The Gulf Islands National Seashore
We did leave the island a couple days later in order to check out other units of the GINS. Across the Santa Rosa Sound was the Naval Live Oaks Unit, which had an interesting history. Back when ships were being built from wood, it was learned that of all hardwoods, live oak trees provided a superior product by far. This particular parcel of land jutting out into Pensacola Bay contained a large concentration of live oaks. In 1828 the United States purchased this property with the goal of conserving its valuable timber resources for building its ships. In fact, it was President John Quincy Adams that authorized the establishment of the first federal tree farm here in the panhandle of Florida. We learned that it takes at least 200 live oak trees to construct one military ship of the day.
We spent time in the nicely-made visitor’s center learning all about what’s special about the wood of live oaks, the environment they live in and their status here today. Afterwards, we followed a trail through the stand of oaks, enjoying the warmth of a perfect winter day, in Florida of course.
The Fort Barrancas Unit was across the wide expanse of the Pensacola Bay waters, on the grounds of the Pensacola Naval Air Station. After passing through a naval checkpoint, we made our way circuitously (undoubtedly off-route) through the base. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the bay, the old fort was positioned to help defend the entrance to the harbor. Much smaller than Fort Pickens, it was built from 1839 to 1844. When Florida became part of the United States in 1821, the U.S. Navy selected Pensacola Bay as the site for its navy yard. Its protection was another reason to construct these fortifications. After the engagements during the Civil War, all of these brick forts became obsolete when they were vulnerable to the development of superior armaments. Thus they were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruins.
When Fort Barrancas became part of the newly formed GINS in 1971, extensive restoration efforts were begun. Brought back to its original appearance, we found our explorations of it very rewarding. Laid out in a somewhat triangular shape, it encloses a labyrinth of tunnels where soldiers would be positioned to fire out from. A series of meticulously constructed arches leads through the catacomb-like passageways, with the sunshine peeking through rifle ports, casting light and shadows on the warm-colored bricks.
Perhaps due to its more remote location, very few visitors come here. Unlike at Fort Pickens, on this particular morning we had the place to ourselves to investigate. It was a great way to see this vestige from the past.
The National Naval Aviation Museum is located on the grounds of the Naval Air Station and it was our other destination of the day.
It was early afternoon by the time we arrived. Fortunately the Cubi Bar Café is found inside the museum, and so we headed there first. Actually, it is also an exhibit itself, duplicating the famous Cubi Point Officers’ Club in the Philippines. The original club was used by Navy and Marine squadrons and other military units for more than 40 years.
All the original 1000+ plaques were sent to the museum where the layout and spirit of the original club was replicated as much as possible. As we ate we took in all the various plaques displayed from naval squadrons, ships and units stationed in the Western Pacific. And the food was pretty good too.
The remaining hours of the afternoon went by quickly for both of us as we enjoyed looking over the place, with all its airplanes on display. Tracing the development of American naval aviation from its beginnings to the present, there are more than 150 restored aircraft to see. Beginning with the earliest days of aviation, there were biplanes galore. There were two huge buildings filled with planes and jets and helicopters, as well as other displays tied into aviation through the decades. Plenty to see, so little time. When the museum was closing for the day, we knew we’d be returning in one of the coming days.
The sun was dropping low as we were leaving. Pulling out of the parking lot, Melinda happened to see the Pensacola lighthouse looming over the trees nearby. We took a short detour to go check it out. A pathway leading down to the sandy shoreline took her to where she could get a good angle. I followed behind and we both enjoyed another very pleasant tropical sunset over the water.
We stayed on the island the following day, just kicking back and enjoying the atmosphere of the place. We walked, hiked and biked, and took more pictures to help remind us of our time spent here. We decided that we couldn’t have been in a better place to end our Florida tour. Of course, by the same token we shouldn’t take for granted that we were also given perfect weather conditions during our sojourn here.
The next day we started earlier, had breakfast on the way and then revisited the Aviation Museum. We looked forward to taking the trolley tour to view the largest airplanes displayed on a tarmac, watch one of the IMAX presentations, and then have some fun interacting with the flight simulators. We were disappointed to learn that even though it was early in the day, all the trolley tours were filled up. We tried to assuage our disappointment by purchasing tickets to “ride” inside an F-18 as it flew a combat desert mission. That experience got us quickly involved in the atmosphere of the place.
We whiled away some time waiting for the IMAX show by watching Chris get the feel of sitting inside various authentic cockpits of fighter planes and helicopters. He even had some personalized dog tags made up that will come in useful when he bikes those lonely roads.
We ended our visit with a late lunch back at the Cubi Café before heading out. Despite the initial disappointment, we managed to fill our time with more good experiences. If ever in the area, we would both highly recommend taking this museum in. Just don’t forget to sign up for the trolley tour the minute you walk through the doors!
And so, our time at this National Seashore was coming to an end. As if to make one last good impression, we were given perhaps the nicest evening of our stay. Warm and balmy, we didn’t need a campfire to keep us warm. We had enjoyed two while camping here, but our last night was spent taking one last long walk through the campgrounds. An earlier bed call tonight would make the predawn preparations for departure easier to take.
We were driving out shortly after sunrise, as Melinda anticipated getting her last departing shots. The road was straight and deserted as we made our way one last time through those windswept dunes. The sun was breaking the horizon and Chris was patient while she got her pictures.
While snow storms were blowing towards the Northeast, we experienced a slightly different, yet in some ways very similar, landscape of a very fine, pure white substance. One that we found much preferable . . . and will surely miss in our days to come.
We hope you’ve all enjoyed seeing Florida through our eyes. And especially at this particular time of the year, our photos have taken you to a very pleasant state of being.
Airstream Travelers headed home,
Melinda and Chris