Panama City Beach - the undiscovered jewel on Florida’s Gulf coast

AmericaBy Neil Leslie
Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach

The sugar-white sands of Florida’s Panama City Beach are washed all the way down from the quartz of the Appalachian Mountains, and cradle of much of America’s rich musical heritage.

So it should come as no surprise that Panama City Beach, dubbed one of America’s most beautiful sandy expanses, is now calling out to music lovers.

Perched on the northern end of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Panama City Beach has for years been famous in the southern states for its uninterrupted miles of crystal shores - and its raucous Spring Break parties. But recent regulation changes banning alcohol on the beach have moved the party - and the annual influx of hedonistic college revellers - on.

Instead, among PCB’s newest fans are families, including the Obamas who holidayed here in 2013.

To Irish tourists though, it is still a largely undiscovered jewel on Florida’s ‘undiscovered coast’. But all that may be about to change.

Last May, PCB staged its inaugural Spring Jam country festival, bringing top acts and stars like Rascal Flatts, Cam, Mo Pitney, Thomas Rhett, Chris Young and Jamie Lynn Spears to the beach, and drawing in country music lovers from around the world as well as the surrounding states of Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Neil and Jamie Lynn Spears

Also among the crowd enjoying the music and the vibes was Donegal’s Deirdre Grant, one of Ireland’s leading experts on both US travel and country music.

Deirdre has been a pioneer of travel trips for country music lovers, and has brought hundreds of busloads of Irish tourists to see the great stars and meccas of music in places like Nashville, Branson and Memphis.

She has run tours with top Irish acts including Daniel O’Donnell, and is now the star of her own travel show - with a distinct country music flavour - on the Keeping it Country channel (SKY 389).

Despite her years on the road, when Deirdre landed at the Spring Jam in PCB, she knew she was seeing something new and a bit special.

“What I absolutely loved about it was that, as well as a fantastic country show where you can get up close and personal with the acts in a fantastic venue with meet and greets, you have this whole southern hospitality, fantastic restaurants and the whole combination of beach, state parks and shopping malls next door. So you can go and do other things,” she tells Magazine+.

Deirdre’s eyes were opened to the possibilities - and the result is a new travel offering for Irish music lovers.  Along with US specialists, Tour America, she is currently putting the finishing touches to a package which will offer travellers a chance to experience the 2017 Spring Jam, and enjoy one of the south’s most spectacular beach destinations - all the while, keeping it very country.

The trip will include several nights in PCB at the Spring Jam on April 28 to 29 next year, as well as stops in some of the south’s other musical and historical capitals. Among the headline acts at the festival in 2017 will be Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker, with another 10 top country-rock artists lined up to feed fans’ honky tonk addiction over the two-day festival.

“We are finalising it now. We may do stops in Nashville, New Orleans or go up through Montgomery, Alabama,” says Deirdre. “Panama City Beach is very different to being in a city festival atmosphere, and it is ideal for a bigger itinerary.” 

So with nights filled with great music, what can Irish visitors expect from the rest of this jewel on Florida’s Emerald coast?

Stunning sandy beaches

If you describe yourself as one of America’s Most Beautiful Beaches you need to be able to live up to the billing.  And Panama City Beach does just that. There are 27 miles of impossibly-perfect white sandy shores that merge into the sparkling green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s also a nature lover’s paradise as the main beachfront strip is sandwiched between two coastal state parks – St Andrew’s and Camp Helen’s - where visitors can camp or spend the day enjoying the beaches, dunes, coastal forests and abundant Floridian shorebirds and wildlife.

A short boat ride out through the sheltered waters of St Andrew’s Bay will bring you to Shell Island, where a strict policy of ‘leave no trace except your footprints’ lends this magical place a castaway feel.

To truly drink in the hypnotic beauty of the white sands and lapping emerald sea, take to the air with local Panhandle helicopter tours and spy the pods of dolphins, alligators and pelicans in the waters below.

A helicopter is a great way to see the full beauty of the area

The beauty of the coast is spectacular, but if anything can compete with it for the hearts and minds of visitors, it’s the warmth of the southern hospitality.

Many Irish holidaymakers are familiar with the theme park capital of Orlando and the attractions of Miami to the southern end of the state. But to John Certo, a native New Yorker and chef/owner at Andy’s Flour Power (one of the best and coolest restaurants in town), for true southern comfort, you won’t beat this stretch of the gulf coast where you are in the orbit of Altlanta, New Orleans and Nashville, a seven-hour drive away. 

“Miami is like south New York.  This here is the real south,” he says.

Andy’s has a real wow factor, and a personal welcome from the husband and wife team and their staff that is the essence of southern hospitality. Oh, and the food is gutbustingly great too.

And PCB is blessed with many more great restaurants. From the world-famous Pineapple Willies (serving great ribs and shrimp on the beach) to the upmarket Firefly where

President Obama and the First Family dined, there is a real pride evident in the food and the hospitality business here.

At the end of a day when the sun is dropping over the Gulf of Mexico, you can soak it all in from a stool in Schooners Bar on the beach. You’ll find it impossible not to feel relaxed, as you might expect from an area bigger than Manhattan with less than 40,000 inhabitants.

Here, they mark the lazy, every day spectacle of a beautiful sunset with the ceremony it deserves - a blast from a mini cannon.  

The slogan on the wall reads: “The Best Place on the Planet”, and you might just agree. 

For details on Tour America’s Panama City Beach and Spring Jam deals Contact [email protected]

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