As we drive towards our final state destination of the trip, we whizzed through both Mississippi state (stopping there for a toilet break) and Alabama (stopping there for a lunch break). We were heading to Pensacola on the Florida west coast, where the sea is warm and the beaches are white. We were staying at the Best Western hotel in Fort Walton, a smaller resort just a few miles on from the larger town of Pensacola, where it is less crowded and touristy. We were stopping here for a day to break away from the road for a while and top up our tans.
Our hotel was located right on the beach front – and the beach really was a breathtaking white sand and crystal clear water affair. We quickly headed out to the hotel’s private beach area to catch the last few hours of sun, where we were handed old-fashioned sunbeds to put out. It was still amazing sunbathing weather, but didn’t feel quite as hot as the other places we’d visited because of the breeze blowing along the coast. The sea was super warm, so you could just stride straight in without having to jump in the air squealing every time a wave comes by and it was very shallow for a long way. This coast is located in the Gulf of Mexico, which explains the warm water – in any case it was perfect for floating around and swimming under the big waves.
We started speaking to the lifeguard of our part of the beach, and asked where we might find a good local bar. He recommended Helen Back – a bar within walking distance where all the locals choose to hang out. When we turned up later that evening, we were confronted with a small looking bar, which was painted a dark red with a mural of a woman riding her motorbike through a wall of flames. As we wandered through, however, we were led to their outside area which was set on a little jetty overlooking the harbour. The sun was setting just as we sat down, so we had a drink looking at the fish, herons, sailing boats and red sky. Mum started chatting to a family a couple of tables down from us (they bonded over the pizza slices that they were both throwing in the water for the fish), while Dad, William and I reminisced on the surprise anniversary party that we had thrown before we left.
Just as we were finishing up our last cocktail of the night, the family that Mum had been speaking to came over and introduced themselves to the rest of us. There was 23 year old Kott, who had moved to Pensacola five years ago to work in the Navy. His parents, Chuck and Robin, were visiting Kott from Pittsburgh since he was about to be transferred to Afghanistan for five months. Kott asked if we would like to come and join them for a game of ‘ring-hook’ at the bar, something we’d never heard of before – but essentially was a game where the player aimed to swing a rope, with a ring at the end of it, over a hook screwed into the wall from about six foot away. As basic as it was, we all found ourselves getting extremely competitive and then very excited when we got a point. A new player, Watter, came over and joined us and he was like the understated ultimate champion, always getting the ring over the hook on his first try.
At around midnight, Mum and Dad decided they would walk back to the hotel but William and I decided to stay on out with the others. We continued playing for a little longer, before Kott, William and I moved onto playing pool while his parents sat and smoked outside. I went to buy a round and when I was ID’d by the new girl at the bar, realised Dad had taken my passport back with him. As a result, I was ‘shackled’, as Kott described it, with a big X on my hand – where if I was caught drinking, I would be thrown out. From then on, it was a game of sneakily drinking my rum and cokes behind menus and in dark corners – I felt like a rebellious 15 year old again. After a few games, we decided to go and sit outside with Chuck and Robin, where we ended up having long, drunken, in depth conversations about absolutely nothing until 4.30am. At this point, we all sadly decided to call it a night and William and I declined the offer of a ride back to the hotel, given that lots of drinks had been had and it was only a few minutes walk back. Needless to say, our plan to get up at 5am to watch the sunrise over the beach didn’t quite go plan…
The next day, we had a quiet day of relaxing on the beach. We all got sunburnt (or the cleaner put chilli powder in our sheets as we preferred to think of it), so we weren’t feeling up to doing much that evening. We drove to a diner over the harbour bridge, called Props Diner, where there was live music and the first lot of vegetarian options that I’d had on the trip so far. We called it an early night and I lay in bed and watched Crossroads on the hotel’s wifi (getting very nostalgic/emotional over young Britney). The next morning, we were up early for our 600 mile drive to Orlando – and sadly the last stretch of our road trip.