Legions of folks were cooped up all spring and summer due to COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions and may now be dreaming of a well-deserved Florida vacation. Some will head far south to sample Miami’s cultural diversions or visit one of the many delightful midsize cities along the east or west coasts of the state. Others will jostle with the crowds for time and space in Orlando at its famed amusement parks and attractions. But if you take just a moment to investigate it, there’s a lucky find located in the northwest panhandle of Florida that reminds many of the Sunshine State’s traditional vacation pleasures.
Panama City Beach has 27 miles of blinding white sand beaches, 300-plus days of sunshine each year, far less congestion than some other Florida spots and affordable prices that make vacationing there a good choice for individuals or families. And travel planners for banks, university alumni clubs, chambers of commerce and other high-end organizations will discover Panama City Beach for themselves when the city hosts the Select Traveler Conference, February 28-March 2, 2021.
“We are a different type of Florida,” said Renee Wuerdeman, vice president of sales for Visit Panama City Beach, the local convention and visitors bureau. “We have a more laid-back, old Florida type of vibe. It’s less crowded, slower and more relaxed, but there is something to do here for every type of visitor.”
Many like the fact that the Florida Panhandle and Panama City Beach, in particular, are an easy drive from states to the north and west. Travelers from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, for example, can quickly get to a Florida beach without having to drive hundreds of miles farther south.
The area is served with daily commercial air service thanks to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, which is an easy 15-minute drive from the beaches. Florida’s portion of the Intracoastal Waterway, an inland channel that runs along the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, brings thousands of boaters to the area’s many marinas. These fun-loving folks would much rather cruise in than drive or fly.
This area has the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrew Bay at its front porch. And visitors can have it their way when they visit. The city’s western beaches are quieter and more relaxed with fewer condos and beach homes. Some of the favorite spots in the area are St. Andrews State Park Beach, Camp St. Helen State Park Beach, Shell Island and a 400-foot sandy, pet-friendly stretch known as Doggie Beach. The east beach area has more amusement and water parks, attractions like the 180-foot-high SkyWheel, outstanding shopping and major chain hotels. It is where people go when they want to be right in the thick of things.
“When the travel bans were lifted in various parts of the country, people wanted to go to the beach, to have fun and do all the things those families enjoy doing, like going to attractions and local restaurants,” said Wuerdeman. “But they didn’t want the crowds. People started coming back here because they knew we would not be packed to the gills like other well-known Florida destination cities. Here you don’t have the heavy traffic and road construction and can have a special kind of experience.”
Fishing and Water Activities
If there is one thing for which Panama City Beach is famous, it is fishing. Rookies and old pros can equally enjoy the many saltwater and freshwater fishing options in the area. Some fish from the shore or from a dock or pier; others go after the big ones and cast their lines into the deep sea from charter boats.
“Around the country, we are known for all of that,” said Wuerdeman. “People love to fish in various seasons when certain fish proliferate. Snapper season is huge. This year it was in June and July. Fishing cruises and charters are booked heavily.”
When you charter a boat or join a fishing cruise, you typically get your catch cleaned for you when you climb off the boat. Then you can take it to one of the area’s “hook and cook” eateries. “The kitchen staff will prepare it for you and serve it as part of your meal,” Wuerdeman said. “That’s very popular here.”
Panama City Beach is home to a popular fishing and coastal lifestyle show on the Discovery Channel called “Chasin’ the Sun.” The Saturday morning show’s hosts take fishing enthusiasts on board for excursions offshore, inshore, up and down creeks, under bridges — pretty much anywhere you can go to reel in a fish. One of the fishing guides is Capt. Justin Leake, who was born and raised around these waters.
“There’s a never-ending supply of fishing activities here year-round,” said Leake. “We do a lot of natural reef, coastal and migration fishing and also do blue water fishing starting at 50 miles offshore.” Leake’s fishing guide company, Panama City Inshore, can take anglers anywhere they want to go to catch whatever they like.
Other water-related activities that visitors and locals crave include swimming, floating, rafting and sliding through the 3 million-gallon watery maze called Shipwreck Island Water Park. Renting Jet Skis, pontoons, airboats, paddleboards, kayaks and other watercraft is popular.
Many visitors head to Shell Island, where they can swim with one of the world’s highest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins. Other adventurers go deep diving to examine old shipwrecks and to visit the area’s newest artificial reef. Everyone gets to enjoy the fascinating wildlife hidden beneath the waves. Getting above it all is exciting too, so adrenaline junkies will strap in and lift off for a parasail experience that gives them a whole new perspective of the area.
Panama City Beach has gotten into the sports travel business in a big way with the opening of its new $37 million sports complex. Now, youth and adult sports teams and their traveling families can come to Panama City Beach and play hard on the fields or courts and then have loads of fun afterward.
The complex books soccer, baseball, softball, football, lacrosse and rugby teams to use its nine turf fields, four natural grass fields and tournament buildings. There is seating for up to 1,500 fans to watch the action.
“It’s beautiful, and it has been wildly popular,” said the CVB’s Wuerdeman. “As soon as the coronavirus travel bans were lifted, the sports groups began coming in. Teams of soccer and softball players have been the most visible. With advance bookings, it looks like 2021 will be an amazing year for the operators of the sports complex.”
Meetings and Overnights
Panama City Beach is also a great spot for meetings, and the annual Select Traveler Conference will be staged at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort. A trip to this portion of Florida should be a welcome respite for delegates who are winter weary.
“We are excited and looking forward to introducing our area to so many Select Traveler planners who come to the conference,” said Wuerdeman. “We believe we have a lot to offer a trip planner who may not have thought of using us before.”
Altogether, Panama City Beach has about 17,300 rooms available for travelers, and they cover every taste in accommodations, including resorts, hotels, town homes, condos and villas. Families or multiple families may rent a large beach home for a few days or weeks at a time. Prices vary for places to stay, but vacationers can find what they like whether they are budget conscious or have deep pockets. Visitpanamacitybeach.com lists all available accommodations, or the curious can just do their own research.
Locals won’t soon forget the Category 5 hurricane named Michael that whipped ashore in October 2018, doing widespread harm. Panama City Beach suffered damage but was spared the worst of the storm compared with some nearby communities. Two years later, there are only a few signs of the damage remaining, and residents are again welcoming tourists back by the thousands. The beaches, rental units, restaurants, amusement parks and other attractions have essentially returned to normal.