Located on the northwest coast of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico, Pensacola Bay has a busy program of festivals. Planning a meeting or conference to coincide with one of these local events provides ready-made entertainment for groups as well as a chance to sample the culture, arts and culinary scene of the region. Here are some of Pensacola’s highlights:
The Second Annual Pensacola Dragon Boat Festival takes to the water on September 12 at Bayview Park in downtown Pensacola. Teams of 20 synchronized paddlers, one drummer and one steersperson race 300 meters up the river in 40ft canoes decorated with Chinese dragon heads and tails. The event is a great team building activity for businesses and other groups who want to test their power, speed, synchronization and endurance; and both beginners and experienced rowers are welcome to compete in the race. Registration costs $1750 and includes a guarantee of three races, one team practice session in the week leading up to the event, a 10×10 team tent, boat, life jackets and paddles. Participants should have between 21 and 26 crew members, and at least eight crew members must be females. Vendor booths will be open all day, a DJ will play music and give updates on race stats, and live music will be provided by Coastal Fire. The race works to benefit Gulf Coast Kid’s House, a children’s advocacy center for the intervention, investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases.
Taste of the Beach kicks off on September 18-19 and features New Orleans chef John Besh as a special guest. Friday 18 is the VIP event and costs $65 per ticket. It includes tastings from six of the beach’s finest chefs, along with an up-close-and-personal cooking demonstration by John Besh followed by a meet and greet. Entry is free for the Saturday 19 event located at Casino Beach, where you can sample oysters, shrimp, crawfish and the best seafood the gulf has to offer. Signature dishes cost $5 and include peel & eat boiled shrimp, fish tacos with rice & beans, Korean BBQ lettuce wraps, corn & crab bisque, baby back ribs and more. Cooking demonstrations, food and beer tastings, hermit crab racing, cooking competitions and line-up of live music are on the schedule, and John Besh will perform a cooking demonstration on the main stage followed by a Q&A.
The 38th Annual Pensacola Seafood Festival takes place on September 25-27 in downtown Pensacola’s Seville Square, Fountain Park and Bartram Park. The event not only showcases the freshest Gulf Coast seafood dishes from the region, but also hosts one of the largest arts and crafts fairs in North West Florida with more than 150 artisans and craftsmen who travel from around the country to participate. This free event is presented by the Fiesta of Five Flags, a community organization that has been hosting local events since the 1940s and has played a huge role in developing tourism as an industry in Pensacola with a number of festivals that celebrate its history. The Fiesta Seafood Grill is located in Fountain Park and is open throughout the event, featuring cooking demonstrations from local celebrity chefs (line-up to be announced), sharing their cooking secrets as they prepare their favorite dishes with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Saturday September 26 also features the Pensacola Seafood Festival Don McCloskey 5K Walk/Run, one of the most competitive 5K runs in the area which passes through Pensacola’s historic downtown district around the festival. There is a post-race party and awards ceremony immediately afterwards at Seville Quarter.
The Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival takes place November 6-8 in Seville Square and is one of the best regarded and most popular arts festivals in the United States. More than 200 of the nation’s best painters, potters, sculptors, jewelers and other artists compete in this juried contest for a chance to win a total of $25,000 in prize money in categories including ceramics, drawing, fiber/leather, glass, jewelry, mixed media, oil/acrylic, photography, printmaking/graphics, sculpture, watercolor and wood. There is also live music on the Main Stage including bluegrass, Cajun, blues, jazz and classical performers; while the Parrish Performing Arts Stage showcases ballet and other dance styles from local performance companies, dance schools and community groups. The Heritage Arts Area is another popular part of the festival and features craftspeople from around the country demonstrating skills such as blacksmithing, engraving, spinning and weaving. Admission to the Festival is free and it takes place 9-5 on Friday and Saturday, and 9-4 on Sunday.
Pensacola has one of the oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States, dating back to 1874. Unlike the better known Mardi Gras celebrations of New Orleans, Lousiana and Mobile, Alabama, the Pensacola festivities are more laid back and family friendly. There are more than 100 active krewes and 200 floats which participate in a number of parades across several days. Masked characters throw beads, cups, stuffed animals, commemorative coins and traditional Moon Pies; chocolate-covered cookies with marshmallow centers. In 2016, the Pensacola Mardi Gras Kick Off Celebration will take place on Friday, January 8; the main event of the Pensacola Grand Mardi Gras Parade will be on Saturday, February 6; and the Fat Tuesday Celebration will be on Tuesday, February 9.