Family fun in the sun: Panama City Beach - MetroFamily Magazine
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Family fun in the sun: Panama City Beach

As the idea of giving experiences in lieu of holiday gifts gains traction across the country, consider gifting your kids a vacation this year. Whether it’s a weekend getaway, spring break fling or summer soiree, spending the holiday budget, entirely or partially, on a trip can alleviate the addition of more stuff (hallelujah!) and give the whole family something to look forward to after the magic of the holidays passes.

For our family of five, nothing says vacation like the sugar white beaches and turquoise waters of Florida’s Emerald Coast. We try to visit annually, fitting our travel plans around whatever budget we can afford that year. We’ve traveled by plane and car, stayed in condos and beach houses, visited on our own and with other family members.

December is prime time to book summertime beach fun in Florida, making this an ideal time to wrap up reservation confirmations and package as a holiday gift. Making plans in December also feels especially appropriate since my kids start yearning for the sunshine as dreary January turns to frigid February. They ask at least once a week how many more days it will be until we can hit the beach (my pained answer: a lot).

With so many choices of popular beach towns, it’s hard to know where to start your search. I’ve stayed everywhere from Gulf Shores, Alabama to Clearwater, Destin and Pensacola, Florida, and while every beach town has perks, the friendly, eclectic town of Panama City Beach has my family’s heart.

Why Panama City Beach

The truth is, those white sandy beaches and blue water are just as beautiful wherever you go along 30A, the highway meandering along Florida’s coast. The key is finding a beach community that’s not so jam-packed with visitors, high rises and tourist traps that you can relax and enjoy the beauty. Panama City offers plenty of activities, culinary delights and family fun without feeling overly commercialized, all at a variety of price points.

According to Visit Panama City Beach, PCB is home to more than 27 miles of those sugary white beaches, boasts more than 320 days of sunshine per year and has one of the highest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins in the world.

Those dolphin sightings are one of our favorite parts about this beach town. Though we can usually catch sight of a few as we build sand castles on the beach, the best way to see them in their natural habitat is through a dolphin cruise. The Sea Screamer (850-235-3000, seascreamer.net) offers a beautiful and educational sunset cruise, where we have been fortunate to see a host of playful dolphins jumping over and surfing in the boat’s wake. Deckhands pull up a crab trap to teach guests about the area’s eco-life, allowing kids to touch or hold sea creatures.

While the Sea Screamer has about 40 passengers onboard, a more intimate cruise or snorkeling option is Florida Dolphin & Snorkel Tours (850-866-8815, dolphinandsnorkeltours.com), offering two to three hour experiences in boats holding up to six passengers. Tours typically include seeing dolphins, sometimes getting in the water nearby to observe them, a visit to Shell Island, a nature preserve and bird sanctuary, and snorkeling if desired. Local captains have great respect for wildlife and enjoy passing on history and appreciation for their home to guests.

Though rain can be frequent in summer months, it usually doesn’t last long and there are plenty of indoor activities when the beach isn’t an option. Our favorite rainy day destination is Gulf World Marine Park (850-234-5271, gulfworldmarinepark.com), a small but educational home to dolphins, sea lions, seals, sea turtles, sharks, penguins, tropical birds and fish. Daily shows throughout the park’s indoor and outdoor exhibits (which are covered and enjoyable even in poor weather) teach guests about the ocean’s fragile ecosystem, the species who call the park home and how to protect and preserve marine life. Don’t miss the sea lion and rough toothed dolphin show — Gulf World is the only North American facility to house rough toothed dolphins. Not far from Gulf World is Pier Park (www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/pier-park), which includes an IMAX theater and laser tag, as well as a variety of restaurants and shopping.

Camp Helen State Park (850-233-5059, www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/camp-helen-state-park) offers hiking, fishing, kayak rentals, picnicking and wildlife viewing, as well as a small indoor visitors center with a few exhibits and children’s activities. St. Andrews State Park (850-708-6100, www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/st-andrews-state-park) allows cyclists, offers boat tours to Shell Island and has snorkeling equipment for rent.

Panama City Beach has nearly a hundred public beach access points, some with public parking. But the best way to enjoy the beach in Panama City is to secure accommodations on it, primarily condos for rent, but hotel and motel options are available, too. Beachfront Splash Resort (1-800-3-SPLASH, splashresort.com) offers an onsite indoor/outdoor waterpark overlooking the ocean, as well as a dive-in theater, arcade, mini bowling alley and splash pad. Full-size kitchens and washers and dryers clinched the deal for our family’s stay. Though with less amenities than a resort or hotel, smaller condos or beach house rentals on the water will typically mean less competition for your own patch of sand.

If your rental has a kitchen stop by Buddy’s Seafood Market (850-234-2609, www.buddysseafoodmarket.com) in town for fresh-caught shrimp, which they’ll steam for you, grouper or snapper and smoked tuna dip. For fine dining, Firefly (850-249-3359, fireflypcb.com) offers tasty farm- and gulf-to-table options from lobster to artisan pizza. Its location in a strip center is deceiving, but once inside, the elegant décor, including a huge tree covered in white twinkle lights, makes you feel you’ve been transported to another world.

For much more casual fare, visit Finn’s Island Grub (multiple locations, www.finnsgrub.com) for made-to-order tacos (get the fish) enjoyed outdoors at family-style picnic tables. Voted best cafe and bakery on Panama City Beach, Andy’s Flour Power (850-230-0014, andysflourpower.com) serves mouth-watering breakfast and brunch options from French toast and Belgian waffles to shrimp and grits and a surf and turf omelette. Its popularity can mean a wait and a noisy meal. Grab a pastry to enjoy later (or in the car — no judgment!) on your way out.

If you’re seeking a quieter, more secluded spot, there are options just outside Panama City Beach. Our family’s favorite is quaint Carillon Beach (carillon-beach.com), a gated community with beach homes of varying sizes for rent, complete with three pools, a playground and small downtown area. The beach is easy walking distance no matter your location within the neighborhood, perfect for little ones (or their parents) who need a nap in the heat of the day. The beach is never crowded, kayaks and paddle boards are available to rent for the adventurous and comfy lounge chairs are set up and taken down for you each day.

For families with older kids, bustling Rosemary Beach (866-348-8952, rosemarybeach.com) provides more shopping, restaurants and activities, still within easy walking and biking distance of the beach and condos. The Havana Beach Rooftop Lounge (www.thepearlrb.com/dining/rooftop-lounge-en.html) offers stunning views of the sunset, and nearby La Crema Tapas & Chocolate (850-534-3004, www.lacrematapas.com) is a favorite casual family or date night choice with mouth-watering Spanish-inspired offerings like seafood paella, enfuego chicken or chili pork tacos.

The laid-back beach community of Inlet Beach (www.visitsouthwalton.com/neighborhoods/inlet-beach) is home to our family’s favorite culinary attraction, the Donut Hole (850-213-3127), a bakery and diner with donut specialties like red velvet, key lime-filled and chocolate peanut butter. While you wait, or to work off your breakfast, enjoy yard games or the breezy outdoor patio. Whole key lime pies available to go are worth all the hype.

Near the Santa Rosa and Seaside communities is Watercolor Resort (www.watercolorresort.com), an active, family-friendly neighborhood with accommodations ranging from rental homes to an inn, all with access to outdoor activities, parks, shopping and restaurants.

Whether you choose to gift your family with a beach vacation or just put this locale on your bucket list for future travels, quality time at Panama City Beach is sure to create memories that last forever.

For activity, accommodation and restaurant recommendations specific to your family’s vacation needs, visit www.visitpanamacitybeach.com/make-it-yours/quiz.