Panama City Beach Golf Vacation
The day after Christmas and still full of turkey, we loaded the motorhome and our towed Jeep to the brim ( 4 sets of golf clubs and lots of golf balls, bags for 6 people and 3 kids, multiple cases of beer, enough food to get us to Florida, 6 bikes, 2 kid's bike trailers, 2 strollers, DVD players and lots of movies, beach toys and games, and lots more), drew straws to see who got to sit where, clipped the three grand kids (a three year old, a 2 year old, and a 8 month old!) into car seats, and headed out to Panama City Beach for a nine days of fun in the sun. We planned on golfing, biking, exploring the area, and enjoying the restaurants and nightlife, and warming up - it was 30 when we left. Sixteen uneventful and boring (for us drivers - everyone else slept, watched movies, played games, ate, and drank - next time I'm flying!) hours later we arrived at 12 PM in Panama City Beach with 70 degree weather (hurray!) and started unpacking what seemed like we just loaded. Now I was really sore from doing all that lifting and moving which means I could start using all that as excuses and reasons for extra strokes for our upcoming golf rounds.
Panama City Beach Lodging
We have never visited Panama City Beach and we were all excited about starting our adventure and unfortunately never had time to do a lot of research on lodging and other fun things to do before we left. So we had no idea what to expect of our condo but based on the low price (roughly $139 a night!), we weren't expecting much.
We hauled all the gear up to the 16 floor, held our breath, and walked in - wow, what a pleasant surprise. Three bedrooms, 3 baths, washer and dryer, well equipped kitchen, 42 inch flat screen plus a DVD, a TV in each room, beds for ten, large supper and game table, nice furniture, a wrap around balcony with chairs and table and a fabulous view of the ocean! Plus it was very clean, looked new, and the beds (excect for the sleeper sofa) were very comfy. Plus the condo is on a beautiful white sandy beach, has an indoor and outdoor pool, a hot tub, exercise room, movie theater, and is close to all the action including Pier Park. Can't get much better than all that! If you're headed that way we would recommend them - Tidewater Beach Resort and we made reservations through Best Beach Getaways. Enough on lodging, let's talk about golf.
Panama City Golf Courses
We've had some fantastic golfing vacations including Cabo, Palm Springs, Hawaii, and all around Texas and some of the courses we played on this trip rivaled some of the best from each of those trips. We found lush conditions, tough greens, beautiful and unique scenery, very challenging (ie, a rating of 75.3 and slope of 143) yet fun layouts, and courses we rated close to a 10!
Shark's Tooth Golf Club
It was tough to pull ourselves off the soft white sandy beach for golf, but we were excited about our first round on Shark's Tooth Golf Club which was named one of Golfweek’s “Best Residential Courses” for the fifth straight year and in 2008 it was rated as the "5th Best Golf Course In Florida" - it can't get much better than that. Greg Norman designed Shark's Tooth to maximize the beauty of the natural terrain and as such the course meanders through the oaks and pines, across natural waste areas and wetlands, and along the shore of Lake Powell - absolutely stunning scenery and unlike anything you'll find in Texas or most other states. The course stretches to 7,204 yards from the back tees and features five fairways that border scenic Lake Powell, two holes that play toward the water, and numerous wooden cart path bridges that cross over streams and estuaries. Shark's Tooth is a challenging course that co-exists beautifully with its surroundings.
The fairways were lush and green with few divots and greens were perfect with good speed and some slope and undulation. At over 7,200 yards from the tips and a rating of 74.9 and 136 slope, Shark's tooth is very challenging with water on 8 holes, plenty of wetlands and marshes to carry from the tee box as well as on several approaches to the green, huge natural sand traps, 87 bunkers with soft white sand just like the beach, and well protected greens. There are no homes on this beautiful course which adds to the beauty and peacefulness. And the weather was perfect at 75! We rated the front nine a 9.7 and the back a 9.5 out of 10. What a perfect start and we still had 4 more courses to play! To learn more, read our review of Shark's Tooth and visit the Shark's Tooth Golf Course website.
Here is the bad news/good news - Shark's Tooth is a private course but is available for play for guests of the fantastic WaterColor Inn's 60-room boutique inn on the Gulf of Mexico and its luxury vacation rental homes located in the WaterColor and WaterSound communities. So now you now where to stay.
