Panama City Beach is one of those destinations that get a bad rap. Once known for rowdy Spring Break parties and chaos, Panama City Beach is now a great family friendly and couples’ getaway with enchanting pink and orange sunsets, bright white sandy beaches, deserted islands to explore from a pontoon boat, snorkeling off jetties and 5 star restaurants with chefs who have fed The Obamas. 

On my recent trip to this understated Florida seaside community, I checked by work stress away in my rental house in Carillon Beach and set out to explore the area. 

First thing however, this wasn’t a normal beach rental. This house looked like something out of HGTV, in fact, one of the houses in this neighborhood was actually a HGTV Dream Home. With a ‘Key West meets craftsman’ style, direct private beach access and the charm of a town square bell that rings on the hour, every hour, I was in heaven.

If I hadn’t already planned my wedding location, I would be requesting a Panama City Beach sunset beach wedding from one of the gorgeous walkovers. 

On the first morning, and like something out of a movie, I opened my beach view balcony window and spotted five or six dolphins playing about 20 yards out. Having only seen dolphins at Sea World and never once in the wild, I was jumping up and down like a little kid at Christmas. Screaming to my fiancé, I called him out of bed and we watched the dolphins swim around for about 10 minutes. Our own private show, or so I liked to think, and something that was truly once in a lifetime for us. 

After a few cups of coffee, we slipped on our flip-flops and took a much-needed long walk on the beach. Never being a sap for ‘long walks on the beach’, I was singing a changed tune when we had the most relaxing time. Strolling along the water’s edge, we collected shells and sharks teeth, watched as a few kids sand surfed into the crashing waves and a few others built sand castles with their parents. That is when I noticed how peaceful it was, slowly exhaling. While there were people around, I felt as if I still had plenty of open space and a section of the beach all to ourselves. 

When it was time for lunch, we took the advice of some new friends we met on the beach and tried out Hook’d Pier Bar and Grill, a seafood shack right on the beach next to the pier. We ordered two beers (both cheaper than one diet coke in Los Angeles), shrimp and grits and the blackened mahi mahi tacos. Being somewhat of a taco connoisseur, I was hesitant to order the tacos, but thought the fresh fish would be a nice change to my usual carnitas from street trucks. The tacos arrived and I couldn’t be happier with my selection. The fish was so fresh, but more than that, it was so flavorful, with just the right amount of toppings. Complete with crispy, seasoned fries, I was sitting pretty happy with my meal. 

Afterwards, we rented bikes from Barley’s Bikes, and rode down the street checking out the city. The great thing about Barley’s Bikes is that he brings the bikes to you, anywhere you are in the city. I loved that we could keep our car parked and had another adventure waiting for us. This was the perfect way to work off the calories from lunch and still see a part of the city. 

On our bike ride, we rode to Conservation Park. With over 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, this was an unexpected woodsy discovery in a beach town. We locked our bikes up and headed out on one of the shorter, less intense hikes (a three mile loop). Maybe it was an off day but I felt like we were all alone out there. A cut path through perfectly lined trees and a wooden walkway over a moss covered pond made the walk interesting as the scenery kept changing. There were a lot of different birds, some deer and apparently wild pigs, although, we didn’t see any. 

We biked back to our cars and returned the bikes for the afternoon. Driving back to our rental house, we noticed that the sky was changing from pale blue to bright coral, pink and fuchsia. The sun was about to set as we parked the car, so we jumped out and ran to the beach. The last bit of the sun’s rays danced across the sky before quickly disappearing. 

After a relaxing shower, we changed clothes for a self-described “casual fine dining” experience at FireFly. Chef Paul Stellata was one of eight chefs selected to prepare a dinner for the US Olympians during the London games. We had read amazing reviews online and were eager to try it for ourselves. We arrived a little early for our reservation and had a couple drinks at the FireFly Library bar before having dinner. 

Specializing in fresh seafood with a slight Mediterranean flair, we picked several courses to try multiple options from the menu. We started with the She Crab soup, which was easily the best She crab soup I’ve ever tasted. It was thick and creamy, but not too rich like most crab soups. Next we tried the avocado caprese salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. For our entrees, we ordered the Chef’s special sautéed Gulf Grouper that was stuffed with crabmeat and the pepper crusted stuffed filet mignon. The filet was stuffed with cream cheese, feta, and spinach and wrapped in bacon, smoked to perfection. Easily, FireFly was one of the best meals of my life. 

If you didn’t read the first sentence, you might forget that this incredibly peaceful beach day was in Panama City Beach, Florida, but you shouldn’t. Spring Break is just one moment of the year for PCB, with hundreds of other days just as I described. We set out to discover a new to us beach town and man, did we find it. After telling a few locals about the dolphin show and the ‘I couldn’t believe that nature could be that pretty’ sunsets, I was informed, ever so politely, that events like that happen all the time for PCB. These special moments are ready for visitors all year around and have me planning my next trip back.