Fun and Fitness in Panama City Beach, Florida

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Think exercise is the opposite of vacation?
Paddle, stretch, pedal and more to prove otherwise.

By Chris Chamberlain

Summer means vacation, and vacation often means the beach. I grew up in the South, and my idea and ideal of a beach vacation means a trip to the Gulf Coast, where the water is as warm as a comfy bathtub and the sands of the Florida Panhandle are as white and smooth as baby powder. Yeah, I’ll admit it…I’m spoiled.

But as I’ve gotten older, it has become apparent that I need to make conscious efforts to stay active, even when I’m on vacation, lest my six pack transform into a pony keg. (Fair disclosure: I’ve never had anything remotely resembling a six pack other than in an Igloo* cooler next to my beach chair.) It turns out that with just a little bit of effort and planning, it’s quite easy to have a fun an active vacay in a place where I used to be at my beer-swilling, beach bumming laziest, Panama City Beach (a.k.a. PCB).

My family has been making the drive south to PCB for more than 40 years, and asking the best route to drive from Nashville to the Panhandle is still one of the best ways to start a rousing debate at the holiday dinner table. Fortunately, the modern new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) has rendered that argument pretty much moot. Multiple affordable flights and easy access to inexpensive rental cars means that instead of an eight-hour car ride to catch a whiff of salt air has been shortened to an hour-long flight and a short stroll to pick up a vehicle.

PCB Carillon Beach InnSince beach life is so casual, you can probably get by with just a carry-on for a few days, but if you must pack a few extra pairs of shoes, the ratio of gates to baggage carousels (7:3) ensures short waits to pick up your luggage. Panama City Beach offers a wide variety of accommodations, ranging from rental bungalows to luxury resorts, so there’s something for every budget. On a recent trip, I stayed at the Carillon Beach Inn on the west end of Panama City Beach, a strip of beautiful vistas and fun activities stretching between Philip’s Inlet and St. Andrews Bay.

Carillon Bay is part of an entire beach community with restaurants, shops, and an activities hall that hosts wedding as well as other services, plus both rental and privately-owned housing. Many of the houses surround a small lake that is the site of all sorts of water-based activities (more on that later.) The Gulf of Mexico is just a short stroll away from just about anywhere in Carillon Beach, so whether you’re looking for big water or a placid pond, there’s a spot for your aquatic pleasure.

Over the course of three days, I took part in all sorts of physical fitness activities as I sampled the best that Panama City had to offer, adventures that were appropriate to their surroundings. There were no inauthentic excursions; e.g., zip lines in the middle of some suburban parking lot or ATV trail rides that make you feel like you’re destroying the environment of a Caribbean island in three hours before a minivan whisks you back to a mega cruise ship.

We took advantage of the natural treasures that still exist in the tourist mecca that is Panama City Beach, thanks to a conscious effort by the local community to preserve a large part of the land in its natural state rather than allowing miniature golf courses decorated with concrete dinosaurs spread like mushrooms along the beach. (Though there are still plenty of fun amusement park-ish activities, and I’ve spent more than my share of time and money at those spots over the years. If I had the quarters back I pumped into PCB arcades in the ‘70’s, I could have retired a decade ago with a plump 401k.)

My small traveling group spent quite a lot of time in and around St. Andrews State Park, enjoying the pristine beachfront and small forest areas that still share the history of the area as a former military reservation and also as the site of a turpentine still which has been reconstructed as part of a historical trail. Other amenities in the park include a fishing pier, observation pavilions with views of the beach and the bay, picnic areas, playgrounds and miles of hiking trails.

We took advantage of a quiet cove for a lesson in what has, to my surprise, become a new favorite hobby of mine: stand-up paddleboarding. It’s sweeping the nation and combines the aerobic exercise of paddling with the balance and core development of yoga and pilates. I actually didn’t care about any of that. I just loved being outdoors on the water, like windsurfing without having to worry about which way the wind was blowing.

We took our first lesson from Gabriel Gray, a firefighter, sponsored expedition paddleboarder and former rodeo rider who operates Walkin’ on Water Paddleboards. He demonstrated great patience as we learned how to get on our boards, how to balance, how to propel ourselves and most importantly how to get back on the board after falling off. In less than a half hour, the entire group was skimming around the cove and learning how to do kick turns that allow you to change directions quickly by pivoting the board under your back foot. In my case, I changed directions by attempting a kick turn, falling in the water and crawling back on the board facing the other direction. Hey, whatever works!

PCB Kick turn resultPCB Kick turn

Remember that little pond at Carillon Beach? We took advantage of that calm stretch of water to experiment with another hybrid sport, paddleboard yoga. Now I’ll admit some apprehension in advance of that one. I’m not the most flexible guy in the world. Like I can only touch my toes if I’m sitting on a couch. I’ve attempted yoga a few times, and as long as there’s an understanding instructor who doesn’t berate me for not accomplishing every pose, I’ve found the sessions to be ok but not transcendental. I’m really good at savasana, which is no surprise considering it’s called “corpse pose.”

So basically, I expected to get really wet during this paddleboard yoga experience. I surrendered phone, sunglasses, watch, wallet, FitBit, hell, anything that I figured wouldn’t mix well with the brackish water of the pond and prepared for the class. The class was led by Yoga Elements, a studio which specializes in traditional yoga, aerial yoga utilizing harnesses to allow posing in midair, and yoga on the water on wide, stable paddleboards.

Those stable boards were a key element of the experience as we paddled to a quiet section of the lake and literally dropped anchor to hold us in place. Unlike yoga on a mat where you can get away with improper weight balance and alignment, (it’s not like you’ll fall off the ground) with paddleboard yoga you have to really concentrate on your center of gravity. The instructor led us through a slow series of progressions between poses, and we didn’t do more than a few poses in the standing position. For this I was grateful and I actually stayed dry.

Emphasizing stretches and spine lengthening poses, I found the whole class to be extremely relaxing, smelling the salt on the breeze and listening to the gentle lapping of tiny waves against our boards. During the restful savasana period at the end of the session, I stared up at the gray cloudy sky and was so relaxed that I actually couldn’t focus on anything but the floaters in my aqueous humour. It was kinda fun to watch the little strands darting around deep in my brain. That was an unexpected experience for sure.

We did have one more yoga session over the course of the weekend, this time courtesy of Jackie Bell of Yoga by Jackie. If I thought the paddleboard experience was relaxing, this one almost put me into a coma. Held right on the beach at sunset, we used towels instead of mats and the added stability of being able to dig my toes in the sand made the transition between poses even easier for my inflexible novice butt. Jackie concentrated on peaceful poses and her combination of a gentle voice, calm instructions and aromatic oils made the whole experience quite pleasurable. I can’t say that I broke a sweat or that I felt any stronger or fitter afterwards, but I sure enjoyed it.

PCB CyclingWe did whip up a bit of perspiration during a morning excursion to Conservation Park, a complex of almost 3,000 acres of wetlands and trails which attract cyclists and hikers to enjoy 24 miles of intersecting sand roads and a mile of wooden boardwalk. We rented bikes from Barley’s, a shop just a short pedal away from the entrance to the park and spent several hours exploring the area. The trails ranged from hard-packed tracks winding among tall pines to other sections of road where the sand was deep and required a pretty good fitness level to power through in low gear. I’ll admit having to walk my bike in a few sections because I couldn’t stay upright without the aid of a camel.

If you’re not a fan of hills when cycling, this is the spot for you. Considering the highest point above sea level in the entire state is only 345 feet, there just aren’t many hills to worry about. There may be a taller pile of oyster shells behind Shuckums in Panama City Beach, but you wouldn’t want to climb them on a mountain bike.

There are plenty of other fitness activities available in the area, from snorkeling and beach walking trips to Shell Island to lots of beach volleyball courts. Go ahead and have that extra margarita at sunset and order the large bucket of crab claws with dinner. You know you can just work it off tomorrow.

*Unsubtle attempt to garner a Yeti or Orca sponsorship. Hint, hint!

PCB Beach Volleyball

More Information…

Visit Panama City Beach

Visit Florida

– Photos by Chris Chamberlain

Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.

Chris ChamberlainChris Chamberlain is a food, drink, wine, spirits, travel and personal interest writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, where he has lived his entire life except for four years in California where he studied liberal arts at Stanford University and learned how to manipulate chopsticks. He is a regular writer for the Nashville Scene and its “Bites” food blog as well as Nashville Lifestyles magazine. He is the Southern correspondent for FoodRepublic.com. He has also contributed to the Nashville City Paper, Her Nashville, Relish, Julep, Local Palate, The Bourbon Review, 2001 Edgehill, the SFA’s Gravy newsletter, Thrillist.com, and as a kitchen gadget reviewer at geardiary.com. He has published three books: The Southern Foodie: 100 Places to Eat before You Die and The Recipes That Made Them Famous, The Southern Foodie’s Guide to the Pig, and Nashville Beer: A Heady History of Music City Brewing.

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