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Hitting the Beach: St. Andrews State Park

A nearly unbroken strand of white sand fronts all 22 miles of Panama City Beach, but the highlight for many is St. Andrews State Park, at the east end. With more than 1,000 acres of dazzling white sand and dunes, this preserved wilderness demonstrates what the area looked like before motels and condominiums lined the beach. Lacy, golden sea oats sway in the Gulf breezes, and rosemary grows wild. Picnic areas (on the Gulf beach and the Grand Lagoon), restrooms, and open-air showers are available for beachgoers. Anglers will find jetties and a boat ramp. A nature trail reveals wading birds and perhaps an alligator or two. Drive carefully here because the area is home to foxes, coyotes, and a herd of deer. A historic turpentine fir tree still on display was formerly used by lumbermen to make turpentine and rosin, both important for caulking old wooden ships.

The park's 176 RV and tent campsites are among the state's most beautiful, especially the 40 in a pine forest right on the shores of Grand Lagoon. They are very popular, so reservations are highly recommended -- and essential in summer. Call tel. 800/326-3521 or go to www.reserveamerica.com. Sites cost $28 year-round.

Park admission is $8 per car of up to eight, $4 single occupant, and $2 per pedestrian or cyclist. The area is open daily from 8am to sunset. Pets are not allowed in the park. For more information, contact the park at 4607 State Park Lane, Panama City, FL 32408 (tel. 850/233-5140; www.floridastateparks.org/standrews).

Pristine Shell Island, a 7 1/2-mile-long, 1-mile-wide barrier island accessible only by boat, sits a few hundred yards across an inlet from St. Andrews State Park. This uninhabited natural preserve is great for shelling and fun for swimming, sun-tanning, or just relaxing. Visitors can bring chairs, beach gear, coolers, food, and beverages. The best way to get here is on the park's Shell Island Shuttle (tel. 800/227-0132 or 850/234-7245; www.shellislandshuttle.com), which runs every 30 minutes daily from 9am to 5pm. Fares are $15 for adults and $6.95 for children 11 and under, plus the admission fees to the state park . A snorkeling package costs $22 for adults and $17 for kids 12 and under, and includes the shuttle ride and equipment. Kayak rentals are $55 a day for a single-seat boat, $65 for a double-seater.

Several cruise boats go to Shell Island, including the glass-bottomed Captain Anderson III, which departs from Captain Anderson's Marina, 5500 N. Lagoon Dr., at Thomas Drive (tel. 850/234-3435; www.captandersonsmarina.com). It charges $18 for adults, $10 for kids ages 2 to 11 (Mar-Oct).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.