Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is not just a party destination, there’s a whole lot more to this Gulf hot spot than meets the eye. (Aug 6, 2015)
Written By: Kristin Luna
Photographers: Supplied & Kristin Luna
Panama City Beach (PCB) has the stigma of being solely a party destination. And while the Strip is indeed lively all year long, with 27 miles of pristine coastline, there’s a whole lot more to this Gulf hot spot than meets the eye.
On the far western edge of PCB’s domain, Carillon Beach has a cutesy beach town vibe while also giving off an air of exclusivity. With just three units per floor, each condo at En Soleil (units from $359 a night) boasts a fireplace, a balcony, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach.
Go Now: Summer Highlights
Every Monday, there’s free music via Groovin’ on the Green at Carillon Beach’s village green, while Thursdays bring another free summer concert series to the two-year-old Aaron Bessant Park Amphitheater. For market experiences, there’s the Grand Lagoon Waterfront Farmers Market every Saturday and Sunday. Labor Day weekend (September 4 to 6) welcomes a country music jubilee called the Gulf Coast Jam, featuring headliners Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, and Keith Urban.
A 20-minute flight over PCB with Panhandle Helicopter will give you the lay of the land while also allowing glimpses of peaceful manta rays, curious turtles, docile nurse sharks, and pods of dolphins in the sparkling turquoise waters below. The four-seat aircraft soars over hotels and high-rises before heading out for the secluded sands of the area’s beach parks.
For those who prefer to stay on solid land—or, at least, placid sea—a trip aboard the Shell Island Snorkeling & Dolphin Tours pontoon takes you out on the water for some wildlife viewing and deposits you at the seven-mile-long undeveloped spit of land where locals often pull up their boats, roll out their coolers, and settle in for the afternoon. Nearby, the 1,260-acre St. Andrews State Park has nature trails for hiking, lagoons for swimming, and more than a mile and a half of beachfront real estate for lounging. For those wanting to standup paddleboard within the park, SUPconscious offers classes and private lessons starting from $35, and the park’s general store rents out other equipment like kayaks, bicycles, snorkel gear, and fishing rods.
Avid divers will want to discover for themselves why PCB has been dubbed “the wreck diving capital of the South” via a dip or two with Diver’s Den. You might explore the nooks and crannies of the 180-foot steel tug Black Bart wreck or spy on 600-pound Goliath groupers hiding among the steel girders of Bridge Span 14.
Every morning should start with fuel from Andy’s Flour Power Café & Bakery, where pistachio muffins and savory breakfast croissants are made from scratch. Nearby, Fatty Patty’s satiates a sweet tooth with breakfast specialties such as the decadent (and popular) cinnamon roll French toast. For a quicker, grab-and-go option, Thomas Donuts has been keeping the community well fed for more than 40 years.
Finns Island Style Grub, a food truck with a permanent home right across the street from the beach, attracts surfers and families alike for lunch thanks to an array of tacos (go for the ahi) served al fresco. For a healthy experience, Zen Garden & Lotus Café caters to the vegan and gluten-free crowd with a spread of smoothies, salads, and veggie burgers as well as yoga classes, an organic market, and regular live music.
Dinner at Firefly is one of the fancier dining experiences in town, serving up seaside favorites like she-crab soup, lump crab cakes, and pepper-crusted tuna. Just be sure to save time—and room—for dessert next door at Pink Pelican Ice Cream Bar.