Growing up in the '80s and '90s, Panama City Beach seemed like the spring break capital of the world. Beamed into my family's New York City living room every year, MTV's Spring Break—a weeks-on-end collegiate bacchanalia of booze, bikinis, and bad behavior often televised from PCB's La Vela nightclub (which continues to operate today)—felt more foreign, by leaps and bounds, than anything else on television at the time. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of a rise in reality and teen angst programming—The Real World launched in 1992; Degrassi High ran from 1989 to 1991; My So-Called Life debuted in 1994—spring break was a wild side of America I'd never seen before, and watching it unfold year after year on MTV, I was fascinated.
I never wound up going on a traditional spring break trip in college—but Panama City Beach has always held a special place in my mind, and probably in the American collective consciousness, as the East Coast party destination. So this year, when local authorities passed an ordinance banning consumption of alcohol on the city's beaches during the month of March, it seemed like the end of an era and the death knell on nearly three decades of spring break dominance.
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Earlier this fall, an opportunity to visit Panama City Beach fell into my lap—and I felt compelled (mostly by my inner 15-year-old id) to make the trip. Over a long weekend in September, I discovered the softer side of PCB—epic, nearly-deserted pristine white sand beaches, state parks, conservation areas, a burgeoning local food scene, and plenty of grown-ups on their best behavior. As it turns out, Panama City Beach, which teems with family-friendly vacation rental properties (many local condo management companies, like the city's ubiquitous Wyndham ResortQuest, refuse to rent to individuals under the age of 25) has, for decades, been a legacy holiday destination, with the majority of tourists arriving, generation after generation, from driving-distance parts of the country like Alabama, Mississippi, and parts of Georgia.
So forget everything you've ever seen on MTV about Panama City Beach, because while there's still an element of no-holds-barred, let-your-hair-down wilding out that goes down over a few weeks in early spring, over the years the partying has become more and more contained. For everyone else, here are 10 things to do and places to see that will blow your mind—in the best, most relaxing, beach-town vacation kind of way.
St. Andrew's State Park: There are state parks and then there are Florida's state parks—a mixed collection of terrain comprising pine forests, wetlands, and sandy beaches all along the Grand Lagoon and the Gulf of Mexico. St. Andrew's is a popular family destination that stretches more than a mile-and-a-half along a former military reservation where visitors can swim, snorkel, scuba dive, kayak, canoe, fish, hike, and bird-watch.
Camp Helen State Park: The site of Luke Bryan's 2015 hit music video "Rollercoaster," Camp Helen is bordered on three sides by water and features trails that pass through five different ecological zones. Pull up to an unassuming state park lodge, then take an easy half-mile walk to a quiet beach and hidden pier.
This nearly 3,000-acre conservation area features uplands and wetlands, 12 hiking/walking/running/biking trails ranging from 0.6 to 11 miles, and plenty of bird- and wildlife-spotting along the way. It's a great place to take long, meditative walks and get away from the hustle and bustle of beach town life for an afternoon spent alone with your thoughts—and plenty of trees.
Take to the Sea
There are countless options for boat rentals, cruising, and fishing in Panama City Beach. One of the most popular (and best-reviewed) sunset cruises is the two-hour evening sail with Paradise Adventures on a 52-foot catamaran (and A+ cocktails!). For private group tours ($249) for up to six people, I sailed with "The Dolphin Whisperer" Lorraine from Shell Island Shuttle. She'll take you ashore at Shell Island, a 700-acre barrier island only accessible by boat, as well as wildlife-spotting—we saw lots of exotic fish, cool jellyfish, sharks, and plenty of dolphins—and snorkeling.
Eat Like a Local
With a hugely prolific fishing industry in the region, sea-to-table cuisine is in no short supply in Panama City Beach. For the classic all-American and much-imitated-but-never-duplicated beach town restaurant hangout, head to family-friendly Schooner's, where you should definitely order some garlic-and-butter sauteed crab claws (off menu) and take in a night of live music from the soundstage right on the beach.
Breakfasts in town are also A+ at Thomas Donut & Snack Shop, where the namesake donuts are wildly creative (case in point: Samoa Girl Scout Cookie Donuts), and Andy's Flour Power, where New Yorker-turned-PCB restaurateur John Cerbo turns out perfect southern plates. (The biscuits and gravy are to die for—and the cheese grits are heaven.) Vegetarians and the health-conscious will enjoy a visit to the Zen Garden Market & Lotus Cafe, a collection of four businesses—a cafe, market, coffee shop, and yoga studio—built on a foundation of whole foods and wellness. And for fine dining, nothing beats seafood, sushi, and steakhouse Firefly, where President and Mrs. Obama dined in 2014 and whose executive chef was selected to cook for the U.S. team during the London Olympics in 2012.