PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla., June 11, 2012— New nonstop Southwest flights between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Panama City Beach make escaping to Florida’s northwest coast a breeze for the Mid-Atlantic.
The emerald surf that laps against the pristine sugar-white sands make these beaches some of the most desirable along the Gulf of Mexico.
Thanks to the city’s laid-back feel and the copious number of bars, like Pineapple Willey’s, a beachfront deck bar with live music, Panama City Beach has long been a magnet for spring-breakers.
There’s also plenty of kitschy good fun for families with miniature golf courses, go-kart rides, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a Wonderworks, a hands-on interactive “museum” with draws like a ropes course and bed of nails, and throngs of T-Shirt shops that lure shoppers in through story-high fiber glass shark jaws.
This part of Florida also happens to deliver something that few other modern beachfront communities still do: local color. Despite the fact that Panama City Beach is a mega tourist destination (with about 12,000 year-round residents welcoming to their town more than 8 million yearly visitors from around the world), it has fully embraced its hometown spirit and that’s a very good thing for visitors who want to tap into the authentic life on the Gulf.
Locals are fully aware of the breadth of natural resources their hometown offers and they fully participate in the best of life on the Gulf, from parasailing to fishing to kite surfing to just lounging on the beach.
Another local haunt worth visiting is at Pier Park, where a shuttered old-school amusement park called the Miracle Strip has been re-established. Now within a popular shopping district, families and romantic couples flock to the refurbished merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel and hand-cranked cars.
St. Andrews State Park, 700 acres of unspoiled shoreline, lies at the far end of Panama City Beach. In addition to pretty, undeveloped beaches, rocky jetties, and soft dunes, there are also hiking trails that slice through the unique landscape of this part of Florida, which is defined by pine trees, marshes and scrub oaks. While strolling the dunes and beaches, keep your eyes peeled for beach mice and plovers, and, in season, hatching sea turtles.
Gulf World, a marine park along the main strip, is an obvious tourist draw, but unlike many of its kind in other beachfront cities, this one is actually supported strongly by locals. Although it showcases a variety of animals from stingrays to sharks and features dolphin shows, Gulf World also serves as a rescue and rehab center for animals. In particular, dolphins that have been injured or separated from their pods are sent here to be nursed back to health. Dolphins that cannot be reintroduced to the wild for their safety are integrated into the program at Gulf World, given training and a community.
While visitors can stay in hotels in Panama City Beach, like the golf resort on the Bay called Wyndham Bay Point and the Holiday Inn along the coastline, the vast majority of accommodations are condo rentals. That means that visitors have yet another opportunity to live even just a little bit like a local
High and low-rise condos line the shoreline. Not only is every complex a bit unique, but so too are the individually decorated and maintained units. The feeling, then, is much homier than a typical resort beach town with lots of taupe-y rooms. All have kitchens and many have washer-dryers, making family travel and longer stays easy.
On a recent visit, I stayed at an upscale complex in a relatively quiet stretch of beach. With 721 rooms the Shores of Panama is hardly intimate, but it does offer what may be the most beautiful pools in town and a beautiful swath of beach, along with sweeping views of the Gulf from every condo.
On weekends, visitors can join locals at The Waterfront Farmers’ Markets. It is open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the St. Andrews Marina and on Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. at Pirate’s Cove on Thomas Drive. In addition to locally grown produce, visitors can try baked goods, such as those from British transplant Lucy Cantley of The United Cakedom, and handmade soaps from GOAP, Etc., a local goats milk dairy.
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