Discovering the hidden joys
We have estimated that 90 percent of the people who travel from Port St. Joe to Panama City (hereinafter “Panama” or just “PC”) do so for the following three reasons: 1) employment; 2) medical or health purposes; 3) to shop. We rarely (if ever) have heard of anyone visiting “Panama” just to see the sights. Well, we’re here to report that there are, in fact, several interesting places to visit there and certainly enough to make a satisfying day trip out of it (and maybe even have a bit of time to stop at a store or restaurant during your day out).
First of all, Panama City itself is surprisingly small, population wise. There’s only about 38,000 residents. However, the greater PC metro area boasts a population of nearly 170,000 folks. Plus, being in the geographical center of the Panhandle, and roughly equidistant between Tallahassee and Pensacola, PC possesses an awful lot of commercial enterprises and, as such, attracts an awful lot of shoppers. That’s why it always seems crowded and busy. But we found a couple of places that were not only quiet but borderline idyllic…..and located right within the city limits.
Depending on your destinations, Panama is only about 40 miles from Port St. Joe along US 98 and takes an hour or so to make the drive. Once in the greater PC area, stay on Business-US 98, proceed all the way to Harrison Ave., turn left there and in no time you’ll enter historic downtown Panama City. The art-deco Martin theater is one of the more striking establishments, as is the Center for the Arts located directly across the street from the theater. The tranquil McKenzie Park is like an oasis in the urban landscape and is well worth a stroll. The area also boasts a unique shopping district of specialized boutique stores and up-scale restaurants.
Continuing a few blocks further, to the very end of Harrison St, you’ll come to the PC City Hall, the PC Marina and the PC Civic Center. This is certainly a far cry from the shopping madness of 23rd Street! The location here at the head of St. Andrew’s Bay is alone worth the visit.
After you leave the historic district, go back to US 98, turn left and head west. In no time you’ll be traveling on W. Beach Drive with a seemingly endless array of striking homes, some antebellum, some new, mostly old and nearly all quite beautiful. For a quick but fortuitous detour, turn right on Balboa Avenue, proceed a few blocks and in no time you’ll come to Bay Memorial Park. Here you’ll discover the home of the Panama City Garden Club and, as such, you’ll encounter some incredibly beautiful woodland landscapes. And if you’re so inclined, you can play a round of Disc (read: frisbee) Golf on the course located within the park.
Back on Beach Drive, Asbell Park would be next. This essentially consists of lovely Lake Caroline which is nestled within a quiet residential community and is yet another example of how easy it is to forget that you’re actually in Panama City!! However, perhaps the best example of that “contradiction” lies ahead (shortly beyond the end of Beach Drive on W 9th St) at the bucolic Oaks By the Bay Park. Another urban oasis, the park overlooks St. Andrews Bay and is shaded by ancient moss-laced live oaks. The 250-year old “Old Sentry” oak is an extraordinary example. The intricate boardwalk system in the park affords the visitor several views of the Bay and surrounding area.
The final stop on our Day-Trip was at historic St. Andrews, a community within the Panama City limits and located adjacent to the Oaks By The Bay park. It’s a historic district built on the shores of the bay and boasts a large marina which features a fleet of colorful fishing and shrimp boats.
This concludes our Day-Trip to Panama City. If you get the urge to make the trip someday, we’re confident that you’ll be as surprised and pleased as we were. It’s both comforting and enlightening to know that our busy neighbor to the west offers more than shops, traffic and hospitals to its visitors. Do it: you won’t be disappointed.