Hombre Golf Club
How can you come from Texas to Panama Beach City and not play a course called the Hombre with three nines called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. On the way to the course and through the first couple holes, I couldn't stop humming the theme song from Clint Eastwood's movie "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." Based on the courses location near the middle of town and with a name like Hombe we didn't have high expectations for the Course. Wow, were we wrong and pleasantly surprised - the condition was fantastic, the layout was fun and challenging, the courses were very scenic and well groomed, and there is lots of variety. Remember Clint's great phrase, "make my day," well that's what the Hombre did - what an outstanding round of golf on The Bad and The Ugly nines.
The Hombre fairways are framed by a stunning assortment of palms, pines, and azaleas and are flat, like most Florida courses. Each of the nines has it's own character and challenges - The Good has a more traditional feel and is the easiest of the three; The Bad can live up to it's name and is the hardest of the three; and The Ugly is far from it with some scenic and fun holes which seem much more open after playing The Bad.
Holiday Golf Club
Bay Point Resort Golf Club
One might ask, "are you getting a little tired of golf?" after 72 holes of chasing balls; going through at least 6 sleeves of golf balls; lots of swearing; hours spent looking for balls and trying to get the sand out of your shoes, hair, and body parts; and lots of positioning for strokes the next day or tall tales over margaritas about great shots. The answer from a real golfer is "are you kidding me!" So, off we went to play another 18 on the Nicklaus course at Bay Point Resort.
The Nicklaus course and the Meadows course are part of Marriott's Bay Point Resort. The Marriott is in an 1100 acre wildlife preserve on the edge of Grand Lagoon and St. Andrews Bay and in addition to 36 holes of great golf there are 360 guestrooms and 60 golf villas, a spa, beautiful pool, restaurant, and other amenities. They offer a good Stay & Play Package.
We had another great day playing golf on this fun, challenging, and unique course. The Nicklaus Course was redone in 2005 to make it a more forgiving and gentle course for wimpy resort guests. We heard it was one of the toughest in Florida before the redesign and even after being redone it is still very challenging - 7152 yards, rating of 75.3, and a slope of 143! What makes this course both fun, memorable, and challenging is:
lots of variety and very interesting holes including some elevation changes - in Florida which is typically flat as a pancake!
excellent conditions as well as scenic beauty as the course meanders through the resort, across wetlands and marshes, and along the St Andrews Bay
plenty of challenges including dog legs, water on 17 holes, 42 sand traps plus huge natural sand areas (more sand to carry home and deposit in the car, condo, and bath tub), blind shots, wetlands, and salt water marshes - which ate another sleeve of my balls and that was just on their signature hole!
You can't believe how tempted we were to make a tee time to play the course again (we were sure that now that we knew the course, we could score better) or to play the Meadows course, but better judgment and our good sense prevailed (there was a good probability that the spouses and kids/grand kids would disown us if we played another 18!), so we headed back to the condo to get ready for a fun filled New Years Eve. Read the review of the Bay Point Resort Nicklaus Golf Course which we rated 8.5.
Camp Creek Golf Club
After making a stop at the local golf store to pick up some more golf balls, we were off to play Camp Creek and what a way to end a week of fabulous golf. Camp Creek is a Tom Fazio design and a part of the WaterColor Inn & Resort’s premier golf collection, which also includes Shark’s Tooth, designed by Greg Norman, and The Origins Course at WaterSound, designed by Davis Love III. Camp Creek, like Shark's Tooth is a private course available to guests of the WaterColor Inn & Resort or guests of the luxury vacation rental homes located in the WaterColor and WaterSound communities. Limited reciprocal rights are available, but check with the director of golf first. WaterColor is a beautiful inn sitting right on the soft fluffy white sandy beach and offers plenty to see and do - biking, restaurants, shopping, and more.
Since opening in 2001, Camp Creek has been consistently cited as one of Tom Fazio's most thought-provoking and aesthetically-stunning courses! From the back green tees, the course plays to a championship caliber yardage of 7,159 and a formidable slope rating of 152. To accommodate players of all skill and experience levels, Camp Creek has a five-tee box configuration which includes a gold tee box (for seniors which is where I should be playing from but my opponents never let me!) and a red tee box for the women. Travel + Leisure Golf recognized Camp Creek as “Florida’s No. 1 Course of the New Millennium.”
