By Kent Danjanovich
Now for those of you that think that I only write about Alaska and all that it has to offer, after getting an offer to visit a destination a little bit farther east and south definitely seemed to offer a distinct change of scenery. Summer in Alaska and fall in Florida – what a great idea!
It’s not that I haven’t visited this part of the country a number of times over the years, but it was usually with family and friends and those trips really never gave me the opportunity to really check out what it had to offer. On this trip to Panama City Beach, my eyes would definitely open a little wider.
First let’s start with a little history about the area, in the NW section of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico.
Before modern settlement began in the 1800’s, the St. Andrew Bay area was home to Native Americans. Then, as today, the abundant fish in the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrew Bay provided fresh seafood to those original locals, as well as visitors to the sandy white shores.
Spanish explorers gave the St. Andrew Bay its present name in the 1500’s as they explored the northeast gulf coast. Pirates also found the deep pockets of the Bay to be a prime spot to lie in wait for richly laden European ships en route to Mexico or Spain. An old Spanish galleon and a 700-pound cannon were unearthed during construction of a motel in the early 60’s, proving the presence of such pirates and opening the door to the possibility of pirate treasure! Thanks to the sinking of modern day ships for artificial reefs, the Gulf of Mexico waters off Panama City Beach are well known with sport divers, who find treasure of a different kind in colorful marine life and underwater adventure, prompting Skin Diver Magazine to dub the area the “Wreck Diving Capital of the Southeast.”
Although the area was alive with settlers and the St. Andrew Bay was even the site of a skirmish during the Civil War, Panama City Beach’s history doesn’t officially begin until May 2, 1936, when the city was founded. The city’s name was reportedly based on being the nearest American port to the newly opened Panama Canal. Surrounding the new city were other, small cities known as West Panama City Beach, Long Beach and Edgewater. Some years later, the four merged to form a single chartered government, which kept the name of Panama City Beach.
In 1935, developer Gideon Thomas built the Panama City Hotel. Thomas saw great potential in the area for tourism development at a time when most people were only concerned with harvesting crops. Many criticized his vision of Panama City Beach, arguing that there was no future in what they deemed “the ugly white sand.”
Thomas told his critics, “I’m not attempting to grow vegetables here; I’m going to grow people.” And grow people he did! It wasn’t long before Gideon Thomas’ ideas began to catch on and the beach became a popular destination for fun-loving travelers. In the 30s and 40s the beach was known for a beach bar called “The Hangout.” The white building with bright red trim was a hotspot for dancing and mingling on the beach until it was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975.
Through the years the face of Panama City Beach has continued to evolve and change. Today it is a premiere destination for visitors from around the world, most of whom flock to bask in the Florida sun, play on the beautiful white sand beaches, tee it up for a round or two on the great golf courses of the area and watch the same amazing sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico that travelers and locals alike have been treated to for thousands of years.
It is no wonder that the area is so popular. I don’t know if I have visited another place quite like it to be honest. Along with averaging 320 days a year of sunshine, the area boasts just about everything for every type of traveler that you can imagine – fishing, nature parks, golfing, shopping, food, attractions and of course, miles of beautiful white sand beaches, all contributing to making Panama City Beach a truly year round destination.
Since I do enjoy casting a line on most of my adventures, let’s first delve into the fishing side of things. Panama City Beach is famous for fishing of all kinds – especially deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. But serious anglers also catch plenty of fish from the piers along the beach and St. Andrew Bay or by casting a line directly from the shore. Anglers also enjoy bay fishing or scouting a local river or freshwater lake as well.
On our visit, fellow Pro-staffer, Rick Rosenberg joined me, as his expertise in fishing many waters around the world for hundreds of different species would really come in handy, both before and during the trip. On our first morning of the trip, we walked out of our suite at ‘Sterling Resort Reflections at Bay Point’ (850-236-6190) on the southeastern end of the 27 mile long beach area, down the dock in the bay and to our awaiting boat and its Captain, Todd Jones of Back Bay Adventures (850-819-5829). After a quick stop for some larger bait, we headed around the corner as Captain Todd readied his casting net and zeroed in on the abundant balls of smaller bait fish that we would be using as ‘chum’ in our quest as we headed off-shore for the next few hours.
Five hours later, Rick and I found ourselves tired and sore, as Captain Todd had us on fish from beginning to end. Amberjack’s, Red Snapper and King Mackerel seemed to be literally everywhere and as we capped off our trip, Rick hooked up on a nice 20 pounder (Amberjack) on his 11 weight fly rod that added a little frosting to the cake and capped a truly great day on the water.
I can’t wait to get back to the area during other parts of the year, as other targeted species include Redfish, Sheep Head, Speckled Trout, Bonito, Grouper, Cobia, Sailfish and Tarpon both in the open waters of the Gulf as well as the sheltered bays and flats of the areas state parks.
The Panama City Beach area also offers fishermen four great fishing piers to choose from – three that reach far out into the Gulf of Mexico and another that offers anglers a chance to cast their line into the Grand Lagoon.
The two most prominent fishing piers in Panama City Beach are the identical Russell-Fields Pier and the M.B. Miller Pier, often referred to as the City Pier and the County Pier. Constructed within a year of each other (completed in 2009 and 2010), these two concrete piers are built to resist hurricane damage and are the longest twin fishing piers on the Gulf of Mexico, stretching some 1,500 feet into excellent fishing grounds. In addition to fishermen, the piers are popular with spectators as well, who enjoy walking out over the water, witnessing some amazing catches and just enjoying the unique view of the beach and the clear emerald waters swirling around the pilings of the piers.
