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Published: December 5th 2013
Driving the Florida Panhandle: Pensacola to Tampa Bay
We entered the Florida Panhandle on Interstate 10 from Mobile Alabama and our first stop was Pensacola. We arrived early and parked on the main square and went in search of breakfast and a visitor’s center. Pensacola claims to be the first major settlement in America. It was established in 1559 by the Spanish Explorer Don Tristan de Luna. Within weeks of landing, 7 of his fleet of 11 ships were destroyed by a hurricane and most of his provisions lost. Within two years the Spanish colonists cut their losses and abandoned the site. Since then the city has been ruled by the French, the British, the Confederacy and the United States and is known as the ‘City of Five Flags’.
We didn’t locate a downtown visitor’s center here (we noticed it on the way out of town), but the small town of just over 50,000 people had only the one main street, called Palafox Street, so we walked down one side of it to the marina and then back up the other side and took a few photographs, Joan inspected a few menus and then we headed out of town
on 98. Here we crossed over our first of Gulf Coast Florida’s many long bridges. This first one was three miles long – and it is one of the shorter ones we crossed over during our drive along the Gulf Coast. These bridges are amazing structures. They are low to the water and then rise in the middle to 300 or more feet to allow passage of vessels. When you start onto one you cannot see its end; you can only see it rising into the sky in the distance. We always drove very slowly over them and were mesmerized by the views.
Route 98 is designated as one of Florida’s Scenic Highways and skirts the edge of the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle and passes along the southern edge of the Apalachicola (love these names!) National Forest. From there it moves slightly inland and then south where it merges with Route 19. We followed it all the way to St Petersburg and it thoroughly lived up to its moniker as a scenic highway!
Driving along the coast on 98 from Pensacola, Joan was determined to find a ‘Shrimp Shack’ for dinner. We were unsuccessful in that
regard and ended up having spicy fried chicken wings and shrimp at the Hooters in Destin. There we met Maya who was thrilled to be serving an Irish couple. Her step dad considered himself Irish and she was constantly stopping to chat with us.
We were up early and spent most of the next two days just driving, stopping briefly only to eat. In Panama City we had an excellent bagel breakfast at The Bagel Maker. There we met a Canadian couple who were boating the inland waterways from northern Canada, via the St Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi River, around the toe of Florida and then on to the Bahamas for the winter. Their average speed was 8 miles per hour - and the boat was only 13 feet long! Previously they had boated the rivers and canals of Europe but they hadn’t done the Irish rivers yet, even though they both had Northern Ireland heritage and had visited Ireland many times.
Panama City is slightly smaller in population than Pensacola (about 36,000 people) but it is much more developed in terms of resorts and industry as well as having a large military presence of an Air
Force Base and a Navy Command in its immediate vicinity. The Marina is new and was full of beautiful boats and yachts. And the downtown has a couple of lovely Art Deco buildings.
We spent the night parked up in the non-descript town of Perry. The highlight there was dinner at Chuck’s Famous Oyster House. This place was a hoot! It was full of families with the guys all wearing their baseball caps and the waitresses singing cowboy songs and handing out tambourines to diners for accompaniment. The food was greasy fried everything and it was very tasty good food and the place good fun: good craic indeed!
The nest day we spent driving south on 98. This part of the highway was not very interesting: just two lane roadway cut through trees with very little to look at except the occasional dead racoon. It merged with Route 19 and as we approached Crystal River, the town names started to sound familiar to me and it dawned on me that this is near where my mom, a snowbird from Maine, spends the first three months of the year, so we pulled over and phoned her to get some
advice on a good place for lunch. She sent us to Crackers which was just about 2 miles from where we had stopped. It is a fish and seafood restaurant with a large patio and outdoor space overlooking the water. I had the combination plate of conch fritters, alligator bites and shrimp. The conch were a bit too chewy but the alligator tasted like chicken. Joan had a plate of Red Snapper. Fulfilled, we continued south to St Petersburg.
St Petersburg (250,000) and Tampa (340,000) are large cities located opposite each other on Tampa Bay. Tampa is the corporate hub of west coast Florida and is primarily commercial tower blocks. It was dead on the Sunday we visited. Located about three miles from Tampa is Ybor City, created by another Spaniard, Don Vincent Martinez Ybor, who moved his thriving cigar business from Key West in the 1800s. The legacy of its success remains visible in its Spanish tiles and wrought iron balconies. It too was very quiet on the Sunday mid-morning so we headed across the bay over another one of the remarkable Florida bridges, the Howard Frankland bridge that is nearly five miles long but rises only 43
feet, into St Petersburg.
We parked Rudy V at the library near Mirror Lake and walked the main street to the waterfront and the Pier. The entertainment end of the Pier had permanently closed down at the end of May, a commercial failure and a financial disaster for the city, and the local newspapers were full of accusations about this ‘white elephant’ and suggestions about its future. There is a continuous belt of green parks space between the six-mile waterfront and the very nice high-rise apartment blocks overlooking the water. The downtown area of St Petersburg, from Central Avenue to the Grand Central District, contains the usual collection of boutique shops, galleries and restaurants. One restaurant featured a large ‘Jazz Brunch with Free Champagne’ but the music was not live and the champagne just fizzy wine so we gave it a miss! At dusk we drove over another bridge, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which is just over 4 miles long but seems to rise clear into the sky before dropping down (183 feet) on the other side. (The bridge is considered one of the ‘7 Wonders of Florida; it is the 4th
most popular bridge in America from which to commit suicide.) The bridge it replaced was partly destroyed in a collision and is now the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park. The wind was howling; the enormous Star and Stripes flags at both ends of the bridge were fully extended, and Rudy V shook and rocked during the crossing. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but I would return to the Tampa Bay area just to drive over these bridges again. (Incidentally, there was a toll of 1 dollar and 75 cents for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge; it was the only toll we paid during our entire journey from Los Angeles to Miami of 4180 miles!)
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