Say what you want about Panama City Beach, Fla. Poke fun at the highrise hotels, the bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. Route 98, and call it the Redneck Riviera, if you must.
But spend a little time here and you’ll discover something about this unapologetically touristy strip of sand in Florida’s famous Panhandle.
No one does the beach like this place. No one.
We’ve been to almost every great beach in America in the last year for our family travel blog. We’ve taken our kids to the most amazing resorts from Hawaii to South Florida, from Georgia to Maine. We thought we’d seen it all.
Then we checked into the Holiday Inn Resort in Panama City Beach. Yes, it’s a highrise hotel. Yes, on the beach. Nice place, actually. And over the course of several days, starting with a frenetic Memorial Day holiday, we discovered a subculture of visitor that takes the beach vacation thing very seriously.
We saw a few firsts, including several bedouin-style tents that had their own entertainment systems. We saw coolers that were large enough to be refrigerators. For all we knew, they were refrigerators. We feel like lowly amateurs compared with these beach pros.
Here are five ways do the beach like a real pro, courtesy of these Sultans of Sand:
Come to hang out. People at the beach didn’t just come to splash in the water or catch a few waves. They came to hang out. All. Day. Long. And by hang out, we mean socialize, people watch, snack and occasionally break out in dance. You only need to stand in one spot for a few minutes and someone will start talking to you.
Mind the elements. The most experienced beachgoers observed the 30-minute rule for being out in the sun. They wore sunglasses. They covered up when they weren’t in the water. Mostly, they brought their own shade — either an umbrella or a tent. Sometimes, a large tent capable of housing a small army.
Hotels draw the line. Most of the waterfront hotels offer cabana and lounge services. Pay attention to where they set the seats out early in the morning. That’ll be the tide line. Set your gear behind or at that line to ensure you don’t need to move midday to avoid a surprise soaking.
You’re home on the beach. We were shocked at how much stuff people dragged onto the beach. It looked a lot like tailgating complete with ice-filled coolers overflowing with beverages and grills at the ready. Blankets flowed over the sand and towels hung from the tent stands. These folks were movin’ in!
Gimme a beat. Since you’re staying for the day, make sure you pack a little entertainment. The experts didn’t just bring a beat-box; they installed what appeared to be a complete entertainment system, including multiple speakers and a TV. (Hey, you never know if your beach time will coincide with a playoff game, right?)
By the way, you probably can’t do some of these things if you live far away. We’re a seven-hour drive from Panama City Beach, but we still got to enjoy many of the same creature comforts. How so? The Holiday Inn Resort rents beach chairs and umbrellas, and it makes sure the shelter is set up right and doesn’t blow away in a sudden gust coming off the Gulf of Mexico.
For these folks, life really is a beach.