Crying in public: never fun but probably the least fun on an airplane. Imagine my dismay when I cried embarrassing tears of happiness on all four legs of my early June journey to and from Pensacola.
I had not been home since December and in many ways that trip paled in comparison to the excitement I felt for my summer visit. Despite the coziness of the holidays and the comforts of being with my family, I spent the majority of that trip in a grey, drizzly post-grad fog of job-searching and figuring out my next moves for 2016.
Fast forward 6 months and I’m sitting at my desk at Lonely Planet obsessively refreshing the Weather Channel website, hoping those 5 columns of sun icons don’t change before I arrive. (Needless to say, I had entered vacation mode about two weeks prior to actually leaving).
The months of January through May had proven to be productive and incredibly fun times for me but the slog of daily life in the city left me feeling burnt out, exhausted and altogether unhealthy. I knew I was missing something, something I had beginning in mid-May every year of my life until this year — the salty dips in the Gulf of Mexico, the stillness of the Florida heat after a thunderstorm, and the warmth of tiny Pensacola, nestled in all its coastal glory at the western-most tip of Florida.
The comforts of home hit me as soon as I prepared to board my plane to Pensacola in Dallas. The familiar accents of people who live twenty minutes from the Alabama-Florida border greeted me as people spoke to their children, took phone calls, and answered gate attendants with "no ma’ams" and "yes ma’ams" and a chorus of "y’alls" peppered in their conversations. My natural inclination to be first to board, overeager to get my headphones in and refresh Instagram as many times as possible before takeoff, was met with a relaxed pace that for once failed to bother me. Even though I knew no one at this gate, my homesickness and readiness for the familiar made me feel not only a connection but an admiration for these strangers — I could almost guarantee no one had a flashy tech job or spent their weekends in hip city bars but they were all headed to the same place as me and that was enough.
As I waited for my two oldest friends to pick me up from the tiny airport (there are only 8 gates!), I immediately regretted the sweater and leggings combo that seemed so necessary in blustery San Francisco at 5 am that morning. The heat hit me like a brick wall and I immediately began wiping my brow as the sweat accumulated. Florida in the summer — stifling, uncomfortable, the reason so many people leave and yet, I welcomed it, my first tangible indication of just how much I had missed this place.
I greeted my friends, family and pets as if I’d been away for years and had forgotten what it meant to be surrounded by loved ones (on the contrary, I text, Facetime, and call all of these people at least once a day). I shopped at Target and received a plastic bag for two items, a gesture so basic yet so out of the norm (in San Francisco there are plastic bag fees, not to mention, a huge faux pas). I ate at Cactus Flower, our favorite Mexican restaurant, and walked around my suburban neighborhood at dusk without seeing a single soul the entire time. My room had become a portrait hall for our family pets but all of my books, clothes, and pictures were exactly as I left them.
For the next three days, we woke up early and spent the day at Pensacola Beach. At the Casino Beach access, we rented paddle boards, frolicked in the lapping waves, and watched fishermen lazily set up camp on the pier. We alternated between laying the sun and crouching under the umbrella when the heat became overbearing. Dolphin sightings are so frequent along the Emerald Coast that eventually you stop picking your head up off the beach towel every time someone sees a flipper. Early morning arrival is key as traffic and crowds pick up as the day progresses but even though the beach can become busy, you can always find an uninhabited spot of sand.
Early June is prime time for the Gulf Coast — it’s sauna-like no doubt, but afternoon rains bring in a welcomed respite from the morning heat and nights are mild and still. I actively tried to take in all the things I knew I would miss when I returned to San Francisco — the sound of crickets, the sight of stars, the woodsy smell of oak trees, and the balmy heat that creates an oil slick on my forehead but after months of jackets and grey skies makes stepping outside in shorts and a t-shirt an intensely welcomed and satisfying experience.
There are walking trails interspersed throughout the golf course my family lives on. There’s something uniquely Old Florida about being able to go to the beach yet drive fifteen minutes inland and cross bridges over turtle-filled swamps and trek through musty forests of pine trees. This isn’t Miami, or Naples or even Orlando — there are no flashy clubs, swanky hotels, or luxurious resorts. There are beach cottages that have been there for decades and old town squares that date back to the times of Northwest Florida switching from Spanish to French to British to Confederate and finally American rule — hence the City of Five Flags, America’s First Settlement. I often tell people unfamiliar with Pensacola and the Gulf Coast in general that North and South Florida are like two different states, one is there for those seeking Florida-Florida and one is there for those seeking a different side of the state — the side that takes the charming bits of the Deep South and mixes them with the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Navigating adult life has been so much tougher than I imagined it would be (which went something along the lines of graduate, move to a big city, get a job and prosper). What no one told me about is the conflict of wanting to make moves that further your career and wanting to move back home every time something goes wrong. But I’m lucky — I have a home like Pensacola, that serves as both a reunion spot for family and friends and as a retreat. It’s a destination that many people pay big bucks for. At the risk of sounding like a cheesy Pinterest pin or a poster you’d find in a souvenir shop, I’m convinced that the key to health (both physical and mental) is sunshine and salt — 15 minutes in the sun and one head-to-toe dip in those crystal clear waters and you’re a whole new person. This is it, I thought, popping up from under a wave — I can skip Hawaii or the Caribbean or some trendy Bali beach — this is where I come when I need to press the reset button on life. Pensacola is a true vacation.
I could go on and on about the collection of cafes, restaurants, and shops unique to Pensacola. Here are few that stand out to me:
Cactus Flower Cafe: Our go-to Mexican eatery and a Pensacola staple. There are two locations, one downtown and one on the Pensacola Beach boardwalk. I always opt for the Mexican salad and one of their killer margaritas.
George Artisan Bakery and Bistro: This past visit was my first time dining here and I was excited to see if it lived up to my family's rave reviews (it 100% did). It's tucked away downtown and has an intimate, casual ambiance. Order the Pear Gorgonzola Tart to start followed by the Grilled Seafood Salad.
Casino Beach Bar and Grille: The perfect lunch spot for a break from the sun on Pensacola Beach. It's located right on the pier at Casino Beach. A must try: the Island Po'boy (so welcomed after a morning of body surfing and paddle-boarding).