service-sector market. Because the kinds of jobs this sector produces (telephone fulfillment offices for catalogue companies, that sort of thing) aren't especially skilled positions, it tends to put a damper on local wages - and therefore the cost of living. Tourism, as the third leg in Pensacola's economic tripod, certainly counts as a major contributor, but it doesn't represent the sort of dominant presence that leads to large-scale investment (and, ultimately, to inflated prices for tourists).
So what does all this boil down to for visitors? First and foremost, a magnificently affordable vacation in a rather charming place; after all, as a Gulf of Mexico port, Pensacola has not only the same seafood as New Orleans but also a touch of the Big Easy's joie de vivre - as well as some fine examples of those two-story buildings with ornate, wrought-iron balconies you thought you'd see only in the French Quarter. Pensacola even celebrates (in a less frenzied, more G-rated way) its own Mardi Gras. At the same time, this city of approximately 65,000 people has an atmosphere that's less specifically French, more attuned to the American South. Which makes perfect sense, as it's tucked up in the northwestern corner of the Florida Panhandle, within hollering distance of Alabama.
(A quick note: all telephone numbers are in the 850 area code unless otherwise noted.)
The majority of Pensacola's beach visitors are regional, arriving off the I-10 corridor from all over Florida, from Alabama and Mississippi, and from as far west as New Orleans, three hours away. In summer, that can mean hefty crowds on ever-popular Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island, one of the two main barrier islands that separate Pensacola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico.
So where do the locals sneak off to? To the other barrier island, Perdido Key. The state recreation area there is only a 20-minute-or-so drive west of town and offers miles of wide, undeveloped sands, with nearly three-quarters of its land mass designated as protected parkland. (Thanks for this go to a wise newspaperman named Jesse Earle Bowden, who campaigned earlier this century to set aside most of the barrier islands' beaches and remnants of forts as a preserve.) Hence, the Gulf Islands National Seashore, with clean but simple picnicking and bathing facilities but no commercial development. For $6, you can buy a pass good for an entire week that allows access for a passenger car - regardless of how many people are in it - to not only Perdido Key's beach but also the nearly-as-good strand at Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, the region's other main barrier island, where Pensacola Beach is located. In total, the region claims more than 40 miles of gulf shoreline, all but a few miles of it shielded from commercial interests.