The Cheapest Places on Earth: Pensacola, Florida

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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.)

Budget beaches

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.

Fort Pickens, by the way, isn't just a name - the actual fort, or a reconstructed version of it, still exists. And a free tour tells you all about this famous fortress built in the 1820s, taken over by Union troops during the Civil War and later serving as a prison for the Apache leader Geronimo. Check in at the on-site museum (932-2600). It is, in fact, one of several old forts in the Pensacola area; while some, such as Fort McRee, now live only in history books, you can also visit the restored Fort Barrancas, originally built by Spaniards and found within the Pensacola Naval Air Station (455-5167). Featuring a nature trail, the fort's ruins are surrounded by 40 acres of pine and oak forest. It, too, costs nothing.

Also on the air station's premises is one of Pensacola's great freebies, the National Museum of Naval Aviation (1750 Radford Blvd., 452-3604), a 300,000-square-foot installation that reviews a century of flight exploration through art, model aircraft, and movies, as well as historic planes, space capsules, and flight simulation chambers. Its two IMAX films are excellent, but a number of visitors will be drawn to a far less technically accomplished piece of video: a scratchy black-and-white account of General Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers, that cadre of swashbuckling freelancers who, in the months just before Pearl Harbor, bucked staggering odds to devastate Japan's air force and prevent the Japanese occupation of western China.

Downtown

However, there's a strong argument to be made that the most compelling free attraction in Pensacola is Pensacola itself. It's the ideal walking city, beautifully proportioned, free of skyscrapers, with delightfully ornamented buildings but none of the prettified, slightly cloying air you get from so many downtown rehabilitation projects. Although there are many pretty, well-restored blocks south of Garden Street along Palafox Place, the main neighborhood ripe for a stroll is Seville Square, on Adams and Alcaniz Streets between Zaragoza and Government. Dating from the mid-eighteenth century, this area teems with brick edifices in the Spanish style as well as the aforementioned New Orleans-style balconied houses. (This is also a prime spot for the city's nightlife, in case you're interested.)

The $6 admission fee ($2.50 for kids) to Historic Pensacola Village (120 E. Church St., 595-5985), in the heart of downtown, gives you access to a complex of historic homes, primarily dating from the late nineteenth century, as well as the impressive T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum (tel. 850/595-5990), which occupies a grand Italian Renaissance structure and features a formidable exhibit of Coca-Cola memorabilia as well as a top-notch, hands-on children's museum, along with several other smaller museums and the Colonial Archaeological Trail. At this last attraction, you see the remains and get the story of a fortress - occupied by British and Spanish soldiers as well as Americans-that stood on this site between the mid-1700s and the early 1800s.

Lodgings

The best lodging values become instantly available to those who head 15 or 20 minutes north of the beaches, in the vicinity of I-10. Every budget motel chain of any significance-Econo Lodge and Days Inn, Microtel and Comfort Inn, Motel 6 and Super 8, you name it - has a presence just off the interstate, and the resulting cutthroat competition to fill rooms results in some excellent prices (but higher than the non-chains ask; see below), especially along Plantation Road and North Davis Highway. Almost every single one of them offers a clean and comfortable - if somewhat nondescript-accommodation, with little to distinguish one from another. Their great asset - in addition to the price, which is almost always between $45 and $55 a night, even without discounts-is their convenience.

To minimize the cost (particularly if you haven't booked ahead), you should make absolutely sure that your first stop in Pensacola is to the Convention and Visitor Information Center (1401 E. Gregory St., 434-1234; www.visitpensacola.com), where you pick up a fistful of coupons entitling you, as a rule, to roughly $10/night less than the chains' going rate. For example, at the Red Roof Inn off Exit 5 at I-10 (7340 Plantation Rd., 476-7960) coupon rates in high season begin at $45. The Villager Lodge (1953 Northcross La., 800/328-7829) asks as little as $35.95 when you present that invaluable bit of paper.

