Watching from shore, my toes happily sifting through the sand, it was hard not to laugh at the kids in the surf about 20 feet in front of me. Two eleven year olds and a dad. A dad who clearly found his kid mode again, attempting handstands in the water beside the girls. His form was far from perfect, but he was impressive, holding the handstand for a good two seconds, and from his grin when he was upright again, appeared to believe was worthy of an Olympic medal for his acrobatics.
He absolutely earned the gold medal for fun.
And honestly, so was the beach where we were enjoying ourselves immensely.
Panama City Beach. Real. Fun. Beach.
That’s it’s promo line right now. And it’s true.
This isn’t the beach where you’re going to get fancy. You’ll find those further west.
This is the beach where you’re going to find your kid mode again. Where you’re going to remember what it was like to play in the surf as a kid. To toss the football with your friends in the water. And find shells along the shore.
Your happy place.
At least that’s what it is for me.
I know that better than most because I used to live here. Twice.
Right out of college, my first job in TV news was in Panama City Beach. Even though I’d grown up on the opposite coast of Florida, I instantly fell in love with the white sand beaches and emerald waters of the Florida Panhandle. The Gulf Coast. I moved away for a few years after falling in love with a military guy (there are several bases sprinkled along the coast), but we moved back a few years later.
When my career took me away again, I knew this would be the place I’d just have to visit until I could one day retire to the shore.
And you could say I’ve reached expert level on telling you what not to miss on your next trip to Panama City Beach.
So, here’s a quick rundown.
Don’t miss taking a few hours to just sit in the sand. Let the world stop for a few hours. If you can time this with sundown, do it. There’s nothing like just watching ‘the big orange ball’ disappear over the horizon. It’s so good, that one of my favorite restaurant/bars down at the beach makes a sunset celebration of it each and every night. That’s Schooners. If you pick one place to eat for the atmosphere, this is it. Not that the burgers and pina coladas aren’t bad (oh, they’re really, really good!), but where else can you send the kids to go play in the sand while you’re waiting for the food to finiish cooking? We happened to time our trip for the couple days after the Lobster Festival and the sand sculptures were still up for us to enjoy. There’s a live band playing most nights and Schooner’s, when I lived there, was referred to as ‘the locals hangout’. I’m not sure if that’s still the case, but this former local is good with still calling it that. But trust me, they’ll welcome you in if you’re just a local for the weekend.
The true locals—the dolphin—will be easier to spot from the water, if you can get yourself on a boat. My family loves the pirate ship. My now 22 year old held his 4th birthday party on that boat. Then his 8th. We’ve gone back a couple of times in his ‘later’ years and still have fun with the water gun fights and stories of treasure. The two of us both think he was probably a pirate in some former life. There are sailing trips, too, if you like a slower pace when you’re out on the water.
Don’t miss a walk at sunrise if you can make it up early enough. You’ll probably spot a dolphin or other marine life. We happened to catch a school of stingrays on our last trip.
If you don’t see the sea life naturally, you can sneak in a visit to Gulf World. The rescued dolphin put on a fun show, and the sea lion will even offer up a kiss (if you don’t mind the wet whiskers).
Don’t miss Pier Park for some great food and fun. Margaritaville is a must for us, but expect some lines. The earlier you go, the less waiting you’ll do if you’re looking for dinner. There are other spots for food, too, like Back Porch Diner (which we had to squeeze in on our last trip because our youngest is a sucker for raw oysters and they don’t have those over where Jimmy Buffett serves up his famous cheeseburgers). You can get dessert at a couple spots in Pier Park, and you’ll find great shopping. A particularly popular one these days is called Accessories on the Boardwalk, where you can find your fill of personalized or monogrammed gifts, and the latest in the popular southern shirts and hats.
Across from the shopping zone, back out on the beach, you’ll find one of the area’s two piers jutting out into the water. It’s a popular fishing spot. To the west of the pier, there’s a 300-yard long stretch of pet-friendly beach where you can bring your dog for a romp in the sand (on leash). It’s the only spot where the dogs are legally permitted.
If you want to get back to nature after the shopping, check out the area’s state parks and trails. I dind’t get to see them, but I hear the 24 miles of unpaved wilderness trails at Panama City Beach’s new 2,900-acre Conservation Park are stunning. I’m a huge fan of St. Andrews State Park and consider it one of the best places to enjoy the water if you aren’t staying directly on the beach. You can meander through the park, passing alligator and deer, on your way to the parking lot where you will find restrooms and a little shop…but then you can plant yourself in the sand for the day, either on the Gulf side or over at the lagoon, which is ideal for families with small children because the water isn’t so rough there. I personally adore climbing out onto the jetties. Many, many years ago, I referred to them as my thinking spot, and would sit for hours wondering how life would turn out. Who knew I’d still be asking myself the same question two and a half decades later, from the same spot. There’s also Camp Helen State Park, further west. I’ve honestly still never been there, but the PR folks say “it offers an amazing beach, and trails that wind through oak forests and along a dune lake (dune lakes are extremely rare, found only in this part of Florida, Australia’s Queensland, New Zealand’s Northland, and Madagascar).” It’s on my list to check out during my next visit down that way.
Where to stay:
If you can book yourself a place right on the water, do it. To me, there’s nothing like waking up and being able to literally walk out your door onto the sand. It’s ok if that requires a ride in an elevator first, as most condos do. The point is, you don’t have to get in your car to get there. I’ve done that, too, but know it means it’s much more of a hassle, and nobody wants to deal with hassles on the beach.
We dealt with Emerald View Resorts for our trip, staying at Grand Panama Resort. You can read more about that in this article (click here: https://www.travelingmom.com/2016/10/22/emerald-view-resorts/ )
Overall, if you want a trip where you can reconnect with the kids…heck, reconnect with your own kid…Panama City Beach is the place for you. Check it out in the video below.
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