With the warming temperatures thoughts are beginning to turn toward outdoor activities and maybe even summer travel plans. For many, that includes a trip of some sort to the beach. And here in the South, that means the Gulf Coast, particularly the stretch from Gulf Shores, Ala., eastward through the Florida beach communities of Pensacola, Ft. Walton Beach, Destin, Seaside and Panama City Beach.
That last one can be a tricky beach destination for some to consider. Many think of Panama City Beach as the epicenter of college spring break and the epitome of tackiness. But while it remains a spring break destination, Panama City Beach has been reinventing itself over the past 10 years.
It started with a complete beach restoration after hurricanes in the 1990s eroded the beach. Then, many of the small mom-and-pop motels began coming down, replaced by towering condominium towers. (I'm not going to argue for the existence of condo high-rise towers, by the way, but I will say they look better than the truly seedy motels that dotted PCB before.)
In the past couple of years, PCB has joined the national retail craze with the establishment of an outdoor mall -- the industry calls them lifestyle centers. For the most part, Pier Park offers retail options that can be found at home in every suburb, which goes against my philosophy of local travel. But in the context of reinventing PCB, I won't argue with its existence.
The latest reinvention of PCB is the opening this May of a new airport that will feature a runway capable of landing transatlantic flights. Southwest Airlines will offer direct flights from four cities: Nashville, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., Baltimore and Houston. That will really open up not only PCB, but the Florida Gulf Coast in general to the U.S.
I will say there are two beach communities in Florida I prefer over Panama City Beach: Apalachicola Bay and St. George's Island to the east and Seaside to the west. But that's one of several reasons Panama City Beach is the perfect spot for us.
Random street view in Apalachicola near the river
We can be to Apalachicola Bay within a couple of hours along a scenic beachfront highway, where we can sample the world's greatest oysters and spend a day of walking the very quiet and quaint streets, as seen above.
Sunset in Seaside
We can drive 20 minutes west and enjoy the entertainment, atmosphere and shopping of Seaside without paying the high prices of staying there. And another 20 minutes west is Destin and its Silver Sands Factory Stores.
This is not my most ideal trip, although I believe everyone needs a trip to a beach, a mountain, a lakeside cabin; somewhere quiet to unwind and enjoy life instead of discovering new cultures and cities.
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