It’s no big surprise that I love me some Gulf Coast vacations—you’re no true Tennessean unless you do. As a kid, we were constantly making the annual pilgrimage to the Florida Panhandle six hours south by car. We’d stop in Montgomery for food and again in Florala, just before crossing the border. Then we’d check into our beach house for a blissful week of sunbathing, sunsets and floating in the emerald waters on one big inflatable raft chain.
I got to spend this past week back down in my happy place—Panama City Beach to be exact—with my girls Angie and Jade. It’s fitting that my last trip was to see them on the other side of Florida; this time, we were all meeting up for work. (Am I spoiled or what, getting to collaborate with a couple of my best friends and call it a job?!)
I left Nashville around 8am and touched down in Florida before the clock struck 9. Now that Southwest has direct flight options from Nashville to PCB’s airport, it couldn’t be more ideal: 45 minutes from wheels up to wheels down, another 20 minutes to Carillon Beach and—boom—you’re checking into your rental.
It was my first time at Carillon Beach, and I was immediately surprised by how secluded the community was, despite being right off of Highway 98. Angie and I picked up our keys in the cutesy little Carillon village, then entered the gated community, snaking our way through the candy-colored houses until we found our home for the next four days: the Lilypad. Our house was massive: two stories, three bedrooms, three baths and a huge living area.
We could have each brought our entire families and still had room to spare!
I feel like I’ve been duped all these years not knowing about Carillon Beach. It’s just a couple miles from where my family often stayed in Blue Mountain and Grayton Beaches but much quieter, not to mention more affordable. The development has both condo and vacation homes—not to mention a high-rise, pet-friendly inn complete with stunning pool—that spans 104 acres and has private access to some of the prettiest beachfront real estate around.
After unpacking our things and a quick bed test, we were off to the other end of the 26-mile stretch of PCB; off to see the wildlife of St. Andrews State Park.
But first, a stop for lunch at Zen Garden Market.
Last time I stopped by the little community, it was for coffee and a Wi-Fi fix pre-flight; this time, our bellies were empty and we were ready for some of that organic goodness from Lotus Cafe, located within the market.
Those with dining restrictions or who opt for gluten-free meals will definitely want to check out Zen Garden Market with its myriad smoothies, superfoods and healthy wraps on tap.
We ate, then moved on. By the time we got to the beach at St. Andrews, the wind was really kicking, and kite surfers were crisscrossing the Gulf, showing off for the legions of families and sunbathers watching with curiosity.
While St. Andrews boasts plenty of white-sand beach, for which PCB is so well known, it’s also a wildlife sanctuary with so many species of birds I lost count and, yes, alligators, too.
It was a bit too windy to work on amplifying our skin tones, so we opted for the next best thing: an outdoor bar that served (what they claimed is) the best key lime pie in Bay County. Bonus, Patches Pub also had a porter on draft, something I’ve found not as common in a land of pale ales and Hefeweizens. This past year, I’ve really gotten into beer, the darker the better, and if there’s a stout or a porter on the menu, you can bet your key lime pie I’ll be ordering it.
We still had an hour to kill before our sunset cruise, so we ventured over to Off the Hook for another beer with our pal David while we waited for the hour of our departure time to roll around.
Last time I was in Panama City Beach for more than a day, we went out on a sunset cruise out of Capt. Anderson’s Marina. This time, Angie and I were booked on Island Time Sailing, just over the bridge from Capt. Anderson’s. The catamaran was huge and your ticket granted you a complimentary drink (beer, wine or soda) as well as a snack. (Because I’m 12, I opted for a Capri Sun and Rice Krispie treat. When on a girls’ trip, right?)
I don’t want to jinx you, but if you go out on the bay of Panama City Beach, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see dolphins. They’re everywhere! I’ve yet to take a sunset cruise or charter out to Shell Island without spying pairs and families of dolphins frolicking in the waves.
Key lime pie and beer, beaches and wildlife? Our girls’ week was already off to a great start.