Geez! I'm on my way to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, and fighter jets just roared by . . . so close the ground shook under my boots. It was like being in the movie Top Gun.
I wasn't sure I'd make it to Pensacola this month because of the damage caused by Hurricane Opal in October. But, the city weathered the storm and is open to tourists like me.
The first spot I checked out was the National Museum of Naval Aviation. The museum is on the grounds of one of the city's main claims to fame _ the Naval Air Station. That's where all Navy and Marine pilots begin their flight training, and I guess it's why they call the station the "Cradle of Naval Aviation."
THERE'S A TWANG IN THE AIR
To get to Pensacola from my home in Tampa, I traveled northwest. On the way, I lost track of time _ literally. Pensacola is part of the Central Time Zone, which means I'm now an hour behind my Tampa Bay buddies. When it's 1 p.m in St. Petersburg, it's noon in Pensacola.
I have to admit, Pensacola isn't the kind of Florida I'm used to. The beaches here are covered with sugar-white sand, the weather is a bit breezier and the dialect much twangier _ folks here have a real Southern drawl.
In fact, Pensacola is much closer to Alabama than it is to most other parts of Florida. Just 61 miles from Mobile, Pensacola is on the tip of Florida's Panhandle _ the northwestern part that looks like an out-stretched arm.
After the aviation museum, I strolled through Seville Square. I could have taken the same walk in the 1700s because the roads, gardens and water well put in place by a British surveyor back then are still around today.
In Seville Square I stopped at the Julee Cottage Museum on Zaragoza Street. This building belonged to Julee Panton, a "free woman of color" who bought the freedom of enslaved blacks.
For lunch, I decided to take in local favorites, so I tried out grits, cornbread and tupelo honey.
Visiting Pensacola has given me an idea of what it was like in the early days of Florida. I think I'll come back in June to participate in the Fiesta of Five Flags, a 10-day historical re-enactment of the city's discovery and settlement.
A little history
Pensacola's history dates back almost 10,000 years. One of the earliest American Indian tribes living there was called Panzacola or Pansfalaya, and that's probably where the name Pensacola came from.
Over the years, Pensacola was a "hot" property. Many folks fought over the area, mostly because of its huge natural harbor, which was important for controlling the Gulf of Mexico. Ownership of Pensacola changed 13 times before 1866; it was in the hands of Spain, France, Britain, the United States and the Confederacy.
For a while, under British and Spanish rule, Pensacola was the capital of Florida, or at least the western section. St. Augustine served as the eastern capital. In 1803, the area was claimed by the United States, and in 1823 Tallahassee became the territorial capital because of its location halfway between Pensacola and St. Augustine.
Claims to fame:
Pensacola is Florida's largest deepwater seaport.
Pensacola's Eglin Air Force Base is the nation's largest air base, covering 724 square miles.
Pensacola is the county seat of Escambia County.
Talk about a call of the wild! I'm having an elephant encounter at the Jacksonville Zoological Park. The massive mammal next to me is bellowing for dinner. Let's hope the zoo keepers feed him before he feeds on me!
Coming to Jacksonville from Pensacola put me back in the good old Eastern Time Zone, so all our clocks are now in sync.
But, I'm still not feeling like I'm in Florida, at least the kind of Florida I'm used to. I'm now in the northeastern corner of the state _ an area known as the First Coast.
The water, though, reminds me of home a little. The 273-mile long St. Johns River ends in the city, and the Atlantic Ocean is just minutes from downtown.
THERE ARE JAGUARS IN JACKSONVILLE!
I learned something from my Pensacola trip: Eat first before touring the city.
I found a small cafe in the city that serves Veggie Riders _ a Syrian standard here. The Syrians settled in Jacksonville almost a century ago. Riders are pita-bread pockets filled with tabbouleh (a Middle Eastern wheat and vegetable salad) and cheese.
Since I didn't do any shopping in Pensacola, I stopped at Jacksonville Landing, a riverfront marketplace with shops and restaurants. There wasn't much for a kid to spend his money on . . . maybe I'll get a souvenir in the next city.
But the view from Jacksonville Landing was great _ I could see many of the tall buildings that fill the city. Lots of those skyscrapers house insurance and banking companies. It's a real 9-to-5 bustling downtown here.
But prosperous cities make lots of pollution. Jacksonville used to be a hold-your-nose type of town because of the odors released from the city's paper and chemical plants. These days the smell isn't as bad, thanks to an odor-nuisance law.
As I was walking around downtown, I heard lots of folks talking about jaguars. I thought they were planning a trip to Jacksonville Zoological Park, but it turns out they were talking about the city's new football team. Jacksonville recently snagged a National Football League franchise and named it the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The city's pride in their team is everywhere: A downtown building is painted with a jaguar and huge yellow paw prints, the team logo is painted on city buses and team banners hang from light poles.
A little history
Jacksonville was the site of Florida's first European settlement. In 1564, one year before the Spanish founded St. Augustine, French Huguenots (Protestants) built Fort Caroline _ a triangular fort overlooking the St. Johns River. But when the Spanish showed up, the French were kicked out of town.
Like Pensacola, Jacksonville's history goes back to the American Indians. The Timucuan Indian tribe called the area Wacca Pilatka "The Place Where Cows Cross." When the British came in 1790, they shortened the name to Cowford. In 1821, the United States gained control and changed the name to Jacksonville, in honor of Andrew Jackson.
Not all of Jacksonville's history is good, however. A yellow fever epidemic killed 427 residents in 1888, and a fire in 1901 left about 10,000 people homeless and destroyed more than 2,000 structures.
Jacksonville is the county seat of Duval County.
Did you know?
The St. Johns River is one of the hemisphere's few northerly flowing rivers.
Jacksonville, which consolidated with most of Duval County in 1968, is Florida's largest city with a land area of 841 miles.
Claims to fame
Singers Pat Boone (April Love) and the late Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd (Sweet Home Alabama) are Jacksonville natives.
Jacksonville was the site of Florida's first state fair in 1876. The state fair is now held in Tampa each February.
Sources: Atlas of Florida, Florida Almanac, Awesome Almanac _ Florida, The Florida Cookbook, Pensacola and Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce
NEXT WEEK: Kevin travels to Daytona Beach and Orlando!