A short drive from Gulf Shores, Alabama, and into Florida leads to Margaritaville Beach Hotel, a Jimmy Buffett franchise. Certainly there are less expensive hotel rooms and condos to be found on Pensacola Beach. However, Margaritaville isn’t just a place to stay. As do the laid-back songs of the President of Parrot Head Nation, this hotel conjures up something on which you just can’t place a price. It evokes a sense of tropical escape, a place where travelers need no passports, and the friendly staff speaks English and accepts dollars.
Framed and enlarged copies of Buffett’s album/CD covers adorn the walls of the beautifully appointed, open-flow lobby. For instance, “Jimmy Buffett: A white sports coat and a pink crustacean.” The title tells anyone all they need to know about the whimsical mind of the genius behind the Margaritaville Beach Hotel franchise and marketing guru that is Jimmy Buffett (J.B.). In the form of his music, books, and items unique to the hotel, it’s way too easy to buy a piece of paradise. No cash? No credit? No problem. Charge it to your room!
By mid-October (2010), when my husband and I visited Margaritaville Beach Hotel, there were no “tourists covered in oil,” British Petroleum, Coppertone or otherwise. There were couples and families on the beach, “blowing out their flip flops” in eighty degree sunshine and scooping up shells in the Gulf of Mexico’s turquoise waters.
I’d love to tell you about all the wonderful places to eat on Pensacola Beach, but during our three day stay, the food was so good at Margaritaville’s Frank & Lola Love Pensacola Café, we never ate anywhere else. One caveat, on a later visit, the Sunday brunch didn’t match the order-from-the-menu quality. However, with $6.00 bottomless Mimosas and Bloody Marys during Sunday brunch, perhaps one shouldn’t complain.
The nightly specials, usually fresh seafood, are highly recommended and always beautifully plated. Shrimp and Gouda grits arrived with fried green tomatoes, a spinach cream sauce and topped with “sweet potato hash.” An explosion of textures, color and taste worthy of three stars in a hoity toity French restaurant . . . as if any French restaurant would serve shrimp – with grits! Hrmph. Their loss.
My husband suffers from Celiac disease. Each of the darling wait staff could not have been more attentive to his special food allergy needs. Still, perhaps President Parrot Head would be wise to rip a page from his sister’s menu. Lucy Buffett’s Gulf Shores’ restaurant, LuLu’s At Homeport Marina, has excellent gluten-free selections.
Most every table at Frank & Lola’s has a Gulf view—as do most of the lounge chairs by the magnificent outdoor pool, which also has an outdoor tiki bar that serves inevitable drinks like, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” “Rum Runner” and “Hurricane.” All made, of course, with award-winning Margaritaville Beach Hotel mixers. JB may rule a nation of Parrot Heads, but the man’s marketing empire seems to be a nation unto itself, one that knows no borders, no limitations.
When there is no live music out by the pool tiki bar, not to worry, Radio Margaritaville Beach Hotel plays Parrot Head music there and throughout the hotel’s public areas. The house station mixes in other selections by other contemporary artists, like Bob Marley, skilled at conjuring up an island feel. Tom and I were surprised, but thrilled, to hear songs by two of our favorite artists wafting over Margaritaville Beach Hotel airwaves. You have to believe JB selects every song aired. It’s generous of him to make room for Hawaiian artists like Gabby Puanihi and the late and legendary Israel “Bruddah Iz” Kamakawiwo‘ole. Before his untimely death in 1997, “Bruddah Iz” blended magic paradise dust with his love and knowledge of ukulele, jazz, and reggae to create his unique brand of love for Hawaii’s lifestyle and beaches. As does Jimmy Buffett’s, Bruddah Iz’s artistry has transcended place and time.
There are various priced rooms depending on if you are on the Sound or Gulf side, or if you opt for a corner room with views of both. Skip the balcony; save a few bucks. We opted for a Gulf-front, king size with balcony. Entering the room we encountered a white partial-wall in which a louvered window with view out to the Gulf immediately created a beach cabin feel. To the left stood a curved wall with a tropical sunset mural. A bit hokey, but it grew on us. Another wall and the ceiling were painted in varying shades of pale blue. On the valance over the sliding glass doors leading to the balcony were JB lyrics, "Mother Ocean, I hear your call." Painted in white on white reflective paint, the lettering was only visible in day light. A duvet and crisp white linens were tucked into the frame of an enormous platform bed. The room was equipped with an I-pod docking-station that we appreciated.
The bathrooms are large and attractive. We particularly liked the seashell light sconces, the over-sized shower and the double vanity that appeared to be made of blue sea glass. Of course it wasn’t, but it certainly evoked that feeling. The mirrors are positioned for Gulf views while guests brush their teeth, shave or apply makeup.
Perhaps what we loved best was the proximity to nature. Monarch butterflies were enroute on their winter sojourn to their own version of Margaritaville—Mexico. We awakened every morning to watch the sun rise over Pensacola Beach pier, then waited for an early rising heron to arrive at the tidal pool. Each morning he stood at attention, solitarily staring out to sea as if he were a lone sailor stranded on a barrier island, waiting to be picked-up by a passing freighter.
We also enjoyed seeing pods of dolphin swim by, mostly in early morning and evening. Do rent beach chairs and umbrellas and spend time in the water, shelling. We brought back a variety of miniature shells that are jewel-like in their perfection. The tiny shells encrusted the beach like glimmering strands of crystal.
Mother Ocean, I hear your call. Like every well-bred Southerner, I always do what my Mama says. I will go back to Margaritaville, the paradise on Pensacola Beach that is more siren’s song than mere hotel.
As of late October 2010, only Phase I of the Margaritaville Beach Hotel Pensacola project is complete — the hotel and the adjacent Land Shark Landing open-air pavilion for afternoon and evening drinks, burgers and music. Projected phases are set to include a restaurant between the hotel and Land Shark Landing; a water park; an outdoor covered dome pirate ship; and perhaps even a volcano that explodes several times per hour like at Magaritaville/Orlando.
[Atmore, AL native, Bonnie Bartel Latino, is a former columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper in Europe. Her story, "The Rush of Butterflies" won the Military Writer Society of America 2009 People's Choice Award. Follow Bonnie Latino on Facebook and on Twitter, @BonnieBLatino.]