There Is No “Off” Season at the Beach

By on 9 October, 2013 in Fun, Kate and Stephen, Outdoors with 0 Comments


Here at Midtown Montgomery Living, we try to tell you all about stuff that’s happening in your town. For all intents and purposes, we assume that your town is Montgomery, Alabama.

But a recent opportunity to visit Panama City Beach (Florida) reminded us that one of the many nice things about living in Montgomery is its proximity to some of the world’s best beaches. Panama City Beach is just 3 1/2 hours away – basically you just go south on Court Street on 331 through a number of small towns (and a number of speed traps – be careful!) until you get dumped out on 90A and can choose to turn left toward Panama City Beach or right toward Destin. Although we’ve had some nice times (and good food) in Destin, we’re partial to PCB – and not just because we have a beloved relative who lives there.

Everyone has their own favorite beaches, and we’re happy to debate the merits of one over the other. But this post isn’t the place for that. This post is about why we’d leave town on one of the busiest weeks of the year to go to the beach at a time that most people would say, “It’s totally dead down there.”

Although we love the beach in the summer, over the years living in Montgomery, we’ve found Florida’s panhandle to be completely charming during the rest of the year. Sure, it’s not as likely to give you a suntan (though we’ve gotten those in the spring and fall too). But there’s a lot less traffic, rental properties are more affordable, and it’s just a little more laid back.

A lot of fun stuff has been happening in Montgomery lately, but in case you are thinking about getting out of town for a minute, here are a few of our favorite things to do in Panama City when the place isn’t full of spring break types.

1. Eat. We like to stay over on the west end of the beach, so the Sandbar (275 Highway 79) is one of our favorite places. The oysters are from Apalachicola, which means they’re fresh and delicious. They’ve got a good beer selection, perfect for complimenting our new favorite food item – hot chips. These are house-made potato chips baked with buffalo sauce and topped with blue cheese. (photo below) You’d eat these every day if you could. The Sandbar is low-key, affordable, and also a great place to watch a football game, especially if you’re an Alabama fan – the owner’s a huge fan himself. Bama games are always on — yet another reason you can enjoy the beach on a fall weekend.

On our recent trip, we took some out-of-state visitors to Pineapple Willy’s (9875 S Thomas Dr). This is mostly because we are huge fans of the restaurant’s hilarious (and drunk-looking) mascot, but also because the food’s pretty good and the view outside on the pier is very peaceful. Pineapple Willy’s is the kind of place that specializes in gigantic novelty alcoholic drinks in enormous plastic souvenir mugs, delivering an unholy sugar rush as you politely decline the attention of the professional photographer who is looking to document your meal and then sell you a photograph at a kiosk near the exit. Oh, and like many beach restaurants, there is a gift shop.

For more upscale dining, you can’t go wrong with Firefly (535 Richard Jackson Blvd). Their menu is consistently great, but the restaurant itself is worth a trip. Once you step inside, it’s as if you are transported away from the strip mall it inhabits into a plush old-time restaurant. The back room has a beautifully lit full-sized tree inside it, and there’s a nice library area to wait until your reservation is called. Meals here aren’t cheap, but they’re worth every penny.

For breakfast, we’ve always liked the charm of Mike’s (17554 Front Beach Rd), and also love to eat at the oyster bar next door (also owned by Mike). Be sure to save room one morning for absurdly-good doughnuts in the pink boxes from Thomas’ Donut and Snack Shop (19208 Front Beach Rd). Their breakfast biscuits are one of the very best things we’ve eaten in a long time. We have not yet tried the kolache, but it’s on the list. Next time.

2. Explore. In all the years of going to the beach, we’ve never been to the Museum of Man in the Sea (17314 Panama City Beach Parkway). Now that we’ve been, we can’t wait to go back. If you’ve ever driven on Back Beach Road, you know the place. You can’t miss the giant Sealab and array of submarine-looing contraptions outside. It’s only $5 to get in, but would be a bargain at twice the price. The place is supremely full of memorabilia, home-made dioramas (many featuring Ken dolls doing undersea things), incredible diving gear, a scary exhibit on cave diving, equipment, and even a submarine that you can get into. The proprietor was there when we visited, and was happy to answer any questions we had about the astonishing array of exhibits. Though the place has a bit of a ramshackle feel, it really serves an important purpose. We never knew anything, really, about the Sealab experiments. And now we can use the word “aquanaut” in regular conversation. Truly fascinating.

Diving suits on display.

In the future we will evidently live under the sea.

We mentioned Apalachicola up above (talking about the oysters). That’s also a nice little town nearby worthy of a day trip. They are well-known for being home to oyster farming (some of the finest in the world), but there’s also a quaint little village there worth driving over to examine.

We are also complete suckers for the more traditional tourist diversions, many of which remain open for at least the first part of the fall. There are some great miniature golf courses in the area, but we’re partial to the retro charm and kitsch of Goofy Golf (12206 Front Beach Rd). There are more elaborate courses with more challenging shots and more scenic waterfalls, but if you’ve only got time for one, go with the giant monkey (hit it past his swinging tail!) and the giant dragon and the giant Sphinx and the giant-lots-of-other-stuff. Opened in 1959, Goofy Golf is a true classic that never gets old. In case you’re wondering, yes, we are adults, and yes, we also play Skeeball (at Funland, 14510 Front Beach Rd) and race the go karts at Hidden Lagoon (14414 Front Beach Rd). The beach is awesome!

Golf! With dinosaurs!

3. Shop. No, we’re not talking about the enormous outlet mall over in Destin, though you can certainly always drive over there to hunt for bargains (especially in the off season, when everything is very deeply discounted). We prefer junk shops. The thrift store scene in the greater beach area is truly astonishing. We think this is because the seasonal waves of people and the flotsam and jetsam they generate. When they sell their beach condos, all of the weird crap enters the thrift store section of the economy.

One of the overlooked treasures of the beach is the Goodwill store that specializes in books (13413 Panama City Beach Parkway). We never fail to find good (and reasonably-priced) stuff there, whether it’s antiques or just tattered paperback mysteries for beach reading.We hope society’s shift to e-readers will not put places like this out of business. We prefer the heft of a real book that can be tossed into the sand.

We also took our tourist friends to the flagship Alvin’s Island store. Sure, you can’t walk 100 yards on Front Beach without stumbling into a branch of the Alvin’s chain, but the one with the volcano on it is truly show-stopping. The sheer array of things that you don’t want to buy is staggering. And maybe there are a few things you want … like the ball we purchased that bounces off waves. And the tacky sunglasses. Cheapo foreign-made beach crap isn’t always great, but the sand shovels and floats and stuff all have to come from somewhere.

We did not buy these.

We’re just glad we live close enough to the beach that we can save such items and not have to buy them every time we go down. Montgomery is great, but sometimes, you just need to hear the crash of the surf — that primitive sound of complete beauty. We’re lucky to be so close.

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