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Pensacola, its anchorage first admired by the Spanish 450 years ago. In 1686, Spanish navigator Juan Jordán described Pensacola's bay as "the best I have ever seen." (Guillen Photography/Travel / USA / Florida / Alamy)

Harboring History in Pensacola

In Florida's panhandle, vibrant Pensacola stakes its claim as the oldest European settlement in the United States

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At St. Michael's Cemetery, an eight-acre oasis of calm dotted by magnolia trees and crisscrossed by gravel paths, archaeologists are using ground-penetrating radar to map sites of the deepest, oldest graves, most of which are unmarked. The Spanish began conducting burials as early as the mid-1700s at the site, where, evidence suggests, colonialists and slaves lie side by side. (Because the cemetery is still in use, only limited excavations are allowed. Archaeologists, however, analyze artifacts as they surface—for example, during storms trees have been uprooted, revealing cannonballs and grapeshot.) That is "one of the great things about living in a city this old," says Stringfield. "You're reminded that history is very much still with us."

In 1914, the U.S. Navy constructed a new installation, the Pensacola Naval Aeronautical Station, on the grounds of a U.S. naval shipyard on Pensacola Bay. (President John Quincy Adams, recognizing the bay's strategic potential, had ordered the establishment of the shipyard in 1825.) At any given time, some 12,000 active military personnel are assigned to today's Naval Air Station, 9,000 of them in aviation training. The Air Station is also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, dedicated to Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard flight.

The 300,000-square-foot complex, where one can stroll through a recreated World War I aviation camp or sit in the training cockpit of a Vietnam-era Sea Cobra helicopter, houses more than 100 vintage aircraft. "One of my favorite things here," says museum volunteer coordinator Phil Duryea, "is an inflatable aircraft made by Goodyear in the 1950s. It all came packed inside a single crate, complete with an engine and an inflation compressor. If you were a pilot downed behind enemy lines, we'd drop this aircraft to you in a crate on a flyover, and you'd spread it out and inflate it—and fly away to safety. It's pretty amazing."

Not long ago, Duryea led some of Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders, the B-25 bomber crews who took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in April 1942 to attack oil and navy installations in Japan. "As I was telling them about the museum," Duryea says, "they were telling me about what it had been like to fly the first raid on Japan."

Still, Pensacola isn't all history-steeped excursions or placid beaches. Several miles west of downtown, on a barrier-island strip of sand, Perdido Key, lies another local landmark. The Flora-Bama (for its location at the Florida-Alabama state line) restaurant is perched between the island's lone strip of highway and a beach where the sand is white as sugar. At the jumble of shacks connected by roofed walkways, where the good times have rolled since the 1960s, bands on multiple stages are a nightly draw and the menu features fresh-shucked oysters and spicy boiled shrimp. "You know the magazine Bon Appétit?" asks Pat McClellan, one of Flora-Bama's owners. "Well, they listed us as one of the best over-the-counter restaurants in the country. I figure they must have had a few beers and soaked in the atmosphere, and that's what swayed 'em. We do concentrate on the freshest seafood available anywhere, though. So if it was fresh seafood they were after, we got that covered."

On a recent afternoon, in the midst of the Flora-Bama's laid-back chaos, a couple of sky divers suddenly plummeted out of the sky to land on the beach. Folding their parachutes into jump harnesses, they ambled across the sand to place an order at the bar, still wearing their jumpsuits. No one looked twice.

"You know, you can get any water or beach experience you want around here," says local fishing guide Baz Yelverton. "You can fish the surf or the points where Pensacola Bay runs into the Gulf of Mexico. Farther north and east, freshwater creeks and rivers are running into the bay. That water is clean, nutrient rich and full of life."

We're aboard Yelverton's 21-foot outboard motorboat near the mouth of Pensacola Bay, in search of redfish and false-albacore. Beneath a cloudless blue sky at dusk, with virtually no one visible on nearby stretches of beach, the water glimmers a translucent aquamarine. The beaches are so pristine that four of the world's seven species of sea turtle nest here.

Yelverton, a local lad who had a successful career as a laboratory supplies executive in California and Seattle, returned to Pensacola 20 years ago. "I came home," he says, "and it was the best decision I've ever made. Every day, I get to come out into this huge wilderness. There's always something new going on out here."

As if on cue, a pair of fighter jets roars into the sky from the Naval Air Station. The sleek aircraft glint in the sunset as the shimmering twilight flatness of the Gulf spreads out ahead of us.

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