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Panama City, FL – Watersports & Sun

Posted By Jay On January 19, 2010 @ 10:00 am In Featured Articles,US Travel Reviews | No Comments

Watersports, fresh seafood and some of the best partying around – Panama City is no longer the “Red-Neck Riviera”!

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Destination at a Glance

Date of Trip June 2009
Destination Good for Watersports, Partying, Eating (seafood)
Best Time to Go
Anytime – though Summers are Hot/Hurricane season
Currency/Conv. Rate NA
Good Way to Get Around Own Car: Yes Public: No Taxi: No Walking: Yes
Appox. Trip Cost Moderate to Expensive
Speaks English? NA
Entry Requirements NA
Do it
  • PADI Discover Scuba
  • Fresh Seafood
  • Dolphin Jet Ski Tour
  • The Beach
Skip it
  • Traffic
  • Pineapple Willy’s Ribs
Didn’t get to do Shipwreck Water Park
Would I Recommend Yes
Overall Trip Rating Trip RatingTrip RatingTrip RatingTrip RatingTrip Rating

Trip Review

What used to be called the “Red Neck Riviera”, Panama City has transformed into a serious beach getaway in less than a decade.  The ‘strip’ used to be lined with shady rundown Waffle-House looking restaurants; these days – you’ll be hard pressed to find any restaurant on the strip – just miles of condos and hotels.

Panama City is located on what is called Florida’s panhandle – or Northwest corner of the state in the Gulf of Mexico.  Though it has a growing airport, it’s not the most efficient method of getting there if you live beyond the neighboring Southern states (few airlines offer direct flights from locations outside of the Southeast).  Even within the Southeast region, flights into Panama City can be quite expensive.  Luckily, Panama City is less than a six hour drive from a number of southern destinations, including New Orleans, Atlanta and Birmingham.

Panama City is similar to Miami in that they are almost always confused with their neighboring cities – Panama City Beach and Miami Beach respectively.  When you hear people talk about what a great time they had in “Miami” – 99% of the time they are really talking about “Miami Beach” – a completely separate city across a water channel.  There is actually very little to do (for a tourist at least) in Miami.  This is the same for Panama City.  For the remainder of this review – assume I really mean Panama City Beach.

Big Time Water Sports

Panama City has an abundance of two things – beaches and water related activities.  There are several water related activities to get into, including:

  • Dolphin Tour Jet Skis – For whatever reason, a gang of Dolphins have made several lagoons off Panama City their home for at least the last 10 years.  A few local operators are taking advantage of this by offering 2-hour Jet Ski tours to see these dolphins.  In essence, the tour consists of a follow the leader trek in the Gulf, a short stop on “Shell Island”, followed by 20 minutes in the dolphin ‘area’.  The area seems to always have a dolphin nearby – some of the dolphins will even jump out of the water next to your jet ski almost on cue for you to snap your picture.  Many folks jump in the water and swim with the dolphins. $90  Sunshine Water Sports
  • Parasailing – There are at least 5 different operators right on the beach offering parasailing rides.  For the uninitiated, Parasailing is being attached to a parachute while being drawn by a relatively fast speedboat.  The speed of the boat and resistance of the parachute causes the person to float in the air – usually 400ft-800ft high.  The process usually involves several “dips” or times where the boat stops its engines and allows the rider to slowly descend into the water.  Just as the rider hits the water, the boat driver speeds off – causing the rider to ascend again.  I went parasailing to get over my fear of heights.  As it turns out, I realized I wasn’t scared of heights, I was afraid of falling.  In the end, Parasailing sounds a lot cooler than it actually is – but still something one should experience once in their lifetime.
  • Deep Sea Fishing – This was a first for me – though it really wasn’t deep sea fishing so much as it was ‘off-shore’ fishing – the difference primarily being the size of the catch.  You’ll need to go several hundred miles into deep water to catch a giant marlin, swordfish or shark.  Nevertheless – this was a blast.  I hadn’t been fishing since I was a kid – so reeling in 2½ foot King Mackerels and Red Snappers was an awesome experience.  If you decide to go, I’d suggest going the private charter route, e.g., a boat that maxes out at 8 passengers.  While more expensive than the 30-50 people offerings – you’ll actually get a chance to – you know – fish!  You can decrease the overall costs by filling the 8 people maximum – as you are paying for the time on the boat – not the number of people.  I paid $500 for 4 hours (that would be $40 pp with 8 people) – but prices vary based on how far off shore you want to go out.  Fishing Charters
  • Sailboat Rentals – Though not a prevalent as it used to be 5-6 years ago due to liability reasons, there are 1-2 operators still offering sailboat rentals.  The sailboats offers are 20’-20’ catamarans built for speed.  Word of caution – these are not guided tours – you must already know how to captain a sailboat.  You break it – you bought it!
  • Scuba Diving – Panama City is where I first tried Scuba Diving and also where I became a certified diver.  The great thing about the waters in Panama City is they are relatively calm; thus are perfect for getting into the sport.  There are several dive operators that offer the PADI ‘Discover Scuba’ adventure – which is an introduction to scuba diving that lets you actually dive to about 30ft under the supervision of a scuba instructor.  The dive center provides everything necessary to complete the 3-hour process including a short training session and all of the equipment.  Costs about $100 pp and can be scheduled through Dive Locker Panama City.
  • Shipwreck Island Waterpark – If actual ocean activities weren’t enough, there’s also a waterpark.  Though the rides themselves aren’t necessarily unique, the park does serve as an alternative method of cooling off without getting sand and salt water all over you.  On the other hand – it isn’t free!  $32 – Shipwreck Island Water Park



Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Panama City has a good deal of fresh local seafood available on a daily basis.  While there are certainly a few below average buffet establishments, Captain Andersons, Pompanos and Bayou on the Beach are real standouts serving local seafood.  Bayou on the Beach even cleaned and cooked my fresh King Mackerel catch from my Deep Sea Fishing expedition.  One place to skip is Pineapple Willies – at least for the ribs.  This is the worst overpriced, oven baked, itty-bitty container having junk I’ve ever tasted.  Nice location on the beach and plenty of people in swim suits – but the food is no better than the standard Applebee’s fair.

A Little More About Panama City

While there are miles and miles of beaches, the ability to actually see the water is becoming increasingly difficult.  The byproduct of growing from an old hick town to a truly worthwhile destination is the increase in condos/hotels directly on the beachfront.  While this is nice if you need a place to stay, it’s not so nice if you aren’t staying in one the beachfront properties.  Each property on the beach can designate the sand directly in front of their property as private: translation – you need to pay to get a chair, use the volleyball net, etc.  There are public sections of the beach; however they just aren’t the most conveniently located.

Speaking of places to stay, there aren’t many ‘name brand’ hotel chains on the beach.  While they is a Holiday Inn, Marriott and Hilton in the area – only the Holiday Inn is actually on the beachfront.  Most of the ‘hotels’ aren’t actually hotels – they are really condos renting the units until they can actually sell all of the units in the building.  This isn’t necessarily a negative – as condo units tend to be better furnished and often have kitchens/kitchenettes.

Another thing to keep in mind with Panama City is the traffic.  In a word – it’s Awful!!!  The street infrastructure – particularly in the beachfront area – has not kept up with the amazing growth of the area.  Front Beach Road (or the ‘strip’) runs along the beachfront and is the primary access route to most hotels.  Problem is Front Beach Rd. is only a single lane in each direction.  This means any accident or delay (such as a carload of guys/girls yelling at a carload of guys/girls in the opposite lane) just kills traffic.  It used to be traffic was only bad in the evenings when the partying started – now it’s all day every day.  Expect frequent 3-5 mph trips down this street.  If you need to get from one side of the strip to the other, try Hutchinson or US98 instead.

One of the reasons traffic is getting exponentially worse is the new Pier Park mall on the far East end of the strip. This huge mall takes up at least a couple square miles and includes an outdoor amusement park and several outdoor restaurants/businesses.  It’s a great place to hang out, but since one of the entrances is on Front Beach Rd, traffic jams getting in/out of the mall affects the entire strip.  Use the north entrance to the mall on US98.

Finally, I’ve never been to an environment that had so many bathing suit stores.  There are at least 100 bathing suit stores in Panama City – with at least 20 or so being the $9.99 or less variety.  Another thing to be aware of is really, I mean really gets crowded during the Spring Break (March) and during the annual Thunder Beach bike rally (March-April).  It will be very crowded, hotels will charge 30% extra and it will be very loud.  You have been warned.

Non-Water Related Fun

You may not know this, but Panama City claims to have the largest club in the country – Club La Vela.  This large venue is situated right on the sandy beach and has 10 separate rooms each with a different theme, e.g., Rock-n-Roll, Hip-Hop, Top-40, etc.  This is where many of the MTV Spring Break festivities are held.

In the old days, you could trailer down your motorcycle and enjoy the sun as you jumped from spot to spot.  With no helmet laws in Florida, you could jump right out of the water and onto your bike for a cool ride.  With the traffic these days – riding a motorcycle is a complete waste of time – at least on the strip.  On the off chance there isn’t traffic on the strip or you are going inland, there are several scooter rental outfits if you don’t have your own bike.

Finally, there used to be there was a carnival smack dab in the middle of the strip – complete with bungee jumping and a Ferris wheel.  Most of these activities have been moved to the Pier Park mall.

In Closing

Panama City has come a long way in a very short time.  While Miami may be a better place to ‘watch’ the people, cars and mansions – Panama City is where you actually ‘do’ something – specifically if it’s water related.  In addition, the beach itself isn’t as nasty as those in Miami tend to get.  The new Pier Place mall and the million dollar condos along the strip has really transformed this quiet little hick town into a very appealing beach getaway.  Just watch out for the traffic!

Happy Travels!!

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