Camp Creek rivals any course that we have played, including courses in Cabo, Hawaii, Palm Springs, and of course the Lone Star State! The scenery is unique and beautiful - in fact, just riding in the cart is worth the trip as you traverse through the 1000 acre preserve with no homes, plenty of wildlife, marshes, wetlands, and lush green fairways. As you may know, Florida is generally flat as a pancake and so are the majority of the Florida golf courses - but that's not the case with Camp Creek. Millions of tons of dirt must have been moved and sculptured into rolling hills, elevated greens, sloping fairways, berms, and mounds. And then they replanted all natural landscaping and created huge natural sand areas. The fairways were thick, lush, and green (they should have been dormant in January) and had very few divots or other flaws. The greens were also perfect but extremely challenging and tough to one or even two putt. But best of all, the layout is fantastic - challenging but fair, well landscaped and beautiful, lots of variety, very memorable and fun holes. Camp Creek requires excellent course management and good club selection if you want to have a good round. You'll want to play this course again, so build that into your schedule. For more details, check out our review of Camp Creek and the link to their website.
Panama City Fun Things to See and DoWe would have loved to play any of the above courses again, but if we had we'd most likely end up divorced and homeless with just a pair of golf shoes. The good news was that there is plenty of other fun things to see and do within 30 miles of where we were staying. Although a number of businesses were closed for the season we still found plenty to do and we kept each day jam packed with activities besides just golf - does that sound like sour grapes! Some of what we did included:
- Kids Time - the guys were feeling a little guilty for spending over 25 hours and four mornings playing golf and it appeared it was our turn to babysit. Panama City Beach has quite a few choices of things that kids of all ages (including me!) would enjoy - go carts, miniature golf, zoo, museums, science center, amusement and water parks, sightseeing tours, boat and jet ski rentals, parasailing, seaplane and helicopter rides, kayak rentals, and more). Unfortunately, quite a number of them were closed for the season. But we did find quite a few choices that we knew the kids and us kids at heart would enjoy to fill some of the afternoons after golf.
- Petting The Animals - Everybody loves a Zoo once or twice a year, so with kids in tow, we set off for Panama City Beach's Zoo World. Don't let Zoo World's "curb appeal" fool you, it will surprise you with all there is to see and do. From the educational shows to the wide variety of animals, we were thoroughly impressed. The zoo has more of a natural feel without all the enormous concrete cages, wide paths and huge distances between you and the animals. Instead, you are surrounded by vegetation with narrow winding paths and are able to get a more up close & personal view of the animals. There are even peacocks wandering freely throughout the grounds. Along the path there are a wide variety of monkeys, a few bears, 3 lions, cheetahs, jaguars, alligators, ducks, wolves, birds, reptiles, tigers, turtles, owls and wallabys. The bears and big cats were a favorite but the highlight for the kids (they needed one, ours was clearly playing Camp Creek!) was the petting zoo where they were able to touch and feed animals not customarily found in petting zoos. We saw a camel (labeled cranky because of a special diet), pigs, turkeys, miniature ponies, goats and sheep. The real star of the show was Stanley, the giraffe. We were excited to be able to see a giraffe up close and personal thru the wooden bars. Better yet, you can climb the giraffe tower and actually feed her. What a thrill! The lions and big cats were one of the kids favorites. From the sweet story of the elderly orangutan (Tonda, who lost his mate and found true companionship in a kitty called TK), to viewing the beauty and intelligence in the "living classroom" at "Flock University," to seeing the parrots of the world made the trip to ZooWorld well worth it. The kids are still talking about feeding the giraffe. Although the price is a little steep, it was a fun family activity that we would recommend to anyone visiting the area.
- Gulf World - The sound of sea lions from a block away calls you into the Panama City Beach aquarium - Gulf World. Once inside the front doors you'll see through a glass window the sea lions swimming gracefully before you. And several times throughout the day you can watch them perform at the sea lion show. The sea lion stadium fills up to watch them perform as the trainers educate you on these fun loving mammal
In the outdoor aquarium you are able to see a variety of animals both sea & land. One of the first stops is at a round tank with sharks & turtles where you can look down as they they swim around the tank or you can go down a small bridge into the middle of the tank to see them up close and personal. Nearby a few alligators bask in the sun and penguins waddle on the rocks. The kids loved leaning over the short wall to try to touch the stingrays and got a thrill when a worker gave them fish to feed the stingrays.
