The leisurely pace of Florida’s Panama City Beach contrasts with the adrenaline rush of Orlando. But, as Domhnall O’Donoghue discovered, families can still do as much or as little as they like here.
No matter how many sandcastles you’ve built in your youth, it’s never too late to hone your skills. This morning, I’m standing on Panama City Beach’s white-coloured sand surrounded by rows of striped umbrellas, sheltering fellow holiday-makers from the growing temperatures. While trips to this northwest region of Florida are typically stress-free, today I’m bucking that trend by pursuing a sandcastle lesson; my arms weighed down by an array of tools and utensils, including spades, spatulas, bottomless buckets, dusters and straws.
Expect thrills of a different sort on Panama City Beach
As black-bellied plovers and sanderlings keep an eye on proceedings overhead, Jeff D. Robb, the pun-loving owner of That Sandcastle Guy, shares his many secrets to achieving the best results, like water, angles, foot-stepping, and plenty of imagination.
“Some kids become distracted after 10 minutes, and their parents take over – or the parents are perfectionists and can’t help but get involved!” he jokes while we carve miniature windows into turrets to allow our princess to glimpse the translucent Gulf of Mexico.
A child, yet to reach double-digits, strolls by and compliments our efforts before immediately qualifying that it lacks the grandeur of the one she built with her grandfather earlier that week. Everyone’s a critic, it seems.
Discover a perfect reprieve from rollercoasters
Florida may be America’s most-visited state, thanks to the perennially popular theme parks to the east. However, at a six-hour drive from Orlando, Panama City Beach is the perfect reprieve from rollercoasters, Mickey Mouse and the spirited Atlantic Ocean. Parents I speak to during my stay note how safe, affordable and fun it is along this 26-mile beachfront strip. Better yet, the sand — quartz crystal from the Appalachian Mountains — doesn’t retain heat, so it’s ideal for delicate little feet.
Staying it forward in Panama City Beach
Another opportunity to use a spade on these beaches is by embracing the growing trend for voluntourism. In Panama City Beach this means planting sea oats along the coastline as protection from extreme weather: sadly common in this region, as exemplified by 2018’s devastating Hurricane Michael.
Sea oats play a critical role in coastal conservation because they anchor the dunes and stabilise beaches. So this initiative, spearheaded by the local tourist board with support from coastal engineer Lisa Armbruster, is a simple and engaging way to give back while enjoying all that’s on offer here.
Come enjoy the beaches and leave no trace
I’m told by Jayna Leach, Senior VP and CMO of Visit Panama City Beach, that her team promotes the ‘Stay it Forward’ ethos. One where tourists leave no trace while also positively contributing to the environment.
“The response to our sea oats project has been incredible. It encourages people to respect the world around them, especially vulnerable destinations. And children are our future generations, so starting the conversation about the environment at a young age is key,” she says, before adding that these beaches are shared with a wealth of wildlife, such as sea turtles.
Welcome to Florida’s natural family playground
Elsewhere, there are opportunities to kayak on Lake Powell or enjoy forest trails in Camp Helen State Park.
A recommended location for swimming and snorkelling is St Andrew’s State Park where a protective jetty, along with the absence of currents, ensures the waters are family-friendly.
Island Time Sailing offers catamaran trips to Shell Island — the best part of the expedition? A pod of dolphins will guide the way.
What and where to eat in Panama City Beach
On terra firma, Pier Park dazzles visitors with its selection of shops, bars and outdoor activities, including miniature golf — but if they’re not thrilling enough, try the view-tastic SkyWheel, which opened in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, Panama City Beach excels in cuisine. The sweet-toothed should join the queues at Thomas Donut & Snack Shop and Andy’s Flour Power. Alternatively, seafood lovers will be wowed in Firefly, Runaway Island or Grand Marlin.
Other culinary icons sure to be remembered by children are s’mores: delicious melted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiches. And, with a dreamy location beside Schooner’s restaurant, Endless Beach Rentals provides all the s’mores’ ingredients, including a private bonfire and serenading musician.
Slow down, catch a breath and just enjoy
On my final day, I lounge by the pool of my hotel — the multi-storied, pet-friendly Hyatt Place Panama City Beach/Beachfront, a new addition to the area — and overhear a child repeatedly ordering her father to throw her into the water. Exasperated, he complies, then, turning to his partner, quips that at least the youngster will sleep tonight.
Yes, Panama City Beach claims a slower pace than popular east Florida destinations. But visitors here, both young and old, are also kept active, invigorated and environmentally inspired. What more can you ask for from a destination?
Panama City Beach family holiday offer
Book a 7-night stay at the Hyatt Place Panama City Beach/Beachfront from £1,319pp.
Price includes B&B return UK flights and car hire. Offer based on a family of four, travelling 01 April 2024.