Nicole Bielenin is the family and children photographer behind the lens of Lavender Roads Photography in the Florida panhandle. When she’s not taking pictures, you can find her spending time with her husband, chasing her toddler, or planning her next getaway (and she’s never too far away from a carton of ice cream).
Anyone who has taken a trip with a toddler knows how much fun it can be! (And for those of you who haven’t ever taken a trip with a toddler… by “fun,” I mean it could make a saint want to pull her hair out). Even so, everyone knows that a trip can be good for the soul. So where should you plan to go if you want a place that’s both appealing to adults while still offering fabulous options for the littlest members of the family? Well, lucky for you, I know the perfect family-friendly destination: Panama City!
Recently, I took a day trip to Panama City, meeting with a friend to spend the day adventuring with our toddlers. At the time, they were both between a year and eighteen months old (I know, momma’s… you’re hearing those screechy violins from horror films). So how did we manage to not only pass the time with them, but to really enjoy our day?
We began the day in Downtown Panama City at a seafood restaurant right on the water (literally!), Bayou Joe’s. Dining on their covered dock provided for a relaxed atmosphere that was perfect with two little ones…bonus points for snagging a window seat where they can be entertained by watching the boats come in and out- of which there were plenty to choose from!
Following our meal, we ventured over to historic St. Andrews. Here, we headed to Floriopolis, an art studio and gallery. I know this may not sound kid-friendly, but stick with me… Floriopolis is truly a gem! It is a cozy, eclectic place with the friendliest faces. They offer studio days for those of all ages with a large assortment of art materials to be explored. Because we weren’t at home and didn’t have to worry about a kiddo permanently redecorating our pretty furniture (not that that’s ever happened to me before), we chose the messiest option for our littles: paint! It was an incredibly fun experience for kids and moms alike! Aside from being fun, it was also so rewarding to watch them explore their creative sides. Floriopolis is not a place to be missed, even if you just go in to peruse the local art displayed there.
Once we got the kiddos cleaned up and presentable again, we decided to let them run off some energy at Oaks by the Bay Park. I immediately fell in love with the picturesque Spanish moss-covered towering oaks overlooking the bay. I don’t think I stopped gushing over them the entire time we were there! The stretch of pristine white sand along the bay was the perfect place for tiny bare feet to run- and run they did! After some time playing here, both kids were thoroughly exhausted- another mom win!
My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to spend exploring the area. The Downtown Panama City and historic St. Andrews areas are truly some of the most beautiful around. I will definitely be returning as soon as the opportunity presents itself… and when I do, I can be confident that there will be plenty for not only me to enjoy, but for my little girl to enjoy, as well!
Panama City kicks off the inaugural Strummin’ Man Festival this fall at the marina in Historic St. Andrews. The Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews, known around town as Ukes St. Andrews, is organizing the festival, which is sponsored by Destination Panama City and Holiday Inn.
From October 13-15, the city will welcome international ukulele artists for concerts and workshops as well as local and visiting ukulele enthusiasts – and of course curious neophytes. “Most of us had no playing experience or musical background when we started,” says Jennifer Jones, a charter member of the orchestra and director of Bay Arts Alliance. “The ukulele is approachable and non-intimidating, it’s just a fun instrument, and we’re so diverse and welcoming.”
The Ukes St. Andrews hatched in 2014 when a local businessman invited friends to play. “He said, ‘If you play, I’ll pay for the ukuleles,’” laughs Jones. The group has grown to a core of more than 100 musicians, although rarely all are free to join for one event. “We are big enough now that there are always enough people on hand for us split into two groups and play two gigs at once,” she adds.
With the instrument’s broad appeal, the orchestra is a diverse group of locals, including a rocket scientist, computer programmers, bankers, photographers, educators – even folks who have never picked up an instrument. “We try to balance skill with fun,” Jones says. “We want to sound our best without making it so rigorous it discourages anyone from playing – or joining.”
