Quick. What three words, other than sun, sand, and sex, come to mind when you think back to Spring Break? For generations of students going to school within road-trip distance of the Florida Panhandle, the obvious answer would be Panama City Beach. Often called the Spring Break Capital of America, PCB has seen, some claim, as many as 250,000 youthful revelers in a season – which runs between late February and early April.
In fact, past years have been so raucous that the city has throttled back the reveling, most famously by severing its relationship with MTV, who used to do broadcasts from the hormone fueled craziness that turned local hangouts like Club La Vela, Spinnaker, and Sharky’s Beach Club into Spring Break legends.
Now, though, PCB is striving for a more family-friendly reputation, which is good for brides and grooms who dream of exchanging vows barefoot, because one of the major draws for Spring Breakers – emerald green water brushing up against miles and miles of some of the whitest sand in the world — also makes it ideal for beach weddings.
As is typical along the Florida Gulf Coast, much of the accommodation around Panama City Beach is in rental condos that have access to beach front wedding venues. A popular example is Carillon Beach, a gated community that has its own on-site wedding planners, Carillon Beach Weddings. There are no overnight stay requirements, but Carillon Beach Rentals can arrange on-site accommodation and negotiate a rate for your guests.
A more public but very popular venue is the 1.5 miles of beach at St. Andrews State Park, three miles east of PCB. In 1995 St. Andrews was named the best beach in America by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach. The pavilions are first-come first serve, but there’s plenty of room among the rolling white dunes, which make about as romantic a seaside setting as you can imagine.
Not directly on the Gulf of Mexico but just across from St. Andrews Park on the Grand Lagoon is the 319-room Wyndham Bay Point Resort, with its own white sand beach, which is part of a 1,100 acre wildlife sanctuary. If you are envisioning a more formal wedding, however, the Wyndham’s real strength is its indoor event space, the largest in the area, which includes two ballrooms with 14-foot high ceilings.
If your taste in hotels runs more to the boutique style, one of the most highly rated accommodations on the Florida Panhandle is the Watercolor Inn and Resort about 45-minutes west of PCB in Santa Rosa Beach. The inn has appeared on the Conde Nast Traveler Gold List and Travel + Leisure Readers Favorite. Its 60 rooms feature balconies with ocean views, and its various wedding venues can accommodate up to 200 guests.
Where-ever you chose, one of the legacies of the Spring Break revelry is that there are a nearly unlimited number of activities to keep guests busy, from traditional pursuits such as golf and tennis, to water-oriented activities such as sea kayaking, parasailing, dolphin watching, and, our favorite, a sunset sail aboard a 52-foot sailing catamaran with Paradise Adventures.
For much of its history, Panama City Beach, as with all the Florida Panhandle seaside communities, has drawn almost all of its visitors from the Southern states within driving distance. But that has begun to change with the opening in 2010 of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, 25 minutes from PCB, which we suspect may attract destination wedding couples from the name alone. – Bob Payne