You drive six hours to go to the beach, then the kids just want to sit around the pool all day.
The drive from Atlanta to Panama City Beach was deceptively short; we were told that with kids in tow we’d have to make all these stops and that the drive couldn’t be done in less than six hours. We were pleased with ourselves when we rolled into town after four-something hours in transit, after having stopped at a Wal-Mart somewhere in Opelika (Alabama) to stop and stretch our legs. What we didn’t take into account was the fact that we changed time zones, so technically we did the drive in around 5 hours– still impressive with two toddlers in tow.
Florida’s speed limits are retarded. Nowhere else in the country have I seen the limits change from 45-55-65-55-45-55 within a few-mile radius on back roads where there’s nothing else going on.
PROTIP: Don’t get your vehicle insurance from the car rental place. Call your existing insurance carrier and look into adding a rental car onto your policy for a few days. AVIS wanted to charge almost $100 extra for their policy. Our existing insurance covered the rental for $5.
Landmark Holiday Beach Resort.
Landmark Holiday Beach Resort is really nice! They’re condos, so if you’ve ever lived in an apartment you know what to expect. Our unit had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a full kitchen (range, oven, microwave, dishwasher, even small appliances like toasters and blenders). All cutlery, dinnerware and cookware is provided.
One minor gripe is that they don’t give you up-front enough of anything.
- Two trash bags for an entire week
- Two dishwashing packets for an entire week
- One small bottle of dish soap
All of these things can be procured from the front desk for no extra charge, but it’s a pain when you’re trying to run dishes after-hours and realize you’re out of trash bags or dish soap. Our youngest came down with a stomach virus shortly after we arrived, which meant lots of diapers full of diarrhea all night long. We found out we were out of trash bags on multiple occasions. Eventually I started running them straight to the garbage chute.
Landmark hosts various activities every week (not sure about off-peak season) including cookouts, games, contests, and socials. Most of them are held on the roof; we didn’t attend any since we like to blaze our own trails but they’re there if you’re into those sorts of things. They do generally incur additional costs.
One of the best features about any beachside resort is to leave your room, step on the elevator, and step off literally onto the beach. I never realized how nice it would be to just abandon your stuff on the beach whenever you felt like going and making a sandwich and coming back. Every other beach vacation I’d been on involved staying off-site where you bring everything you need on the beach for the day, and you stay at the beach all day.
We probably could have done just that but if you’re old or have kids in tow, the beachfront presence is absolutely invaluable. Kids get bored, tired, and hungry after a while, so the ability to toss them in an elevator and unload directly into your room was precious.
Landmark Holiday Beach Resort is not a hotel, but a time-shared condominium complex. Timeshares have always had a bad reputation. Not being owners of one, we can’t confirm or deny that the reputation is warranted (though anything that’s pitched using high-pressure sales tactics is seldom good for you), but we certainly had quite a bit of time to consider the pros and cons.
A flyer posted in the elevator listed 2B/2B specials ranging from $995 (in the beginning of December) to close to $3000 during peak seasons. Comparable beachfront hotels in the area, during the first week of summer vacation, are currently running $200-$250 a night also for a 2B/2B. If you bought in at the most expensive rate, you’re paying the equivalent of $428 a night to own a timeshare. At $1500 you’re still paying something like $215 a night. Above that, surely there are condo association fees, maintenance fees, property taxes, insurance, closing costs, hidden costs incurred after signing (special assessments?) and other nonsense involved to drive that price further up.
Or, you could book a hotel for $200-250 a night, retain the option of going somewhere else the next year, and not have to deal with the insanity of paying to own and maintain property that lies directly in the flight path of hurricanes.
Perhaps timeshares are good for people who hate having the money and the freedom to make their own decisions. People who enjoy paying thousands of dollars a year to share housing with 51 other couples like they live in the Eastern bloc. The kind of people who pay to attend swingers’ parties with other aging Communists.
PROTIP: Timeshares are un-American. Don’t buy one. Rent someone else’s or wait until they foreclose.
There’s no denying it– Panama City Beach is beautiful. Close to shore, the water is a clear green, and as the depth becomes greater it turns into a cerulean blue. The waves aren’t really high enough for surfing but it’s the perfect place to relax in an inner tube and ride the shore.
Landmark will rent beach chairs and an umbrella to you for $15 a day or $75 for the week. We tried to be crafty and brought along a mesh sun tent and folding chairs of our own. I think it took me and our oldest daughter around an hour to put the damn thing up, and once we were done we were asked to move it so we wouldn’t block the neighboring resort’s rentals’ view of the ocean. One of the grounding straps broke immediately. It was a pain to set up, but worth it– we were protected from the sun on three sides while still having an amazing view of the beach. It was like having our own little hut on the beach.
The sand in Panama City (much like anywhere on the Gulf of Mexico) is fine-grained and of the perfect moisture for making sand castles and other structures (if packed tightly enough), unlike the nastier, rockier crap you find on the Atlantic side in places like Melbourne Beach. Melbourne was the only beach I’d ever been to as a kid, owing to my grandfather buying a retirement house there that he never lived to occupy. I hear tales of Californians enjoying nighttime walks on the beach, bonfires and camping. The beaches in Melbourne were always full of rocks, broken glass, and closed at dusk so people didn’t step all over nocturnal crabs nesting onshore. I never really understood the point of beaches until I realized Melbourne just sucks.
