Panhandle Getaway: St. Andrews Sojourn
The Panhandle’s newest destination resort is well worth the drive.
The famed fifth hole on the Jack Nicklaus course will land on any golfer’s list of most scenic holes ever played.
Steve Beaudet photos
A five-minute helicopter flight is all it takes to get a 500-foot birds-eye perspective over sprawling St. Andrews Bay. The 69,000-acre estuary is encircled mostly by pine forests except for one endless ribbon of white dunes lapped by the Gulf’s turquoise waters.
This corner of the Panhandle is often overlooked by Orlandoans because it takes about six hours to drive there, and flights into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport require a connection. So, is it worth it? Absolutely.
The resort’s guest rooms reflect the natural setting (COURTESY OF SHERATON BAY POINT)
The new Sheraton Bay Point is a destination resort that puts you in the heart of St. Andrews Bay, about 10 miles south of Panama City Beach. Though not technically all-inclusive, the Sheraton Bay Point draws from its unique location that is both an estuary and home to the most visited state park in Florida. It provides a well-rounded getaway that includes 36-holes of golf, a full-service spa, and direct bay access for paddle boarding and kayaking, as well as three different beach experiences. There’s some pretty good food, too. A three-night vacation is perfect for both couples and families to unplug, recharge and reconnect.
Last Memorial Day weekend, the AAA four-diamond, 200-room resort and its 120 golf villas celebrated the grand opening of its $30 million makeover. The spacious hotel rooms are scattered in three buildings along the shore. Couples might gravitate to building 1, nearest the Tides lounge and restaurant, a Starbucks coffee bar, the fitness center overlooking the “quiet” pool and the bay, the concierge desk to organize tee times and spa treatments, and Flip Flops, the open-air bar with perches for watching unbeatable sunsets and sipping seasonal cocktails such as muddled berries and cucumber in a chili tequila lemonade.
Families are drawn to buildings 2 and 3, where ground-level, bay-view rooms open directly to the pool where the kids can play Marco Polo and not drive sunbathers crazy. These two buildings are nearest the boardwalk that practically reaches across the bay.
Way out there is Pelican’s Bar & Grill, where you can expect good food and cold drinks all day until sunset, with live music on the weekends. The boardwalk then forks left to the private bay beach, or right to the Bay Point Lady, which shuttles guests to Shell Island beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
Beach time on the bay side means you can come and go while enjoying the ease of lounge chairs, towels and staff to take your food and beverage order. The protected location within the bay is a good place for little ones who won’t get wiped out by waves. It’s also an excellent launch for standup paddle boarding and kayaking.
The round-trip boat ride to pristine Shell Island within St. Andrews State Park is so enjoyable—even for those who don’t want to set foot on the sand. It’s a chance to be on the water, watch the fishermen cast their lines while hip-deep offshore and maybe see a few dolphins that tend to congregate between the Gulf and the bay.
Flip Flops bar bridges the distance between the fun pool (COURTESY OF SHERATON BAY POINT)
The boat has one of the few permits that can dock on the backside of the barrier island, from which you follow a boardwalk over the dunes. Every so often the beach fills with tourists who are given a 30-minute leave from their packed tour boat; but at the appointed time, they drain away, leaving the wave-lapped beach to the lucky few who aren’t on a schedule.
There’s more to do on the bay than get wet. Golfers have the only Jack Nicklaus-designed course in northwest Florida, whose signature fifth hole is on the bay and where you’re as likely to see ospreys in flight as you are fighter jets. Once a month, a glow-in-the-dark course is set up for family fun.
The newly renovated golf villas are situated near the Bay Point Golf Club, part of the Sheraton resort property, and are a split of standard rooms and suites that feature a bedroom, sitting area and expanded wet bar. Each suite can adjoin with a room to configure a two-bedroom suite. The villas have their own pool and are close to Club 19 for casual dining. A resort shuttle closes the distance between the hotel and villas, as well as Serenity Spa—the compact but full-service spa whose staff is rock solid in their nurturing care.
Foodies, you won’t be left out either with Executive Chef Shane Miller’s seafood-centric Low Country cooking. You may have seen him on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and Guy’s Grocery Games. Miller’s bold flavors match his personality. The guy has the ingredients of his gumbo recipe tattooed on his arm (seriously, who asks for celery?) and browns his roux until “it’s as dark as a dirty penny”—just as his Maw-Maw taught him. If there’s any sort of special event with the chef or a wine dinner scheduled during your stay, make sure you’ve reserved a seat at the table.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Room for Your Pooch
Family-friendly SBP extends to the furry kind, too. Up to two dogs are welcome in a room—no weight limit and at no charge. Dogs also are welcome at the private bay beach and the outdoor restaurants where you can order food from a pet menu.
You Only Live Once
Rent standup paddleboards or bikes onsite by the company whose name embraces the bucket-list refrain. Be warned, an hour on a YOLO board, and you’ll be heading to their headquarters in nearby Santa Rosa Beach to get fit for a custom-made board.
A hotel shuttle covers the 10 miles to Panama City Beach for those in search of a buzzy beach vibe or who want to visit Pier Point, a hub for shopping, dining and entertainment, or one of the lively festivals at Aaron Bessant Park.
The geography of sea, dunes, forests, lagoon and bay can only really be seen and appreciated from above. Panhandle Helicopter is owned by a former Navy pilot and services the area with a range of affordable sightseeing flights.