In some ways, Panama City Beach is like that friend you had back in high school. You remember Mandy. She was so much fun to be with, and you spent every summer together, going to the beach, hanging out in amusement parks, racing go-carts and maybe even sneaking into a bar or two. But eventually, you grew apart. After college you considered yourself a little more sophisticated, began going out with new friends and perhaps started a family. Over time, you found yourself spending summers at more refined spots, looking for upscale accommodations and experiences to befit your new standing in life and your family’s needs.
Panama City Beach developed a reputation as a party town, thanks to multiple seasons of MTV Spring Break parties showing hordes of college-age kids cavorting on the beach and pounding beers. As a result, destinations along 30A gained in popularity with families thanks to quaint villages like Seaside and Watercolor that offered self-contained vacation experiences aimed at a more mature clientele. Additionally, last year’s destruction caused by Hurricane Michael had a negative impact on tourism in the area. In truth, Panama City Beach was relatively unscathed. While there are parts of the Panhandle that are still recovering, the region definitely deserves your support, and PCB wants you to know that they are fully open for business and have changed a lot since the old MTV days.
There are plenty of upscale options for a vacation in Panama City Beach that rival any 30A experience, with the added benefit of still maintaining some of the nostalgic aspects of the vacations of your youth. Travel to the Panhandle is easier than ever now that the modern Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) offers convenient flights from all over the Southeast on Southwest. And here’s a little hint: It’s actually a shorter drive to Panama City Beach from ECP than to 30A or Destin, so you can be checked in to your hotel and enjoying some quality beach time quicker when you travel to PCB. Here are some suggestions to maximize your elevated vacation experience in Panama City Beach.
48 Hours in Panama City Beach
Baggage claim and car rental is a breeze at ECP, so you’ll be on the road headed toward the Gulf in minutes, which is a great thing because the sea breezes are calling. Check in at the luxurious Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort right on the water at St. Andrews Bay. The Sheraton did take a bit of a blow from Hurricane Michael and recently reopened after renovations to repair the damage and improve the property’s amenities. The result of their efforts is now the only AAA Four Diamond-rated hotel in Panama City Beach, boasting a beautiful private beach, multiple heated pools, a full-service spa, a 24-hour fitness center, tennis courts and 36 holes of championship golf featuring the only Nicklaus Design course in Northwest Florida. The resort offers several dining options ranging from casual to upscale, including some with lovely waterfront views. Their signature Tides Restaurant and Lounge offers all three meals in an attractive dining room serving fresh seafood with a vista of the Gulf from where your food came. It really is a lovely property, and you might want to spend your entire stay within the resort, but then you’d be missing out on a bunch of fun.
Instead, drop your bags and put on your flip-flops for a private pontoon boat excursion to nearby Shell Island. Book a tour with Lagoon Pontoons, and your very own captain will pilot you in comfort for the short cruise across the bay to the secluded bliss of Shell Island. You can even do a little dolphin watching along the way. Your private pontoon will drop you off at a beach with sand the color and consistency of baby powder and easy access to both the Gulf-side and Bay-side beaches of Shell Island. Your boat will remain anchored close to shore so that you can keep your food, drink and valuables safe without having to worry about getting sand in your sandwich.
For a thrilling bird’s-eye view of the beach, book a flight with Panhandle Helicopter, a family business that carries guests on tours up and down the coast ranging from inexpensive and short intro hops between Panama City Beach’s City Pier and County Pier to longer flights that will give you the chance to take memorable photos of the Gulf from a truly unique perspective.
Make reservations for dinner at Firefly, home of casual fine dining in a romantic setting. Start your evening with a plate of creative rolls at their sushi bar, or a crafty cocktail in Firefly’s 535 Library Lounge, a clubby space with comfy, overstuffed armchairs and a huge television showing the big games. Then move into the Mediterranean bistro-inspired main dining room, with hidden lights twinkling like lightning bugs in the branches of an oak tree that is the centerpiece of the space.
The menu at Firefly focuses on local seafood along with some more exotic fish flown in from around the globe. Meat eaters won’t be disappointed either with the pork, lamb and beef dishes seared under an infernal 1800-degree broiler to create the perfect crust while locking in flavors. Save room for dessert so you can experience Firefly’s delicious berry skillet cake made with fresh berries, vanilla cream and oats.
On a weekend excursion to Panama City Beach, you’ll probably end up spending quite a bit of time at Pier Park, the dining, shopping and entertainment complex right across the street from the beach at Russell-Fields Pier. As such, you might as well get acquainted with the area by stopping at The Craft Bar for a nightcap. With four Florida locations, this fun gastropub has earned a reputation for serving some of the finest craft cocktails and beers along the Panhandle. Talented mixologists utilize fresh, seasonal ingredients to shake and stir up classic cocktails and specialty drinks that they have created just for the occasion. Many of the regional and national craft brews on their beer menu can’t be found anywhere else within a five-hour drive, so maybe you’ll discover a new favorite.
Sleep in late or roll out early for a walk on the beach. One of the beautiful things about the Panhandle is that the southern-facing sand can offer both sunrise and sunset vistas. For a healthy breakfast, drop into Andy’s Flower Power, a delightful little cafe and bakery that creates homemade breakfast and lunch fare using fresh, seasonal ingredients. Try one of their delicate frittatas or crepe-thin omelets filled with healthy veggies, or treat yourself to decadent biscuits and gravy or a hearty breakfast burrito with home fries. Hey, it’s vacation after all. (Plus, it’s too late to worry about swimsuit season after you’ve already arrived.)
