By Chris Chamberlain
It’s been close to a year since Hurricane Michael laid waste to a stretch of the Florida Panhandle, but the images of the destruction in beloved vacation spots like Mexico Beach and St. George Island remain etched in memory. Some of the news stories covering Michael’s aftermath included reports of the damage to Panama City, but potential tourists often confuse that more urban town with its next door neighbor, Panama City Beach.
Don’t make that mistake. PCB, as it is often abbreviated, is a tourist destination, but in a good way. With beautiful emerald green water and white sand the consistency of sugar, Panama City Beach has been a vacation stalwart for generations.
While Panama City proper did suffer some damage from Michael (primarily on the east side of town, farthest from PCB and in more industrial sections of the city), the community has pulled together to restore utilities, fix roads and help out displaced families in the region. Recovery continues, but is well on its way.
Panama City Beach, on the other hand, has been working to overcome the misconception that the business of fun has been disrupted by Michael. On the contrary, PCB rebounded quickly from the less serious impacts of the storm and is ready for visitors. In fact, as the crowds begin to ramp up again once the word spreads, now might be the best time ever to take a trip to the beach before it gets too popular again.
Here’s what we discovered on a recent visit to Panama City Beach for its annual UNWineD food and wine festival.
The fantastic Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort is a massive complex of lodging options that includes just about any amenity a traveler could crave. The only full-service resort in Panama City Beach, Edgewater offers suites and studios with views of golf or the Gulf, with each suite equipped with a full kitchen plus a washer and dryer. Even with the myriad of dining options in the area, it’s always nice to be able to prepare a lunch or dinner without having to get too far away from your beach chair or spot by the pool.
The complex boasts 11 pools, four hot tubs, multiple sun decks, tennis courts and various dining establishments for a quick meal plus access to room service. Convenient luggage carts help you get your gear from the car to the room or your beach equipment down to the sand where you’ll find broad expanses of open space for sun and fun. Associated services include access to a par-three golf course, salon services and a beach rental company that will put out your chairs and umbrellas for you, rent you a paddleboard to try out on the calm ocean or even set up a special beach bonfire for you to enjoy after sundown.
Depending on the season and how many bedrooms you’re looking for, rates at the Edgewater can range from the high $100’s per night to closer to $400, but that’s for a four-bedroom penthouse that sleeps ten, a bargain when you consider the cost per guest. The convenient location to many of the attractions of Panama City Beach and the amenities offered on-site make Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort worth investigating.
We kicked off our visit with a fun three-hour excursion with Lagoon Pontoons to Shell Island. This pristine island is only accessible by boat, so it’s never crowded, and long stretches of beach are exposed to both the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. Bring everything you might need with you since there are no commercial businesses on the island, and the commitment to maintaining a fully natural environment means that there are no bathroom facilities, so go before you go.
Lagoon Pontoons also offers special dolphin-watching trips, but odds are you’ll see at least a few of the frolicking aquatic mammals on the short trip between the dock and the island. The comfortable pontoon boats have plenty of spots to lay out and enjoy the sun and salt air on the journey across, and stay tied up next to the beach where you land for easy access to any gear you don’t want to haul up on shore. The outing is a great way to embrace the slower lifestyle of “PCB Standard Time.”
For more stimulating fun, check out Pier Park, Panama City Beach’s premiere shopping and entertainment complex. It’s right across the street from the City Pier, an attraction in and of itself where amateur fishermen dangle lines off the end of the dock in search of the big one and a lovely strip of public beach where collegiate beach volleyball tournaments are held. For a great view of the whole complex, take a ride in the SkyWheel with 30 climate-controlled, fully-enclosed gondolas rising 53 meters above the park. To give the ride an adult feel, buy a cocktail to take along for the ride!
Pier Park is full of boutiques and shops ranging from Tervis tumblers to shoes to jewelry. With more than a hundred shopping options, it’s a great (if not inexpensive) way to beat the heat. There are also anchor department stores like Target, Dillard’s, Old Navy and American Eagle Outfitters just in case you need to pick up something you forgot to pack. If someone in your group (read: me) gets tired of the retail therapy, there are plenty of watering holes closeby to take a break from shopping, including an outpost of the famous Nashville honky tonk, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where live country music goes on all day and night.
Eat & Drink
Panama City Beach is particularly good at the morning meal with a plethora of attractive breakfast destinations. The iconic Thomas Donut and Snack Shop is a regular stop for repeat visitors to the area. In addition to decadent sweet fried dough treats, the menu also features some really respectable kolaches, a Czech pastry treat by way of Texas stuffed with sweet or savory fillings. The Jalapeño Smoked Sausage and Cheese Kolache is a great way to start the day, along with a couple doughnuts and a cup of coffee, of course.
Andy’s Flour Power offers much healthier breakfast fare, from a delicious vegetable frittata to an exemplary feta, spinach and tomato omelet. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t order up a mean pan of biscuits and gravy or a cheesy breakfast burrito at Andy’s, because you sure can. And you should. Liza’s Kitchen is another fave among the locals for its laid-back vibe and brunch/lunch menu of egg dishes, soups, salads and sandwiches, all made from scratch. Seat yourself at one of the cozy tables on the comfy patio and feel your troubles melt away.
For more extensive fare at Sunday brunch or dinner seven nights a week, set sail for The Grand Marlin, an impressive restaurant perched right on the docks of The Grand Lagoon. Watch fishing and recreational boats come and go from the second story lounge where the bartenders serve strong drinks, and the live entertainment keeps the party pumping. Or opt for a more refined experience in the main dining room, feasting on brunch specialties like shrimp & grits or the St. Andrews Skillet, a delicious mess of potatoes, peppers, onions, apple wood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese and poached eggs. At dinner the menu skews more toward fresh Gulf seafood, from oysters to must-order smoked tuna dip to parmesan-crusted grouper. You can also order a fine steak, but what’s the point in that when you can smell the ocean from your table?
If you’re looking for a nightcap, try The Brass Tap tucked away toward the back of Pier Park. This amiable taproom features more than 150 different beers from around the world, with a helpful staff to point you toward a new favorite. It also boasts a full bar of spirits and wines, but the beer is what this place is known for. There’s also a cigar-friendly porch if you want to fire up a stogie after a long day. The Brass Tap offers live music on select nights and plenty of televisions to watch the big game.
While it’s obvious that Panama City Beach is open for business and ready to give you a great beach vacation experience, it’s important that we don’t forget the nearby communities that are still slowly working their way back to normalcy after Hurricane Michael. I made a special trip up to see Mexico Beach, including passing through Tyndall Air Force Base along the way on the hour-long drive. Some portions of the trip demonstrated how hard locals are working to get their lives back to normal, including rebuilding houses and reopening restaurants, bars and other businesses in the beloved vacation destination of Mexico Beach. But other stretches of road looked like the winds came through yesterday, demonstrating the awesome power of Michael. Thousands of trees snapped off in the middle like twigs, all leaning in the same direction show the force with which the storm blew through, but it wasn’t enough to break the spirit of the residents of the Panhandle.
Do yourself and them a favor. Make a trip to Panama City Beach to see how great they are doing, and maybe consider keeping an eye on Mexico Beach for a future trip. Folks in these communities would love to see you, and they could use your support!
– Photo Credits: resort by Chris Chamberlain, remainder courtesy Visit Panama City Beach
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.