On a sunny Saturday morning in November, about 25 people from toddlers to seniors pose for photos against the backdrop of Panama City Beach, their surfboards — in myriad colors — stuck into the white, sugary sand.
Shutters snapped and wetsuits donned, they paddle about 100 yards out into the Gulf of Mexico. In the shallow water, they gather around a minister and pray for clean water.
"I'm in the water most days of the year," says Jack Slattery, a board member of the foundation's Emerald Coast chapter here in the Florida Panhandle. "(The water) is rebounding now. … In August, the fish weren't there. The sea was just devoid of life."
First lady Michelle Obama visited in July, ostensibly for a briefing on cleanup efforts after the oil rig disaster. But after walking barefoot in some of the finest sand to be found anywhere, she was so impressed that she returned a month later, this time with the president and daughter Sasha in tow.
"She called the beaches of Northwest Florida 'a national treasure,'" notes Dan Rowe, who heads up the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. What the Obamas discovered — clean beaches and crystal-clear waters — now await their fellow Chicagoans. The few small globs of congealed oil that reached this far east are long gone.
A favorite of college students in search of the perfect spring break binge, Panama City Beach remains a relatively sedate and relatively inexpensive destination the rest of the year. Yet it's a place often overlooked, except by those arriving by car and pickup from nearby Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. It's no wonder that, for years, these sparsely populated yet spectacular strands have been known as the "Redneck Riviera."
Yes, this is the Deep South. Florida was the third state to secede from the Union, decades before places such as Miami and Naples became the domain of Northern transplants. That's not the case in the Florida Panhandle, where Spanish moss hangs from mighty oaks, biscuits and gravy is a popular breakfast offering at McDonald's, and polite locals routinely end sentences with "sir" and "ma'am" — to neighbors and visitors.
The Deep South is, in fact, far enough north that people seeking guaranteed warmth still may want to hit South Beach. But winter wanderers in search of less-crowded beaches, good surfing conditions and superb fresh seafood may want to set their sights on the Panhandle.
Fresh, locally caught seafood isn't an oxymoron in these post-spill months. The fishing restrictions are now fading memories, and the skippers are once again chartering vessels to tourists.
"Oh, yeah, we'll catch stuff," promises Capt. Mike Sullivan as a group of visitors from Alaska board his 44-foot sport boat for an afternoon of deep-sea fishing.
"Fishing out to nine miles off Panama City never closed," Sullivan notes. And except for multiday charters, most boats don't get that far from shore anyway.
"Grouper is about the biggest fish we catch," he explains as he motors past people frolicking in the sand at St. Andrews State Park, situated on a skinny peninsula poking out into the sea. Flounder and speckled trout also are often on the end of a hook.
Whether it's sauteed or broiled, stuffed with crabmeat dressing or coated in crunchy pistachios, grouper is a popular entree at most of the town's upscale eateries. They include Firefly, where the Obamas dined during their stay.
According to executive chef Paul Stellato, the president ordered jumbo lump crab cakes, followed by a New York strip steak served with Gulf shrimp. For the first lady, Stellato prepared fried Apalachicola oysters to begin and twin lobster tails for the main course.
Neither Obama tried what is undoubtedly the most popular offering on the Firefly menu: the "she-crab" soup.
A Southern specialty, this rich and tasty bisque contains cream and sherry in addition to, of course, flaked crab meat. The restaurant serves upward of 30,000 bowls of it each year.
"I'm selling 5 gallons a day without fail," Stellato says proudly.
The first motels didn't begin appearing along the town's 27 miles of beach until relatively recently.
Derek Bennett's grandfather bought land here in 1928 — for the timber, not the sand. He didn't build his first motel until the 1960s.
"The beach was useless (back then)," Bennett explains with a laugh. He and his brothers now own several high-rise hotels, as well as Sharky's Beachfront Restaurant, whose Tiki Bar is an ideal setting for enjoying a drink while watching a glorious sunset. Just make sure someone else is driving if you've indulged in the house specialty drink — with 3 ounces of rum, plus blackberry brandy, blended with fruit juices and grenadine, the Shark Attack packs quite a wallop.
One Sunday each month, volunteers from Surfrider offer their time to clean the beaches and keep them as pristine as they were back in Grandpa Bennett's day.
"It's all about protection of the near-shore environment," explains Jack Slattery. "This is definitely a cool destination."
The Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-722-3224, visitpanamacitybeach.com) is the one-stop source for comprehensive information about the community. Visitors from the Chicago area need not reset their watches because Panama City Beach is in the Central time zone.