When most folks think about the Florida Keys, the images conjured are of the most southern islands, such as Key West and Key Largo.
However, there are some gorgeous keys in the most northwestern part of the Sunshine State.
The best of both worlds can be found on Perdido Key, which sits just off the Florida/Alabama border. The private island feeling you’re looking for in an island vacation is definitely present — “perdido” is Spanish for “lost,” after all. Yet it’s all less than half an hour from historic downtown Pensacola.
The barrier island stretches 16 miles from the edge of Pensacola to Perdido Pass Bridge. The powdery white sand beaches and the rolling dunes are covered with seat oats and make this a pristine oasis along the rapidly developing Florida Panhandle.
Perdido Beach is reminiscent of Saint Petersburg’s Fort Desoto Beach, which was one of Florida’s best kept secrets until magazines around the world gave the national park considerable coverage in recent years.
Nature lovers will find much to enjoy here. Like Fort Desoto, Perdido Beach is home to many species of exotic wildlife, including the endangered beach mouse and sea turtles.
Perdido Key is a paradise for birders, with seagulls, skimmers, terns and pelicans sharing the white quartz sand and clear blue water alongside bathers.
For restaurants on the island, Flora-Bama should be at the top of your list. The charming dive bar, which opened more than a half-century ago, is a local favorite. The seafood is as fresh as you’d expect; go spicy with the firecracker shrimp tacos, tossed in sweet chipotle ranch dressing with vinegar slaw and topped with lime sour cream. The Bushwacker cocktail will have you feeling the mellow island vibes.
Hub Stacey’s offers an array of huge, inexpensive and delicious sandwiches. Messing with a classic is always risky, but Hub Stacey’s take on the Cuban sandwich subs in Gouda cheese and adds banjo ham to great effect.
Where to stay
To have your own secluded slice of this island paradise, make your home base one of the luxe condos run by Perdido Key Resort Management, which operates several properties on the island, from beachside cottages to luxury high-rises. They also alll have something you won’t find elsewhere on the island: a perks program called Keys to Fun.
Think of it as an island-wide two-for-one promotion for golfing, deep sea fishing, sunset cruises, dolphin watching and even admission to the Waterville USA water park. Basically, if you’re going on a fishing tour, one person in your party sails free and only the other has to pay. Or, if you’d like a little alone time on your vacation, each member of your group can experience a different attraction independently for free.
Back on the mainland
If you’ve got the time, spend a day in downtown Pensacola. The National Naval Aviation Museum, the world’s largest, is free to visit, but sign up for a tour guide. More than 150 restored aircraft are on display, including the Que Sera Sera, which is the first aircraft to land at the South Pole.
On the beach, climb the 177 steps to get to the top of the Pensacola Lighthouse, which offers a dramatic view of the Gulf Coast.