After driving 1,200 miles over the past five days and surviving a day of five face-slapping, heavy-eyed hours across Alabama, I found myself a moment of family vacation paradise: Sitting on my sister’s back porch, I was enjoying an ice-cold IPA whilst the cousins rollicked on an enormous, watery-fun inflatable (a.k.a., an inflatable baby sitter).
I had been looking forward to doing as little as possible during my time in Perdido Key, just southwest of Pensacola, Florida. But of course that proved pretty much impossible with six cousins (ages 8, 7, 6, 5, 3 and 1) to feed, clothe, entertain, apply sunblock to, bathe, feed again, put to bed, repeat, etc.
That said, this four day stop-off on our Epic Road Trip of the Great American Southeastgave us both relax time as well as a chance to experience some of the fun things this area of the Gulf Coast has to offer – like managing to kill a scorpion (yes, a scorpion!), which I discovered on my sister’s kitchen ceiling, without getting stung in the process.
Hanging Out with Pirates and Princesses
On our first morning in Florida, I awoke looking forward to a day where I wouldn’t have to sit behind a steering wheel. But my hopes were quickly dashed as my sister and my wife helped the kiddos get dressed up in frilly dresses and bandanas. We were on our way to the Pirates and Princesses Breakfast at The Hangout in Gulf Shores, Ala., 17 miles or so down the oceanfront Perdido Beach Boulevard.
It turned out to be a lot of fun as we enjoyed a large, family-style breakfast in the breezy open-air restaurant, which sits just off the beautiful sands of Gulf Shores Public Beach. While we ate, the kids even got to go on a “Treasure Hunt” throughout the grounds, led by members of the staff who were all dressed in pirate and princess attire.
The Hangout, as it turns out, is a super-cool place to, well, hang out. Besides offering fresh seafood and other delicious beachy dishes, it’s also a popular music venue with shows just about every night, year-round. The restaurant also features a great gift shop, eclectic wall collections (lunch boxes, rubber duckies, Pez dispensers, etc.), and even a Wish Wall where you can leave a special wish for that special someone.
Having four little girls to entertain on a daily basis, my sister has become an expert at finding all the fun and free things to do around the Pensacola/Gulf Shores region. One of her favorite spots is the Surf Style Clothing Store Splash Pad in Orange Beach, Fla. So on the way back from breakfast we stopped at this popular, free attraction to let the kids cool off for a while in what was already a steamy, west-Florida morning. Meanwhile the adults took turns perusing the surf store, which features a huge selection of surf/beach apparel and accessories. (I even picked up an ice-cold sixer in the shop’s in-store cooler for my do-nothing time later that afternoon.)
The Gulf – Well, Not that Gulf but…
On the last day of our visit, we had planned on hitting the pristine, white-sand beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore. But unfortunately the purple flags were up all along the shore, which we found out means that dangerous marine life is present, specifically sea lice. I encountered these little buggers once in Ocean City, Md., back when I was a kid and, let me tell you, you want to avoid them at all costs. Yikes!
Once again my sister consulted her inner entertainment Rolodex and we headed back down the coastal highway just over the Alabama border to The Gulf restaurant and beach bar. The minute we walked in, I was in love. I’ve never been much of a beach guy, since me and the sun don’t really see eye to eye. So I was happy to see lots of tall palm trees scattered throughout the bar’s beach area, providing some welcome shade. There were also areas with carpets of soft green sod that let you walk around without getting sand in your shoes (another pet peeve of mine).
My sister, wife, and I grabbed an ice-cold beer from the bar and then found a nice shady place to relax as the kids used their buckets and shovels to play in the sand. Just offshore, pleasure boats came into and left the bay through sky-blue waters. It was lovely. Everywhere you looked there were comfy sofas and chairs where you could sip on a cold drink, listen to the ocean and let your cares melt away. If only I had known about this place sooner!
Laid Back, Beautiful Coast
Being so close to the scenic Gulf Shores, there is beachy beauty just about everywhere you look. Unlike other oceanside, touristy regions, the Pensacola/Perdido Key/Gulf Shores area is a relatively quiet, laid back stretch of coastline that feels more like a community than a summer vacation destination. This may be due to the fact that many of the oceanfront properties are condos rather than hotels. Many of these properties would make a great base for a family vacation.
More Pensacola Family Fun
Even though this was more of a R&R trip, we’ve been lucky to visit Pensacola before and enjoy many great family activities. The amazing, 350,000-square-foot National Naval Aviation Museum is a must-do. It features over 150 beautifully restored military aircraft. You can even watch a world-famous Blue Angels squadron practice. Animal lovers will go wild for the Gulf Breeze Zoo, a smallish, intimate-type of zoo that lets you and the little ones get up close and personal with dozens of exotic and domestic creatures. Historic Downtown Pensacola is a charming district with plenty of options for shopping and dining. Rich in history, the town features some incredible architecture that will definitely leave a lasting impression on you.
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