The facial expressions of nearly every traveler at the Panama City Beach airport  define  how this western Florida town makes people feel.   The seats around the terminal’s Gate 4 are full of departing visitors with that bummed out look on their face.  A quick check of my own face in the reflection of my Ipad showed I had the same pitiful expression as my fellow passengers.   It seems that once you come to Panama City Beach — it simply breaks your heart to leave.

So why would anyone leave this place to begin with?   Certainly not for lack of picture perfect beaches – 27 miles worth to be exact.  The city recently implemented a “leave no trace” ordinance that helps keep the beach front clean and free of clutter like toys and chairs or coolers.   David Demerast of VisitPanamaCityBeach.com bragged of the emerald green water and white sand as well an undeveloped piece of property known as Shell Island which is only accessible by boat.

One morning during my visit, we rented a pontoon boat and hit the gulf waters in search of Shell Island.  To say that the island is undeveloped is actually an understatement – you’ll find no bathroom or place to rent an umbrella – it’s completely bare.  Which for anyone that’s enjoyed a beach front vacation before knows – is truly rare.   Walking along the shores of the island you’ll see how it got its name – thousands of shells are everywhere, though few are actually still in tact.

Cruising around the Gulf in a rented pontoon boat seemed to be a popular activity for Panama City Beach tourists.  Once considered “un-cool” to be seen in one – people of all age groups were passing every which way on the open waters.  Perhaps you’d rather see the city from the sky – a helicopter tour of PCB is another option that gives you an idea of just how gorgeous (and big) this area really is.   Panhandle Helicopter is a local company that offers such an experience.   It was my first experience in a helicopter and our pilot, a young lady named Jasmine made sure to point out every dolphin and shark that she noticed while flying the aircraft.

Speaking of sharks – there has never been a shark attack reported in the Panama City Beach area.  One concern of many travelers is that sharks may swim in too close to the shore and therefore fear enjoying time in the ocean.  The website Tracking Sharks keeps tabs on attacks in the U.S. and a virtual map shows just how rare attacks really are.  If anything, as the map shows,  odds are the Panhandle of Florida is actually the safest place in the entire state if sharks are something you fear.   A recent article in National Geographic explains it in another way:  “43,000 Americans are injured each year by a toilet while 13 are injured annually by a shark”.

While nobody wants to see a shark swim by – everyone loves the idea of dolphins up close and personal.  During my visit, on several occasions dolphins were easy to spot jumping in the air and playing in the water.  Feeding them for a closer look will land you in hot water with hefty fines.  At one time rules here were a bit more lax and it led to dolphins forgetting how to fend for themselves which can be deadly in the animal world.

For a super close experience with dolphins – Gulf World Marine Park is an excellent opportunity for an intimate setting with dolphins, sea lions and other gulf coast animals.   Those on display are either rescued or were born in the facility.   Watching a training session – dolphins are taught to do fun tricks through positive reinforcement techniques.  Their skills are truly impressive as they swim with trainers and follow hand signal instructions.   The dolphins in particular seem to eat up the fact that there’s an audience watching – as they splash the visitors up close to the glass.    Even during a radio interview with Education Coordinator, Stephanie Nagle – the dolphins cruised by again and again in the empty arena as if to say “Hey look at me!”

Gulf World is a perfect spot for families as you enjoy all of the benefits of a larger theme park without the crowds and high prices.  The best benefit however is getting up close.

Other opportunities to view wild life in Panama City Beach exist at Saint Andrews State Park located on the east side of city.  It’s one of two state parks in the area with Camp Helen State Park on the opposite end of town.  Saint Andrews is one of the most visited state parks in the country and even a short visit explains why the park’s guest book shows visitors from all over the world stop by each year.

While on a tour of the park with Ranger Clayton Iron Wolf, you begin to feel that Panama City Beach is more than just a typical Florida beach town.  Quite often, you feel an interesting mix of “country living” with a view of the beach.   Maybe it’s the fact that you’re still in the Central Time Zone or that many of the residents here have a southern charm that you find in nearby states of Georgia and Alabama.   More likely though it’s the fact that just minutes away from the beach you can find yourself in quiet, uninhabited areas like the Panama City Beach Conservation Park – that includes 2,900 acres of protected conservation land.

Still, most visitors come to Panama City Beach for a family beach vacation.   Instead of the typical hotels you’ll find in most tourist spots in the U.S. – here you’ll find comfortable condos like Wyndham’s ResortQuest property – Tidewater.   It’s an interesting operation where Wyndham doesn’t actually own the condos – instead they manage them for other owners.   I stayed in one of the condos at Tidewater during my visit and found it to be a real home away from home.  There’s a full kitchen, a living room, bunk beds for extra guests, two bathrooms and a spacious balcony for a view of the beach.   Complimentary parking across the street was a nice perk and the front desk staff couldn’t have been more kind.

The condo at Tidewater in Panama City Beach, Florida. It’s one of the properties that Wyndham Vacation Rentals manages in the Gulf region.

Martin Owen oversees sales and marketing for Wyndham Vacation Rentals in the Gulf region of Florida   Owen concludes that once people visit Panama City Beach they’re hooked.  But added, it can be a challenge at times to get people here.   One of the misconceptions about the area revolves around Spring Break and the antics often shown in news stories around the country.  The video of boozed college students taking over the city looms large in the minds of tourists deciding where to spend precious family vacation time.   The reality is that “Spring Break” is only the third busiest time of the year for PCB and the idea that crazy college kids are everywhere is an unfortunate and unfounded misunderstanding.

A local hotspot – Thomas Donuts has patrons lined up into the streets each day.

“People will ask me where to go to avoid college kids during Spring Break”, Demerast explains.  “I usually tell them it’s easier to find places where they aren’t than it is to find places where they are.”   College students, often broke and really only interested in a few things while on Spring Break – tend to stick together and occupy a relatively small section of the 27 miles worth of beaches.  “They all want to be where all of the other college kids are” which equals a somewhat small party scene  footprint in the grand scheme of things.

Panama City Beach is actually one of the most family friendly destinations I’ve been to.  You’ll find plenty of shopping, dining and alternative attractions to keep all ages busy.  There are amusement parks, nature parks, tours and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation like boating, fishing and scuba diving.

Gabriel Gray runs Walkin On Water Paddleboards – offering lessons for stand-up paddleboarding. It’s the same concept as regular paddle boarding except you are on your feet and experience what Gray calls “the world’s smallest boat”.

One morning during my visit I met with Gabriel who spent about 15 minutes giving instructions and safety lessons.  Then, it was off into the water and for the next hour I learned the different techniques to move myself and what looks likes a surf board around like a pro.   Of course I cringe referring to anything I do athletically as “like a pro” – but the truth is I didn’t fall in the water once.  Beyond the experience of trying something new and getting a work-out (your arms are quite sore the next day) – you also learn a bit about the wild life and peaceful setting of Camp Helen State Park where the lessons take place.

When I first arrived in town I chatted with a woman from Seattle that comes to Panama City Beach every year.  She told me her family, while spread out across the country – all make it here for a week and have done so every year for as long as she can remember.  You hear a similar story again and again as you explore the city limits.   There’s something about making great memories playing volleyball in the sand or watching an amazing sunset with loved ones on Russell Fields City Pier that keep generations returning to their favorite spot along the Gulf.

The maudlin looking passengers, all less than anxious to depart this sunny paradise will almost certainly return – though they may not tell all of their friends.  It’s places like Panama City Beach you selfishly want to keep all for yourself.