It’s time to return to Panama City Beach. If your memories revolve around crowded T-shirt shacks and gritty mom-and-pop motels, you’re in for a big surprise. This vacation magnet (your grandparents may have met here!) now sports a fresh style. It’s nudged the beach bum culture aside for upscale hotels and condos, good restaurants, a fabulous new shopping district, and sparkling high-rises.
Don’t worry. You can still relax in flip-flops and cutoff jeans in most places. The oyster bars, beach bands, and miniature golf courses with dinosaurs still thrive. Meanwhile polished businesses have opened that show a better look. Here’s our guide to the best.
New School vs. Tried and True
Predictable sunshine, miles upon miles of snow-white sand meeting emerald waves, and a reputation as the Redneck Riviera: This playful mecca keeps its priorities straight.
Its stunning strand remains the prettiest in Northwest Florida due to a recently completed beach replenishment project. To the east, St. Andrews State Recreation Area creates one border, and 17 miles to the west, the multicolored town of Carillon marks its farthest reaches. In between, Panama City Beach (PCB) rocks on with comfortable familiarity--and some updates too.
At first glance along Front Beach Road, the old PCB is hidden between new high rises. The news of a forthcoming international airport (to open in 2010) sparked a frenzy of development. Front and center, Pier Park--an enormous shopping complex stretching between Back Beach and Front Beach Roads--showcases almost 1 million square feet of shopping and dining.
The bedraggled mom-and-pop motels that once sat cheek by jowl have almost all been replaced by gleaming condo towers. Glassed-in walkways several stories high lead to parking decks crossing over Front Beach Road.
Drop by on a weekend, and you’ll find the largest crowds cruising Thomas Drive. Pubs and putt-putt golf still abound, as do water parks, airbrush shops, and pizzerias. And, as always, all you have to do is head west to de-stress in less rowdy locales such as Carillon.
Where To Stay
- Families with youngsters fall for Splash, a condo hotel with an indoor water park, beach chairs for rent, and quiet pools. Two-bedroom, two-bath units start around $259. www.sterlingsplash.com or 1-866-573-7678.
- Holiday Inn SunSpree, a longtime lodging, boasts all updated furnishings, plus the Aqualand play area. Rates from $190. www.hipcbeach.com or (850) 234-1111.
- We like the serene setting of Bay Point, the Marriott property adjacent to Jack Nicklaus II and Willard Byrd-designed golf courses. Another reason to visit: the fabulous new Serenity Spa, the best in PCB. Rates from $149. www.marriottbaypoint.com or (850) 236-6000.
Where To Shop
- Pier Park has opened dozens of shops, from a Dillard’s flagship store and Old Navy to a Ron Jon Surf Shop. You’ll also find a 16-screen movie theater, a Margaritaville eatery, and Fish Tales jewelry.
- Ladies will adore the beach-inspired clothes from PCB designers Liz & Jane outlet store on Front Beach Road.
- Florida Linen on Back Beach Road offers one of the largest arrays of bed and bath accessories we’ve found under one roof.
Where To Dine
- At Capt. Anderson’s be sure to ask your server which fish is best--they know the freshest. At Angelo’s steak house, parents with little ones typically arrive by 4:30 p.m. After 8:30 p.m., they’re gone and your wait is shorter (don’t pass up the ribs with barbecue sauce). At Boar’s Head Restaurant & Tavern, ask about the night’s best toppings for the fish.
- Start your days at Andy’s Flour Power Café & Bakery. When you have a taste for confections, go to Thomas’ Donuts for the sour cream and Key lime-glazed doughnuts. Try the pignoli cookies at Antonio’s.
- The best oyster bar in PCB is Hunt’s in downtown St. Andrews. Best order: a sampler oyster platter (not on the menu) to try all the varieties.
Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.