Come to Panama City Beach in the northern Florida Panhandle and you’ll soon find, by dialect and design, a place apart from what you might usually think of as Florida.
South Florida, arguably from the midpoint of the state on down, is a place where everyone seems to be from someplace else, where you’re far more likely to hear a New York or other accent than a southern one.
Not so in Panama City Beach, in the belly of the deep South, rooted below Alabama and Georgia, not far from Louisiana. Here, when locals saying they’re going anywhere, they’re likely to say in a rich, lovely drawl, “I’m fixin’ to go to…..,” a place where grits in all marvelous manner of incarnations are as common in trendy restaurants as they are in strip-mall eateries.
This beachside community is small but gets big-visitor numbers, with a year-round population of about 7,500 and tourists numbering six million a year. And given its northern Florida location buffeted by Gulf of Mexico breezes, it doesn’t get as oppressively steamy as southern Florida, even in summer.
We visited over New Year’s weekend, never having been before, and found a eclectic place of business, a mix of tattoo parlors, tchotchke stores, dive shops, go-cart tracks, and, I kid you not, the “Condom Knowledge Novelty Shop,” side by side in an area with upscale restaurants, shops, family attractions and high-rise condos..
Panama City Beach is righteously most famous for its beach, a 27-mile stretch of sugary sand so white, at first glance you’d swear it was snow, the result of quartz crystals washing down from the Appalachian Mountains centuries ago and being ground, smoothed and polished until the surf of the Gulf of Mexico deposited billions of grains of sand on the shoreline. Along its coast, Panama City Beach is dotted by mostly high-rise condos for rent, and only a couple of hotels, about 21,000 housing units in all, most with smashing ocean views and riveting sunsets.
A year ago, the city finished up a three-month, $16-million beach re-nourishment project working with the U.S. Corps of Engineers, pumping 1.4-million cubic yards of sand to about seven and a half miles of beach, extending the shoreline by 100 feet in some locations. It was the third major beach replenishment in the last dozen years.
One of the city’s crown recreational jewels is St. Andrews State Park with a stunning beach that was named the second-best in America by TripAdvisor. The 1,260-acre park has forest, snow-white sand dunes covered with sea oats, fresh and saltwater marshes, a lagoon swimming area, fishing jetties, hiking trails, a mile and a half of beach and two campgrounds. It is also home to many white-tailed deer, hundreds of bird species, and the occasional alligator. It opened in 1951, and had been the site of a World War II military reservation. There is also the newly opened 2,900-acre Panama City Beach Conservation Park, created to rehydrate thousands of acres of protected wetlands, which consists of a system of boardwalks and 24 miles of dirt trails.
Panama City Beach has a lot of the old-Florida feel, but it’s a city on the rise, a low-key, down-home kind of place with a central touristy core in Pier Park, a five-year-old retail strip by the water with more than a million square feet of shopping and eating, with entities like Margaritaville (try the El Diablo, a true burger in paradise, topped with poblano peppers), French Charmed, Francesca’s Collection and an IMAX theater. For families, there’s a great playground there, with some of the original rides from the iconic Miracle Strip Amusement Park that closed a few years ago. Other family favorites in the city include Shipwreck Island Water Park, Gulf World Marine Park, Emerald Coast Mirror Maze and Grand Maze at Coconut Creek.
It’s also gotten easier to get there; in 2010, Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opened, the first international airport in the country to open since the terrorist attacks of 2001, served by just two airlines so far, Southwest and Delta. It’s a place so new it’s not surrounded by the usual glut of airport hotels, restaurants and stores, a virtual stand-alone entity in the middle of a forest, a place with a welcoming, unhurried feel, not to mention unusually cheap airport parking: The long-term lot charge is $9 a day.
Panama City Beach’s food scene is significant, with the fare of most places focusing on seafood, in places upscale and down-home. In the middle are places like The Boatyard on Grand Lagoon, accessible by land and sea, known for killer views and terrific seafood, including oysters, fish tacos and sushi. On the smaller side are places like the gourmet sandwich shop, Liza’s Kitchen, where the Nassau grits have a nice kick, and is famous for its “Hippie Chick” and Portobello grill sandwiches and its cutesy, kid-made polka-dot placemats bearing how-they-see-it recipes, such as one for cake calling for four cups of oil and five teaspoons of salt baked at 49 degrees for seven hours.
More upscale and trendy are places like Firefly, where the signature dishes are the silky smooth she-crab soup and the espresso-rubbed and tomato-braised free-range Texas boar shank, succulent, sweet and so tender, it falls off the bone. They also create a mean John Daly, named after the pro golfer, a concoction of vodka, lemonade and ice tea that is disarmingly easy to consume. Chef Paul Stellato creates the menu, and is used to pressure, having cooked for Team USA athletes at last year’s summer Olympics. But he faced pressure of another kind in 2010, when President Obama and his family dined there and the president had the N.Y strip steak and his wife the fried lobster – with the Secret Service watching every move of preparation. For the record, he paid with his personal credit card, with agents taking all records of the transaction with them.
Other notable eateries are Boar’s Head Restaurant, which mixes it up nicely with seafood and meat, from its signature fried lobster to whopping prime rib and good game offerings, such as quail, venison and duck; Mike’s Café and Oyster Bar, very hot with the locals offering things like black-eyed peas, collard greens and my favorite, shrimp and grits for breakfast; and Andy’s Flour Power Café and Bakery, where you get a huge and hugely decadent “Café Skillet,” seared potatoes, onions and peppers topped with eggs, ham, tomato and melted sharp cheddar for breakfast, negating the need for lunch.
Panama City Beach was largely spared damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the gulf oil spill in 2010, remaining a steady, reliable and temperate choice for tourists, drawing mainly from the southern states. If you’re from father away and fixin’ to check out the real Florida as it used to be and still is in the panhandle, Panama City Beach is a pretty good choice..
For information on the destination, visit www.visitpanamacitybeach.com