Since their beginning, the group has prioritized supporting local music education. Noting that the ukulele is a great gateway instrument, Jones explains that the orchestra, a 501(c)(3), has provided hundreds of ukuleles to Bay County schools and libraries. “One advantage the ukulele has over introductory wind instruments like the recorder is that you can sing to it,” Jones says. “It allows children to use the musical instrument they’re born with in concert with the ukulele.”
True to this mission, the Ukes will donate all profits from Strummin’ Man to buy instruments for Bay County school students. “We hope to raise enough to donate ukuleles to any school in the county that wants them,” Jones says.
In addition to immersive offerings such as workshops, jam sessions and open-mike stages, Strummin’ Man Festival will welcome some of the world’s leading ukulele artists, including Lil’ Rev, an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and music-historian; Rachel Manke, one of the brightest stars in the ukulele universe; Taimane, whose expansive repertoire spans from Bach to Led Zeppelin; and duo Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee.
Tickets are available in advance at www.standrewsukes.org. Through August 31, attendees can take advantage of early-bird packages ranging from all-access weekend passes for $85 to day passes for $15.
Panama City has it all – a perfect location overlooking St. Andrew Bay with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, a thriving arts and culture scene, a range of dining offering the freshest local seafood, and diverse shopping and antiquing. You won’t be lacking of anything to do while you’re in Panama City!
A local favorite and a place where you can get the true experience of Panama City is Little Village, a waterfront shopping and entertainment venue located in Historic St. Andrews. A sidewalk community built on the shores of the Bay and dedicated to giving an organic experience, Historic St. Andrews uses the slogan #KeepStAndrewsSalty. With a hippie vibe, Little Village will give you just that – an organic experience that you won’t find outside of Panama City. When you first walk in, you’ll be greeted by lots of friendly faces and possibly even Kenny the house-cat. Make your way to the little indoor huts for a little bit of shopping, each offering a unique selection of items. As your exploring each hut, don’t forget to look around you, or you’ll miss the fun outdoor and garden decorations. There’s a large indoor shopping area located in the back with a deck that extends over the lake. The inventory is constantly changing and you can discover handmade, eco-friendly, fair trade, recycled, and re-purposed items from around the globe with a special selection of local artists’ work. Little Village also offers a selection of flavored salts by Gulf Coast Saltworks, a local company that harvests salt from the local Gulf Waters.
While you shop, you can enjoy a cold beer or a glass of wine or snack on Finns Island Style Grub cuisine and listen to live music on the outdoor patio overlooking a superior water view. You can’t go wrong with anything you choose to order from Finns, from the overstuffed fish tacos to the burrito bowls and quesadillas all served fresh and made to order. Inspired by a combination of saltwater, tropical islands, fishing and a deep cajun history, the menu at Finns Island Style Grub is a blend of unique ideas that won’t disappoint!
This entertainment venue is also home to the 200-person Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews. You won’t be able to help but smile watching this fun loving group of people radiate nothing but happiness as they strum their ukuleles. Coming up later this year on October 13-15 2017 is the Inaugural Strummin’ Man Ukulele Festival, a multi-day festival featuring renowned ukulele artists’ concerts, workshops, vendors, and local and visitor ukulele groups. You won’t want to miss this event! For more events and happenings in Panama City, visit the Destination Panama City Events page.
Panama City fishing guide provides an ultimate dock-to-dish experience.
How many times have you stood helplessly by, biting your tongue while you watched a friend completely botch preparing and cooking a nice, clean piece of fish he (or she) labored all day in the hot sun, at the stern of a rocking boat, miles offshore, to land? Next time you plan an offshore fishing excursion in Northwest Florida, you may want to avoid committing a similar culinary faux pas and subjecting your dinner guests to overcooked cobia with the consistency of a retread tire. How’s that, you ask? For too many occasional fishermen, catching fish is a bit like the dog that chases the bus and doesn’t know what to do with it once he’s caught it.
