When friends said: "Let's go to Panama City Beach," I must admit I was skeptical. The Northern Florida beach town was notorious for being the Capital of Spring Break ever since MTV started filming the wet T-shirt contests and drunken shenanigans that took over the town every March.
What I didn't know was that a couple years ago Panama City Beach sent MTV packing and was working aggressively to change its image.
PCB is, in fact, a perfect destination for more wholesome visitors: families with kids. The town offers enough waffle houses, miniature golf courses, dolphin water shows, dolphin cruises and affordable accommodations to make most families happy. In addition to the major hotel brands -- Days Inn, Hamptons Inn, Holiday Inn and Wyndham, with rates starting nicely under $100, depending on the season -- there are 16,000 condo rooms to rent, with kitchenettes to make your own waffles.
Sports enthusiasts can stay busy with fishing, tennis, snorkeling, four different 18-hole golf courses (including the only Jack Nicklaus-designed one in Florida) and opportunities to earn diving certificates; Navy divers train here, in fact, and the military, together with tourism, are PCB's biggest businesses. For nature lovers, there's St. Andrews State Park, with 176 campsites, walking trails and 300 species of birds, from osprey to bald eagles. And alligators.
I was attracted by the well-priced Seabreeze Jazz Fest with its appealing roster of performers (Boney James, Roman Street and Brian Culbertson when I was there in 2013) and $75 day passes, which sounded like fun and a nifty way to get some sun in April, when my hometown New York City is still pretty chilly.
Another attraction: The 27 miles of sugar white beach, truly one of the widest, whitest beaches I've ever had the pleasure to wiggle my toes in. The sand is, in fact, white quartz, not your typical silicone. "If you put our sand next to sugar," locals like to brag, "You can't tell the difference." And, in an unusual twist, it squeaks when you walk on it.
After spending a weekend in Panama City Beach, I found another reason to enjoy it: food. Come with a big appetite and throw caution to the wind. We had breakfast at the appropriately named Fatty Patty's and devoured the Cinnamon Roll French Toast, a delicious exercise in saccharine redundancy. Another morning, we joined the line at Andy's Flour Power for homemade hummingbird cake (carrot cake with pineapple and bananas). Owner John Certo hands out coffee and biscuits to those waiting in line ("I wanted to be like the TV show 'Cheers,'" he said, "except serve breakfast instead of alcohol.") At night we splurged on Firefly, where the Obamas had eaten, and where I tasted the local grouper stuffed with crabmeat that chef Paul Stellato had prepared for the Olympics in London.
The Seabreeze Jazz Fest itself was great. Our day passes allowed us to come and go as we wished, and make frequent trips to all the vendors lined up at the perimeter selling all the corn dogs, fried fish, beer and crafts like hand-made jewelry to keep this girl happy. All to the accompaniment of some very smooth jazz. This year's line-up (it runs from April 23-27) includes The Family Stone and Eric Darius, and day passes are $80.
It was all a great escape, especially since the town's promise of 320 days of sunshine every year didn't disappoint. I left with the suntan to prove it.