By Amy Minchin
Ask one of the six million people who visit each year about this classic American beach town and you may get six million different answers about what to do in Panama City Beach.
Some know Panama City Beach for the 21,000 hotels, motels and condos available for rent that have attracted families for generations. Some know it as a Spring Breaker’s paradise, where college students frequent local night clubs and teenagers load friends into their cars to cruise Front Beach Road, known as The Strip. Almost all who visit add its 27 miles of white sandy beach and blue-green water to their what to do in Panama City Beach bucket list.
Charlie and Joan Elder of Tallahassee, Fla., make the 100-mile drive to Panama City because, as Charlie says, “It has one of the prettiest beaches and there are a variety of things to do to entertain the entire family.”
The Elders especially enjoy boating with friends, many of whom they said visit Panama City Beach because of Bay Point, a resort overlooking St. Andrew’s Bay. Surrounded by a wildlife preserve, Bay Point includes nature trails, a spa, tennis courts, water sports rentals, and two golf courses, one designed by Gary Nicklaus, son of golfer Jack Nicklaus.
This large-scale scenic resort is a sharp contrast to the motels that were the norm on Panama City Beach in the 1960s. Many of the old-style inns have been replaced by newer hotels or high-rise condos with parking garages, a facelift that came about after other beach communities grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s.
The Panama City Beach Russell-Fields Pier and adjacent public beach access continue to draw visitors. Admission to the pier is $3 per day for spectators and $6 per day for fishing, with rods and bait provided.
Just west of the pier, an area referred to as Doggie Beach offers a pet-friendly environment for enjoying the sand and sun. Nearby merchants in small huts offer basic convenience items, as well as airbrushed T-shirts and boiled peanuts, a Southern summer delicacy. Although modern in structure, this area may evoke decades-old memories of family beach trips for some. A local icon, the Miracle Strip Amusement Park stood just east of here from 1963 to 2004.
The Miracle Strip entertained all ages with its roller coaster, Ferris wheel and other rides. Only a water park, Shipwreck Island, remains open today, but visitors seeking a nostalgic experience are not completely out of luck. A few of the original Miracle Strip rides have been restored at a new park, smaller in scale, called Miracle Strip at Pier Park. Children also will find a rock climbing wall, super bungee and pirate ship play area here.
Pier Park, a lifestyle center that's the focus of what to do in Panama City Beach, spans the area between Front Beach Road opposite the Pier and U.S. Highway 98. A movie theater, retail stores and restaurants are combined in colorful, plank sided storefronts just steps from the beach.
Some of the restaurants have outdoor seating and deck bars overlooking the Gulf. At The Back Porch, diners will feel the coastal breezes as they sample char-grilled amberjack or order a frozen daiquiri. A giant white beach chair outside the restaurant is a popular place for taking photos.
A few shops away, the Life is Good store seems poetically placed in this beachgoer’s paradise. After a day in the sun, shoppers can pick up colorful T-shirts and other goods stamped with the phrase ‘Life is Good’ and other optimistic sentiments.
While there is plenty to do on land, many come to Panama City Beach to be on the water. Anglers have opportunities for freshwater and saltwater sport fishing. Blue marlin, red snapper, mackerel, trout, pompano and cobia are caught frequently in the area.
At Shell Island, a 700-acre island between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay, visitors often spot pelicans, sandpipers and bottlenose dolphins. Because Shell Island is accessible only by boat, shuttles carry passengers from St. Andrews State Park or Treasure Island Marina on Thomas Drive.
“The fact that you have the option of going to one of the beaches on the strip or going to Shell Island is nice,” said Angela Coker of Birmingham, Alabama.
Coker travels to Panama City Beach regularly with her family and says they find Shell Island to be less crowded. The Panama City Marine Institute, with 50 artificial reefs off of Panama City Beach, is another destination for snorkelers and divers.
Almost anywhere you go in Panama City Beach is within a 15-minute drive of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. Delta and Southwest offer flights here.
With its accessibility and abundance of activities, Panama City Beach has received accolades as one of the best beaches in America and one of the best values in travel.
Life here is good.