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Forget everything you think you know about Panama City Beach. Today, most of the t-shirt shops and roadside motels of yesteryear have been replaced by gleaming high-rise condominiums and resorts, a rich variety of restaurants, and fresh, updated attractions. And as my family learned a few weeks ago, there’s no better time to discover it all than fall! Here are 8 great reasons why Panama City Beach is the ultimate fall vacation destination.

The weather is perfect.

Temperatures reached the mid-80s each day during our October stay, making it warm enough for swimming, yet cool enough to spend as long as we wanted out on the beach without getting hot and sweaty. Autumn’s lower humidity means sparkling clear days and calm, clear waters, creating optimal conditions for breathtaking beach sunrises and sunsets. If you enjoy taking pictures, you’ll love Panama City Beach in the fall.

Dining outdoors is pleasant and virtually bug-free.

We like to eat outside when we’re at the beach, but winged insects and a searing summer sun too often foil our outdoor dining plans. Autumn in Panama City Beach is a whole different story. While the sun is still warm, the breezes are cool and bugs are at a minimum, making even inland outdoor meals perfectly pleasant.

A great example? Finn’s Island Style Grub This quirky hotspot in PCB’s Historic St. Andrews neighborhood functions as both restaurant and outdoor market, with stalls showcasing funky local art and a kitchen turning out what just might be the best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten. (We shared the ahi tuna, shrimp and carne asada tacos and couldn’t decide which we loved most.) Enjoying the delicious breeze wafting through the outdoor seating area, we lingered over our lunch and had a delightful, relaxed conversation with the kids. As every parent knows, these kinds of memories are priceless.

Nights are cooler in the fall at Panama City Beach, but the evenings were still mild enough for us to enjoy a fantastic late-night dinner on the deck at Uncle Ernie’s Bayfront Grill in St. Andrews. Our wonderful server, Eddie, gave us great menu advice and we were glad we followed it. Don’t miss the side salad (servers make the dressing for each salad by hand) or the Grouper Imperial, topped with fresh lump crabmeat. And whatever you do, don’t leave without trying at least one slice of Uncle Ernie’s award-winning key lime pie -- It’s said to be the best in the region, and in a town where key lime pie is served just about everywhere, that’s saying something!

The cooler fall conditions also make the patio at Eat My Pasty a perfect place to enjoy up to 19 varieties of hearty pasties from across the pond, all carefully made by British expat Jeff Temperley and his wife, Stacey. We were crazy about our Cornish and potato cheese and onion pasties, but the fish and chips and duck burger we ordered were equally unforgettable. They may not serve typical beach town fare, but trust me when I tell you Eat My Pasty is undoubtedly one of the best meals you’ll have at Panama City Beach. (Pro tip: Pasty is pronounced PASS-tee, not PAY-stee. You’re welcome!)

The cooler weather makes hiking a breeze.

We’re avid hikers and bikers and never miss an opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors on our vacations, but I’ll be honest: Summer hikes in Florida can be brutally hot and humid. That’s one big reason why we were so excited about the cooler conditions this time around. Luckily, Panama City Beach has a surprising number of parks and trails.

Scenic St. Andrews State Park is a fabulous option for a nature walk. In addition to a mile and a half of sugary white shoreline, the park has two nature trails -- Heron Pond and Gator Lake-- where you can take an up-close look at coastal plant life and wildlife including birds, deer, alligators and coyotes. We followed the Heron Pond Trail out to the Grand Lagoon, where we spotted sea gulls, herons, egrets, and even a pair of nesting osprey atop Buoy #5.

You can also opt to take the park’s Shell Island Shuttle and spend a few hours collecting shells on the island’s pristine beaches. Shell seeking on the island is best right after a storm, but if the pickings are slim while you’re there, Mother Nature’s secret stash is always available at the island’s ‘kiddie pool’ beach. Dig into the natural bank of soft sand bordering the shore until you reach the harder sand just beneath -- In that packed sand, you’ll quickly find a treasure trove of gorgeous shells. We collected a few dozen ‘keepers’ this way within just a few minutes.

Conservation Park may be lesser known, but it’s no less beautiful. With 12 trails covering 24 miles and an additional mile of boardwalk, the park is meticulously maintained and growing in popularity with hikers and bikers. We loved strolling along the boardwalk and searching for alligators and turtles in the swampy undergrowth below -- and I’ll admit, I’m a lot more comfortable searching for gators from the safety of a boardwalk than from the ground!

Fall is festival time at Panama City Beach.

Some of Panama City Beach’s best festivals happen in the fall. The Chasin’ the Sun music festival celebrates classic beach music and happens each September at Panama City Beach's Aaron Bessant Park Amphitheater. Past lineups have included Alan Jackson, Maddie & Tae, Chris Stapleton and Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer band members Nadirah Sakoor, Peter Mayer and Mac McAnally.

September is also the month for the week-long Lobster Festival and Tournament. Hosted by Schooners and held on the beach behind the restaurant, you can see (and pet!) huge local lobsters, listen to live music, participate in a sand sculpture contest, and dine on fresh lobster prepared every way imaginable. Meanwhile, Lobster Tournament divers compete in a variety of categories including Spiny Lobster, Shovelnose Lobster and Big 6.

Perhaps the most famous area festival is the Pirates of the High Seas Fest in October. Held each year on Columbus Day weekend, this free, family-friendly festival includes a scavenger hunt, pirate invasions, a kids parade and main parade, live music, fireworks and more.

