Saying that Panama City Beach, Fla., is commercialized is like saying sweet tea is sweet . . . or that God is holy, or that ice cream is cold.
But the level of commercialism at this and other Northwest Florida beaches is finally driving this country boy away.
The last time I was at PCB, two years ago, I swore I’d never come back. In a moment of weakness, I decided to renege on that vow this year.
And now I’m making it again.
As much as I love the crystal-clear waters and sugar-white sands of PCB and Destin, I think I’ve made my last trip. I’m willing to sacrifice a little beach beauty for a few less people.
Our first visit to PCB was 10 years ago. Back then, the city was in the midst of a building boom, as the high-rise condominiums that dominated the east end of the beach were spreading westward. There was no Pier Park and few recognizable chain restaurants.
Fast forward a decade, and things are much different. The west end of the beach is still relatively quiet, but traffic congestion makes getting there a chore. And growth is creeping. There’s a Publix as far west as the intersection of Front Beach Road and Panama City Beach Parkway, and multiple-unit complexes are on the increase up and down the Laguna Beach and Sunnyside beachfronts.
And there’s no sign of the growth ending anytime soon. PCB tourism officials say they’ve broken tourism records each of the past seven years, which is catching the eye of a growing number of developers. The city is in the midst of a three-year, $300-million development surge, and it is quickly becoming a year-round destination for tourists.
Even away from the high-rise condo complexes, finding a quiet spot to stick your toe in the water is becoming a chore. St. Andrews State Park on the east end, once a quiet and pristine destination with a beautiful, under-utilized beach, has become one of the most crowded destinations in PCB.
The allure is easy to find. While the weather was bad for much of this week, with daily thunderstorm complexes over the Gulf waters keeping the surf up, red flags flying along the beaches and rip tide warnings in effect, the water was still some of the clearest you’ll find anywhere — even among the notable Gulf beaches.
Today, the weather calmed for the first time all week, and the beach was simply pristine. The water was as clear as the breath-taking photos you see from the Caribbean. It was a snorkeler’s heaven. The blue-green waters along the beach were postcard-worthy. It was the scene that these beaches at PCB and Destin are famous for.
But is it worth fighting the crowds to enjoy the sugar-white sands and crystal-clear waters? I might be an exception to the rule, but my answer is no.
Last year, we vacationed at St. George Island, which is further east along the Gulf Coast, and were spoiled by the lack of commercialization and the uncrowded beaches.
Make no mistake: the beaches at St. George Island, while ranked among the Top 10 in America by some publications, pale in comparison to the beaches at PCB and Destin. The beach itself is narrower, the sand is not as white and includes much more shell litter, and the water isn’t nearly as clear.
But the tradeoff is worth it to be able to enjoy peace and quiet. At St. George Island State Park, which is the counterpart to St. Andrews at PCB, you can literally find yourself with no neighbors within shouting distance on the beach. There are no high-rises (and only two motels on the entire island), which keeps the crowds down everywhere.
Instead of people, you see wildlife. We saw dolphins every day at SGI, usually very close to the beach and usually in the Apalachicola Bay on the opposite side of the island as well. The surf fishing is much better at SGI than at PCB, and there are tons of other wildlife that you won’t find at PCB.
There are other drawbacks, as well. A lack of commercialization means a lack of good restaurants. There are a few eateries on SGI, and several more a short drive away in Apalachicola. But if eating out is your thing — and for most vacationers, it is — you aren’t going to find the variety, the quantity or even the quality at SGI or elsewhere along Florida’s Forgotten Coast like you’ll find at PCB or Destin.
And if doing anything other than relaxing on the beach is your thing, you’ll find yourself in trouble there, as well. There are few places to shop, no waterparks, no miniature golf courses, etc.
But I go to the vacation to lay in the sand and do very little else, so the laid-back atmosphere of SGI fits me to a T. Spending an entire week sitting in traffic as I try to get from Point A to Point B in PCB? Not so much so.
From now on, it’s the Forgotten Coast for me. The rest of you can have the congested beaches at PCB and Destin.