But even without a coupon, it's possible to get a decent room at a phenomenal price by patronizing non-franchised, locally owned motels; they may be a few years older, but they're by no means decrepit. Three especially noteworthy finds are the Executive Inn (6954 Pensacola Blvd., 478-4015), where for $38 nightly you can get a quite serviceable double room. The low-slung Landmark Inn (6891 N. Pensacola Blvd., 477-3100) wants even less; the $35.95-per-night price for a double room is good year-round. And a laid-back, affable brick motor court called Mayfair Motel and RV Park (4540 Mobile Hwy., 455-8561) charges $40/night for a standard but immaculate 1950s-style double with a picture window.

Higher-priced condo-style lodgings

Because Santa Rosa Island and Perdido Key face out onto the Gulf of Mexico rather than the area's numerous bays, these two have the best and most popular beaches. And both feature modern condo-style hotels. Result: these two locations have the area's highest lodging prices. Nonetheless, what's high-priced around here would be considered moderate in most other places.

On Perdido Key, we recommend the Best Western Perdido Key (13585 Perdido Key Dr., 800/554-8879; www.innisfree.com), five minutes by car from the beach and charging what is, for Pensacola, the stiff price of $79.95 nightly for a double room throughout peak season; however, this drops to a very reasonable $52.95 from August 21 to October 31, during what many residents feel is the pleasantest time of year. (Prices given in this article are for high season, November through March, unless otherwise noted. You can expect to pay an average of $10 or so less per night in off-season.)

Though Pensacola Beach is beginning to see the invasion of $100/night chain resort hotels, it offers a somewhat better choice. If you can live with a five-minute drive to Santa Rosa Island, a sterling budget property is the Gulf Coast Inn (843 Gulf Breeze Pkwy., 932-2222), a spiffy brick-faced motel with small swimming pool located just before the major freeway exit to Pensacola Beach; the inn's nightly cost for a perfectly nice double room starts at just $45.

On Pensacola Beach itself, mom-and-pop motels are sprinkled along a thoroughfare known as Via de Luna, just across the street from superb gulf beaches; because of the seaside location, they're higher priced than most but still reasonable. The top choice here is the Gulf Aire Motel (21 Via de Luna, Pensacola Beach, 800/301-5925 or 932-2319), a basic but cheerful little place that charges prices as low as $69 midweek for a high-season double room. You'll pay a few dollars more at the Tiki House Motor Lodge (17 Via de Luna, 934-4447) for comparable accommodations. If you're staying for a week, check out Surf & Sand Cottages (12 Via de Luna, 932-2291), where one-bedroom apartments with kitchens, but without telephone or TV-sleeping four to six people - can work out to as little as $70/night.

Eats

In general, Pensacola confirms the aphorism that the farther north in Florida you travel, the farther South you get. And nowhere is this more evident than in the local dining scene. While lacking the grand palaces of the culinary arts that distinguish New Orleans, this part of the Panhandle is replete with Southern-fried spots that offer you immense portions of local cooking for prices that barely break the $9 barrier - and often don't even run that much. The key here is to focus on the two kinds of cuisine Pensacola does best: Gulf seafood and home cooking.

This is, to put it plainly, a cholesterol-friendly town. (Hey, it's your vacation.) If you're looking to eat well on a budget, your best bets are those eateries specializing in barbecue, fried chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and all the other staples of Southern cuisine.

Buffets...

The especially budget-conscious will want to check out the local buffets, of which the best deal may well be either of the two local outposts of the 28-strong Southern chain Barnhill's Buffet (New Warrington and Chiefs Way, 456-2760; and Hwy. 98 East & Oriole Beach Rd., Gulf Breeze, 932-0403); both are clean, bright restaurants featuring all-you-can-eat buffets (choose from eight overstuffed buffet tables, many of which feature health-conscious choices) for $6.17 at lunch and $7.98 at dinner (both prices including tax). A more strictly local choice is Hopkins Boarding House (900 N. Spring St., 438-3979), a well-preserved Victorian pile in the historic North Hill district that houses an unbelievably popular (no reservations, so plan on a wait) family-style dining room, with huge communal tables and waitresses constantly bringing fresh bowls of fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, Southern apple salad, black-eyed peas, or whatever happens to be on the menu that day. The cost? A mere $7.48 at both lunch and dinnertime!

...and barbecues

As a barbecue town, Pensacola may not be quite ready yet to challenge Memphis, but there's lots of considerably better-than-decent "q" to be had. For pulled pork ... la the Carolinas, the place to go is Billy Bob's Beach Barbecue (911 Gulf Breeze Pkwy., 934-2999), where dinner plates (including roll and two sides) of barbecued pork, beef, chicken, sausage, turkey, or brisket go for less than $8. (Lunch is a couple of dollars lower.) Out on Perdido Key, cagey locals make tracks for funky, whimsically painted, barnlike Keenan's Bar-B-Q Kabin (13818 Perdido Key Dr., 904/492-6848) and order the meltingly tender barbecued pork; with the ubiquitous roll and two sides, the charge is $7.50.

For convenience, you'll want to know about the two branches of slightly dingy but personable and hyperefficient Smokey's Real Pit Bar-B-Q (6475 Pensacola Blvd. and 4425 W. Fairfield Dr., tel. for both 478-0860), both of which are situated on major arteries (no pun intended); the satisfying $7.25 pork rib dinner, served in a paper-lined pie tin, comes with a potato and a side dish.

Finally, a secret dive all Pensacolans know and love is Jerry's Drive In (2815 E. Cervantes St., 433-9910); this affable and unpretentious (to put it mildly) tavern-cum-diner whips up a barbecued chicken dinner for $5.95, while two porkchops, a salad, French fries, and a roll will leave you only $6.95 poorer.

Seafood

If oysters, crawfish, gulf shrimp, and a vast array of fish from mullet to grouper to catfish strike your fancy, your inexpensive seafood dining options are almost as various. Tops in town for the money is extra-friendly Marina Oyster Barn (505 Bayou Blvd., 433-0511), with lots of gulf-view tables both indoors and out as well as truly memorable bivalves; the fried oyster dinner with salad, hush puppies, and cheese grits is worth a whole lot more than $8.50. Lunch-only Charlie's Seafood Eatery (315 B St., 438-9712) draws a strictly local, blue-collar crowd, not only for its fried seafood baskets (everything's under $8, and portions are mammoth) but also for its daily $6 buffet featuring Southern specialties like Brunswick stew and pot roast.

For $8.99, you can gobble down as much catfish as you'd like (along with French fries, cole slaw, and hush puppies) at Charlie's Catfish House (9722 Hwy 98 West, 456-5557). For a New Orleans-style lunch, swing by Brian's Poboys (13470 Perdido Key Dr., 492-1234); serving from a trailer next to Nix Brothers Seafood, Brian rustles up overstuffed eight-inch hero-like sandwiches with shrimp, grouper, or oysters, that cost only $4.50. (He's open only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

If we might make a final culinary recommendation, we'd advise that your last official act as a visitor to Pensacola be a visit to the local institution known as Joe Patti's Seafood Deli (610 S. C St., 433-6798) to load up on various critters of the sea. While bright but somewhat industrial-looking - "deli" is something of a misnomer - this fish emporium offers anything that swims locally for way cheap. Get yourself a couple of pounds of the cooked crayfish (a steal at $3.59 per pound) and some honest-to-goodness gulf shrimp (price varies according to size, but it's bound to be about half what you'd pay back home), and have the whole deal packed in an airline-ready carton (about five bucks, and good for an eight-hour trip). Refrigerate or freeze your little aquatic prizes as soon as you get home, and when you get around to enjoying them, it'll be like getting a quickie return trip to Pensacola for free.

As if the first one wasn't enough of a bargain.

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