Around the corner you will find an indoor amphitheater with a huge floor to ceiling tank filled with more turtles, an eel and a small variety of fish. If you are bird lover, you will enjoy the large indoor room filled with many different types of birds including flamingos and parrots. Also housed in here is a small reptile area where a worker will occasionally carry a large snake around for the kids and for the very few adults brave enough to touch. The last stop on our tour of Gulf Word, which made the steep price worth it, was the dolphin show! Three dolphins entertained us, led by their trainers, with their speech, high flying acrobatics and animated tricks. Absolutely amazing what these friendly and very intelligent (speaking of intelligent - is a dolphin a fish or mammal and why?) mammals can do - very entertaining show. Word for the wise, don't sit in the first few rows if you don't want to get wet! For an additional $10 you can get your picture taken shaking a dolphin's fin or during certain times of the year, you can swim with the dolphins for an additional fee.
By the way, dolphins are mammals,not fish because they have skin not scales and they breathe through lungs not gills - don't ever say you can't learn anything by visiting Texas Outside.
- Miniature Golf - it was off to putt-putt land for a couple hours, but was it because we thought an 8 month old, a two year old girl, and a 3 year old natural athlete who got a golf bag and clubs for Christmas would enjoy miniature golf or did we head there because we were:
I don't want to boast, but it sure was great sipping free margaritas watching the sun set at the beach bar after miniature golf. Panama City Beach is loaded with lots of miniature golf courses of all different shapes and sizes - if you like miniature golf you'd be in "miniature golf heaven" and could probably play two courses a day for week and still have some left un played! If you are a miniature golf junkie, then December/January is not the best time of the year to visit because a number of the courses close for the winter.
a) suffering from golf withdrawal
b) needed to practice putting after 3 putting most of the challenging greens we played on
c) wanted to give the wives a break from the kids and get back in there good graces
d) just happened to have a few bets on who would have the better score, most hole in ones, and longest putt
e) all of the above
Beach & Pool Time - you can't come to Panama City Beach and not spend some time on the perfect beaches. Besides, the sand I collected from bunkers wasn't enough to take home and start a sand box for the kids. The beaches on this stretch of the Florida coast are unbelievable - soft, silky, pure white sand which contrasted with the bluish green water makes for a fantastic setting. We were lucky, the sun was out and the temperature was in the 70's most of the days we were there. I'm not a big fan of beach time, but it was fun jumping the waves with the grand kids, burying them in the sand, playing Frisbee golf, and flying kites.
The Tidewater Condos also had an indoor as well as an outdoor pool (not heated) and hot tub which all of us enjoyed.
Searching For Dolphins - St Andrews Bay is known for dolphin sighting and you'll frequently see them swimming and playing in the bay as well as surfing off the bow of large ships entering or departing the bay. So we rented a 24' pontoon boat and went in search of dolphin; a nice sandy beach (to add to my collection of sand from spending time in the golf bunkers and on the various beaches); seashells; a restaurant on the water with good food, margaritas and pina coladas; and other sights to explore. We rented from Flipper's at St. Andrews State Park and Caleb, the owner, met us at the dock and gave us a good orientation of the bay and warned us to stay in between the buoys and markers or we'd run aground because the tide was out. After drilling him with questions on what to see, where to go, and what to do, we set out to cruise St Andrews Bay.
Caleb said the best place to boat with the dolphins was at the mouth of the bay and around Shell Island, which is where we headed first. No dolphins but we did cruise into the Gulf of Mexico and had a fantastic view of the condos along the white sandy beaches of Panama City Beach. From there we headed over to bay side of Shell Island and played in the water and beach combed for awhile. And then we took a two minute walk across the sand to the Gulf of Mexico for some beach frisbee, sand castle building, and wave jumping.
The beach was unbelievable - clear bluish green water with waves and soft white silky sand - not quite like the brown water and very coarse sand of good 'ole Galveston or Padre! Shell Island is and uninhabited natural island of windswept dunes and is best known for excellent beach combing for shells, swimming or snorkeling in clear water (a tad too cold in late December!), and treasure hunting - Legend has it that pirates hoarded their treasure there. After soaking up the rays and collecting more sand in the hair and other body parts it was time to continue exploring the bay.
