Glorious Autumn Festivals in Northwest Florida

Ahhhh âÂ?¦ There’s nothing quite like fall on the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida (as long as the hurricanes stay away).

The blazing heat and oppressive humidity of summer give way to balmy breezes and milder temperatures. The touristy spots grow less crowded, the kids go back to school and the locals emerge from their air-conditioned retreats to start enjoying the outdoors again. And the area comes alive with food festivals, music and other uniquely Panhandle-flavored events.

The fun starts after Labor Day (the official last hurrah to the tourist season) with Juana’s Good Time Regatta, held at Juana’s Pagodas, a beach bar complex on Navarre Beach. Now in its 16th year, the weekend-long event features competitions among “all sizes of multi-hull sailboats,” from Hobie Cats to big cruisers. There’s also a special category for windsurfers.

During Regatta weekend, Santa Rosa Sound (the body of water between the mainland and the barrier island of Navarre Beach) fills with dozens of multicolored sails that crisscross the sparkling water like oversized butterflies. The first race outing on Friday night is a casual affair called Smooth Sailing, while Saturdays is devoted to distance racing and Sunday features a back-and-forth challenge called Triangle Races. After each day’s races, sailors gather in the open-air pagoda bar or on the white-sand beach adjoining the Sound for beer and food specials, live music and prizes.

Regatta weekend wraps up on Sunday afternoon with an awards presentation – the numerous titles include a “Catch the Fleet” award for the last boat in – although many of the racers stay well into the night to celebrate and party.

This year’s Regatta is scheduled for Sept. 8 through 10. Late registration for sailboat racers is $60, which includes two t-shirts, two dinners, four breakfasts, beer and trophies. Non-racers can also get in on the fun for $35, which gets them a t-shirt, a dinner, two breakfasts and beer.

Later in September, the action moves farther west, to downtown Pensacola, for the annual Pensacola Seafood Festival. Situated on three parks shaded with ancient live oaks and overlooking Pensacola Bay, this festival brings together nearly two dozen area restaurateurs for three days of regional seafood specialties, traditional fair food (popcorn, funnel cakes, nachos and the like) and live music with a Southern drawl. Among the items fest-goers can sample are fried mullet, crabmeat puffs with Monterey sauce, crawfish etouffee and seafood pitas.

Because many of the food choices are entrÃ?©e-sized, it’s a good idea to visit with a few friends so you can sample as many of the goodies as possible. Another tip: bring along a picnic blanket and/or a few camp chairs to ensure you have a comfortable place to sit, because the existing tables can fill up fast.

Once you’ve staked out a place to relax and worked your way through the lines at the various food trailers, settle down and enjoy the music (this year’s lineup include Cat Daddy, Starz and John Wheeler), the view of the water and boats, and the smooth semi-tropical air.

This year’s Seafood Festival runs from noon to 10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, at Seville Square, Fountain Park and Bartram Park. Admission to the park areas is free.

Finally, before it’s time to break out the jack o’lantern luminaria and stock up on fun-sized Milky Ways, head east from Pensacola and north from the coast to check out Niceville’s Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival. First held in 1976, the festival “pays homage to the mullet, a bottom-dwelling fish that inhabits our local bayous.” The Boggy Bayou part comes from the original name of Niceville, back when it was a sleepy little town.

In addition to the obvious menu item of mullet (fried), the Mullet Festival features such “stuff Yankees don’t normally eat,” things like fried gator tail and crawfish bread, along with less exotic fare like barbecue and hot apple dumplings with ice cream.

Festival planners say more than 100,000 people come to enjoy the food, music and family entertainment, which includes “clowns, ponies, snakes and fun.”

Located on Highway 85 North at College Boulevard, the Boggy Bottom Mullet Festival runs from 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, Oct. 20, 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday, Oct. 21, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22. Admission is $6 for ages 12 and up, $1 for children under the age of 12.

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