Getting there and staying there
The townhouse where we stayed was an ideal spot for having fun while avoiding crowds. Located at Innerarity Point, just two miles north of Perdido Key Beach, we knew we were there when there was water on both sides of the road. Situated directly on Perdido Bay, the rows of white-trimmed pastel yellow, blue and aquamarine green buildings were a cheery sight for us, road-weary travelers. Upon arrival, it took about five seconds for the two teenagers with us – our daughter and her friend – to jump out of the truck and over to the private beach directly behind the carport.
On the wall of the carport were two brightly colored kayaks, ready for a paddle, and a portable grill was set up by a picnic table that overlooked the water. Upstairs, there was a full kitchen so we could cook or order take-out (a pandemic favorite), and two balconies – one off the living area and one off the master bedroom – were ready for some post-beach relaxing and for viewing some of the most spectacular sunrises we had ever seen. Had we been forced to quarantine there, we would have been happy as pie!
Fortunately, we were only kept indoors on one day of the trip. We were not looking for nightlife or packed tour boats – although there was plenty of that if we were to go another time when health risks weren’t a concern – there is a lot to do in and around the Perdido Key area, and we didn’t want to miss out.
Perdido Key Beach
When we were doing our vacation research, it looked like Perdido Key had one beach. In fact, it has several: the public beach, Perdido Key State Park, and Gulf Islands National Seashore – Perdido Key Area.
The public beach is where we started. There are several points along Perdido Key Drive (292) where signs pointing to Public Beach Access peek out between high rise condominiums. Some will lead to narrow little stretches of beachfront
hemmed in by roped off sections of beachfront labeled as private property for condo owners and renters only. Other sections of the beach are wider and accommodate vendors such as parasailing companies that will take you out into the ocean for a one-hour trip that will include launching you high up in the air, holding you up by a parachute tethered to a speedboat.
The Perdido Key State Park encompasses 1.4 miles of beach and two boardwalks that allow beach access while protecting dunes from heavy foot traffic. Its entrance is on the north side of Perdido Key Drive, and it not only provides access to Gulf-side beachfront but also the beach that faces inland towards Ono Island, Alabama.
By far, the longest stretch of beach (and the least crowded section of sand you will find in Perdido Key) is at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Unlike the public beach, which is free, and the state park, which charges a minimal fee for entrance, getting into the Gulf Islands
National Seashore will cost you a pretty penny: $25 for a carload of up to six people, or $15 for one pedestrian entering on foot. That said, the entrance fee covers a full week of access, and it is well worth it.
Johnson Beach, the main swimming area, is named after Rosamond Johnson, the first soldier from Escambia County, Florida to die in the Korean War. He died a hero after pulling two members of his unit to safety and was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. There is an American flag flying and a plaque placed in his honor in front of the pavilion where the picnic area, restrooms, and showers are located.
Looking out to the east from Johnson Beach, you can see the condos on Perdido Key in the distance. Turn west, and it looks like the seashore goes on forever. In fact, the road past Johnson Beach only goes so far. Much of the east end of Perdido Key is a nature sanctuary. It is not uncommon to see a great blue heron standing along the seashore, watching the waves come in from the Gulf of Mexico, or to see tiny ghost crabs scuttling back and forth across the road between the ocean and Big Lagoon. Signs along the boardwalk remind visitors to stay off the dunes in order to protect the nesting areas of birds and sea turtles.
Big Lagoon, which sits between Perdido Key and the mainland, is a recreation area in itself. Big Lagoon State Park is a popular spot for hiking, camping, boating, and birding. While some facilities at the park are closed due to COVID-19, the boat ramp, trails, canoe/kayak launch, the boardwalk, and the playground are still open. Canoe and kayak rentals were available while we were there.
Rather than going to the state park, we decided to head over to Big Lagoon Jet Ski Rentals for some action-oriented fun. After watching a short safety and operations video to familiarize ourselves with the jet skis, we jumped on board some snazzy Sea-Doos and took off across the lagoon. At one point, the girls spotted dolphins swimming nearby, while we marveled at seeing the Blue Angels fly-by overhead at fighter-jet speeds.
Head east on Perdido Key Drive and you will run right over the Florida-Alabama state line. There you will find the legendary Flora-Bama, a restaurant and beach bar known primarily for its live entertainment. As we were seeking to stay away from crowds, we didn’t stop by there or some of the other highly rated restaurants in the area for which social distancing wasn’t a priority. Being safe doesn’t mean you have to miss out, though.
The Wharf, an entertainment district in Orange Beach, Alabama, was all over the idea of putting fun and safety together. We visited a number of their boutiques, gift shops, restaurants and coffee shops, all of which had hand sanitizing stations at the door and implemented social distancing measures. While we didn’t take a ride in their beautiful ferris wheel, we did stay for a musical laser light show that was held after dark in the common area.
Another gem we found in Orange Beach was Brick & Spoon. We chose it because it was in a cute gray building and there weren’t too many cars in the parking lot. If we return to the area, we will go back for the food, though! A well-known brunch spot, Brick & Spoon is only open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is famous for its Bloody Marys, which can be customized nine ways from Sunday, and Southern Living ranked it as one of the top breakfast joints in the South, describing it as “allergic to boring breakfasts.” Everything we had, from avocado toast to a burger and fries, was top-notch delicious.
Technically, Innerarity Point is in Pensacola. The address is all it has in common with one of Florida’s most famous beaches, though. It is a solid 30 minutes to drive over to downtown Pensacola, and then another 10 minutes down the Pensacola Beach. On the way there
is Pensacola Naval Air Station, home of the Blue Angels. We didn’t realize until we arrived that the Pensacola Light House and Maritime Museum is on the base itself. Sadly, due to the pandemic, the base was closed to visitors and so we did not get to see the lighthouse. The officer who met us at the gate told us the lighthouse could be seen from Fort Pickens, however, which is on the western end of Pensacola Beach. Fort Pickens is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, so your entrance ticket from Perdido Bay will get you into the fort as well.
There is no doubt that Pensacola Beach has its appeal, especially for teens like the ones we had with us. While not any whiter, its strip of sand along the ocean is wider than Perdido Key. Pensacola Beach also has its own “city center,” with well-known national chain restaurants, hotels, and condos, as well as kids’ entertainment parks for go-karting and mini-golf. It was much more difficult to stay socially distanced in the more crowded area, however; and while the girls were having fun flirting with boys and taking selfies on the beach behind Ron Jon Surf Shop, we parents were ready to get back to our quiet private beach on Perdido Bay.
At the end of the day, we got exactly what we were looking for in Perdido Key: a beautiful place to get away to and “chillax” away from big crowds, while still serving as a jumping-off spot for lots of fun and as much action as we did or didn’t want in nearby Orange Beach and Pensacola. For a perfect pandemic family holiday, this was definitely it.