On the way to our next destination, we were joined by a flock of sea birds. The kids quickly went through all of our appetizers and crackers feeding the birds - ok I admit it, I was eager to join them feeding the birds and I made sure that I downed a couple crackers before the were gone. The birds would zoom down from above and grab crackers out of our extended arms. That keep all of us, including me, so busy, I forgot about channel markers and quickly ran aground causing me undue humiliation and scolding from my own family no less! The birds flew away full and laughing at the rookie!
Since we now had gone through all the crackers and appetizers, we had no choice but to head over to The Boatyard, sit on the deck, soak up the rays, enjoy the view of the bay and all the boats, eat some good food, and sip some excellent margaritas and pina coladas. It was hard to say, "ok time to move on'' but we did after paying a huge food and bar bill - but it was well worth it!
The next day we were playing golf at the Marriott's Bay Point Resort Course, so there was no question that we had to boat around the Marriott property and check out the course. After a few bets on who would par the couple holes that we saw from the boat, we continued exploring St Andrews Bay. The Bay is doted with beautiful waterfront homes, the State Park, and a couple marinas with everything from rusty commercial fishing boats to huge expensive cruisers. Of course, I lost concentration a couple times and again ran aground but no damage (except more humiliation) was done - just lift the engine and slowly drift to the next adventure.
Before we knew it, it was time to return the boat and surprisingly we were right on time and greeted by Caleb who volunteered to dock the boat for us - is that a lack of trust or could he tell I ran aground a few times? Caleb has a fleet of pontoon boats and jet skis for rent. In addition he offers guided jet ski tours. All at very reasonable rates. Check out his website or give him a call.
The kids kept asking "where are the dolphin?" and we all were disappointed we didn't get to see any but it was a very fun day anyway. I did find this video on YouTube to show them that dolphin really do swim in the bay.Getting Some Exercise - typical of every vacation, we always eat (3 big meals a day, plus snacks, and appetizers) and drink too much, so we swore that this time we would get some exercise. I was immediately told that golf didn't count - "how can it when you drive up to your ball, step out, select a club, and hop back in and pop a cold beer!" I countered with "I spend a lot of time walking around in the rough looking for my ball, I exercise a lot of body parts taking over 200 practice swings and 80 to 95 regular swings, traveling back and forth across the green chipping and putting, and 18 times I walk to the tee box and the green from the cart path! That's usually why I'm so tired after a round and immediately need to head to the 19th for drinks and appetizers. So there!" That still didn't impress them.Our condo was located a half mile to a mile from some great shops and nightlife at Pier Park, so to wear off some of the calories, we rode our bikes back and forth several times as we frequented the shops, restaurants, and fun bars. It was great not having to worry about getting on the road after closing the bar or bringing in the New Year - we just unlocked the bikes (a tad challenging after a few drinks), loaded the kids in the trailers, and pedaled our way back to the condo. Biking to the bars made it a little tough for my brother who is single to pick up women, the typical reaction was "You got here how? No, I don't want to go for a ride on your bike! Where's your car?" But he still closed the bars at 3 AM and made it home safe and sound.
We had a good time biking around St Andrews State Park - out to the jetty, along the beach, through the campground, and along the bay. Flat, scenic, and easy - I wore off two beers, but I felt better. However, it seems to be tradition that after an afternoon bike ride, we will bike or drive to a bar for happy hour and appetizers. In this case, we biked along the beach and found a fantastic beach bar called Schooners. Right on the beach with fantastic pina coladas, good appetizers, and an unbelievable sunset. The kids loved playing in the sand while we played dominos and waited for the sunset. More sand to add to the sand box collection. Great location, but a net gain of calories since we spent as much time in the bar as we did biking!
One day after an outstanding round of golf at Camp Creek, we met the girls and kids in Seaside, for you guessed it, more food and of course a cold beer. Seaside is a really cool town halfway between Destin and Panama City Beach. It has outstanding beaches, lots of shops, good restaurants, and unique housing. This is where the fabulous Watercolor Inn and Resort is located. After a hearty lunch with a couple beers, we unloaded the bikes, stuffed the kids in their trailers, and rode around Seaside and Watercolor, and then rode 6 miles (against the wind - does that qualify as exercise?) to Grayson Beach.
