Plenty of pleasant and peaceful surprises in Panama City Beach

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A Panama City Beach sunset as seen from Schooners' open-air dining room
A Panama City Beach sunset as seen from Schooners' open-air dining room Photo Credit: Megan Padilla

Until last year, I'd never done more than drive through Panama City Beach for my Florida Panhandle visits. "It's where the kids go," I'd thought.

But after some soul-searching and hard-lining, the city in 2016 banned alcohol from the beach during the month of March and yanked away the welcome mat for booze-fueled bacchanalia. No time was wasted in positioning the town built along 27 miles of powdery white-sand beach along the Gulf of Mexico into a year-round destination, producing major events many weekends in spring and fall and also expanding its facilities for sports tourism.

With some free time at the beginning of March, my family and I jumped at the invitation to visit, hosted by the Tourist Development Council. I'd popped up last year to cover the new Sheraton Bay Point Resort situated on St. Andrew's Bay on the east end but realized I'd need to return to better explore PCB.

This time, my home base was a privately owned-and-rented, three-bedroom condo at the Grand Panama Resort, whose two towers are located midbeach and clustered among the high-rises, a mix of hotels and condos. A spacious and well-appointed home away from home, it offered direct beach access and some great views since we had an end unit.

We had a perfect beach day that included a long walk, splashing in the waves and playing in the sand. PCB regularly lands on all manner of "best beaches" lists, and deservedly so. Powdery white sand and clear, turquoise water are the main draw. The Gulf of Mexico can also be relied on for gentler waves and warmer water than Atlantic Ocean beaches, which is ideal for families with young children. It was certainly the case on this particular beach.

Panama City Beach boasts 27 miles of white-sand Gulf coast beach as well as gentler, warmer waters than you'll find on the Atlantic coast.
Panama City Beach boasts 27 miles of white-sand Gulf coast beach as well as gentler, warmer waters than you'll find on the Atlantic coast. Photo Credit: Megan Padilla

We saw plenty of college kids, but they seemed relaxed and subdued, just like everyone else enjoying the rejuvenating balm of the beach. Police patrolled on ATVs, and we did see them write a few tickets, presumably for alcohol violations. Over the course of our three-day stay, it seemed that the town is big enough for everyone, and we never felt that our experience was compromised by rowdy co-eds.

The next day brought torrential rain and cool temperatures. No problem, because there is so much to do beyond the beach in PCB. Although the minigolf, go-kart, waterslide and carnival-ride attractions in the area (and there are many!) weren't viable in this weather, there were plenty of other possibilities. Options included a newly opened indoor trampoline place, Just Jump. At Pier Park, the outdoor shopping, dining and entertainment complex that anchors the west end, there's a 16-screen multiplex movie theater and a huge Dave & Busters for indoor arcade fun. We held out for Wonder Works, that wacky upside-down museum attraction that my daughter loves to visit in Orlando. It's filled with hands-on, interactive learning fun, and many of the exhibits were different from those in Orlando.

But first, we had a reservation for a Swim Adventure with a dolphin at Gulf World Marine Park. Rain wasn't an issue, but my inner struggle with the ethics of this popular activity was getting in the way. The only time I have swum with dolphins was in the wild in Bimini when they approached me. But as a travel writer, I try to say yes to every opportunity. I also knew that my daughter would love it.

The marine park is an old school attraction open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas. Its bread and butter, though, are the animal interaction packages (with sea lions, harbor seals, sting rays and dolphins), each of which includes admission to the park to see exotic birds and other marine animals as well as live shows throughout the day.

We were the only participants scheduled for our 30-minute Swim Adventure, paired with a trainer and dolphin (Swim Adventure rates start at $109 per adult). At the other end of the pool, about 10 people, including younger children, were participating in an Encounter, a chance to learn about and touch, but not swim with, a dolphin (starts at $89 per adult).

Our trainer had a clear connection with her charge, an adolescent dolphin named Angel. We each had a chance to interact, have photos taken with and, yes, swim with Angel.

I have to admit that it was joyous, fun, exciting and interesting, and all three of us thoroughly enjoyed this shared experience  so much so that we sprang $140 to buy the photo CD. This left me feeling that the dolphin interactions are designed to deliver an enticing CD full of once-in-a-lifetime photos that are hard to leave behind. Several weeks after the encounter, I'm still feeling a little queasy about having participated and have told my daughter that though it was a very special experience, we probably won't do it again.

Once dried off, I was surprised at all of the shopping in the area, from big box to boutiques, plus the outdoor mall at Pier Park (a completely different wing than the restaurant and entertainment zone). Even a stop at Target is a delight because it stocks beach and resort-wear styles that aren't found in most of the nation's locations.

The range and offering of restaurants also surprised me. It's not all fish shacks with fried food and menus with animated sea creatures holding a margarita. Every restaurant we tried was locally owned with good food and service. My favorite was Bricks & Barley Pizza (3900 Marriott Drive), located off the beaten path and a little hard to find in the Marriott complex on the far east end of PCB but totally worth it.

Our server was proud of what they do and explained that the dough is made every two days and their red sauce takes six hours to make. The menu includes pages of unusual combinations, and I was delighted to find shrimp scampi on a pizza, with the lemon and garlic flavor profile I'd been craving and a crust that was both crispy and chewy. Bricks & Barley also has a serve-yourself cooler with 150 different beers and at least 15 others on tap. I tried the potent Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and was saddened to learn it was small-batch and seasonal and I'll probably never have it again.

Schooners on the east end (5121 Gulf Drive) bills itself as the "last local beach club." A large, covered, open-air dining room overlooks the beach where the stragglers seem to be families chasing the late-day light. The menu was also elevated from typical fish shack to offerings such as crab, corn and shrimp chowder, gumbo and Gulf peel-and-eat shrimp. Many diners abandon their table to join in watching the final sunset.

Other restaurants we'd return to include Liza's Kitchen (7328 Thomas Drive) for sandwiches made with love and Andy's Flour Power Cafe-Bakery (2629 Thomas Drive) for breakfast and friendly service. Both of these are also located on the east end. On the west end is Mike's Cafe, a breakfast spot owned by PCB mayor Mike Thomas and packed with locals, and Thomas Donuts (19208 Front Beach Road), also part of the mayor's family businesses, where the counter attendant was patient and kind and where it's hard to spend $20.

On our last morning, before leaving town, we stopped for coffee and pastries at the Pour (12902 Front Beach Road) and wished we'd found it sooner. They source coffee from one of our favorite roasters, Amavida Coffee & Tea a few towns up in Seaside, and are a nonprofit that serves the local poor. There's also a nice spot inside to play chess. We wound up getting a late start out of town.

We'd arrived in Panama City Beach feeling a little overwhelmed by the high-rises and all the businesses but ended our visit feeling right at home.

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