Panama City Beach is a destination both pristine and casual at the same time. It’s absent the traffic of I-95 and the artificialness of Orlando. What it is big on is value.
Florida is known as the Sunshine State first and foremost. But there are a plethora of places that pop to mind at the mere mention of the place…with Panama City Beach probably, by perception, a few pages deep into Florida’s book of business.
Miami, a colorful international gateway via air and sea; and Central Florida’s Disney World surely lead the way, and with Tom Brady now playing NFL football for the Buccaneers, the expansive Tampa Bay Region, from Clearwater to Sarasota, is surely a player.
Once the social disparity of east coast beaches like Daytona and Palm Beach are mitigated by the more moderate likes of Fort Lauderdale and Port St. Lucie, many head south to Key West or look westward via land to Ft. Meyers and Naples.
Thanks to history, Cape Canaveral draws visitors to Florida’s “Space Coast.” And America’s first city, St. Augustine, is perched on Florida’s “First Coast,” so Panama City Beach might be one of the last places people would mention if they came across “Name a Florida City” as a survey category when competing on TV’s “Family Feud” game show.
But it needn’t be.
Panama City Beach
At the northern end of I-75 Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas are separated by the Great Lakes and the Straits of Mackinac. Though Florida is not divided by water, it, like Michigan can similarly be identified by two regions: the Florida Peninsula and the Panhandle (divided only by a time zone.)
And this is where we find Panama City Beach…a destination both pristine and casual at the same time. It’s absent the traffic of I-95 and the artificialness of Orlando. What it is big on is value.
Sand and Sea – a Gulp of the Gulf
I found the heart of Panama City Beach to be the three-mile walk on the white sand beach between Russell Fields Pier and M.B. Miller County Pier yields sights, sounds, soothing surf and soft sand.
I watched an ultra-light aircraft taking off and landing on the beach to giving rides above the shoreline, the entirety of which actually faces southwest, which makes for gorgeous sunset-watching from the beachfront hotels lining the way, including the gleaming, new Holiday Inn Express, which is more like a resort than the name suggests.
The hotel has live music at the Tiki bar; a lazy river, Jacuzzi, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools; and an all-glass windowed restaurant giving the same panoramic sunset view the elevated, bright, white lobby provides.
There is beach volleyball played near both piers, each of which juts 1,500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico for fishing and scenic views.
The foot of the Russell Fields Pier, which is the pier to the west, is at Pier Park, a snazzy collection of restaurants – including Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville – 124 shops, a Ferris wheel and a mall.
To the east of M.B. Miller County Pier, by car, visitors will find more tourist attractions such as the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum which startles newcomers because it was built to look like a huge cruise liner sinking in the middle of the street.
Most Florida tourism towns have the souvenir shops selling sand toys, sweatshirts, sunglasses, seashells, sunscreen, beach towels and trinkets, and Panama City Beach is no exception.
Plenty to See in PCB’s Seafood Restaurants
If you prefer your shells to be on a dinner plate instead of a beach, Panama City Beach has plenty of seafood dining options. The most expansive operation of the restaurants I experienced was Captain Anderson’s Restaurant and Waterfront Market, which has received accolades since it opened in 1953 for its comprehensive menu and wine list. The menu describes the seafood platter as “world-famous.” It’s a ½-stiffed broiled Florida lobster; golden shrimp; scallops; fresh fish; and fried stuffed deviled crab…along with soup or salad, potato and vegetable. You can get it fried or boiled, but either way it’s a daunting dish that could sink a boat.
Captain Anderson’s is a labyrinth of nautically-themed dining rooms. It was bustling yet comfortable and casual with an extra friendly and helpful wait staff.
While Captain Anderson’s is at the marina, Harpoon Harry’s is right on the beach just walking distance from the Holiday Inn Express. There is huge indoor dining room with windows to view the gulf and fun, outdoor patio seating above the sand. The beach chairs are free with frozen cocktail service.
Saltwater Grill also is named to embrace the local abundance of seafood but offers a bit more of a traditional upscale dining experience. The supper club-style restaurant, featuring live music, is not on the marina or beach but even though landlocked on one of PCB’s main roads, it embraces the sea with a 25,000-gallon tropical saltwater aquarium featuring exotic sea creatures in the middle of the room.
Wishing You Were Fishing Yourself?
Panama City Beach’s dining scene is definitely “gulf-to-table” and the idea of foraging your own food by fishing is fantastic to foodies and sports enthusiasts.
