By Donny Karr
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — West Point Lake may be the only body of water many local residents will get the chance to visit this summer, but a weekend getaway to the Gulf of Mexico is not as far as it may seem. A four hour drive can take Troup County residents to Panama City Beach.
Panama City Beach, as well as its surrounding beaches, is the closest seaside destination for locals and offers many attractions that could make for an adventurous weekend.
“Many people don’t know that Panama City is one of the largest destinations for scuba diving,” said David Demarest, public relations manager for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We are home to the U.S. Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, which trains the majority of our military divers. That diving expertise trickles down to our civilian population and makes us a prime diving destination.”
Demarest said that, along with the many shipwrecks off the coast, the U.S. military has created artificial reefs that many divers enjoy visiting due to the large amounts of marine life found around them.
“There are lots of diving services here, and visitors who come down here for a weekend can actually go through a training class and go on a dive in the same day,” said Demarest.
Panama City Diving, one of the city’s most popular diving services, offers a beginner’s diving class and dive for $125. Participants go through a class that is about 45 minutes long before going out into the gulf for a full-gear dive in which they are accompanied by an instructor.
“Anyone who has ever wanted to go scuba diving should check these kind of one-day beginner’s diving classes out,” said Demarest. “It’s a great way to go exploring and learn whether or not diving is a hobby you might want to pursue further.”
Another popular tourist activity is Panama City Beach’s catamaran cruise services. Some cruises start at $25 per adult and many boats offer special trips like sunset cruises, dolphin sightseeing cruises, glass-bottom boat tours and adventure cruises that feature activities like water slides and kayaking.
“These cruises are a great way to get out on the water and really experience our beach,” said Demarest. “These cruises will take visitors around Grand Lagoon and Shell Island, which is a very popular destination.”
Shell Island is located on the Emerald Coast of northwest Florida, near Panama City Beach, and is a sought after snorkeling area, and is also a popular kayaking site.
For travelers looking to satisfy their adventurous appetite, there are a variety of fishing charters in the area. Tourists can embark on a deep sea fishing trip with a group, or join one of the many party fishing boats around the beach. The cost for one person to go on an inshore or offshore trip may start at $50.
“We get people from all over coming to catch a variety of species of fish,” said a deckhand with Captain Anderson’s Fishing Charters, identified only as Bill. “Lots of people love fishing on lakes and rivers, but there’s nothing quite like fishing in the ocean.”
The Gulf of Mexico is teeming with a variety of fish for anglers to reel in. Many fishermen target red snapper, grouper, mackerel and even sharks.
“You never know what might be on the end of your line if you’re out here on a deep sea fishing trip with our boat,” said Bill.
Visitors can also bring their own tackle and try their luck fishing off one of the piers on Panama City Beach. If fishing is not what visitors have in mind, they can also find activities and attractions located close to one of the beach’s piers.
“Pier Park offers something for everyone, from kids to adults,” said Demarest. “It has gift shops, clothing stores and some of the best dining spots in on the beach all together inside the park.”
Pier Park is home to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, as well as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the famous Nashville honky-tonk’s sister bar. Panama City is widely known as one of the hottest spring break destinations for party-goers, but Demarest said that the beach is very family friendly during the summer.
“There’s something here for everyone to enjoy,” said Demarest. “It’s definitely worth the trip down here to just come and explore what we have to offer.”
There are plenty of other activities for beach-goers to experience in Panama City Beach. For Troup County residents who do take advantage of making the short trip to the beach for a weekend, they will likely return with a slight tan, as well as fond memories and fun stories to share.
Donny Karr is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2154.
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In Panama City Beach, Fla., parasailing, jet skiing, boating, windsurfing and kayaking are among the preferred modes of transportation.
In April 2006, the town of Panama City Beach, Fla., completed a massive beach renourishment project. The $23.5 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project widened and elevated the beach. The yearlong beach renourishment extended a 16.6-mile stretch of the Panama City Beach coastline by 30 feet on average and restored the elevation to its post-1999 beach nourishment level.