Florida’s Panama City Beach is a popular vacation destination for East Tennesseans, as well as people from Georgia and Alabama, and for good reason. Like the rest of Florida’s panhandle beaches, its hard to beat if scenic beaches, sugar-white sand and gentle waters are what you’re looking for.
As I finish up my week’s stay in PCB for this year, here are the 10 best things about this town and its beaches…not necessarily in this order, but pretty close. And if it seems to be dominated with food…well, that might explain why I put on five pounds every time I’m here.
1.) Thomas’s Donut & Snack Shack — Three words: Orange pineapple muffins. The smell of frying donuts will literally draw you in as the sun comes up, but get ready to stand in line. There are always folks waiting in line in the a.m. at this west-end donut shack. Best bet? Drop by in the evening and pick up breakfast for the next morning. It’s considerably less crowded then. But, seriously…orange pineapple muffins.
2.) St. Andrews State Park — Dr. Beach (formally known as Stephen Leatherman, supposedly America’s foremost expert on beaches) has called the beach at St. Andrews the No. 1 beach in America. It isn’t hard to see why. Go to the middle of the beach, between the jetty and the pier, climb the steps to the top of the sand dune, and let the view knock your socks off. With no resorts or homes as a backdrop to ruin the aesthetic value (just dunes), the sugar-white sand and the sprawling Gulf waters team up to paint one heck of a picture. The large jetties provide excellent snorkeling opportunities, and the chances of seeing dolphins are quite good. Located at the east end of PCB, at the mouth of the St. Andrews Bay, this state park includes its own undeveloped barrier island (Shell Island), has lots of wildlife (egrets and other birds are thick in its swamps, and there are real, live alligators) with hiking, road biking and more.
3.) J. Michaels — Oneida High School football coach Tony Lambert recommended this restaurant, and now I can’t recommend it enough. I’ve eaten at a lot of places in PCB, but never anywhere with food as good as J. Michaels. If not for the recommendation, I might have never stopped. It’s little more than a weathered shanty on the edge of the St. Andrews Bay…its parking lot isn’t even paved. But step inside and you’ll immediately recognize the down-home feel. It’s easy to see that this is a local restaurant predating this town’s ritzy resort atmosphere. The seafood prices aren’t bad, as seafood prices go, and the cornbread fritters might be the best you ever eat. There’s no open-air dining, but the decor inside is hard to beat, with old license plates, fishing and surfing gear, shotguns and dollar bills lining the walls, rafters and ceiling.
4.) Conservation Park — This 2,900-acre wildlife and recreation preserve on PCB’s west end isn’t necessarily the most scenic forestland (but I’m a little spoiled, having grown up in the diverse forests of Appalachia), but it is a nice getaway for hikers, joggers and mountain bikers. It is chock full of well-marked trails, ranging from less than a mile to 11 miles. It boasts a wildlife population that includes alligators, black bears, wild boar, whitetail deer and wild turkey, but even long-time regulars here will tell you that seeing big game is a rarity (seeing fowl and lizards is much more likely). I saw wild boar tracks and whitetail deer tracks, so there are at least a few of those animals around. Even if you know you probably aren’t going to see an alligator, walking or biking across the elevated boardwalks through the swamps is pretty neat. The neatest thing about Conservation Park, though, is that its wetlands are kept wet by PCB’s unique program for repurposed sewage. Instead of pumping it into St. Andrews Bay, the city’s treated wastewater is now used to hydrate the swamps at Conservation Park. (Note to bikers: avoid the orange and red trails like the plague, unless you want to wind up pushing your bike through sand bogs.)
5.) Gayle’s Trails — I don’t know who Gayle F. Oberst is or was, but the trails she inspired are pretty cool. These paved trails originate at Frank Brown Park, PCB’s state-of-the-art sports complex, and provide bikers with up to 20 miles of riding in three directions. One direction connects to the 24 miles of naturally-surfaced trails at Conservation Park.
6.) Schooner’s — Situated right in the heart of PCB, Schooner’s calls itself the area’s “last local beach club.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know this: Schooner’s has the best crab cakes in all of PCB. In fact, Schooner’s has the best crab cakes I’ve eaten anywhere…and I’ve eaten a lot of crab cakes. The tropical salsa and saucy remoulade compliment the cakes pretty well. There’s something to be said for open-air dining on the beach. And while the overall atmosphere and setting at Schooner’s can’t match Sharky’s, the more popular beach club further west, the food sure can.
7.) Bike lanes — Ten years ago, when I made my first trip to PCB, it was largely an under-developed resort town. There was evidence of growth, with new high-rise resorts going up all up and down the beach, but otherwise it was a bland beach town. A decade later, PCB is booming…and still growing. The unfortunate side affect of all that is a traffic nightmare. Getting from point A to point B on Front Beach Road is near impossible around dinner time, and the situation isn’t much better on Hwy. 98 further inland. Fortunately, the city’s foresight has made it possible to get anywhere in the city on a bicycle. Both Front Beach Road and Hwy. 98, along with Thomas Drive, are equipped with bike lanes. Ditch the car and get there on two wheels. It’s faster that way.