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.