The world is filled with some beautiful beaches. Australia. Turks and Caicos. Hawaii. Puerto Rico. Mexico. The Florida Panhandle. Wait? What? It’s true. Panama City Beach, Florida, and its 27 miles of white sand beaches, makes my list of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Unlike the others on that list, however, Panama City Beach is a place that doesn’t immediately jump to mind when thinking of the world’s most beautiful beaches. It certainly never jumped to my mind. Not until I was invited to visit and got the chance to see the wide expanse of white sand, hear it squeak beneath my feet (really!) and waded into the aqua green waters.
Even better for my family, Panama City Beach is the easiest of those world-class beaches to get to (it’s long but doable drive from my home in Chicago). And it is by far the least expensive world-class beach we have visited.
Staying, eating and playing in Panama City Beach may be affordable, but the beaches, sunsets and nature are priceless.
The sand is actually ground-up quartz. That’s why it squeaks when you walk on it. Listen:
What to Do in Panama City Beach
If the 27 miles of shoreland that line the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle aren’t enough for you, hire Captain Lorraine Frasier to take you on a dolphin snorkel tour with a stop at Shell Island. It’s a 700-acre nature preserve with nothing but white sand—and maybe a few turtle hatching spots. Captain Lorraine will bring snacks. You can supply the drinks.
Or, if you want to spend time IN the warm aqua waters, you can learn to SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding). We headed to St. Andrews State Park, another natural wonder of white sand beaches, dune grass, hiking trails and other outdoor endeavors. Luckily for those of us who are less than surf-skilled athletes, there’s also a nice little inlet where the water is calm and the SUP is possible.
An instructor from WOW Paddeboards (Walkin’ on Water) met us at the park with the paddleboards (they are surprisingly heavy and someone has to carry them over the dune to the water), the long paddles and a positive attitude. My group listened attentively, slathered on our sunscreen and waded into the thigh-deep water. We all managed to stand up on the boards, but we soon found that paddling around the small, protected space got a little boring.
If I head back to St. Andrews State Park, I think I would opt instead for a hike along one of the trails, followed by a cooling dip in the quiet waters.
Or I might head back to PCB Conservation Park for a hike or bike ride. One of the newest attractions in Panama City Beach, this park is a wonder of eco-friendliness and a tribute to the city leaders of Panama City Beach. They put together a plan that restores an eco-system, stops pollution of the bay and provides an in-town nature center for locals and visitors alike. It’s rare to find that kind of forward-thinking municipal leadership.
Where to Eat in Panama City Beach
Vacationers cannot live by nature alone. They need to eat. This unheralded foodie destination is a mecca of good food and drink. We sampled the wares at six different restaurants, any one of which I would return to in heartbeat:
For breakfast, you can choose to have one of the best muffins you’ll ever eat or go for the B.L.E.A.T.
Andy’s Flour Power, open only for breakfast and lunch, serves omelets, French toast and other breakfast favorites, but order a pastry while you wait. Don’t miss a chance to taste a green muffin. Really. It’s pistachio. I’ve never been a big fan of pistachios. But I am the No. 1 fan of Andy’s pistachio muffins. This strip mall storefront restaurant is small. Expect to wait if you want a table.
Liza’s Kitchen, another strip mall storefront, has some tables outside near the street, so it can accommodate slightly bigger crowds than Andy’s. Go on the weekend for brunch so you can order the B.L.E.A.T. breakfast sandwich (bacon, lettuce, egg, avocado and tomato). It’s a gastronomic experience that shouldn’t be missed.
For lunch, there is the barefoot beach experience or the more upscale umbrella on the patio approach.
Finn’s is the low rent, sit-at-a-picnic-table-next-to-the-parking-lot spot. But what the owners saved on ambiance, they put into the food. Finn’s serves up some of the best fish tacos and ceviche I have had anywhere in the world. You can eat very well here for under $10/ person.
Runaway Island Restaurant and Grill is one of the newest additions to the Panama City foodie scene and it has a choice spot, a wooden patio overlooking the beach. While the view alone is worth a visit, the seafood and specialty drinks make you want to stick around awhile.
For dinner, you can go beachcombing or upscale.
Schooners: This is party central, but still family friendly. Get there just before sunset. The food will still be just as good later, but you’ll miss the firing of the cannon. That’s right. At the moment the sun kisses the sea at sunset, they fire a mini cannon with a major sound. Cover your ears. Schooners hosts the 26th annual lobster festival and sand sculpting tournament Sept. 14-20.
Salt Water Grill: Here, it’s high-end fine dining and it’s all about steaks and martinis. You could bring the kids—other diners did—but I was kind of glad to be traveling without kids. The steaks and martinis would have been lost on them and I definitely wanted to savor mine. Even though it’s fine dining, you can get a great meal for less than $50/ person. With a martini.
n at 8 p.m. Includes fireworks and 10,000 beach balls being dropped over the crowd.