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Introducing Panama City Beach

While much of the Panhandle's charms spring from its mellow Old Florida roots, don't expect to find any of those vibes in Panama City Beach, an overdeveloped gulf-front pocket about 10 miles west of unremarkable Panama City. PCB (as the locals call it) has embraced a transformation from 1970s resort town to overcommercialized condo hot spot. Families come here for cheap vacays, retirees move here to live out their days, and youngsters flock to get smashed in the sunshine.

Architecturally dire high-rises spring up from the beachfront and block both sunlight and vistas for those on the streets below, which are lined with more strip malls, chain hotels, amusement arcades, uninspiring restaurants and dive bars than good taste allows. From March to May the place goes bonkers as a spring-break destination, when students from 150 colleges east of the Mississippi roar into town to drink and party till they puke.

That said, PCB's beaches remain dazzling for swimming, fishing and diving, with dozens of natural, historic and artificial reefs attracting spectacular marine life. The city's tourism boom means cheap rooms close to the more inspiring stretch of Hwy 30A between here and Destin, where affordable beds are in short supply. In the low season, beachfront bargains can be found.

Panama City Beach is one for wannabe spring-breakers, and families on a budget with hard-to-entertain kids – outside spring-break season, of course!