Classic Coast with a Twist

    By Sarah Beth Hopton

    In Panama City Beach, a vacation home getaway is the perfect way to experience this beach town's famous attractions and fresh new hotspots.

    For my 30th birthday, my husband surprised me with a trip to my favorite place in the world: the beach. He's a big-picture kind of guy who doesn't generally concern himself with details, so I was shocked when we pulled into the Seychelles Beach Resort, a ResortQuest property in the heart of Panama City Beach. It made an ideal home base for our beach getaway.

    Fronting 27 miles of arguably the best beach in the world, this stunning 22-story high-rise resort-style condominium hosted a spectacular view of the then-setting sun. I was on the balcony within minutes, sucking the sea air deep into my lungs. He appeared at the doorway with a bottle of Champagne. As we toasted he asked, "So, are you where you thought you'd be at 30?"

    It was a decidedly sobering question, but what better place to contemplate it than the beach you grew up on?

    Fun and Romance, Close at Hand

    Since ours was something of a romantic retreat, we stayed in a one-bedroom unit, but the properties come in both one- and two-bedroom suites suitable for families. All are uniquely designed and decorated true to ResortQuest's signature style – a kind of island elegance that offers all the amenities of home minus the housekeeping.

    Conveniently, the Seychelles is within walking distance of St. Andrews State Park and a quick drive from the marina, where you can hop a boat to Shell Island and swim with dolphins or snorkel the grass flats for a few hours and not much money.

    After our Champagne cocktail, we toured the area and quickly discovered that everything we needed for a perfect birthday weekend was close at hand. Although eager to explore the shopping and dining offered in the 1.1 million-square-foot development called Pier Park, we opted for an old favorite for dinner: Breakers.

    This cozy Gulf-front restaurant features a rotating menu of fresh seafood and steaks and some of the best martinis this side of Manhattan, as well as live music (open Thurdsay - Sunday at 5 p.m.). Next door is Harpoon Harry's, a classic beach dive that sports The Acoustix on the back deck (open Thursday - Sunday). As we sipped our drinks, I was reminded that for all its glitz and spring-break glam, Panama City Beach is a sleepy, southern beach town at heart.

    Nature, Culture and New Hotspots

    We spent the next morning exploring the reaches of St. Andrews State Park. This 1,260-acre park has thick forests, sand dunes covered with sea oats, a swimming lagoon, short trails and 1.5 miles of extraordinary beach – perfect for collecting sand dollars baked white by the Florida sun.

    After a quick cold-water shower to wash off the salt, I was ready to tackle Pier Park. With its cool collection of restaurants and eateries, coffee bars and chic retail shops, Pier Park has become a major shopping destination for all of northwest Florida.

    Stores and restaurants include Chico's, Aeropostale, Ron Jon Surf Shop and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. We settled on the Back Porch Seafood and Oyster House for dinner. It's modeled after the famous Back Porch restaurant in Destin, and like its sister store, offers some of the most delectable seafood in northwest Florida (along with great beach views).

    After our first day exploring this favorite beach city of mine, I was happy to see that the Panama City Beach of my childhood was delightfully familiar and yet offered refreshingly new things to see and do.

    Classic Diversions

    There wasn't enough time to exhaust all our activity options, but some of the places we saw or heard about that sounded interesting included: Gulf World Marine Park, where you can see dolphins up close and even swim with them; and the Coconut Creek Family Fun Park, which has one of America's most challenging life-size mazes.

    In addition to its stunning beaches, Panama City is also renowned for its wreck diving. Historic wrecks include a 441-foot World War II liberty ship; a 220-foot tug and a 160-foot coastal freighter. Though I'm an avid scuba diver, my husband prefers hard earth beneath his feet, so we didn't get to visit these underwater worlds. But they're legendary – and a reason for me to come back sooner rather than later.

    Back at the Seychelles after dinner, I wrapped myself in a cotton blanket and sat in a plush chair on the balcony, gazing at the horizon. I wasn't sure if I was where I thought I'd be at 30, but I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be right then.