Saying that Panama City Beach, Fla., is commercialized is like saying sweet tea is sweet, or that ice cream is cold.
But the level of commercialism at this and other Northwest Florida beaches is finally becoming too much for this solitude-loving country boy to tolerate.
Like many other Scott Countians, I routinely vacation at PCB. Two years ago, I swore I’d never go back. In a moment of weakness, I decided to renege on that vow this year. And now I’m making it again.
As much as I love the crystal-clear waters and sugar-white sands of PCB and Destin, I think I’ve made my last trip. I’m willing to sacrifice a little beach beauty for fewer people.
My first visit to PCB was 10 years ago. Back then, the city was in the midst of a building boom, as the high-rise condominiums that dominated the east end of the beach were spreading westward. But there was still no Pier Park and only a few recognizable chain restaurants.
Fast-forward a decade, and things are much different. The west end of the beach is still relatively quiet, but it isn’t immune to the traffic congestion that plagues PCB, and growth is creeping in. There’s a Publix as far west as the intersection of Front Beach Road and Panama City Beach Parkway, and multi-unit complexes are on the increase up and down the Laguna Beach and Sunnyside beachfronts.
Unfortunately, there’s no sign of the growth ending anytime soon. PCB tourism officials say they’ve broken tourism records each of the past seven years, which is catching the eye of a growing number of developers. The city is in the midst of a three-year, $300 million development surge, and is quickly becoming a year-round destination for tourists.
Even away from PCB’s high-rise condo complexes, finding a quiet spot to stick your toe in the water is becoming a chore. The pristine beaches of St. Andrews State Park on the east end were once drastically under-utilized but these days are busting at the seams as everyone from snorkelers to combers to casual beach-goers gladly fork over the $8 per carload to enjoy the park’s beaches.
PCB’s allure isn’t hard to realize. On its worst days, the water there is clearer than you’ll find at the best Atlantic Coast beaches. And, on its best days, the beaches of PCB are postcard-worthy — breath-taking and awe-inspiring.
But is it worth fighting the crowds to enjoy the sugar-white sands and crystal-clear waters? Let’s just say I was spoiled by St. George Island last year.
SGI is located further east, just off the coast of Apalachicola. The beaches there pale in comparison to PCB and Destin — they’re narrower and the sand is not as clean and pure, while the water isn’t nearly as clear — but the island has not been spoiled by commercialization. There are no high-rise condos, no Walmarts, and the island’s state park of the same name — its counterpart to St. Andrews at PCB — is usually so sparsely crowded that you can literally find yourself with no beach neighbors within shouting distance. We saw dolphins every day at SGI, usually very close to the beach. The surf fishing is excellent, and there are tons of other wildlife, like nesting loggerhead sea turtles, that you won’t find at PCB or Destin.
There are drawbacks, of course. There aren’t mean places to eat or shop, and there are no waterparks or miniature golf courses at SGI. But those things are all absent because there aren’t enough tourists to make them profitable, and if your idea of a relaxing vacation is peace and quiet and a spot of sandy beach that you can claim as your own, that’s not a bad thing.
From now on, it’s the Forgotten Coast for me. I’ll leave the congested beaches of PCB and Destin to everyone else. I’ll miss the crab cakes, but will take solace in the fact that there are plenty of crabs for the catching on my own time in the Apalachicola Bay.