Almost as routine as the nightly setting sun, a golf cart with American flags flapping glides down a street in Panama City Beach’s West End neighborhood. A couple waves as their brown dog leans over the cart’s front where he seems almost to smile as the wind whips back his ears. And, why not grin? This is a dog’s life. The life, actually.
It’s a place where joggers tread up and down streets. Where nightly a young man, zooming on a skateboard, takes his puppy for a walk. It’s here that golf carts, often with colorful floaties tied to their roofs, circle. People nod and wave. Some pause to chat and share news of the nearby sea. This is the place where sun worshippers stake their claims by day, often erecting some sort of beach shelter to protect them from the sun’s rays and to provide a place for coolers, flip flops and sunscreen.
Most people have a favorite beach spot, although the coastline itself consistently is outlined by white sand and lapping waves. Nearby are majestic houses and quaint cottages, some more aged than others. Few high-rise buildings are here, which explains the plentiful views and sparse population.
The stretch from the “Y” — where Highway 79 flows in a Y shape into Highway 98 (also known as Front Beach Road) and runs several miles west to where Front and Back 98 merge — has an appeal all its own. It is quiet (by most beach standards) and occupied by people who favor solitude and don’t require the bustle of busy places. No amusement parks. No sprawling shopping complexes. Just peace. Quiet. Solitude. Yet with plenty of enticing places.
Within the West End is one of the state’s best-kept secrets: the Man in the Sea Museum, which holds rare diving equipment representing the history of diving technology. Although small, the museum is filled with diving helmets (some quite old), rare diving equipment and a submarine that you may climb through. Among exhibits in the parking lot is U.S. Navy SEALAB-1, the world's first underwater living facility.
Don’t judge a store by its exterior because the Carousel Supermarket, despite its exterior, is not a convenience store. In its current location long before the coming of nearby chain supermarkets, the neighborhood market has survived and thrived, offering fresh produce and meats, abundant wines, a wide range of grocery items and a great gift shop. Don’t miss the wine tastings.
Locals and visitors alike don’t seem to mind standing in line to order at Thomas’ Donut & Snack Shop, which got its start selling just donuts. Since those early donut-only days, the business has expanded to include the food of the gods: pizzas, sub sandwiches, bagels and breakfast biscuits (opening is at 6 a.m.), hamburgers, hot dogs, lunch boxes (now that’s thinking ahead for a day on the beach) and Texas-style kolaches.
You’ll rarely find a maddening crowd at the public boat launch at Lake Powell, just behind Publix Super Market (near the convergence of Front and Back Beach roads). What you will see, however, are people towing boats and jet skis that they slip into Florida’s largest coastal dune lake that has been designated a “Pristine Florida Waterway.” Some wade into the roped-off water (be advised, the bottom feels squishy between your toes), while others picnic at the shaded pavilion, swing or shoot baskets (bring your own ball).
With some 767 acres outlined by barrier beaches and sand dunes, the lake is a mix of fresh and salt waters and a beehive of activity on sunny days. Some people put down roots and others stay only briefly at Carillon Beach, a village where no two homes are exactly alike yet where the harmony of home designs creates a coastal getaway at the far end of the West End. Everything is within walking distance at the property that sits on some 104 acres and includes an inn, a 13-acre lake and the Village Green which often serves as the location for music performances or outdoor weddings.
Surrounded by forests, wetlands, dune systems, pristine lakes, native oak trees and abundant wildlife, the area, like all of West End, is quiet — which may not have been the case in the 1800s when sailing ships sank in nearby waters.
Many of the items sold here are the handiwork of wood carver and gallery owner Sun Bear, who spends much of the winter carving large objects – including dolphin, mahi-mahi, eagles, turtles and, most popular, pelicans. Also here (19800 Front Beach Road.) are works by other artists, Native American silver jewelry, buckskins, ceremonial drums and items (including leather) for motorcyclists. Taught to carve by his Creek grandfather, the Pennsylvania native who moved to the Panhandle in the late 1970s, describes his gallery as having “a lot of layers.”
Although there’s nothing eye-catching — except perhaps the mermaid mural — about the pink building at this locally owned eatery (21828 Front Beach Road.), the food is consistently tasty and reasonably priced. Breakfast likely will remind you of what your mom used to serve, back when people didn’t pay much attention to cholesterol or portion control.
One-, two- and three-bedroom condos are available at the family-focused property (17698 Front Beach Road.) that has an onsite covered water park with a lazy river and tot splash pad, indoor and out swimming pools, fitness center, hot tub and arcade.
With 908 uplands acres and 2,004 wetlands acres, Bay County’s largest public park is laced with more than two dozen miles of trails (ranging from 0.6 to 11 miles) and 1.2 miles of boardwalks. The admission-free park — where sap for turpentine was harvested in the 1920s and ’30s — is suited to roaming, biking, picnicking beneath a pavilion or simply escaping life’s bustle