If you’ve only been to Panama City, Florida, for spring break, it’s time to explore further. As a lifelong visitor, I’ve learned that there’s much more to the Panhandle than meets the eye.
Famous for its white sand beaches and access to the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Panama City, Florida, is a popular vacation destination during spring break. But I grew up making the trip to the Panhandle not as a spring breaker, but as someone who actually lived like a local. Our destination was quiet and serene.
My parents always headed 45 minutes east of the city, to a quiet and serene area known as the Forgotten Coast. It’s a 300-mile stretch of immaculate shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico where Florida’s Panhandle meets the state’s Big Bend region. You’ll know it when you see it: you’ll find few, if any stoplights or chain restaurants. The lack of glitz and bright lights showcases the area’s breathtaking natural beauty, making it the perfect place to enjoy outdoor adventures.
Watch Dolphins at Play.
While there are plenty of salty residents who have lived in the area for years, my favorite locals are the dolphins. There’s nothing quite like strolling along the beach and spotting a pod cruising near a sandbar, rustling up some breakfast. Naturally playful, dolphins are a joy to watch from the shore — I’ve enjoyed hours walking up and down the beach following their movements.
Dolphin tours are also popular here, available for various lengths of time with several different operators. But if you’re looking for an opportunity to swim with dolphins, you won’t find it here. The interactions are kept natural, not contrived (just the way I like it), thanks to captains that know where pods tend to congregate.
Though you may spot dolphins year-round, spring and summer are the best times for a cruise because you’ll have more options. Many operators cut back their schedules in the fall and winter.
Go for a Paddle.
Perhaps one of the best ways to explore the Forgotten Coast (and get some exercise, too) is with a paddle in your hand. The water is often mirror-calm, making stand-up paddleboarding a popular way to navigate and sightsee. One of my first times on a board was in the waters off St. George Island, a local barrier island. It was a peaceful way to explore, and the water temperature was perfect, too — not too cold when I fell in!
Kayaking is another fun way to investigate the area. Choose the placid waters of the Gulf, or paddle around the bay near Port St. Joe (the original capital city of Florida). If you have the stamina for a longer adventure, try kayaking from Apalachicola to St. George Island — be sure to wave at the oystermen tonging up their catches as you paddle by.
You can go kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding any time of year, but the spring and fall are best due to the temperate weather and refreshing — but not shockingly cold — water.
Set Sail on a Cruise
If your idea of cruising involves a bit more speed, try an excursion with one of the many charter operations. Choose from all sorts of trips — from journeying over to Crooked Island to fill your bucket with a variety of seashells, to hitting the open water to catch red snapper, Spanish mackerel or amberjack for dinner. One of my favorite meals is fresh caught snapper grilled with a bit of lemon juice.
You can also opt for a two-hour pirate cruise. One of history’s most notorious pirates, Blackbeard (also known as Edward Teach), is rumored to have hidden a treasure somewhere near St. George Island. The booty hasn’t been found, but you can set sail from Panama City with some modern-day pirates. This is a fun trip to do with kids, as my niece and nephew can attest: they returned festooned with fake tattoos and armed with lots of stories.
Buried treasure is one thing. But for me, the real prize is discovering the delights of a place like the Forgotten Coast — no spring break necessary.
Fishing season varies for different species. If you have a specific catch in mind — like red snapper — be sure to check its seasonality.
Where to Stay: