Marine wonders in Florida

Sheena Adesilu discovers the natural wonders of Panama City Beach, home to 'The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches'

I take a deep breath and put on an air of confidence as I hoist myself up onto the paddle board. Attempting to shakily stand up with an oar in my hand, I lose my footing and plunge headfirst into the glittering sea, swallowing a mouthful of saltwater.

Panama City Beach in the northwest Florida Panhandle has an intriguing blend of Southern charm, sunny climes and scrumptious seafood. With 27-miles of white-sand beaches on the emerald Gulf of Mexico, it’s easy to see why TripAdvisor ranked it third on its 2019 list of ‘Best Beaches in the U.S.’

The picturesque seaside town is famous for being a Spring Break Mecca and boasts one of the world’s largest concentrations of bottle-nose dolphins.

The first thing that strikes me about Panama City Beach is its warm and welcoming residents. You don’t have to spend long in town before you hear the iconic Southern drawl, accompanied by “How ya’ll doing today?” This is especially true in popular restaurants such as Firefly and Schooner’s, where key lime pie, crab claws and grits are menu staples.

Natural beauty is abundant in this quaint waterfront town: weeping trees, endless reserves and teeming wildlife make for photogenic scenery.

Alligator sightings are a regular part of life too. Driving alongside Gator Lake at St Andrews State Park, I couldn’t help but feel slightly uneasy about the prospect of a scaly resident popping up. “You can see alligator eyes at night, but we don’t recommend walking by the lake in the dark,” says Robin McNew, our driver from Sunshine Shuttles. “You can’t see them, but they can see you.”

Take it slow

Florida shell

A perfect sun-drenched morning provides the backdrop for our 10-minute private Catamaran journey to Shell Island.

Strolling down the boardwalk to The Island Time Sailing boat docked at Lagoon Pontoons Marina, I revel in the fragrance of seawater infused with rum punch.

Once underway, the captain slows the vessel just as a pod of excitable dolphins slices through the turquoise waters.

Glimpsing the mischievous gang bobbing through the waves, I rush from one end of the boat to the other, eager to see more.

The dolphins seem happy to take centre stage, bursting into a series of leaps and spins for their audience.

Snorkelling beside the playful mammals or paddle boarding near the shores of Shell Island is encouraged.

Another coastline well worth visiting is Mexico Beach, which was hit by Hurricane Michael in 2018. “Hurricane Michael wiped up all the coastal areas. A lot of places have just reopened,” notes Robin.

We take part in Visit Panama City Beach’s Say It Forward initiative, planting sea oats along the sand dunes. It feels very rewarding to get our hands dirty, as we dig holes in the golden shore and plant packs of seedlings 1-1/2 ft apart. Visitors are urged to help with relief and conservation efforts and are decked out in dedicated t-shirts and caps.

Sea oats, which have a huge root system, can hold soil and sand in place even during hurricanes.

The environment is a priority here, with non-profits such as Keep PCB Beautiful encouraging beachgoers to clear the strands of litter. Improving recycling, habitat restoration and tree planting are also high on the agenda.

The great outdoors

Florida grp

Camp Helen State Park is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Powell, the largest coastal dune lake in Florida. With an hour-long kayak rental on our schedule, I pop on a life vest and grab a paddle.

We row towards Carillon Beach via Philips Inlet, with its ‘squeaky’ sand creeping between our toes and a pleasant breeze coaxing the waves to the shore.

Shafts of light flit through the trees during a short trek through the park trails. American beauty berries, clusters of vibrant purple fruits native to Florida, dot the green foliage.

Sandcastle sculpting with professional sand artist That Sandcastle Guy was the perfect way to round-off the trip. Jeff Robb, a third-generation local and art enthusiast, says he started building sandcastles for his mental health.

His own tallest sandcastle to date is six feet tall, but he has also helped to build a 10–12-foot piece. Jeff’s highlight is the “look of pride on people’s faces when they see what they have built.” Clients can add intricate details, including stairs, doors, moats and bridges. Who said sandcastles were just for kids?

Another favourite American pastime for all the family is making s’mores, comprised of marshmallow and rich chocolate sandwiched between two crispy Graham crackers. Toasting these gooey treats over a roaring fire is easy – just be careful not to burn them!

A sunset beach bonfire behind Schooner’s beach club is an ideal way to unwind before heading home. The soothing tones of a Ukulele dance in the background as we watch the amber sun melt into the horizon for the last time.

Book it with… USAirtours Holidays

A seven-night stay at Calypso Beach Resort, on a self-catering basis, is priced from £1,149pp, including connecting flights with Delta Air Lines. Departure is on September 9 2024 from London Heathrow, via Atlanta, and the deal includes transfers and taxis.