St. Andrews State Park offers two fishing piers, one (The Tiller Pier) on the Gulf Side and the other fishing pier gives fishermen access to the protected waters of the Grand Lagoon. Fishing or walking on these piers is free, although there is a charge to enter the state park.
Next, how about some golf. With five championship golf courses (including the only Nicklaus Design course in northwest Florida), 320 days of sunshine a year and an average temperature of 74 degrees, it’s no wonder that Golf Digest has named Panama City Beach one of America’s top three golf towns. There’s plenty of variety, too. In fact, with 162-holes to play, you’d be hard pressed to squeeze all the great golf Panama City Beach offers into one vacation.
Thanks to affordable greens fees and tee times available year-round, golfers from all over the world always make sure they bring their clubs along. During our stay, we teed it up at the Hombre Golf Club, host of the second stage of the PGA’s Qualifying School.
The best beach vacation – period, that’s what Panama City Beach, Florida offers for every kind of fun imaginable, so you can surround yourself with emerald waters, white sand beaches, temperate weather and have the time of your life. No matter who you are or what you enjoy, you’ll find your kind of fun in Panama City Beach.
Legendary worldwide for their breathtaking white sand beaches and southern hospitality, Panama City Beach, Florida is a natural draw for those seeking the warmth and sunshine of a tropical climate with its let-your-hair down kind of charm.
Facts about Panama City Beach:
- 5-foot high bridge spans, ten barges, specifically designed artificial reefs and others.
- Natural reefs, just a few miles from shore, range in depth from 80 to 100 feet and form ledges from three to eight feet in height. They offer ideal habitat for marine life and Located in northwest Florida, just 98 miles southwest of Tallahassee and 297 miles southwest of Atlanta. Perfect spot for a Florida vacation!
- The city has a year-round population of just over 12,000.
- Ever wonder why their beaches stay so clean & powdery white? The legendary pure white sand of Panama City Beach is attributed to quartz crystals washing down from the Appalachian Mountains centuries ago. Along their journey, the crystals were bleached, ground, smoothed and polished. The surf and tides of the Gulf of Mexico is responsible for depositing these millions of grains of sugar-white sand onto the pristine shoreline – the result of this rigorous process is the beautiful, renowned beaches of Panama City Beach.
- St. Andrews State Park has been named the ‘#2 Ranked Beach in America’ by Trip Advisor. The 1,260 acre park has forests, sand dunes covered with sea oats, fresh and saltwater marshes, a lagoon swimming area, fishing jetties, hiking trails, 1.5 miles of beach and two campgrounds. Opened in 1951, St. Andrews was once the site of a World War II Military Reservation and has won the World’s Best Beach Award.
- The city is also known as the Wreck Capital of the South due to the large number of historic wrecks for scuba divers to explore.
- Panama City Beach is home to one of the country’s largest sport fishing fleets.
- The area boasts one of the highest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins in the world, one of the many reasons Panama City Beach travel is so popular.
- A community-coordinated project with Panama City Marine Institute led to the development of 50 artificial reefs off Panama City Beach. The natural reefs range in depth from 80 to 100 feet and are just a few miles offshore. These reefs range in height from three to eight feet and are teeming with sea life, including small corals and colorful sponges.
- Florida Ironman Triathlon has been held since 1999.
- Home to the only Deepwater Diving Museum in the U.S., the Museum of Man in the Sea and the U.S. Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center.
- Speaking of diving, the Gulf waters surrounding Panama City Beach provide the perfect home for a wide variety of marine life. Sea turtles, Goliath grouper and bottlenose dolphin are just a few of the species that you can spot in the emerald waters or northwest Florida, making Panama City Beach your ideal jumping off point for an amazing diving adventure.
- Dive Charters in Panama City Beach offer trips year-round and there are multiple dive shops in the area that can certify beginners to dive, take you on a Discover Scuba trip or tailor an offshore expedition for expert scuba divers.
- Historic wrecks are scattered throughout the region and include the 185-foot Black Bart, the 441-foot World War II Liberty Ship and the 465-foot Empire Mica. Because of these and so many other artificial reefs in the area, Skin Diver Magazine dubbed Panama City Beach the “Wreck Diving Capital of the Southeast.”
- In addition to sunken ships, new artificial reefs are continuously being added to promote sea life. These reefs include a hovercraft, fighter jets, fifteen 160-foot long and 3
- scuba divers are treated to views including small corals and colorful sponges. From the shore, the jetties at St. Andrews State Park are popular spots for snorkelers as well.
- And of course, the shopping, restaurants and nightlife of the area are worth the price of admission all on their own! Pier Park Panama City Beach is a 900,000+ square foot Florida shopping center and entertainment hub located in the heart of this beachside city. Serving as the premiere northwest Florida shopping destination, this mecca offers dining, specialty shops, attractions, special events and more. Pardon the pun, but you can really get your feet wet with all that Panama City Beach has to offer!
So what are you waiting for? If you haven’t visited this part of the country, you are definitely missing out on a great adventure. It is no wonder that it has become such a well-known destination for visitors from around the world. Panama City Beach, Florida truly has it all. Check them out on the web at www.visitpanamacitybeach.com to find out even more of what they have to offer for your next vacation.