We all know that the likes of Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld are the prime attractions here in the Sunshine State, but sometimes you just need to take a break from the non-stop action, and the beach makes a fabulous alternative or twin-centre option with Orlando.
And, while there are seemingly endless miles of open, sandy seaside to choose from along the Gulf Coast, we think it’s worth going a bit further up into Florida’s ‘Panhandle’ to discover this great off-the-beaten track destination.
And here are 10 reasons why:
1) World-class beaches
Panama City Beach actually boasts 27 miles of pure white sands (quartz, not shells, like other parts of the state) and you are spoiled for choice with two state parks – St Andrew’s and Camp Helen – as well as the main public beach and the private beaches with many of the seafront resorts. You simply can’t go wrong and, on Shell Island, you can truly get away from it all on a secluded retreat that is often largely empty during the week.
2) No crowds
If you avoid the peak period of the American Spring Break holiday (which is usually most of March) and the few weeks either side of the main summer holiday of July 4, you can enjoy acres of beach to yourself. From mid-August to late October is also perfect for still getting lots of sun, bath-warm sea water and a truly tranquil vibe that is a million miles removed from the hustle-bustle of Orlando.
3) Great sealife
Not only is this part of the Gulf Coast home to the world’s largest concentration of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, it also features great numbers of (harmless) Lesser Devil Rays, sea turtles and manatees in the crystal-clear aquamarine waters. You don’t usually need to go looking for them, either. Just wander along the beach and you are likely to see all of the above at some stage, and even the occasional basking shark!
4) Gulf World Marine Park
Just to prove SeaWorld hasn’t cornered the market on enchanting sealife presentations, this marine centre on the main coastal road showcases several types of dolphins, seals, sea lions, penguins and more. Like SeaWorld, there is a strong environmental message to much of what they do, and many of the animals here have been rescued from various sea-going predicaments. And, while it may look small from the outside, there is at least half a day’s entertainment packed in to this well-cared-for park.
5) Wide accommodation choice
Whether you’re looking for a standard beach-side resort, a big high-rise condo, a vacation villa or a quaint traditional motel, Panama City Beach has a surprising range of places to stay, including the ‘millionaire’s row’ of Carillon Beach, where you can rent a home close to the beach. We stayed at the excellent Tidewater Beach Resort, a 30-story tower right on the beach where the one-bedroom apartments (with full kitchen) were huge and the 3-bed units would comfortably house two families.
6) Fabulous dining
This is what really impressed us about the area as we love to find one-off, family owned restaurants of all types (rather than the usual chain offerings), and we discovered dozens of great options, especially if you enjoy seafood. Captain Anderson’s has been an institution here since 1967 (hint: try the crab ‘fingers’ in seasoned butter – absolutely divine!) while the Saltwater Grill and Firefly are both good for a special night out. Bridge Span 14 specialises in local seafood and organic food and breakfast at any of Andy’s Flour Power, Liza’s Kitchen and Thomas’ Donuts is where you’ll find the locals enjoying a great start to the day.
7) Sunset cruises
You can’t beat a great sunset. Unless you watch a great sunset on a sailing cruise with Paradise Adventures, who operate a large catamaran for a series of offshore cruises, including their trademark Sunset Sail, where you can grab one of their speciality cocktails and sit on the front of the boat enjoying nature’s own spectacular show on the distant horizon. Bliss? You bet!
OK, so Simon was slight wary of this (under the ‘old dog’ and ‘new tricks’ heading) and Susan was happy to take the photos, but this actually proved one of the big hits of the whole trip. Paddle-boarding has become a major beach activity around much of Florida and is also a great aerobic exercise, and, with the help of instructor Joey from WoW Paddleboards, Simon soon found he could paddle-board away to his heart’s content.
9) Helicopter tours
When you’re ready for the full, scenic view of Panama City Beach, the Panhandle Helicopter Tour takes up to three people at a time on some truly epic flights along the coast. With great views on both sides, you can glide up the beachfront with a grandstand view of the many resorts on one side and the clear emerald sea on the other. This is where we saw thousands of Lesser Devil Rays on their stunning annual migration along with dozens of playful dolphins. It’s hard to under-play the absolute breathtaking nature of this trip – the pristine nature of the sea here came through loud and clear.
10) Miracle Strip amusement park
As if to prove you CAN still have some theme-park-style fun and games even in this laid-back location, this (still growing) mini theme-park offers plenty of old-fashioned fairground-type rides, as well as an out-and-out roller-coaster, bungee trampolines and even a baseball batting cage, for those who’d like to try their hand at this typically American sport. Next year, Miracle Strip will also boast the rebuilt Starliner traditional wooden roller-coaster that used to be here, was sold to Cypress Gardens in 2007 and will soon be ready to make its grand return in a new format.
That’s 10 solid-gold reasons to put Panama City Beach on your ‘To do’ list sometime soon. We could also mention, the great golf, mini-golf, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Wonderworks, Serenity Spa and the huge Pier Park shopping and entertainment district as other reasons to visit and the simple fact is, even given a week here, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
But do make time for the beaches. This is simply some of the best seaside territory we’ve seen in Florida – and that’s no mean feat!