Landmark also has grills down by the beach. They’re super convenient for grilling something real quick and eating it on the beach. It was very relaxing eating grilled food in the comfort of our tent upon the shore, well after the sun had set. Our youngest was still freaking out about the sand and ocean and ran around screaming and kicking sand into my food.
In our last few hours on the beach we tried to go all-out with a massive construction effort. I built an entire castle complex, complete with outer walls, fields, peasant housing, interior gates and a fortress on the hill. I mostly succeeded until the kids pretended to slip and fall in the moat–repeatedly–using my empire as a cushion.
The rest of the team got straight to work digging giant fucking holes at the shoreline. At one point a sandcrab popped out of the sidewall and scared V so badly she leaped four feet into the air, straight out of the hole. I tossed it back into the ocean. We have some crabs in our fishtank at home. They’re pretty lazy. But this bastard was fast.
I was surprised that the kids did not take better to the beach. They weren’t super interested in playing in the sand, and our 2-year old was terrified of the ocean until the last day where all she wanted to do was ditch us and go running off into it unattended. For the rest of the time all they wanted to do was go to the pool…of which we have access to several at home.
Our middle daughter did love feeding the seagulls though. She managed to attract so many birds that she ended up looking like some kind of crazy pigeon lady.
It’s just like any other given city in America. There’s a Wal-Mart, a Target, Starbucks, Dillard’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, a McDonald’s, a Chipotle, a Japanese steakhouse, and every other chain of everything else you probably already have at home. It’s nothing special.
There’s a silver lining to the whole globalization thing though. When I was a kid, the only beachside stores around were tourist traps that charged $10 for a plastic toy bucket and shovel…in 1990s money. With Wal-Mart in the picture, you can now get that and more in a major tourist destination like Panama City Beach for something like $2. Capitalism works both ways…not all mom-and-pop shops deserve to be kept around.
Pier Park is a neat outdoor shopping mall. There’s a movie theater and two small amusement parks along a strip that terminates at a fishing pier that takes you well out over the ocean. Toward the pier end of the strip, there are a lot of interesting-looking restaurants (chain and non-chain alike) lining it and it looks like it would be a lot of fun for a romantic evening out. Since romance is impossible with children in tow, we could only gaze wistfully at the fudge shops and Italian ice stands as we drove past.
The pier itself is geared towards those who like to fish; it’s $6 per adult to fish (permit required) or $3 per adult to watch. Kids under 6 are free.
We ate lunch under a giant umbrella pavilion they had installed just outside. We also witnessed what was probably the illegal sale of purebred Siberian Huskies to some Russian teenagers.
Lunch finished, we walked along the pier and watched people fish for a bit. One unlucky couple caught two small sharks, one after another. It was probably the same dumbass shark.
Another guy caught a small fish, then re-hooked it and used it as bait. Barbaric but effective.
There was no shade on the pier at all so we eventually left to go back to the beach. There are benches all along it from which you can look at the dried fish blood staining many of the pillars. Apparently people gut their fish on the spot. Seeing so much blood and fish guts around really reminded me of Tsukiji.
Beach photography tips.
PROTIP: If you’re going to take a DSLR to the beach, here are some things to consider:
No matter how careful you are, your camera will be exposed to sand and possibly water depending on how aggressive you are. Chances are your camera is not weather-resistant. Every twist of every dial, every push of every button, and every insertion/removal of memory cards or lenses will introduce sand into places you’d rather it not be.
- Get a prime lens (one that does not zoom). Fewer moving parts means fewer places for sand to get into, and you’ll get better pictures from it anyway.
- Get a pen duster. Basically a retractable brush, you will need it to clean sand out of the crevices.
- Never change a lens or memory card at the beach. Only do these things in your hotel room after you’ve thoroughly cleaned everything.
- When removing a lens, keep the camera and the open end of the lens pointed towards the floor so sand falls downward to the floor instead of into your sensor or lens.
- Beaches are bright as shit. Anything shot wide open will most likely be overexposed. If you use automatic modes, that might do all the work for you but I found f/4 and f/8 to be good apertures for the occasion. At some points I even found myself shooting handheld all the way at f/22 which I’ve never had to do before.
- Polarized sunglasses do not work well with LCD screens. It’s not your camera, it’s you.
- If you’re bold and plan to take it to the water, get in the habit of shooting with both eyes open. If you have one eye closed, that wave in your viewfinder may be a bit higher than you think. At best your lens will catch a bit of spray and be too dirty to be usable. At worst, you’re buying a new camera. Ever dropped a cellphone in a puddle, the toilet or a glass of water? Sometimes it’s recoverable depending on the purity of the water. Saltwater, even once dry, is all but guaranteed to leave minerals all over your internal circuitry and short it out.
The drive back.
We were expected back in town around 8 or 9. No problem, we said, we’ll get some final hours in at the beach and leave by 4 or 5. 5 hours out and we’ll be back by 10.
Cleaning up took longer than we thought and we weren’t on the road until 6. From there it was supposed to be a 5 hour drive, but we rolled into town at half past midnight. We made good time but we had forgotten about the time zone change, which added an hour to our trip!
And on top of that all, we still had diarrhea diapers to change throughout the night, and had to get up early the next day to attend our oldest’s graduation ceremony and return the car.
No rest for the wicked…