PENSACOLA, Fla. -- The gleaming white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Florida's Panhandle draw millions of visitors each year, but this area isn't known for glitz, glamour and high-end hotspots like some of Florida's other beaches.
Instead, the Panhandle offers a laid-back vibe, Southern hospitality and family atmosphere. The region caters to budget-conscious travelers who often drive from nearby Southern cities like Atlanta, Birmingham or New Orleans.
Hotel and restaurant costs climb during the peak summer months, but even the priciest Panhandle resorts are generally less expensive than Miami Beach, Naples or the Florida Keys. And the Panhandle offers many opportunities for great memories visiting local attractions that cost nothing at all.
From Pensacola in the western Panhandle to Apalachicola in the east, you'll find more than 200 miles of relatively undeveloped beaches. Walk the sand in the early morning or late day to glimpse a spectacular sunrise or sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. Because the beaches don't get lots of traffic -- except for a few towns that draw college spring breakers in March -- shell seekers often make unique finds such as small conch shells and sand dollars. Beachgoers often glimpse pods of dolphins frolicking in the distance and schools of stingrays gliding just offshore.
During the busiest months, some beaches offer free outdoor concerts. Pensacola Beach offers live music every Tuesday night from April to October. http://visitpensacolabeach.com/what/bands.php.
National Naval Aviation Museum
The museum is located on Pensacola Naval Air Station and is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, www.navalaviationmuseum.org/. The museum offers an extensive collection of vintage military aircraft from all eras of flight and has numerous hands-on displays that give visitors a taste of what it was like to be a naval aviator through the generations.
On most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings March through November, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron practices in the skies above the museum, www.navalaviationmuseum.org/explore/blue-angels-practices. Visitors are treated to a full, jaw-dropping performance by six of the world's best fighter pilots. Team members gather inside the museum after some practices for an autograph session with visitors.