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Florida coast offers great food, fun on, off water

by Bryan Hendricks | May 29, 2016 at 2:48 a.m.

Many Arkansans will vacation in Florida this summer, and there's plenty to like in Panama City Beach and Lee County.

My base in Panama City Beach was Seychelles Beach Resort, a Wyndham ResortQuest property on the east end of the beach near St. Andrews State Park. It's clean, spacious and well-appointed with a fully-equipped kitchen, washer and dryer.

Each condo has a balcony that overlooks the beach and a big-screen TV that I never activated. I slept the first night on the couch with the balcony door open. The hum of the sea breeze and pounding surf were the soundtrack of my dreams.

For campers, St. Andrews and Camp Helen state parks are on the east and west ends of Panama City Beach, respectively. They are clean and quiet, with easy access to the entire area.

Great restaurants abound in Panama City Beach that cater to all tastes and price ranges.

The Schooner is a beachfront bistro next to Seychelles where sand is always present on the wooden floor. Its grouper sandwich was excellent, as was a generous selection of appetizers.

The Firefly is a much fancier option, but like almost everywhere in Florida, shorts and fishing shirts are at home next to tuxedos and evening gowns. Jumbo lump crab cakes started us off right, but the Kobe Carpaccio was transcendent. If sushi is your passion, the Firefly's selection and portions are stellar.

The She Crab soup was delicious, as was The Firefly's signature entree, Olympic grouper, so named for having been created and served at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The Saltwater Grill has a wide range of surf and turf entrees including oysters, all kinds of fresh fish, steaks and burgers. The grilled sea scallops were superb.

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Southwest Florida has an entirely different vibe because tourism is not the center of its culture. Tourism is woven into its fabric, and its environment is authentically native.

My base during my kayak fishing extravaganza was Tarpon Lodge, an early 20th century fishing camp that evokes images of old Florida. Its whitewashed exterior houses and understatedly lavish rooms are scrupulously clean. It is the cleanest place I have ever stayed. It's comfortable and it is warmly welcoming. Miss Laura and I stayed there last year as well, and its high quality was consistent.

The lightning show from late-night storms was spectacular from my balcony.

The Tarpon Lodge restaurant offers a diverse selection of surf and turf options, including a filet mignon so tender that it practically falls apart at the touch of a fork. You'll be wobbling at the end of the entree, and the desserts will deliver the knockout blow. The head waiter, Frankie, is a master at his craft.

Cabbage Key is a short ride across Pine Island Sound on the Island Girl, or you can drive your own boat. It's an interesting place for many reasons, not the least of which are all the $1 bills tacked to the walls. There's about $70,000 worth, Cabbage Key manager Ken Wells said.

Commercial fishermen started the $1 tradition many years ago, Wells said. Money flowed when fishing was good, but fishermen understood that fortunes could sour the next week. They wrote their names on $1 bills and tacked them to the wall so they could afford drinks when money was scarce.

Over the years, visitors added to the $1 tableau.

Cabbage Key is also known -- falsely, Wells said -- for inspiring Jimmy Buffett's classic, "Cheeseburger in Paradise." They do serve a mean cheeseburger at Cabbage Key, but Wells said the song predates Buffett's visit to the restaurant.

The real story, Wells said, is that Buffett dedicated the song to some Cabbage Key employees that attended one of his shows.

That's no fun. We like the myth better.

Sports on 05/29/2016

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained incomplete references to Panama City Beach.

Print Headline: Florida coast offers great food, fun on, off water


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