There is something different in the air, and it isn’t the 800-pound glowing beach ball. It’s 8:30 p.m., Dec. 31, 2009. Thousands have gathered in Pier Park for the second annual Beach Ball Drop. At the stroke of midnight, the luminescent orb will descend just like its Waterford-crystal cousin in Times Square. The family portion of the evening—bounce houses, fireworks and a deluge of 7,000 inflatable beach balls—has just ended. It’s now time for the grown-ups to grab a libation and wait for the hands on the clock to meet at 2010. In viewing this milieu—throngs of revelers, the bustling shops—you wonder which is the more important countdown: the 210 minutes until midnight or the 138 days until all this hoopla is easily accessed from just about anywhere in the world.
Teetering On the Edge of the Gulf of Mexico
With a gaggle of bay-hugging bluffs and finger-like peninsulas over its shoulder, Panama City Beach offers the kind of wistful vistas that usually come with “Wish You Were Here” stamped in the corner. The warm water is liquid jade close to shore; its clarity means never losing track of your toes. The sand is as fine as baking powder, the result of quartz crystals trickling down from the Appalachian Mountains over several centuries. The granules are so soft and small, they settle into the lines of your fingerprints. Peppered along the fringe of the beaches are the majestic dunes. These one- and two- story mounds have a distinct lunar quality; they wouldn’t be out of place along the Sea of Tranquility. It is with full confidence in my own literary talents that I write this: Panama City Beach begs to be seen, not read about.
Marta Rose moved to Panama City Beach in 2004. A film-industry professional working in Los Angeles, she was lured here by family and “an urge to take a breath and get off the hamster wheel.” What she found was “a tranquil safe haven dripping with Southern hospitality,” says Rose. “There’s a natural beauty here and therefore a real emphasis on being outdoors. You can always find people kayaking, canoeing, birding and, of course, relaxing on the beach.”
It’s for these reasons and many others that Panama City Beach has largely attracted two kinds of people over the years: college students and sun worshippers. It’s long been a spring-break destination of the first order, inspiring Seminoles and Bulldogs, Yellow Jackets and Gators to make the four- and five-hour pilgrimage every March. They crowd the beaches along Front Beach Road and set off in pontoon boats for the Lost-meets-Ibiza vibe of Shell Island.
What brings the devout beachgoers? Simple: “the world’s most beautiful beaches.” It’s a phrase that’s bandied about quite a bit here (it’s no coincidence that the local TV station’s call letters are WMBB). Frommer’s, one of the best-selling travel-guide publishers in the world, named the Panhandle beaches one of its top destinations for 2010, putting it alongside Tunisia, Hanoi, Abu Dhabi, Melbourne, Australia and the Big Island of Hawaii.
This formidable reputation does come with some baggage (and we don’t mean the carry-on kind). While it’s a financial boon, spring break has become a nuisance for many residents. In 2007, the Pro Family Spring Break Coalition fought to end the annual infux of beer bongs and barely-there bikinis. Last year, there were crowd-control problems at an MTV-sponsored concert. As a pre-emptive measure, the city council voted to spend $25,000 to hire 24 state troopers to patrol the beach from March 14 to April 11. The other issue is Panama City Beach’s relative isolation. Long known as a “rubber tire” destination, most visitors reach the area via long road trips from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and other parts of Florida. All of this changes with the May opening of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. The $318 million travel hub will be the first airport to open in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
The Panama City-Bay County International Airport, a small six-gate facility, has served the area since 1938. For many, it was considered ill equipped even then. In 1946, the Panama City News Herald ran a front- page editorial stating that “Panama City, which prides itself in being a progressive, forward- looking city, has a so-called municipal airport which would do credit to a village of 63 person [sic] which doesn’t know the Civil War is over.”
Don’t expect any rants this time around. Amid 41,000 acres of preserved woodlands, the new airport is being dubbed “America’s Greenest Airport.” Adding to the buzz, Southwest Airlines has announced it will offer eight daily nonstop fights from Baltimore, Houston, Nashville and Orlando. Delta Air Lines followed suit, announcing it will add two daily fights to Atlanta and Memphis. A recent study conducted by the Bay County Economic Development Alliance, an organization dedicated to fostering new economic opportunities, predicts the airport will generate a $1.5 billion increase in statewide economic output by 2025. “This airport will not only expand our tourism base, but more importantly, it will change our way of life,” says Beth Oltman, president and CEO of the Panama City Beach chamber of commerce. “Our culture, education and lifestyle will all benefit.”
