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Rediscover Panama City Beach

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Pristine Panama City Beach in off season

Article and photos by Kathleen Walls

If you are young–or young at heart–Panama City beach is a great vacation spot any time of year. Sure the season there is supposed to be summer and spring break time, but there are good reasons to visit during the off season. Unless you are a college student or a lover of noise and traffic jams, you best avoid the spring break time. For the rest of the world, September and October are the months when you experience the best of both seasons.

Most of the party-all-night young people are back in school. The summer attractions such as the DUCK tours and Pirate Tours are still running and the weather is still warm enough to take advantage to the beach, which is much more beautiful when it is not crowded. The bars, mini-golf, tee shirt shops are all there year round. Even more important is rates are lower in off season.

My assistant/daughter, Veronica, and I visited in November and had a great experience. We stayed at the Laketown Wharf Resort (see Inn Roads)

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Sea Lab in front of Man and the Sea Musuem

Panama City has some unique museums. Man in the Sea Museum is a one-of-a-kind treasure that takes you deep into the history of diving beginning with salvaged treasures dating back to the 1500s and moving on to the latest techniques used today..

The exhibits are real and offer an in depth look at both the sporting aspect, commercial and the military uses and techniques. The exhibits range from actual items to videos and photographs.

For divers this is a must. For non-divers, it is still an interesting experience. Be sure to see the Sea-Lab and other items displayed in front.

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Ripley's Believe It or Not

Ripley's Believe it or Not is another fun attraction. Even if you have visited Ripley's in other cities. This one is unique with many of its own exhibits. One of my favorites is the video of the cat who ate with a fork and even with chopsticks for Chinese food. (Wish I could just train my cats to eat in the bowl and not drag scraps all over.) For those of you who do not like True Blood or the other vampire shows, there is a genuine vampire killing kit. And the gold plated car in the lobby is the perfect vehicle for the man who has everything.

Be sure to experience the Moving Theater. It gives a whole new meaning to the word "moving." This thing is so realistic you may want to bring you motion pills along.

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Otto, the sea lion, tries to tell his trainer he is really a dolphin. She's not buying the story.

Gulf World Marine Park is located amidst the hustle and bustle of the beachfront, but it is a peaceful oasis in the midst of a tourist feeding frenzy especially during off season. Here you can get close enough to a seal for a kiss, swim with a dolphin or be a trainer for a day.

Gulf World is a true ecological learning experience as well as a fun attraction. The park is laid out well with a tropical garden and lots of water features and little bridges over them.  The exhibits showcase penguins, otters, flamingos, alligators, iguanas, reptiles and tortoises as well as the expected stingray, shark and sea turtle exhibits. The star attractions are the dolphins and seals. The three theater areas, Sea Lion Stadium, Dolphin Stadium and Tropical Garden Theater, allow the park to offer a large range of shows throughout the day. The dolphin show is spectacular. The dolphins leap, spin, flip and even dance across the water for your enjoyment.

The California Sea Lion Show is something special. The show I attended featured Otto, a 13-year-old sea lion. His trainer was Lulu. The interaction was fantastic. Otto "tells" Lulu that he is not a sea lion but a dolphin. Lulu proceeds to explain to him and incidentally to the audience the difference between a dolphin and a sea lion. What a cute way to insert educational material and make it fun!  Of course, by the time Otto has finished his performance, which includes kissing a member of the audience, he has proved he is a showman extraordinaire and every bit as good as any dolphin.

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Two of the tigers at Zooworld

Zoo World Zoological and Botanical Park is one great find anytime. It's small, but then so are diamonds. Their motto is "Where fun is never endangered," and they live up to it well. Along with a good variety of wild animals, they have a cute petting farm and several shows.

The most moving story about Zoo World concerns one of its residents that is no longer there. Tondaleyo, nicknamed Tonda, then 50, was one of the oldest orangutans in the United States. When I first visited in April 2009,  I spotted a large yellow tabby cat sharing the island with this aged orangutan, I was intrigued. Stephanie Willard, Zoo World's Director of Education, told me the story. "Tonda lost her life mate a couple of years ago.  Since her loss, much like any human would react, she lost her zeal for life.  She would spend her days lying on her island home with her head down and covered with her security blanket. The keeper staff tried to keep her entertained by providing her with a variety of toys which she would lose interest in quickly if she paid attention to them at all. Because Tonda is beyond childbearing age, it has been impossible to find a mate for her. After an extensive search for a new companion to no avail and her condition was not getting any better, Tonda's keepers had to come up with some way to elevate Tonda's zest for life. Enter T. K., Tonda's kitty, the cat you saw.  T.K. has the sweetest personality, and the keepers quickly realized he would be compatible with Tonda.  As the introduction process began, Tonda's attitude completely changed.  She is now alert and active; there is a new light in her eyes. A match made in Heaven, Tonda has found a new reason for living, and T. K. is getting all the attention he loves and richly deserves.   Tonda and T. K. now spend all their sleeping and waking time together."

 I was saddened to learn Tonda died on March 20, 2009, just a few days after I visited Zoo World, but feel I was privileged to witness such a beautiful friendship.

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House musuem at Camp Helen

For the nature lover who wants to get away from it all, Panama City Beach is bounded by two beautiful state parks. Camp Helen State Park, on the west end of the city, is a hidden gem. It is an under-visited park offering natural and cultural resources. The two features intertwine here. It is precisely because the park is surrounded on three sides by water—the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Powell and Phillips Inlet— that the cultural assets came to be here. Lake Powell is one of Florida's largest coastal dune lakes.

St. Andrews State Park, on the east side, is a completely different kind of park. The beach is the star of the show here. The park is located between the Gulf and Grand Lagoon. Practically every year, it ranks high in lists of "Top Beaches."  Dolphins in large numbers frolic in the Gulf while the calmer waters of the lagoon offer opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and wildlife watching. Several nature trails loop through different ecosystems, so wildlife viewing is diverse. You might encounter wading birds, alligators, cotton mice or many other animals that inhabit dunes, hammock or marsh. The Blue Heron Trail starts at an authentic reconstruction of a Cracker turpentine still and early-20th century sawmill and winds through a number of habitats. Gator Lake Trail and overlook are the best place for spotting alligators and a multitude of water fowl and wading birds.

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Beach and dunes at St. Andrews S.P.

Some of the most interesting scenery at the park is neither on land or water. It's underwater. Diving the many shipwrecks located in the Gulf off Saint Andrews S.P. is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color and an adventure unlike any other.

For a real change of pace you can board a ferry to Shell Island from the park. This is one of the few Gulf islands that have never been developed. You will find a few shacks and remnants of old beach homes, but because it is only accessed by boat, it is pretty pristine, with the emphasis on pretty. Actually beautiful is a better adjective for this island paradise that lies between the Gulf and Saint Andrews Bay. Shelling is great here as are the normal beach four S's (swimming, surfing, sunning and scuba diving.)

Of course this only hits the highlights, there are many more things to do in this great city by the gulf. So even if you visited Panama City Beach one summer, do yourself a favor and rediscover all the fun off season things to do here.


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