Another fun morning option is Liza’s Kitchen. Although it’s not officially named after StyleBlueprint founder Liza Graves, we know she’d love it because it’s another spot for delectable scratch-made breakfast and brunch dishes like classic Eggs Benedict or piquant Eggs New Orleans. Plus there’s a fantastic menu of specialty coffee drinks. Grab a table on the outdoor patio to soak in a little extra sun before you hit the beach for the day.
Save some time by taking advantage of the convenience of Panhandle Stand Up Paddleboards, who will deliver a SUP directly to your hotel or condo for a half-day or full-day rental. They’ll even come pick it up at the end of the day so all you have to do is ride the gentle Gulf waves and try not to look too silly while you learn to balance on your board. Don’t worry; everybody falls off at least a few times, and it’s a great way to spend time on (and in) the water!
Get out of the hottest heat of the day with a little shopping at the many stores and boutiques at Pier Park. From anchor stores to souvenir shops and salons, Pier Park is the perfect place to duck out of the sun for a couple of hours of retail therapy and window shopping as you stroll along the sidewalks of the entertainment complex. Of course, there are also plenty of dining and drinking options if you’re feeling a little peckish.
A fun Instagram opportunity near Pier Park is the row of colorful homes known locally as “The Rainbow Houses.” People do actually live in these charming little bungalows, but they’re generally pretty amiable about visitors taking photos in front of the houses that are painted in Easter egg hues.
If you’re looking for something that’s both cultural and adventurous, plan a visit to the amazing Underwater Museum of Art off of Grayton Beach State Park where organized excursions take certified scuba divers to the world’s first permanent underwater sculpture garden about a mile offshore and almost 60 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf. For a less strenuous experience, visit some of the galleries along the coast where world-famous artists exhibit their works. The Beach Art Group is a fine place to start for advice and tours to discover the perfect piece to hang over your couch at home to remind you of your trip to the beach.
For a casual lunch with a tropical vibe, try Finns Island Style Grub, a colorful outdoor cafe that specializes in fresh Caribbean-inspired cuisine. Taking full advantage of the bounty of the seas nearby, Finns beats the heat with cool ceviche and a delicious smoked tuna dip that is perfect along with some chips and guac for a lazy lunch. The kitchen also puts out some fantastic gourmet tacos, burritos and wraps featuring fresh vegetables and healthy proteins.
There’s nothing wrong with sliding straight from lunch into dinner, and Panama City Beach offers evening alternatives that run the gamut from laid back to elegant. Watch the sunset with a panoramic Gulf view at Hang Five, a beach bar and grill with one of the rare expansive decks on the sandy side of Front Beach Road. Even though the vibe is decidedly casual, they are dead serious about their food at Hang Five, a sentiment showcased in their excellent grilled mahi-mahi over rice pilaf and their Big Kahuna Platter of fried seafood specialties. The cocktail selection at Hang Five makes it an ideal spot to enjoy the last sunlight of the day and the first drink of the evening.
For a more upscale option, make your way to Saltwater Grill, a cavernous seafood restaurant that features a massive 25,000-gallon tropical saltwater aquarium as its highlight feature. Unlike the lobster tank at your local grocer, these fish are for admiring, not eating, and the sight of the colorful fish gliding over the coral reef decor is mesmerizing. Snap out of it long enough to peruse the menu and choose from a wide variety of seafood options and some fine steaks. Or choose both with their Surf n’ Turf special of an 8 oz. filet mignon plus a lobster tail. Saltwater Grill offers one of the longest wine lists in Panama City Beach with price points ranging from great values to a reserve list of premium and pricey bottles to celebrate something special.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, but there’s no reason why you can’t make your departure day a lot of fun as well! Plan a farewell brunch at Grand Marlin Restaurant & Oyster Bar, a local favorite right on the water where you can watch fishing boats arrive and depart through huge marina-facing windows. The convivial upstairs bar often features live music on weekends so you can enjoy the tropical spirit of a steel drum band while you wait for your reservation. The brunch menu at Grand Marlin combines some of the kitchen’s best seafood dishes with traditional breakfast dishes for delicious mashups like Crab Cake Benedict, or go more traditional with their “Loved and Rubbed” Scottish salmon served with sweet potato hash and smoked bacon. The raw bar is open for brunch, so you can avail yourself of fresh shucked cold oysters or BBQ baked oysters along with other cold classics such as ahi poke or a prototypical shrimp cocktail. No matter what you pick, you’ll be seated in the lap of luxury in this elegant restaurant that places a premium on great service.
For one last bit of decadent luxury on the way to the airport, make one more trip to Pier Park for a few spins around the 20-story-tall Skywheel, an amusement ride that offers expansive views up and down the beach for miles. But this isn’t just some Ferris wheel ride, because you can rent the special VIP gondola, which earns you a spot at the front of the line and eight revolutions instead of the normal four, all in your own private climate-controlled, glass-bottom capsule with room for 4-6 people. You can even bring along your own bottle of bubbly to toast a successful trip to PCB!
Next time you’re thinking about where to spend a long weekend, make sure to consider Panama City Beach. And maybe check out Mandy on Facebook to see what she’s been up to over the years. She goes by Amanda now …
When you’re ready to plan your trip to PCB, check out visitpanamacitybeach.com.
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