The Pensacola Bay Area — A Holiday Shopper’s Paradise

Thursday, November 5, 2015 - by Brooke Fleming
Downtown Pensacola
Downtown Pensacola
- photo by Courtesy of Visit Pensacola

From New York to Chicago, hordes of anxious shoppers fill the streets. They swaddle themselves in layers and trudge forth into the maelstrom, clutching shopping lists against the icy wind. It’s a brutal holiday tradition, so why settle for it?

You could be sitting, instead, on the deck at Jaco’s Bayfront Grill, in Downtown Pensacola — watching the sun set over Santa Rosa Island, your shopping list scrawled on a cocktail napkin, tucked safely beneath a glass of wine, unthreatened by the wind.

Pensacola has long been a mecca for the sun-starved set, but its postcard beauty doesn’t convey the whole story. This colonial seaport boasts a history as deep as the Gulf of Mexico, a robust cultural life and plenty of holiday shopping destinations — without the frostbitten fingers.

If you go and need some help building your itinerary, consider these holiday shopping favorites. 

Discover hand-crafted treasures at Belle Ame.

If Downtown Pensacola is the city’s beating heart, its main artery is Palafox Street. The trendy thoroughfare runs south from Cervantes Street to Plaza de Luna. The park was named for Spanish conquistador Tristan de Luna, who first settled the area in 1559, and boasts unobstructed views of Pensacola Bay. It’s not uncommon to see a modern-day, Spanish tall ship coming in to dock — a throwback to the city’s colonial roots.

Historic visions aside, the Palafox of today is the center of a bustling entertainment hub, filled with boutiques, galleries and eateries both casual and sophisticated. It is because of these many charms that the American Planning Association named Palafox one of America’s 10 “great streets” in 2013.

Belle Ame is situated right at the center of the action. The shop, heralded by a life-size, mirrored mermaid, offers a full line of hand-crafted bath and body products, all made in Pensacola by owner Yvette Crook-Avera. They’ll make you feel as dazzling as the shop’s mirrored mascot.

Sample artisanal oils at the Bodacious Olive.

When de Luna first sailed into Pensacola, he brought with him a contingent of more than 1,000 settlers and a fleet of 11 ships. The vessels – laden with supplies – were intended to sustain the settlers in their quest to build a new world. But Mother Nature had other plans.

Shortly after the settlers’ arrival, a hurricane struck the bay, sinking ships, destroying supplies and crushing De Luna’s ambitions. It would be more than 100 years before the area was settled again and even longer before archaeologists uncovered the ghosts of that first expedition.

In the 1990s, researchers discovered in Pensacola Bay the remains of one of DeLuna’s ships. Among the cannons and porcelain relics were something more familiar: olives. Just a few blocks south of Belle Ame, in Pensacola’s rapidly expanding SoGo district, the Bodacious Olive is conjuring the ghosts of those forgotten fruits. The shop features a tantalizing variety of artisanal oils and vinegars, as well as freshly baked bread, homemade pastas, and wine — the perfect gifts for the chef in your life.

Shop for fresh seafood at Joe Patti’s.

For those who crave something more substantial, Joe Patti’s Seafood Market is the answer. The landmark purveyor-of-all-things-salty sits on the fringe of Downtown Pensacola’s waterfront, just a few blocks west of the Olive – heralded by a full-sized replica of a Viking war boat and an enormous lighted sign shaped like a shrimp.

The business’s namesake – Giuseppe “Joe” Patti – was a Sicilian immigrant fisherman who moved to the area in the early 20th century, when Pensacola was still known as the “Red Snapper Capitol of the World.” He began selling seafood in the 1930s from his front porch and, over the next half-century, built the business into a multimillion-dollar seafood empire. To this day, the market is run by Joe’s son, Frank, who can often be found behind the counter, taking orders from customers or measuring out shrimp by the pound.

Patti’s will even ship orders to anywhere in the continental United States, which can mean only one thing: Move over Thanksgiving turkey — it’s time for a new tradition.

Take home a piece of aviation history.

Besides being a haven for fresh seafood and hungry tourists, Pensacola is also known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” Naval Air Station Pensacola, just a short drive to the west of downtown, has trained generations of naval aviators and, today, employs more than 16,000 military personnel. The base is also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum.

The museum is one of the most-visited in the state and the largest museum of its kind in the world. The displays, spread across more than 350,000 square feet of exhibit space, include more than 150 meticulously restored military aircraft. The exhibits span the entire history of Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation.

In the middle of the museum, a seven-story, glass-and-steel atrium holds four A-4 Skyhawks, suspended in diving diamond formation. The aircraft are painted with the insignia of the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, which is based in the city.

The team, founded in 1946, often can be seen in the skies above the gulf, their spectacular aerial displays a potent symbol of identity for Pensacola natives. The team practices twice a week, March through November, and hosts two blockbuster airshows each year, in July and November.

Visitors can take home a piece of the magic of flight — in the more manageable form of a keychain, coffee mug or aviator jacket — when they visit the Flight Deck museum store, inside the museum.

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