The Gulf Coast beaches of northwest Florida and Alabama are the prettiest beaches in America. The sand is blindingly white, the water crystal clear. Amazing.
The human built environment here is more variable. While some areas are quite nice, a lot of the development is astonishingly ugly.
This is a completely different part of Florida that what many people know. Pensacola is seven hundred miles from Miami. Also, these northwestern beaches are primarily used in the summer, so in early December this was low season.
I was here following a family reunion of sorts, a memorial service for our beloved Aunt Barbara, held at a beautiful Episcopal church in the old part of Panama City. Barbara and her husband had retired to Panama City Beach and lived here almost thirty years.
The day after the service my plan was to bicycle the ninety miles to Pensacola in two days, then drive back in a rental car.
I parked my car in a Walmart lot and took the bicycle out. As I left the parking lot I could see the beachfront high rises in the distance. I bicycled the several blocks toward the beach.
I turned right onto the highway closely following the coastline.
This area is not all high rises; those come in clumps. Other areas had miles of older beach houses. I bicycled past this place where Alex and I had eaten breakfast the previous day.
The breakfast had been fine if you could ignore the bumper stickers above the grill.
At one point I had an opportunity to see the beach as the road turned slightly inland.
The next ten or fifteen miles comprised a series of “towns” constructed in the last twenty years or so. I put that word in quotes because while these places try to mimic a town, they are really real estate developments masquerading as towns. An actual town has a government and is populated by people who actually live there. Very few people live in these “towns” full time and they are are ruled by homeowner associations and real estate companies. My brother Alex has written extensively on this subject.
Still, these “towns” can be appear quite nice. Instead of high rises, most have dense “neighborhoods” of mixed use buildings. The first “town” we passed through was Rosemary Beach. By my calculation, it looks to copy St. Augustine, Florida. While these places look old they are actually new.
Each “town” along the way had its own architectural personality. This one was Seacrest Beach.
Sandy Shores was gated to keep the riff-raff out. (What are they so frightened of?)
Alys Beach, where every building is white.
The last “town” of this stretch is the most famous. Seaside was about the first planned community in America that tried to build a new “town” masquerading as an old town. It was designed by the Cuban-American architect Andres Duany who was instrumental in the New Urbanism movement. While my views have become more jaded over the years, if someone had asked me in about 1990 who my guru was, I would have said Andres Duany. Duany at that time was more than an architect. He wrote and put out videos showing the failure of postwar American urban planning and how ugly the shopping centers and cul-de-sacs of suburban America were. He said we needed to go back to copying the small towns of 1920’s America, where streets were in a grid and houses had front porches that came relatively close to the sidewalk, and kids could walk to a corner store. Mixed use. In 1985 these ideas were new and controversial.
Seaside was much smaller than I expected. Since parts of it are almost thirty years old, it is pleasantly overgrown with live oaks and some buildings look almost genuinely “old.” Most houses have front screen porches and grass yards are prohibited. Lots of picket fences.
I grew up in Virginia Beach. Parts of Seaside looks like an idealized version of what the north end of Virginia Beach would have looked like circa 1955.
And Seaside has a “downtown.” Yes this all is contrived. And elitist. And no person of color was within miles of here, except maybe working in the back. But the “downtown” was quite nice. There is a line of trailers converted to food trucks. They were uniformly all old Airstreams, I am sure there is some regulation requiring that!
Beyond Seaside route 30A winds through a state park and state forest land.
Unfortunately there was a bridge out, and I had to detour onto on the main highway US98.
I needed lunch. In the middle of a pine forest along this wide highway was a strip mall that included something called Music & Coffee.
It was staffed by one woman. There were signs promoting singer-songwriter nights at this venue. She makes an excellent chicken salad croissant.
Back on the road towards Destin I was able to ride on this sidewalk much of the way.
Destin was a tiny fishing village surrounded by white sand dunes until about 1985. Development went immediately to high rises without bothering the usual steps along the way.
Some areas did look nicer than I expected.
I stayed this night at the Sea Oat Motel, a motel that the woman behind the desk claimed was an original, built before the 1980’s boom, back when she said one had to drive seventeen miles to Fort Walton Beach to go to the grocery store. Ground floor Gulf front room, ninety dollars plus tax.
For dinner I chose to bike in the dark out to the highway, in a sea of huge strip malls. (Yes Betsy, I have bike lights.)
One ethnic group that has done quite well all along the Gulf Coast are the Vietnamese. I guess the hot and swampy climate reminds them of where they came from. Two of my favorite food writers R.W. Apple and Anthony Bourdain both have said that Vietnamese food is their favorite cuisine in the world. And both writers crow about pho. The Baguette Bistro in Destin advertises themselves as French/Vietnamese. The waiter recommended the pho. This was the first time pho really blew me away. Intensly flavorful broth, very fresh condiments, lots of beef. I am learning that pho is like a hamburger in that how one uses the condiments is a large part of the experience.
There were Vietnamese families eating there as well.
The next morning I biked seventeen miles west to Fort Walton Beach, a faded beach town with an old school downtown lining US98.
In this strip of mostly empty storefronts was the quite nice locally owned Maas Coffee. I stopped for breakfast; latte and a roll. The pastry was surprisingly good.
I biked about fifteen more miles down highway 98. It was none too glamorous. I got off the main highway onto parallel roads when possible.
I was looking forward to the Navarre Beach Causeway, which would take me out the the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Google Maps showed the barrier island as entirely green colored, meaning all of it should be parkland and I assumed very little traffic. I would be able to follow that highway all the way to Pensacola Beach.
When I got to the top of the Navarre Beach Causeway bridge, this barrier island looked much more developed than the map had indicated!
Thankfully these high rises only extended for a couple of miles, and after that I enjoyed about sixteen miles of an almost traffic free road through undeveloped dunes of white sand.
As I got near Pensacola Beach there was a bike path along the beach highway. It led up to these displaced looking high rises, the first buildings along the beach in many miles.
The national seashore ended abruptly at those tall buildings. I cycled a few miles through residential areas of Panama City Beach filled with normal size houses. I was hungry for lunch, but I did not want to stop at just anywhere. Meals on these bike trips should be an experience. I was running out of options and I settled for Flounder’s, a large crowded indoor/outdoor restaurant on the docks facing the water. I sat at one of the several bars.
It was two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Lunch was fine. I felt sort of guilty for taking this picture as I was walking out.
Downtown Pensacola was less than ten miles further, much of it across bridges. I found a decent renovated motel downtown. I walked around later in the evening. There were nice Christmas decorations. Pensacola is older than New Orleans but parts have a New Orleans look.
The next morning I biked around the older parts of Pensacola.
This modernist house mixed nicely into the same neighborhood as the 1920’s bungalows.
While Pensacola does have some lovely older neighborhoods, it reminds me of those other Navy towns Norfolk/Virginia Beach and Jacksonville, with miles and miles of almost poor 1950-60’s neighborhoods thrown across the sandy landscape.
When I arrived for my car, Enterprise refused to rent to me because I already had one Enterprise car on my account. I was forced to bicycle across Pensacola again so I could rent from Budget at the Pensacola airport. Still, I had an easy drive back on I-10 to my other rental car at the Walmart in Panama City Beach.
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