Because I'm a fair guy, to offset the more negative tone of my "20 things to avoid..." blog, and because some of my friends work in marketing departments aimed at actually attracting tourists to our area, I felt it only right to shed light on the more favorable and maybe less seen side of my home in the Florida panhandle. Most people come here for the beach, but that's too easy.
Whether you're a visitor to the city, or a longtime resident, here are 20 must-dos:
1. Toys for Kids Christmas Ball. I wasn't going to put this list in any order, but the annual TFK party is so much fun, I would hate myself if I didn't put this in the number 1 spot. Held every year the week or two before Christmas, it's more like the prom than anything else. Except we're adults, so we're allowed to drink there, rather than in the parkinglot beforehand. Anyone can attend, as the price for admission is an unwrapped toy to be donated to needy area kids. So this is the party where a local dishwasher can be rubbing elbows with politicians, teachers, business owners...everyone, together, having a great time.
2. Order a Hunch Punch at Ms. Newby's. I'm pretty sure a Newby's hunch punch is a permanent fixture on the food pyramid in this town. It tastes like Koolaid, but what's actually in it still might be a mystery. You'll regret the hell out of the following day, but if you're going to do what the locals do...this is it. Get a t-shirt while you're there, as it may be your only surviving memory of actually being there.
3. Attend a Thursday night Summer Concert at the Park. The bands are never really that good, but the atmosphere is. Especially early, or late in the summer when it's not miserably hot and the grass is still cool under your feet. Bring a cooler full of your favorite picnic food and drinks, a lawn chair and some bug spray and you're set.
4. Eat oysters at Hunts. Even if you're not a fan of raw molluscs, Hunts is the perfect stereotypical seafood shack. I always get the 3-cheese baked oysters, but they also have frog legs, if that's more your style. A cold beer and a loud jukebox just adds to the atmosphere. No matter what time of year, there will usually be a line to get in. And that's gotta tell you something.
5. Get a cocktail at No Name. I shouldn't even be mentioning this here because No Name is a last refuge for us locals during tourist season. It's a quiet, comfortable, house-looking bar with a nice back deck overlooking the bay. The drinks here are notoriously strong and there are free snacks. I'm not going to tell you where it is, but if you blink, you might miss it.
6. Order a shotski at Hofbrau. 5 shotglasses glued to a ski. With polka music playing in the background for good measure. Need I say more?
7. Walk around Rosemary Beach and/or Seaside. About a 30 minute drive west of the touristy-chaos that is Panama City Beach, are these two quaint beach towns. Rosemary looks kind of like a little German mountain village and Seaside is where they filmed The Truman Show. Both also have some good restaurants.
8. Get a Snowball at Dave's Snowball on Front Beach Road. Who doesn't like flavored ice in 90 degree heat?
9. See a country music band at Tootsies. The original Tootsies may be in Nashville, but this one has just as much energy. Not to mention, a lot of the acts that perform here come from Nashville. If you like country music, and what's more, like dancing to country music, this is your place.
10. Walk the new City Pier. For two bucks, you can walk along the newly finished, 1500 foot long pier. It's a nice spot to watch the sunset, or catch a glimpse of the marine life below you.
11. Get a Fat Tuesday's frozen drink on the Pineapple Willy's pier. Unlike the last one, this pier doesn't make it out over the gulf. But it's still a great place to relax and get a popular frozen daiquiri. Check out their live beach cam to see what you're missing.
12. Eat breakfast at Andy's Flour Power. Whenever I have someone visiting, or if a tourist asks me about a good place to get breakfast, I always suggest Andy's. The omelets are great and the portions are huge.
13. Have a glass of wine and play board games at the Purple Grape. This wine bar has been around for a couple years, but I think very few people know about it. Which can be a good thing. It's comfortable and dimly lit and they have a huge selection of wines from around the world. You can open a bottle there, or purchase one to take home with you. Sometimes there will be a jazz band playing in the corner, but I like the stack of board games they have. Good for a group of friends, or breaking the ice on a date.
14. Spend the day walking around Pier Park. There are so many shops, restaurants, bars and attractions at Pier Park that you can spend an entire day there and perhaps not see everything. Want to get out of the heat? There's also a massive movie theater.
15. Get on stage at Sweet Dreams. I may have mentioned this place in an earlier blog, but that was in reference to the bathrooms. As far as just hanging out and singing poorly, this tiny, smokey, karaoke bar is perfect.
16. Get a sandwich at Liza's Kitchen. In all honesty, I'm not a big fan of this place. And I am totally alone in that opinion. This is a very popular lunch spot with the locals. I know the husband and wife team who run it and some of the folks who work there and they're all good people. I'm just not very keen on feta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and other staples of the hippie diet.
17. Go roller-skating and/or bowling at Rockit Lanes. Sure, you've been bowling recently, but when was the last time you've been on roller-skates? Rockit Lanes is a huge, indoor entertainment complex with a bar in the back for those of us over 21. Outside of the bar, however, it's ok to act like a 12 year old. I probably shouldn't admit this here, but the music they play there is alway great. If you're skating under a disco ball and this begins to play, you can't deny you're having damn near the perfect night.
18. Grab a burger or a drink at the back bar at Schooners. Thanks to over-development with high rise condominiums up and down the beach, there are very few beach-side restaurants, or bars. Schooners, which bills itself as the "Last Local Beach Club," is my hands down favorite. Good food, great atmosphere, the same, salty locals who've been sitting in the same seat at the same bar for 30 years. And not to mention the view. Get there at sunset for the nightly cannon fire, toasting the end to another perfect day on the beach. Until then, check out the cannon sunset cam. (Save this in your favorites so you can look at it at work all day like I do)
19. See the Tyndall Air Show. I'm not a big, ra-ra military guy, but an air show, live and in person, is definitely one of the coolest things I've been to. Held each spring at Tyndall AFB, it's a family-friendly event that will surely keep you busy with plenty to see and do for a weekend.
20. See a Reggae Band on the outside deck at Reggae J's. In a tropical setting, perched along the outside, second-story balcony of an Island-themed restaurant, directly across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, how could you not enjoy Reggae music? This is how I spend a majority of my summer Saturday nights. And you should too.