Finally, nature lovers won’t want to miss the Friends of St. Andrews State Park’s Walk into the Wild event held each October. The weekend includes guided walks in the park and on Shell Island, covering topics ranging from sea turtles to alligators to edible plants and bugs! Best of all, park admission, guided walks, tram and boat shuttles are free to all participants.

The summer crowds are gone for the season.

We love avoiding the crowds by traveling off-season and firmly believe it makes for a better vacation. Our Panama City Beach experience was no exception. Fall Break keeps PCB bustling in October, but you’ll easily find vacant pool chairs, beach chair rentals, and open tables at nearly all your favorite restaurants. As any beach vacation veteran knows, these three things alone are HUGE.

At Thomas Donut & Snack Shop, we waited 20 minutes instead of the usual hour for a box of the roadside restaurant’s delectable donuts (although it was the kolaches- smoked sausage and cheese baked into soft, yeasty buns- that stole our hearts). We went back the next day after the morning rush and there was no line at all!

We were also able to make same-day reservations for dinner at Firefly, the hottest restaurant in Panama City Beach. Even in the off-season on a weeknight, reservations are still a must -- Those who didn’t have them on the night we were there were turned away. (Most simply made reservations for the next night.) We can enthusiastically recommend the crab en croute and the pepper-crusted stuffed filet mignon -- and I’m not kidding when I say Firefly’s she crab soup is the best I have ever had. Don’t leave without ordering a bowl or several.

Finally, with crowds at a minimum, there’s no better time than fall to enjoy some of Panama City Beach’s many attractions. From the popular Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf to the kid-friendly amusement park rides at Pier Park, you’ll find lines in autumn are all but non-existent.

The Gulf waters are still warm and crystal clear in the fall.

I’ve never seen clearer or more turquoise water in Florida than during our October stay in Panama City Beach. The sparkling water and sandbar that extended several hundred feet out from the shore made the Gulf feel like a gigantic, shallow wave pool. Consequently, we spent more time in the water than ever before, scooping up sea creatures in our nets, collecting shells, snorkeling, and floating on our wave boards.

Autumn’s calm, clear waters create optimal conditions for paddleboarding, kayaking, and jet skiing -- Plenty of vacationers were taking advantage of these options during our stay. It’s also a perfect time for a visit to one of Panama City Beach’s three piers . One of the most popular is the Russell-Fields Pier, located right across the street from Pier Park. There, you can rent fishing rods, buy a $6 daily license, and fish off the 1500-foot-long pier for Cobia, Mackerel, Flounder, Pompano and more-- or just take a look at what the fishermen are reeling in. Either way, you’re sure to see some interesting catches! Once you’re done, stop for Pow-Pow Shrimp and Bay Crab Claws at Hook’d, a bar and grill at the pier’s entrance. Both are delicious.

Our favorite experience of the trip had to be the private tour with Dolphin and Snorkel Tours. Up to 6 people can book a boat with an experienced guide who will personalize a tour that meets your party’s interests. Our guide, Croix, was born and raised in Panama City Beach and knew the waters like the back of his hand. He took us snorkeling in the clear waters off Shell Island, showed us where and how to find the best shells on the beach, pointed out lions’ mane jellyfish and sea turtles in the water, introduced us to a family of friendly raccoons, and gave us incredible close-up views of dozens of playful dolphins that surrounded our boat at sunset. My family agreed afterward that this tour, combined with a morning spent on the beach, was one of the best days of our entire lives.

Bargains abound.

Combine perfect weather with off-season room rates and you’ve got a recipe for the best vacation ever. We spent our week at the Splash Resort, a family favorite, and we’d stay there again in a heartbeat. Our condominium was spacious, comfortable and clean with a large balcony overlooking the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico. The kids were huge fans of the resort’s two pools and lazy river and my 9-year-old son could hardly be torn away from the resort’s elaborate splash pad, which featured a large bucket of water that overturned every 45 seconds.

You’ll also find reduced rates and off-season specials at many area attractions. When we visited Gulf World, a marine park with excellent daily animal shows, we were pleased to find that the kids’ admission was free that day -- This meant significant savings for us! Be sure and research off-season specials when planning your autumn Panama City Beach vacation- You may be surprised by how many deals you can find.

The outdoor shopping opportunities are endless.

Want to take advantage of the cooler weather with some retail therapy? No matter what you’re looking for, Panama City Beach has got you covered!

Pier Park is a clean, family-friendly outdoor shopping mall with something for everyone -- Shops include Forever 21, Dillards, Crocs, Marshall’s, Target and much more, in addition to many restaurant favorites.

If you’re looking for local flavor, you’re in luck! The area has not one, but two charming downtown areas. In Historic St. Andrews and along Harrison Avenue in downtown Panama City, you’ll find funky vintage and antique shops, art galleries, coffee shops, and locally owned restaurants. And on Market Street in Carillon Beach, you’ll also find upscale outdoor shopping and dining options in a beautiful environment that’s reminiscent of a New Orleans French Quarter neighborhood.

Are you feeling excited now about planning a trip to Panama City Beach for next fall? You’re not alone- We had such a good time, we’ve decided to permanently move our annual summer beach trip to Fall Break-- and we’d return to Panama City Beach in a heartbeat. Hope to see you there!