Kids are out of school, temperatures are regularly hitting the 90s, and people everywhere are pulling out grills, bathing suits and sunscreen. With the start of summer, it’s also the official start of vacation season. And if you’re thinking beaches, you need to know Panama City, Fla., is your closest slice of sand and salt-water paradise.
U.S. Highway 98 connects Panama City with its auxiliary but equally awesome city, Panama City Beach. The two cities are literally seconds apart, so think of them as a “twofer.” You can easily include both in your itinerary.
Less than 200 miles and just under four hours away, the cities offer a variety of traditional tourist highlights, such as water parks, museums, beach-themed boutiques and boat tours. Below, some of the best are highlighted, but check out www.visitpanamacitybeach.com for a full listing of all there is to eat, see and do in the area.
Emerald Coast Mirror Maze & Laser Craze Mirrors and lasers — seems like a winning combination, right? At this unique Panama City Beach attraction, you can stumble through a maze of more than 100 mirrors with remixed dance music pounding in time to the blinking, low-lit colored lights.
It’s not a kids game, though the little ones are welcome. It’s disorienting, slightly psychedelic and loads of fun, especially for groups and families. You can go through the 2,300-square-foot labyrinth multiple times, in different entrances, together and separately, on one ticket, which makes this more affordable than some attractions at $9.50 a person.
The place also offers laser tag and a laser-dodging game called Laser Craze. Both are under $10. For more information, visit www.emeraldcoastmirrormaze.com.
St. Andrews State Park If you want to camp, fish, boat, hike or swim, this is the place to go. Located at the very tip of the Panama City Beach “peninsula,” the 700-acre state park is a nature-lover’s getaway. For wildlife aficionados, check out the alligators at Gator Lake, birds on Bird Island or — if luck favors your visit — the sea turtles, deer and dolphins that live incognito around the park.
But the real gem is the beach. Choose from two miles of sand accessible by foot or the uninhabited shores of Shell Island, only a boat ride away.
“Everything around this park revolves around water,” said Brian Addison, park manager and retired NCO. He called Shell Island, an uninhabited beach near the park, “a throwback in time, no condos, no structures the way Florida was before all that.”
The aptly named island is strewn with shells collectors are welcome to gather. The sand is white, the water, clear, and the birds, bold — a good opportunity for photographers to catch waterfowl up-close. Roundtrip tickets for the boat shuttle are $15 for adults and $7 for kids.
For more information, visit www.floridastateparks.org/standrews.
Pier Park If you like your shopping al fresco, visit Pier Park, a 1.1-million-square-foot center with more than 100 stores selling everything from novelty popcorn to old-fashioned toys. By way of dining, there’s Italian, Japanese, German, Caribbean and American cuisine. For a treat, I recommend Bippy’s By the Beach, a pay-by-weight frozen yogurt shop.
Along with the chain stores and locally owned boutiques, the outdoor mall is home to the Miracle Strip, a carnival with all the traditional rides and a butterfly pavilion.
Pier Park borders the Gulf of Mexico, so you can walk out on a boardwalk overlooking the water for a nominal fee, or bring a snack and dine on the sand.
For more information, visit www.panamacitybeachonline.com/PierPark.
Bay Point Marriott Golf Resort & Spa Sometimes where you stay can be a vacation destination in itself. This expansive resort is located right on the bay, minutes from St. Andrews State Park. It boasts five swimming pools, five tennis courts, four restaurants, two championship golf courses and the full-service Serenity Spa.
Other on-site activities include kayak rentals, parasailing and wave runner tours. There’s even a Kid’s Club for youngsters.
One of the best features is the Bay Point Lady, which sails from the hotel to Shell Island multiple times a day and is complimentary for guests. The boat holds just under 50 passengers and offers a pleasant ride to the island.
Service members can stay at the Bay Point Marriott at a discounted rate if they show their military ID.
For more information, visit www.marriottbaypoint.com.
Worth the detour If you take U.S. Highway 431 south toward Panama City, Fla., you’ll pass through the small city of Dothan, Ala. The “Peanut Capital of the World” boasts the Army Aviation Museum, a pick-your-own grapes vineyard, a series of detailed historical murals and — naturally — a giant gold peanut statue.
All of these have free admission, but the one that tops the list is the Dothan Area Botanical Gardens.
This free, 50-acre sanctuary features a formal rose garden, gazebo, pergola, koi pond, fountains and a host of plants. It’s the perfect place to stop for a picnic on your way to Florida.
For more information, call 334-793-3224. For more on the area, go to www.VisitDothanAL.com.