With its 27 miles of white sand beaches, Panama City Beach, Florida, makes my list of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And it's only a 15-hour drive from Chicago, which also makes it a reasonable spring break destination if, like me, you crave sand and surf but not the prospect of buying plane tickets for a family.
Even better, staying, eating and playing are affordable in Panama City Beach, even with kids. But the beaches, sunsets and nature are priceless. And who wouldn't be entertained just with a walk on the beach. Why? Because the sand squeaks. That's because it is actually ground-up quartz.
What to do in Panama City Beach
If the 27 miles of shore land that line the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle aren't enough for you, hire Captain Lorraine Frasier to take you on a dolphin snorkel tour with a stop at Shell Island. It's a 700-acre nature preserve with nothing but white sand -- and maybe a few turtle hatching spots. Captain Lorraine will bring snacks. You can supply the drinks.
Or, if you want to spend time in the warm aqua waters, you can learn to SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard). On my visit, we learned to stand up on a paddleboard (it just takes a little balance and some core strength) at St. Andrews State Park. It's another natural wonder of white sand beaches, dune grass, hiking trails and outdoor endeavors. Luckily for those of us who are less than surf-skilled athletes, there's also a nice little inlet where the water is calm and the SUP is possible.
An instructor from WOW (Walking on Water) Paddleboards met us at the park with the paddleboards (they are surprisingly heavy and someone has to carry them over the dune to the water), the long paddles and a positive attitude. My group listened attentively, slathered on sunscreen and waded into the thigh-deep water. We all managed to stand up on the boards, but we soon found that paddling around the small, protected space got a little boring.
If I head back to St. Andrews State Park, I think I would opt instead for a hike along one of the trails, followed by a cooling dip in the quiet waters.
Or I might head back to PCB Conservation Park for a hike or bike ride. One of the newest attractions in Panama City Beach, this park is a wonder of eco-friendliness and a tribute to the city leaders of Panama City Beach. They put together a plan that restores an ecosystem, stops pollution of the bay and provides an in-town nature center for locals and visitors alike. It's rare to find that kind of forward-thinking municipal leadership.
Where to eat in Panama City Beach
Vacationers cannot live by nature alone. They need to eat. This unheralded foodie destination is a mecca of good food and drink. We sampled the fare at six different restaurants, any one of which I would return to in heartbeat:
For breakfast, you can choose to have one of the best muffins you'll ever eat or go for the B.L.E.A.T.
Andy's Flour Power is open only for breakfast and lunch. It serves omelets, French toast and other breakfast favorites, but order a pastry while you wait. Don't miss a chance to taste a green muffin. Really. It's pistachio. I've never been a big fan of pistachios. But I am the No. 1 fan of Andy's pistachio muffins. This strip mall storefront restaurant is small. Expect to wait if you want a table.
Like Andy's, Liza's Kitchen is another strip mall storefront. But don't be fooled by the location. You're there for the food. Go on the weekend for brunch so you can order the B.L.E.A.T. breakfast sandwich (bacon, lettuce, egg, avocado and tomato). It's a gastronomic experience that shouldn't be missed. Liza's has some tables outside near the street, so it can accommodate slightly bigger crowds than Andy's.
If you want location in addition to great food, head to Runaway Island Restaurant and Grill. One of the newest additions to the Panama City foodie scene, this place has a choice spot: a wooden patio overlooking the beach. While the view alone is worth a visit, the seafood and specialty drinks make you want to stick around awhile.
For dinner, you can go beachcombing or upscale.
Schooners on the beach is party central, but still family friendly. Get there just before sunset. The food will still be just as good later, but you'll miss the firing of the cannon. That's right. At the moment the sun kisses the sea at sunset, they fire a mini cannon with a major sound. Cover your ears.
The Salt Water Grill is all about steaks and martinis. You could bring the kids -- other diners did -- but I was glad to be visiting without kids. The steaks and martinis would have been lost on them and I definitely wanted to savor mine. Even though it's fine dining, you can get a great meal for less than $50 per person. With a martini.
• Cindy Richards is a Chicago-based travel writer and editor for TravelingMom.com. She thinks a 15-hour drive is a very small price to pay to find warmth and sunshine in February.