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No clouds allowed in Florida’s Panhandle

The Florida Panhandle boasts some of our nation’s most favored beaches. Sugar-white sand and emerald blue waters stretch for miles. An average 343 days of sunshine and abundant activities make it a welcome destination any time of year.

Pensacola can easily be explored on bicycle and Segway tours. The city’s National Naval Aviation Museum ranks as one of the world’s largest air and space museums. On the Emerald Coast, Destin — aka “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” — is known for its record catches out of Destin Harbor. Further east, Panama City Beach is bookended by two popular state parks.

The area’s natural beauty satisfies active groups that choose to bike, snorkel and canoe in the spring-fed rivers.

Bicycle and Segway tours explore Pensacola’s historic downtown and beach. History buffs can bike Fort Pickens on Gulf Islands National Seashore. Dating to 1834, it was the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay and was never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War. Ranger-led guided tours cover the fort’s history, strategic presence and wildlife.

“The four-mile, scenic bike path starts at the fort’s entrance and ends at the structure itself,” said Valeria Lento Palmertree, director of communications at the Pensacola Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The paved trail overlooks Gulf Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of protected seashore in the nation.”

More than 100 fully restored vintage aircraft are on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Naval Air Station Pensacola. Visitors can get close to the first plane that landed on the South Pole and the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

“We consider Pensacola the cradle of aviation because every Navy, Marine and Coast Guard pilot starts their training at the Naval Air Station,” said Palmertree. “The museum gives people of all ages a new appreciation for our military and a hands-on experience because everything is accessible — there’s nothing behind glass.”

Adrenaline junkies will want to take in a film at one of the world’s largest Imax theaters and on Florida’s biggest screen. “The Magic of Flight” simulates flying in a Blue Angels cockpit at supersonic speed. In the Blue Angels Atrium, F/A-18s float above the crowd and give the illusion of flying.

For an additional fee, two state-of-the art flight simulators give visitors gravity-defying sensations. The high-definition 3-D flight simulator is capable of air-to-air combat and stunt flying. It’s a true-to-life thrill ride because of 360-degree pitch-and-roll technology.

The high-definition motion-based simulator, a fully enclosed simulator capsule, moves in six directions. Riders experience horizontal rolls, longitudinal pitches and vertical climbs. Two rides offer very different experiences. The Blue Angel simulation delivers high-performance turns and maneuvers while flying a Navy F/A-18 Hornet on a low-level mission. Wannabe pilots can also opt for the Desert Storm simulation. The flight takes off from an aircraft carrier and engages in battle over the Iraqi desert.

The Pensacola Bay area is home to the renowned Blue Angels, officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. Due to sequestration, their practice shows have been grounded through November.

“Every Wednesday, in the museum’s Blue Angels Atrium, the Blues make appearances to meet visitors, take photos with fans and give autographs,” said Palmertree. “This is the only place to see them this year. We’re hoping they’ll be back on schedule in 2014.”

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.