I admit, I’d never heard of any Panama City outside Latin America until a few months ago, when I discovered another version in the Florida panhandle. Considering the far more famous neighbors of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, South Beach, Orlando, Key West, Tampa, Daytona, Palm, and South Beaches; I’m not surprised Panama City gets lost in the shuffle.
With so much competition, attracting tourists can a challenge. But the city is working hard on changing that and is having success. Domestically, most visitors come from surrounding states, which gives the vibe a distinct Southern feeling (think Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brad Paisley).
Ironically, it’s the area’s offness from the well-beaten tourist path that is its ace card today. Not having endured decades of intense tourism and development, Panama City remains remarkably natural. The best evidence (and biggest attraction) is the white sand beaches that remain pristine and unencumbered by volleyball nets, tiki bars, restaurants, and other beach bric-a-brac.
There’s a particularly nice strip of white sand outside the Calypso Resort and Towers on Front Beach Road. The property consists of two identical 23-floor towers holding 396 units, divided into 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms. Each is privately owned and becomes the seasonal perch of “snowbirds,” northerners who migrate south for the winter. About half the units are available for rent when the owners are out of town.
I was a tad disappointed to end up with a ground floor room, simply because the upper floors promised an amazing view of the coast (and by all reports did). My unit was a single bedroom, ($150 per night off-season, $250 in) with additional bunk beds inside a wall nook. Walking past the bedroom to the beach side, the space opened up dramatically into a spacious, sunny living area with the usual furniture and AV equipment. However, décor and furnishings can change according to owner. This also means Wifi is not universal.
Attached to the living room and overlooking the beach is an excellent balcony, which I imagine offers a lot more privacy on higher floors. Mine did give me a ground-level view of one of the two hotel pools, clearly popular for families with young children.
All units also feature a fully equipped kitchen, with microwaves, refrigerators, dishes, utensils, and cookware. For more independently minded travelers or those on a budget, this is a real plus, as you can take care of most needs with a visit to the grocery store and not be forced into restaurants for every nibble. However, if eating out is part of the plan, the resort facilitates it with a rewards card offering discounts throughout the city.
For those accustomed to full-service accommodation, I could see how they might not appreciate the do-it-yourself method. The washer and dryer in the unit is a good example. Part of vacation, is not doing laundry, they might argue. However, for me, it was great. I was happy to be able to do a quick wash and/or dry of my swimsuit, towels, and other sand and lotion-laden clothing.
That said, a stay at the Calypso Resort in Panama City is a communal affair, perhaps best witnessed in stacks of barbecue pork ribs and beer being wheeled into each room by families or groups of friends. In fact, the only place you’ll find solitude is in the small, but adequate gym.
Whatever else Panama City has, it’s the beach that everyone and everything comes back to, and indeed it was indeed one of the best I’ve ever felt between my toes. During the day, it’s a perfect balance of bustle and calm, but it’s at sunset that the sands turn crystalline, reflecting the intense yellow, oranges, and reds filling the sky. Even the dolphins leap from the gulf in joy at the beauty. It’s romantic enough to make you want to kneel before the first person who walks by and propose marriage. However, it’s probably best to resist the impulse if it’s not your girlfriend (or someone else’s), and exchange it for a cold beer on the balcony.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Calypso Resort and Towers
Interior photo by Sterling Resorts. All other photos by Mike Dunphy