Traveler: Panama City Beach

Stormy seas can’t put a damper on fall break fun in the Florida panhandle.

Jimmy Buffett knows what he’s talking about. “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” is a losing proposition.

With Nate threatening to wash out our plans, I nervously packed up last week for our third annual fall break trip south to Panama City Beach hoping for the best. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried too much. Folks around these parts don’t even seem to blink at hurricanes until they hit Category 4. Although skies were cloudy and the water was red-flagged for the first few days of our trip, we were still able to get out on the beach every day we were there.

Forget the drunken stumbling through the noisy mega-club beach parties of spring breaks long ago. With 27 miles of pristine waterfront to explore, Panama City Beach is all grown up and proudly presents all the makings for a quite respectable family-friendly fall break anchored by the Pirates of the High Seas Festival held each year on the weekend preceding Columbus Day.

Captain Lorraine dolphin cruise

The sugary white sand beaches and bottle-glass green waters are the main attraction here, as they should be. If you can tear yourself away from building sandcastles and jumping through the waves, Island Time Sailing steers a 50-foot catamaran over to Shell Island for a fun snorkeling adventure with plenty of dolphin sightings along the way. For a more intimate journey on a smaller vessel, Capt. Lorraine Frasier personalizes her Dolphin and Snorkel Tours with informative commentary and customized itineraries.

If the weather’s just not cooperating, the topsy-turvy WonderWorks indoor amusement park brims with hands-on science experiments and entertaining activities like an indoor ropes course, a laser tag arena and roller coaster simulators. Toward the western end of the beach near the Pier Park shopping/dining development, Gulf World Marine Park offers the chance to admire sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, penguins, and tropical birds up close.


Fried crab claws from Hookd

As you’d expect in a Florida coastal community, dining options here revolve heavily around beach cuisine — namely, seafood served with fries and hush puppies washed down with cold beer or fruity frozen cocktails. On the eastern end of the PCB stretch, Schooners bills itself as “the last local beach club,” serving up spicy sautéed crab claws, tender grilled shrimp and top-shelf grouper sandwiches with live music, stunning views, and a traditional daily cannon firing at sunset.

Hit Finn’s Island Style Grub for ceviche and fish tacos with all the trimmings, or for a grab-and-go option, stop in Buddy’s Seafood Market to load up on steamed-to-order shrimp by the pound with corn and new potatoes. At Pier Park, Hook’d Pier Bar and Grill makes a cute stop for a casual al fresco lunch or happy hour.

Not a fish fan? No problem. Diego’s Burrito Factory assembles tasty fresh Mexican fare in an assembly line set-up, and the divey rock-and-roll’ish Fatty’s Sandwich Shop builds an exemplary muffaletta. For breakfast, you can’t go wrong with the signature French toast at Andy’s Flour Power Café and Bakery. And it’s worth waiting in line for the airy glazed and red velvet cake varieties at Thomas Donut & Snack Shop.

Carillon is a gated community that has more in common with the adorable destinations along 30-A than the condo-heavy Panama City Beach area. Located at the very western edge of Panama City Beach, it sits at the foot of the causeway that separates the town from 30-A. A couple differences: it’s a lot cheaper than neighboring Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, and the entire village is contained south of the highway, so no matter which house you choose, you won’t have to cross the busy road to reach the ocean.

There are tons of local accommodations to consider in a variety of price points, but Tidewater Beach Resort is a solid choice with upscale furnished condo units boasting fully equipped kitchens, stackable washer/dryers, and expansive balconies overlooking the gulf, along with three pools and an on-site restaurant.

For more information, go to Visit Panama City Beach.