Church and religious group travel planners have myriad options available to them if they want their people to spend time in warm, sunny Florida. But not everyone wants to vacation in busy settings like Miami, with its big-city international flair, or Orlando, known for its pulsating theme and water parks, or the many cities hugging the east and west coasts of the state. Some prefer the quiet atmosphere of northwest Florida’s Panhandle, specifically the Panama City Beach area, where the Gulf of Mexico meets St. Andrew Bay.
The 27 miles of beaches along this stretch remind many of how Florida used to be. That does not mean old-fashioned and dull, just a quieter and slower-paced atmosphere. The area offers almost every outdoor activity imaginable. Add to that an average of 320 days of sunshine per year and an average year-round temperature of 77 degrees, and the setting becomes quite appealing. Another plus: The coastline along Panama City Beach angles slightly toward the west, which means you can watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico every day of the year. It is a true American beach town.
“There are so many different types of beaches along that 27 miles,” said Renee Wuerdeman, vice president of sales for Visit Panama City Beach, the local convention and visitors bureau. “We have the wide-open white beaches and emerald-green water. Those alone are the destination within our destination because there is so much to do on the water and sand.”
The fun starts with swimming, playing, relaxing, socializing and soaking up the sun. From that you can launch into anything else you might want to do.
For example, said Wuerdeman, younger people may love to participate in adventure and ecotourism while older people may want to get on a boat, cruise the bay and watch the dolphins. “And in between is every pleasurable thing to do in the outdoors, plus city attractions like restaurants, shopping and amusements,” she said. “So there is, as they say, something for all age groups.”
The overall variety of Panama City Beach is one reason the next Going On Faith Conference will be held at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort, September 13-15. This will be a wonderful opportunity for religious travel planners to see the area and talk to local tourism agents and to consider taking their groups there to enjoy the sun and sand.
Another major hotel site that religious travel planners might consider using is the Edgewater Beach and Golf Resort, a place where you can simply walk out the building’s doors and onto the beach.
Local tourism officials are eager to welcome faith-based groups to their city.
“We have wanted to get the Going On Faith Conference here for probably four years,” said Wuerdeman. “I know the importance of the religious market, and I know of the economic power of these groups and what they can bring to your destination.”
Wuerdeman said these church groups are great for Panama City Beach. The groups are of varied sizes; they are willing to fly or travel there in motorcoaches; and the people love to do social trips with friends and fellow church members. “They are exactly who we are after,” she said.
Access and Amenities
Panama City Beach is served by Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, located just 20 miles from this coastline city of 13,000 people. Flying in is easy with seasonal direct flights from such major cities as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Denver, Washington and more. Others prefer to drive to Panama City Beach from neighboring states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The CVB estimates the area has 20,000 guest rooms in every price range. This includes hotels, condominiums, town homes, resorts and villas.
Church travel planners will be happy to know that Panama City Beach has five religious retreat centers. One of them is Laguna Beach Christian Retreat, which is an excellent choice for Christian groups and families; it is on a quiet, uncrowded stretch of beach, which helps promote the proper atmosphere for ministry.
Laguna Beach has eight acres of private grounds, varied accommodations, 13 swimming pools, sports courts, commercial kitchens and home-style catering. In addition, there are 20 meeting rooms and a 700-seat chapel.
The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put the brakes on several hotel and condo projects in the area, but now things have loosened up and work is getting done. These new units are being built primarily for tourists, not residents, so there will be even more choices for visitors. Due to open soon are a new Embassy Suites and a Hyatt Place, among others.
East End Explorations
The east end of Panama City Beach is where you can find the Grand Lagoon, known as the Gateway to the Gulf. There are many ways to explore the water. Fishing is perennially popular. The area offers all kinds of coastal, migration and reef fishing, as well as blue-water fishing, which means starting at 50 miles offshore. Guided fishing charters are available. Some call the area the Seafood Capital of the South. A handful of local restaurants will even let visitors bring in their personal catches for cooks to prepare. Red snapper is a popular catch found often in the area.
“We have a huge sports fishing community here,” said Wuerdeman. “We even produce a popular nationally syndicated fishing show on the Discovery Channel called ‘Chasin’ the Sun.’” The show features two local fishing guides taking a few anglers out on their small boat and into every watery corner of the Panama City Beach area looking for an interesting catch.
In addition to fishing, people love to go diving, snorkeling, kayaking, wind surfing and parasailing, as well as on scenic boat tours. At the far eastern tip of Panama City Beach are beautiful St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island, an uninhabited barrier island. There are two piers in the area for fishing and getting wonderful views of the whole area, as well as nature trails popular for bird-watching.
Travelers will get to see wild things at ZooWorld, a combination zoo and botanical conservatory, where they can see animals from around the globe, including big cats, monkeys, big snakes and parrots. Special experiences include feeding an alligator and petting a lemur.
Another popular family attraction is Gulf World Marine Park. Daily shows showcase creatures such as sea lions, dolphins and trained birds. There are also penguins, sharks and alligators to see.
The east end also offers land-based activities to keep everyone happy. City Pier is a major landmark in Panama City Beach, and people love to walk it to watch people and to snack and play games along the way. Across the street is Pier Park, a 1 million-square-foot open-air complex with 125 top retailers, dozens of restaurants, and attractions like the 170-foot-tall SkyWheel, a Ferris wheel. There is also the SkyRail for zip lining and an astonishing Imax theater. The area also has several fine golf courses, including one that was created by the team at Nicklaus Design.
The west end of Panama City Beach is a quieter place than the east end, and that may be fine for a lot of people. One place every visitor should explore in this area is Camp Helen State Park. It is bordered on three sides by water, including Lake Powell, a rare coastal dune lake.
Nearby Conservation Park is quite unusual. It is a protected area of wetlands, cypress forests and wildlife. People can hike or bike over 12 different trails or travel on boardwalks suspended above the water-covered forest floor. Critters are everywhere and will probably see you before you see them.
The history of diving is the theme at the Man in the Sea Museum on the west end. You can view new and old diving equipment, walk through a submarine and see treasures brought up from the ocean’s bottom, some from as far back as the 16th century.
From the east end to the west end, groups can have it any way they like at Panama City Beach: fast-paced or slow as you go.