The biggest resort in Panama City Beach, Fla., is fully back online, 18 months after being closed by one of the most powerful U.S. hurricanes ever.
The Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort finished the last leg of its comeback in February, when it reopened its boardwalk, beach and satellite bar, which jut into the city’s Grand Lagoon and were highly exposed to the storm.
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall about 20 miles to the east of Panama City Beach, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph that shredded the seaside community of Mexico Beach.
At the 360-room Sheraton, the roofs on all three of the main buildings were torn off or damaged enough to allow water to ruin the hotel’s interior. It was all the more painful because the resort had completed a two-year, $30 million renovation a year earlier.
Recovery has come in phases, with different parts of the resort opening over the past year.
In a community full of beachfront condos, the Sheraton is a full-service resort that is not on the beach. It sits at the entrance to the Grand Lagoon, across the water from a barrier island that includes St. Andrews State Park.
In addition to 200 rooms in three buildings arranged around two swimming pools, the resort has another 160 rooms in six Golf Villa buildings sprinkled around an 18-hole Nicklaus Design golf course, the only one in the Florida Panhandle.
There is a golf clubhouse with its own casual restaurant, Bar 72, and five nearby clay tennis courts, which were resurfaced and refenced after the storm.
Amenities also include a 12,000-square-foot spa and a 30,000-square-foot convention and ballroom space, with an extensive sheltered patio with water views for outdoor events.
Rates for a weeknight in early April are $489 a night plus a $30 daily resort fee.
I spent two days as a guest of the resort in early February. The panoramic views of the lagoon from my fifth-floor balcony were a highlight of my stay. From my perch I could spot lots of birds and jumping fish as herons standing on one leg hunted and the fish tried to escape.
Early mornings brought spectacular sunrises, followed by a smattering of powerboats slowly proceeding toward the open ocean. Sunsets were equally impressive, as the pelicans returned home to their roosts.
I did not get a chance to try the spa or go golfing, but the tennis instruction was first-rate and the resort has regular classes during the week. Now that the boardwalk has reopened, watersports rentals are available again, including kayaks, paddleboards and water scooters.
For a nongolfer, another intriguing option I’d like to try is footgolf, a fairly recent invention in which a soccer ball and larger holes are used instead of the traditional clubs and dimpled balls. The golf course is set aside for regular golf in the morning but yields to footgolf in the afternoon.
Before the storm, the resort had a second golf course, which suffered extensive tree damage.
“We’re working on a plan for the second course,” said Charissa Thacker, marketing manager for the resort, who noted this would help meet golf demand from large groups.
Being on the lagoon, the Sheraton is a bit of a drive from the main highway through town, U.S. 98. But it is very close to one of the area’s top-rated restaurants, the Grand Marlin, where the Saturday special was blackened redfish with lobster truffle mac and cheese. I had it, and I can vouch for it, along with the 2-inch-high slice of Key lime pie I had for dessert.
The restaurant also has a marina with no bridge obstructions to the ocean, so the Sheraton can arrange for an excursion or deep-sea fishing boat to pick up guests at the hotel’s dock on the way to the inlet.
Of the food and beverage outlets on the property, my favorite was Flip Flops, an outdoor bar created in 2014 from space that once enclosed an indoor pool. Like much of the resort, Flip Flops has marvelous views of the lagoon. A large hot tub is scheduled to be added this month just outside Flip Flops next to one of the swimming pools.
Venturing west into Panama City Beach, one finds diminishing signs of damage from the hurricane. The prime destination is the shopping and entertainment zone around Pier Park, which includes 124 stores, an IMAX theater, a laser tag center and a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel. The municipal pier extends 1,500 feet into the Gulf of Mexico. (There is a $3 fee to use it; $6 if you want to fish.)
However, venturing east from Panama City is another story. The eye of the hurricane passed over Tyndall Air Force Base and Mexico Beach, and for every structure that has been rebuilt better than new there’s another still in ruins. Thousands of large trees were snapped in two, giving the area a haunted look.
Fortunately, the Emerald Coast region’s tourism engine is Panama City Beach, and the recovery there is all but done.
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