“Until you’ve hooked into a big grouper you haven’t lived,” said Bob Moore, a television production supervisor with the PGA Tour, Golf Channel and ESPN who grew up in the area and has returned to live in Panama City – and not for the golf! “The last trip I ever went on with my dad, he was 83 and he had a big red snapper on the line. It was so big it snapped the reel from his rod. He’d had that reel for 50 years. It was the only pole he’d ever fished with. One of the charter crew members tie-wrapped the reel on and my dad pulled in a 45-pound fish.”
Moore said it wasn’t the only fish tale from the outing.
“The captain told us we’d caught our limit, so my dad said, ‘Get us in then. We have fish to filet!’ We ended up that day with 144 pounds of filleted fish. That’s the type of fishing we have here in Panama City Beach.”
The waters are teeming with Grouper, Flounder, Cobia, King and Spanish Mackerel, Redfish, Blue Liners, Pompano, Hardtails, and other varieties of fish.
“The diversity is amazing. You can rent or charter a boat and go into the bays and the flat, shallow water in the mornings and catch redfish; and you can hop on another charter boat and go out into the Gulf of Mexico and catch red snapper, depending on the season,” said J. Michael Brown, vice-president of tourism for Visit Panama City Beach.
On the Air
As a spring break destination, Panama City Beach used to be the setting for the infamous “Girls Gone Wild” television show. Now it’s a different type of TV coming out of PCB. It’s a fishing show called “Chasing the Sun.”
“The ‘Girls Gone Wild’ days are gone. We’re in our fifth season of ‘Chasing the Sun.’ It airs at 8:30 eastern time on Saturday mornings on Discovery Channel,” said Brown, who helps produce the show. “Captain Justin Leake and Travis Holman are the co-hosts. Each week we’ll go out and target a different species, but we also show the coastal living here and the restaurants. It’s primarily a fishing show but it really showcases our destination.”
Brown said tarpon provides a lot of action for the show and those who visit Panama City Beach.
“A tarpon is a game fish caught strictly for sport. Those fish migrate along our coast once a year from South America and end up at the mouth of the Mississippi where they spawn. These fish are as big as your leg and sometimes 40 and 50 years old. They travel in huge schools,” Brown explained. “Last year on the show Captain Leake caught a 100-pound tarpon and when they went to release it the fish was struggling and would not swim away. So, Captain Leak actually got in the water to aid the fish. He didn’t give it mouth to mouth reacceleration, but he did spend enough time with it to get the water running through its gills and save its life.”
Not all of Panama City Beach’s visitors are up for an Ernest Hemingway-style fishing adventure. But they do want to experience the excitement of the Gulf of Mexico. Lagoon Pontoons offers a variety of ways to enjoy the Grand Lagoon, West Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They rent self-drive double-decker pontoon boats with slides and Jet Skis or offer guided scheduled and private sightseeing and sunset cruises.
Captain John Husbands, with Lagoon Pontoons, is at the helm for everything from family outings to bachelorette parties.
“The dolphins we see, and encounter are probably the ‘stars of the show.’ Sometimes they’re really playful. So, I let the kids get out and swim with them. The dolphins swim all around them while the moms stay in the boat and take pictures. Those are memories they’ll never forget,” said Husbands, 31, who grew up on the bay and said he loves being on the water and finds it very satisfying to show people the area by boat. “I get people from all over the country and they’re just blown away by the smallest things they see that I take for granted. It’s kind of neat. And its funny how different things trigger people. I will find them a starfish, or a sand dollar and they are living creatures moving around. Even when they’re snorkeling and see bait fish, they get excited.”
The sandbars of remote, isolated Shell Island and St. Andrews State Park beaches, where the bay meets the gulf, are nature preserves and very popular spots he takes guests for swimming and snorkeling. Husbands is very experienced – he’s captained 13-foot Navy ships and in my case, he guided the 30-foot skiff on a private ride through the smooth waters of the bay and choppy seas of the gulf.
“I’ll try to keep you dry,” he promised as he eased the throttle through the pass. But the speed of the boat and the spray of the sea was part of the fun. So were the historical stories as Husbands pointed out sites such as the spot where a German U-boat once sunk a ship ferrying beer. “Never mind the dolphins – let’s dive for bottles,” I joked. That’s because Panama City Beach is, as the tourism website suggests, a RealFunBeach.com
Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]