I must admit, the main reason we biked to Grayson Beach was because we heard it has a fun, unique, and lively beach bar (The Red Bar) frequented by locals and a lot of famous people. After playing on the beach for awhile (I'm not sure my body cavities had more room for sand, but the pockets, head, and between the toes did a fine job of collecting plenty of sand to add to the growing collection), it was time to sample the cold beer and appetizers at the Red Bar. Before we knew it, the sun was setting and it was too late for us to ride back in the dark with no lights, plus it was a little windy, and no telling what was lurking along the bike path at that hour of the evening. All of that is the excuse I came up with to have my brother and very athletic son-in-law ride back to get the cars, so we could stay and eat and drink some more! Besides, isn't that what son-in-laws and younger brothers are for! So while they huffed and puffed back to the cars, the rest of us relaxed, enjoyed the locals, and had another margarita. A fun afternoon but another net gain in calories!
The traill that we rode through Seaside and up to Grayson Beach is part of a 35+ mile paved trail that goes along the gulf coast. It has a reputation of being one of the most scenic trails in the United States. If you get a chance, it is worth the ride.
Enjoying the Restaurants & Nightlife - as is typically the case with most of our vacations, we ate and drank our way around town. Panama City Beach has tons of choices for restaurants, from expensive gourmet to burgers on the beach, and some fun nightlife ranging from karaoke to country bands (made us feel right at home). And we tried to sample as many of both as we could! We enjoy the laid back, funky, beach bars and unfortunately, a number of those were closed for the season. Our condo was located a half mile from Pier Park which is a 900,000 square foot mega shopping and entertainment complex loaded with shops or all types, major department stores, restaurants, fun bars, movie theater, and more. Being so close made trips to Pier Park for food, drinks, or shopping very easy.
A couple that we did enjoy, Schooners and Harpoon Harry's, were great. Schooners has an open patio, cold drinks, ok appetizers, and is right on the beach. We timed it perfectly with the sun set and it felt like were were on a remote sandy beach in Hawaii or the Virgin Islands. The kids loved the soft silky white sand and of course we now had more of it to take home in the motorhome.
Tootsies, in Pier Park, was happenin' and it was tempting to bike to it each evening for drinks, a fun crowd, and some surprisingly good Florida Country Bands. I can't say much for the way the Floridians and tourists from around the world two-step or do the line dances - but we got a lot of good giggles watching them try. Tootsies always had a fun and lively crowd each evening we were there
Also in Pier Park is Margaritaville and it was fantastic sitting outside sipping margaritas, munching on some ok food, and listening to Jimmy Buffet songs - we kept expecting him to drop by our table and say "Welcome to Margaritaville" but it never happened. Across the street from them is Reggae J's Island Grill which has live Reggie music and pretty good food. Both places are across the street from the beach and the outside patios are excellent.
New Years Eve was fun - Pier Park was shut down to traffic and the streets were lined with revelers. Reggae J's had a live Reggie band outside, Tootsies was packed wall-to-wall and had a lively band who keep the place jamming until 3:30, and there were a variety of bands/musicians/singers in the streets.
Margaritaville was happenin' and the street and other 5 bars were bustling with activity. Just before midnight, the fireworks on the beach started and it was one of the longest and best fireworks we have experienced in a long time. A fun New Years Eve.
All to quickly it seemed like this nine day Florida vacation was over and it was time to pile back in the motorhome for the long boring drive back to the cold weather in Dallas! But before we left Florida, we needed one last Pina Colada, grouper sandwich, and more sand! So we stopped on the other side of Destin for lunch and beach time at the Boardwalk on Okalossa Island which has shops, an aquarium, restaurants, fishing pier, sand volleyball, and lots of sand!
After and uneventful ride home, the first thing we did after unpacking, was empty the pockets, wipe down the golf clubs, shake the shoes, thoroughly vacuum the jeep and motorhome, and cleanse all body parts to collect all the accumulated soft silky white sand - we now have a 5' by 5' sand box that is the envy of all the neighborhood kids!
Another fantastic vacation!