Let Us Now Praise the Old Florida . . .

By Diane Roberts
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, March 23, 2008

Buddha smiles sagely as you putt between the Sphinx's paws. A kid wearing an "I {heart} Manatees" T-shirt slices his shot, missing the Tyrannosaurus rex and bouncing his ball off the Easter Island head. The sun, red as the 20-foot monkey's eyes, starts to sink into the Gulf of Mexico.

Goofy Golf is not your usual Florida golfing experience. But Panama City Beach isn't your usual Florida tourist destination. Despite the condos thrusting up out of the ground like crab grass, despite new resort hotels that seem to have wandered in from Fort Lauderdale and millionaires' "cottages" invading old Gulf hamlets, Panama City Beach remains cheerfully demotic, vulgar even. The Day-Glo glories of the Goofy Golf (built in 1958), boat-shape bars, tattoo parlors, head shops, seafood shacks and wide, welcoming beaches hark back to the old Florida of cheap and tacky fun.

I grew up in Tallahassee, a distressingly tasteful town without a single giant jungle animal statue or fire-belching faux volcano. But it's only a 90-minute drive from Panama City Beach. So, like many North Florida children, I spent a week or so here every summer drinking strawberry Icees, paddling in the surf and screaming my head off on the Starliner roller coaster at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park.

This stretch of Gulf coast has long been famous as the Redneck Riviera, the Deep South's vacation magnet. Chamber of Commerce types have tried to rebrand it as "The Emerald Coast," a place of upmarket planned communities, but budget lodging and cheap beer guarantee that this area is still popular with the masses, especially college students on spring break. MTV broadcasts from poolside at the Boardwalk Beach Resort. Nightclubs compete to create ever more smuttily named, psychedelically colored cocktails. Many of us cherish memories (possibly a little hazy) of painful sunburns, epic hangovers, wardrobe malfunctions and lost weekends.

"It's an important rite of passage," says Mark Hinson, a Tallahassee writer who misspent much of his youth at Panama City Beach. "You wake up in strange hotel rooms or out on the sand or God knows where. It's mind-expanding."

I recall (I think) throwing a drink in some guy's face on the dance floor of the Spinnaker, a nightclub the size of an aircraft carrier, during spring break 1979. The sound system was blasting Chic's "Le Freak." I think he had done one of my sorority sisters wrong, but I wouldn't swear to that.

I'm here just before this year's student deluge (PCB returns to normality in mid-April), not for the booze and the tan, but for a writers' festival at the Panama City campus of Florida State University. I last visited three years ago to fool around one more time at the Miracle Strip before it closed. Still, many of the beach's old, weird features remain: the surreal putt-putt courses, the live sharks in tanks at the surf shops, the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum (which looks like the Titanic run aground next to a Wal-Mart) and the volcano.

It doesn't spew flames and smoke as it did when I was a kid, but it still stands tall. Of course, it depends on your definition of "standing tall." Now it houses Alvin's Island, a "tropical department store" selling tiny bikinis and eye-damagingly bright shorts.

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I should explain that there is a difference between Panama City proper and Panama City Beach, a difference perhaps more evident to residents than tourists. The two communities eye each other across the Hathaway Bridge, one genteel -- "an old Southern, neighborly place with small-town qualities," says Panama City attorney and native Cliff Higby -- the other, as Higby puts it delicately, "more transitory," more extravagant, inclined to laissez les bons temps rouler. Each seems mildly embarrassed by the other.

Panama City came first, a hamlet that sprang up at the end of the 19th century. The deceptively exotic name comes from a developer who claimed the place was on a direct line between Chicago and the Panama Canal Zone. Panama City has swallowed up St. Andrews, the only genuinely antique settlement around. Now known as "Historic St. Andrews," this 170-year-old waterfront village, with its discreet narrow streets shaded by mossy live oaks and old white houses ringed with ruffled pink azaleas, is the antithesis of the neon-lit beach.

In 1936, a forward-thinking local businessman built a seashell road from the town down to the beach. Tourist cabins, "motor hotels," soda fountains and juke joints followed. Then in the late 1950s and early 1960s, what tourism historian Tim Hollis calls "fantasy lands" took over the Redneck Riviera.

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