Rediscover Panama City Beach
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.
Veronica, and I visited in November and had a great experience. We
stayed at the Laketown Wharf Resort (see Inn Roads)
Sea Lab in front of Man and the Sea
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.
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.
Otto, the sea lion, tries to tell his trainer
he is really a dolphin. She's not buying the story.
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
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.
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."
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
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
Powell and Phillips Inlet— that the cultural
assets came to be here. Lake
Powell is one of Florida's
largest coastal dune lakes.
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.
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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