By Sarah Beth Hopton
This famous Florida beach town dishes up 24-hour fun for all ages and tastes. Here's a sample itinerary for what to do in Panama City Beach in one day.
The clock may rule your everyday routine, but you'll find it less important in Panama City Beach. Here, the sun rules – at least for the 320 days it shines on this northwest Florida town each year.
There are plenty of ways to be entertained and to find your own fun, both on and off the beach. And you can enjoy it all at your own pace, which makes coming here a true escape.
So when my best friend of 20 years recently suggested a weekend getaway to Panama City Beach, I jumped at the chance to let go of schedules and meetings and obligations for a while. The stunning change of scenery from my land-locked town was just a bonus.
Beating the Sunrise
We happen to be the kind of people who hit the ground running. On our first full day, we woke up at 5 a.m. to catch our charter boat headed for the fish-rich Gulf waters.
Watching the sun explode across the horizon was amazing, but catching enough grouper to feed a hungry family of four made the lack of sleep well worth it. Soon, the open water looked like a floating city street, boats everywhere.
Our captain told us that an abundance of good summer catches such as amberjack, snapper and cobia is what beckons the sport fishermen, as does the close proximity to deep, open water. After we got a taste of it for a few hours, we decided to retire our poles and head for shore.
Famished, these two landlubbers set out to reel in some breakfast at Pier Park, a 900,000-square-foot entertainment and shopping complex across from the Panama City Beach Pier. When you ask previous visitors what to do in Panama City Beach, they'll usually point you in this direction. A couple of soy vanilla lattes and chocolate croissants later and we were ready to take on the town, or rather, the links.
In Panama City Beach, like much of the Sunshine State, anytime is tee time. Though I was content to take in the pristine greens at the Nicklaus Course at the Wyndham Bay Point Resort, the only Nicklaus-designed course in northwest Florida, by cart, my friend wanted a chance to prove her stuff on this par 72 course, so we hoofed the first nine. The lagoon feature at hole #5 was enough to remind her of her amateur status, but for golf aficionados, playing this course poorly is better than not playing at all.
By the ninth hole, it was easy to see why Golf Digest magazine ranked Panama City Beach as one of America's top three golf towns. Although we didn't get to play other courses, we had a slew to choose from including Hombre Golf Club, the Holiday Golf Club and Signal Hill, Panama City Beach's first golf club.
A quick stop at one of the many seaside fish shacks will abate any rumble in the tummy. Pineapple Willy's Beachside Bar and Grill, located directly on the beach, is one of the oldest and best known, and their Jack Daniel's BBQ ribs are always on the can't-go-wrong menu.
My favorite restaurant though is Bayou Bill's Crab House at the far west end of the beach. It's where the locals go to shell fresh boiled pink Gulf shrimp and shuck oysters from Apalachicola Bay.
Afternoon in Nature
The 27-mile stretch of sun-bleached sand that makes up Panama City Beach is part of the longest continuous beach restoration project in Florida, and as the lunchtime carbs kicked in, I was terribly tempted to bake on what Conde Nast called "one of the world's most beautiful beaches."
Instead, my girlfriend convinced me to visit ZooWorld, a zoological park home to more than 260 animals including rare and endangered species. The zoo shelters African lions, two Sumatran tigers and two Mandrills, an exotic type of baboon. Had we brought our kids, we might also have explored other family-friendly places like Shipwreck Island Water Park and Coconut Creek Family Fun Park.
Dusk and Beyond
Although we hadn't yet scratched the surface of this seaside destination, by six we were pooped and nothing sounded better than a refreshing drink by the pool. Although Panama City Beach is ripe with unusual experiences and memorable attractions, one of its greatest pleasures is also free – watching the famed Florida sunset.
My two boys certainly wouldn't have let us miss the adventure aboard the Sea Dragon, a pirate cruise where the crew re-enacts a pirate conquest. But, alas, this night in Panama City Beach was just about me and my friend relaxing.
The town is known for its nightlife and were I a little bit younger, I might have slipped into something party-friendly and headed to one of the many beachside dance clubs to twist the night away. But with age comes wisdom, and I was quite content to order another girly drink and revel in the beauty of the Panama City Beach sky as the last puffs of orange sunlight evaporated into dusk.