PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — "Hurry up, Daddy! Hurry up!" I begged, tugging at the arm of my father, who was moving at too maddeningly slow a pace to suit a child anxious for her first plunge into the Gulf of Mexico.
I'd never seen the ocean before, and the prospect of it spread out before me — a shimmering sheet of green laced with gentle white waves — was just too much exciting for an 8-year-old to bear.
For several years in a row, my family rented a cottage on this quiet (back then) stretch of sand along Florida's Panhandle, and my siblings and I could hardly wait for the last two weeks of August. It was an idyllic last hurrah before the start of the school year. We would spend the entire day at the beach, and in the evening, we would play a round of Goofy Golf or walk down to the arcade to have a go at a prehistoric version of video games.
In true Thomas Wolfe fashion, I went back to Panama City Beach a couple of weeks ago, and to say that things have changed is the very definition of understatement. I did recognize a few places. The Goofy Golf course is still doing a brisk business; the giant alligator maw is just waiting to swallow errant balls.
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The restaurant at Captain Anderson's Marina, where we always had our final dinner before heading home, occupies the same location on Grand Lagoon.
A few of the 1940s- and '50s-era motor courts, which to my childish eyes were glamorous accommodations worthy of the Cote d'Azur, remain. Now, though, with paint peeling and colors fading, they look more like the motel equivalent of Sunset Boulevard's aging movie queen, Norma Desmond.
If I were looking for a lost weekend from my youth, I wasn't going to find it, and maybe that's the way it should be. Today, Panama City Beach, the darling of snowbirds and spring breakers alike, has all the elements in place to please both.
Gleaming condos line the beach (75 percent of the city's accommodations are condos) replacing the string of mom-and-pop motels that I remembered. Pier Park, with its upscale shops, cafés and bars, has replaced the kitschy Miracle Strip. Fine-dining restaurants such as Firefly (the Obamas ate here on a recent vacation) complement more down-home establishments such as Liza's Kitchen (named for the chef's daughter) and Andy's Flour Power (there's no Andy, but the owner, a New York transplant named John, is one of Panama City Beach's more colorful characters).
Credit the mountains
Yet with all this transformation, one thing hasn't changed: the beach itself. They don't call this the Emerald Riviera for nothing. Crystalline waters, changing in color from emerald and jade to cobalt and sapphire, lap 27 miles of the whitest, most pristine sand in the world.
I usually think in terms of art rather than science when looking at the world around me, but I must admit I was fascinated to learn the scientific explanation for the clear condition and snow-white color of the Gulf Coast beaches. They owe their condition and color to, of all things, the Appalachian Mountains.
Eons ago, tiny pieces of quartz broke off the mountain range and washed down to the gulf. After centuries of being battered, buffeted and bleached, these crystals were washed back ashore by the waves. That quartz is responsible for the sand's texture and color.
Maybe, but it's still art to me. I've been to beaches on six continents, and I can truthfully say none of them is more beautiful than those of the Florida Panhandle.
Don't just take my word. CNN Travel has called the beaches at St. Andrews State Park, made up of rolling, white sand dunes interspersed with low swales of marshes and pinewoods, the best in the world.
The 1,200-acre park faces the gulf and the lagoon, and it offers swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, biking, camping and hiking on two nature trails, Gator Lake and Heron Pond.
During spring and summer, there is shuttle boat service from the park to Shell Island, an undeveloped spit of sand between the gulf and St. Andrews Bay. In addition to its sugar-white beaches, the island has acres of woodlands and a freshwater swamp, and it is home to one of the world's largest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins.
No end of entertainment
If St. Andrews Park represents nature in its purest form, Pier Park, opened in 2008 and the closest thing Panama City Beach has to a "downtown," is its opposite. The park's entrance on Front Beach Road opens on to 1 million square feet of beautifully landscaped outdoor shopping and entertainment.
It does have a few national chains, but most of Pier Park's shops, with names including Peace Frogs, Mermaid Trading Co., Paradise Found and The Blue Door, are one of a kind.
For entertainment, you can waste away in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville or at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the only outpost of the famous Nashville honky-tonk.
The carnival rides, relics of the former Miracle Strip, have been moved here, and on New Year's Eve, who needs Times Square in New York when you can have Pier Park's giant Beach Ball Drop?
The pier at Pier Park is the Russell Fields City Pier, one of two on the beach and at 1,500 feet the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico. If you just want to stroll, the fee is $2; if you want to fish, it will cost you $6.
What's a beach vacation without a chance to catch a blazing sunset? There are ample opportunities for sunset-watching in Panama City Beach — both on the water (Adventures at Sea does two-hour sunset cruises every evening) and on land.
Two popular spots to watch the sun go down over the gulf are Sharkey's and Barefoot Beach Club. The latter proved especially rewarding: In addition to a sunset that resembled globs of orange and lemon sherbet melting into the sea, the club's menu had a grilled grouper that melted in the mouth.
For a change of pace, check out the sunset over the Grand Lagoon at The Boatyard, where the bartender mixes a mean mojito, and where fishing and pleasure craft moor for the night.
I had just about resigned myself to the fact that the Panama City Beach of my childhood and the Panama City Beach I thoroughly enjoyed as an adult were two very different places. But then something happened to make me think that might not be the case.
On my last day, I ran into a small towheaded girl, grasping an inflatable raft twice her size with one hand and tugging at her father's arm with the other.
"Hurry up, Daddy!" she wailed. "I want to go to the beach."
It's comforting to know that some things never change.