Captain Todd Jones knows the waters (both inshore and offshore) around Panama City so well he could navigate them blindfolded on a moonless night. He also knows how to find his way to a good business idea. Captain Todd operates out of Sun Harbor Marina, docking his 27-foot center console Seacraft just steps away from Shipyard Grill. Like most charter captains, he has always cleaned the days catch and iced it down for his happy, worn-out clients before sending them on their way with a mess of clean fish and a load of unanswered questions about what to do with it once they get it home.
One evening, soon after Shipyard Grill opened, he noticed his clients walking with their bags of fresh catch right past the front door and patio of the restaurant, and the idea appeared to him as clear as a channel marker on St. Andrews Bay: why not offer clients the opportunity to have the restaurant professionally and expertly cook the fish they worked so hard (and spent their hard-earned dollars) to catch?
“There are many advantages to this ‘Hook and Cook’ approach,” says Captain Todd of his idea. First, he notes that somebody who rarely cooks the wide variety of edible Gulf fish they’re most likely to land avoids the stress of preparing it incorrectly. Secondly, there’s no mess to clean up afterwards. Thirdly, fishermen often travel with spouses, other family members or friends who don’t join the expedition but still want to share the bounty, which Hook and Cook allows. Finally, fresh frozen fish is better than store-bought fish, but never-frozen swimming-this-morning dock-to-dish fish is in a stratosphere of its own.
Now, instead of lugging your fish home to Atlanta or Birmingham – or even Ohio – in a cooler strapped to the hitch-all of your Suburban, you walk 20 (more or less) steps from the boat to the dock-side restaurant, present your bag of fish and choose one of three preparations for your catch (fried, blackened or grilled – which the restaurant charges an average $13 to $15 to cook) along with two sides. (Although not quite as convenient, in addition to Shipyard Grill, Captain Todd can also deliver you with your fish to Captain’s Table Fish House Restaurant in Historic St. Andrews or to Treasure Island Seafood Market to be cleaned and delivered to J. Michael’s in Downtown Panama City.) Then you head back to your lodging to wash up and fetch your family and friends, and return with them to the Shipyard Grill to proudly treat them to an unforgettable meal that you caught four hours earlier, as you regale them with your fish tales. One of those people will certainly buy you a drink and toast your virtues as a fisherman and a host.
Be sure to check out Captain Todd’s episode on Hook and Cook on Emerald Tales airing in January on the Pursuit Channel (check local listings). To book a charter with Captain Todd, please call 850-819-5829
Panama City’s strategic location on St. Andrews Bay has played an important role in the destination’s history as an anglers paradise. Similarly, the ideal wind conditions have established Panama City as a world-class sailing destination, with travelers from around the globe envying the constant breezes and calm waters of St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf. Sprawling more than 68,000 acres behind the protection of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, St. Andrews Bay is home to abundant aquatic life.
The bay spans more than 20 miles and includes a wealth of saltwater flats and seagrass beds that offer a rich bounty. Redfish, Speckled Trout, Black Drum, Cobia, Sheepshead and Flounder are just a few of the species that populate these channels.
The clear waters of this extensive ecosystem are ideal for both novice and expert anglers. Numerous charters and guides offer year-round off-shore fishing opportunities for various seasonal species. Bottom fishing yields grouper, snapper, mahi-mahi, mackerel and amberjack. Trolling is an ideal method for hooking both Spanish and king mackerel, cobia and jack crevalles. Sport fishing for sailfish and marlin provides heart-thumping excitement during a true test of endurance and skill.
Offering near perfect winds that many coastal communities envy, visitors to Panama City have the opportunity to sail in the deepest and largest protected bay in the area. Long revered as a sailing destination, Panama City is home to numerous regattas throughout the year such as the A-Class Catamaran North American Championships.
Boaters love Panama City with more marinas per capita than many similarly sized coastal destinations and charters providing ready access for water based excursions. Shelling expeditions to unpopulated barrier islands, such as Shell Island are readily available to any guests wishing to explore the bay area by water. Download a free Visitors Guide to learn about the crystal blue waters of Destination Panama City.