Out With the Old, In With the New
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the new airport is the engine behind it: the St. Joe Company, the Jacksonville-based real- estate conglomerate that owns 580,000 acres of Northwest Florida. Many of St. Joe’s residential projects are within striking distance of the new airport, among them RiverCamps on Crooked Creek, a 1,500-acre community on a woodland reserve; Wild Heron, a 600-home project on the border of Bay and Walton counties; and Watersound, a quaint, cedar-shingle town set along scenic Highway 30A. And with Jacksonville being the closest market with an international airport (approx. 250 miles away), the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport will not only open up Panama City Beach to visitors worldwide, but it will allow snowbirds and other full- and part- time residents to reach their homes without a taxing road trip.
“Never before has this kind of project taken place,” says Kevin Johnson, vice president of economic development for the St. Joe Company. “[The airport] serves as a testament to the level of commitment this company has to the area.” St. Joe has also donated land to help build out the city’s infrastructure, as it did for the airport and Pier Park. With tourism growing and no discernable “downtown” where people could gather, St. Joe and Simon Malls simply invented one. Pier Park is a 1.1 million-square-foot waterfront shopping and entertainment center with a Caribbean vibe, achieved in large part by the Technicolor pastels that trademark each restaurant and shop. But it’s more than a place to swipe plastic. At the western end of Pier Park is a fishing pier; its shade and structure provide a happy home for the nickel-skinned wahoo below. The alfresco “town center” hosts several annual events. Monarch butterfiies and the Mad Hatter sipping tea were underfoot at the Madonnaro Street Painting Festival last November; in February, beads rained down from overhead during the Mardi Gras Festival and Parade.
Aside from a few weathered strip malls and novelty shops, Pier Park has no competition. This is just one example of the city’s dichotomy between old and new. Cruise along Front Beach Road, the beach’s main drag, and you’ll spot aging condominiums where metal details have been corroded by salt air. Just across the street, however, there’s Splash, a cheerful, water-themed resort. (You’re not mistaken: That is an indoor water park right in the lobby).
Ask a local for a dinner recommendation, and you’ll hear about Capt. Anderson’s, which has been serving fresh seafood since 1967. The lantern-lit eatery has long been a family-gathering hot spot, the kind of place where multiple forks reach across the table for a taste of she-crab pie.
Before dusk, have a Corona on the back patio, and watch the fishing boats cruise up Grand Lagoon to deliver the catch of the day. Conversely, you’ll also get a glowing review for Firefly, a new Mediterranean bistro. If you’re lucky, they’ll be serving tempura-fried Apalachicola oysters that night. If not, pair the pretzel-encrusted double-cut pork chop with the hard-to-find Mollydooker Goosebumps Sparkling Shiraz.
Of course, starting anew sometimes means shedding the old. Hence, it’s no surprise that Panama City Beach ceased its relationship with MTV last year, essentially ending its reign as a spring-break power- house. It’s a move that leaves Oltman a tad concerned. “College kids bring a lot of money into play, and not all are bad seeds,” notes Oltman. “It’s shortsighted to think that Panama City Beach isn’t in the spring-break business anymore. We cannot change the face of this community overnight.” New airport. New visitors. New residents. New Year’s beach-ball drop. A pattern, it seems, is starting to develop. Below is our Panama City Beach travel guide for the best places to stay, eat, shop and play:
Where to Stay
- Two sunflower-yellow towers comprise Splash, an aquatic-themed resort with an indoor water park in the lobby. By day, float down the lazy river and eat at the poolside grill. At night, catch a flick at the “dive-in” movie theater.
- Shores of Panama is a 23-story resort tower and one of the newer high-rises in Panama City. While the beach is only a stone’s throw from the entrance, most guests congregate around the 14,000-square-foot swimming pool.
- An ideal spot for families, Sterling Beach not only has fully equipped condominiums with plenty of space, but a 4,000-square-foot pool, a private theater and outdoor grills.
- From the six pools to the full-service tiki bars, Grand Panama Beach Resort makes it as easy as possible to get into vacation mode. It doesn’t hurt that the 299 condominiums have the amenities of home (beach towels, DVD players, and a washer and dryer).
Where to Play
- One of the most infamous beaches is Shell Island, a party destination in St. Andrews State Park. To get there, take a ferry or rent a pontoon boat.
Where to Eat
- Established in 1967, Capt. Anderson’s is the most popular seafood restaurant in this beach town.
- With an ever-changing menu that depends on what’s fresh from the sea, the new Firefly keeps things interesting (try the tortilla-crusted Gulf grouper).
- The cozy, always bustling Boatyard is known for serving seafood myriad ways, from seared grouper to shrimp and grits to sashimi.
Where to Shop
- With more than 1 million square feet of retail space, Pier Park is the Emerald Coast’s largest shopping destination. Throw in the 16-theater cineplex and 12 restaurants and bars, and you have Panama City Beach’s commercial and social epicenter.