We returned home Sunday from the Thunder Beach Spring motorcycle rally at Panama City Beach, Florida. How was it? Let’s just say we feel like we just got off the most awesome roller coaster ride we’ve ever been on and all we want to do it hop back on and go again! In fact, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to capture the true spirit of the fantastic time we had with some amazing friends, never mind the exceptional weather and lack of drama we enjoyed.
For context, I re-wrote this intro piece four times as I kept drifting away from the subject at hand into a spontaneous outpouring of “positive feelings” that flowed from the people we visited with from 6:00am on Thursday morning until 8:30pm Sunday night… and I’m really not a touchy-feely kind of person so that’s significant.
With all that in mind, let me dive right into the details of what had to be one of the best extended weekend mini-vacations we’ve ever had, perhaps only second to our 20th Anniversary weekend at Key West a few years back!
THE DAYS LEADING UP TO THUNDER BEACH
The hardest part about getting ready for a motorcycle rally for me is counting down the days until it’s time to throw a leg over and point the big bike down the road: there’s simply no way I can make it get here any faster! This year’s spring edition of Thunder Beach at Panama City Beach (PCB) was no exception; we couldn’t wait as we both REALLY needed a long road trip & some away time.
Bike Week in Daytona this past March was pretty awesome too, but the post-event euphoria had already been worn-down by work, et al. Moreover, what made the prospect of our trip to PCB all that much more exciting was the number of great friends who planned to be there. All we needed for a perfect time was great weather (got it!) and no drama (pretty much got that too!).
Our travel plan was the usual: leave-out at 6am on Thursday with a goal of reaching the Gulf by noon for lunch at Sharky’s. For the past several fall and spring rallies at PCB we made the ride down alone as either weather, work conflicts or other factors kept David & Deb, our regular traveling companions, from either making the trip or making the trip down on the bike. This year saw them headed down a day ahead of us so it was looking like we’d be making the trip down by ourselves, which is just fine: we enjoy our alone time almost as much as we enjoy our time with friends, so either way works for us!
However, as the departure day approached our friends Bobby & Carrie Ann let us know they’d be heading down early on Thursday as well so we coordinated our schedules, adjusted our routes and made plans to ride down together: perfect! ‘Blue’ was prepped and ready to roll; all we needed to do was pack our bags and we’d be off.
Note: I’d like to thank all of our friends (especially Carrie Ann) for taking lots of pictures throughout the weekend that I have gleefully poached and used to bring life to my blog! You guys are the best.
We were both up before 5:00am and made short work of packing before suiting-up with heated jacket liners & gloves, leathers and full-face helmets for what looked to be a fairly cool morning ride: temps were hovering in the low 50’s with 80% humidity. For a short ride of 30 minutes or so, those kinds of temps don’t warrant heated gear. But, as I learned a few years back when I made the same trip in similar conditions, it doesn’t take long to find yourself cold-soaked and shivering until the sun finally gets high enough to warm things up. Sorry to say, I’ll gladly hand over my man card these days: been there and done the cold thing and I prefer being warm & toasty when I have that option.
We hit the road right around 5:40 am which put us at the BP gas station at 5:55am where we’d planned to meet Bobby & Carrie Ann at 6:00am. They had already arrived and were topping off their gas tanks when we rolled-up. After a warm greeting and a tally-ho we were off.
As we made our way south on I75 to I285 west around Atlanta to I85, Debbie and I were both enjoying the warmth of our heated gear; it was the right call. This was confirmed when we made our first stop at the Marathon gas station in Phenix City, Alabama, as Bobby & Carrie Ann were definitely chilled. After topping off our fuel tanks we moved next door to the Waffle House to grab some breakfast and allow our friends to thaw out a bit before we made the next leg of the ride down to Chipley, Florida.
By the time we arrived in Chipley the temperatures had warmed-up enough to shed the heated gear, full-face helmets and heavy gloves. I left my leather jacket shell on whereas my sweetie decided to go without any jacket. I’m pretty sure she was a bit chilly for most of that leg as the air temperature didn’t really shoot up into the 70’s until we reached the Gulf Coast.
As we rolled into Panama City Beach we made a beeline to Sharky’s and hit their beach side bar promptly at 11:30am, pretty much as advertised! Our friends David & Deb had just pulled-in moments ahead of us and joined Bobby, Carrie Ann, Debbie and me for lunch and our first official toast of the weekend.
True to form, our angel of goodwill — Carrie Ann — made fast friends with a couple from Murfreesboro, TN, who were sitting next to us at Sharky’s. She must have a sixth sense when it comes to finding new friends to add to the flock, as Steve & Kristen (photo at right) were tailor-made for the crazy group of friends that Carrie Ann & Bobby have collected over the years. You may recall that it was a chance encounter just two years earlier at Toucans in Mexico Beach where Carrie Ann “found us” and, no kidding, changed our lives for the better by bringing us into their fold. I just love that gal and her hubby!
With our new-found friends, the party was on! The plan was for everyone to go their separate ways & get settled-in at their respective condos and then reconnect back at Sharky’s for dinner and ‘hopefully’ find ourselves with pretty good seats for the Mustang Sally gig. In fact, we lucked out and found Tobi Lee (lead singer for “Sally”) and her band setting up as we were headed out after lunch. Great gal and a great band! Couldn’t wait to be back that evening!
We made it to our condo around 1:30, got settled-in, did a little grocery shopping and then cleaned-up for the evening which all took the better part of the afternoon. Around 5:30 we headed back to Sharky’s where we found our ever-expanding collection of friends hanging out on the front deck as the wait staff attempted to clear-out guests and set-up a pair of tables that would accommodate our party of 18. Oh yeah, we were definitely getting in the groove for the weekend!
If I recall correctly, we shared our table with Ryan & Jeanette + Patti, Jeff & Sharon & Deb & Dave. At the other table were Carrie Ann & Bobby, Cowboy, Mike & Kim, Steve & Kristen and Julie & Chuck. It was an amazing time, to be sure! Our server took good care of our rowdy group and the food was actually pretty good, better than we remembered when it came to dinner fare: Debbie & I split a blackened tuna steak over salad. Seafood and fish was a common theme for our meals in PCB and served us well.
Our group definitely became the center of attention ahead of Mustang Sally coming on at 9:00pm — that may have had something to do with a semi-public bustier & t-top swap by two of the lovely gals in our entourage — and our seats alongside of the band were about as good as it was going to get: Sharky’s was slammed with a standing room only crowd from the band to the bar. Given Sharky’s is one of the ground-zero locations for Spring Break, it said something for how popular Mustang Sally was when the long-time wait staff said this was the largest crowd they’d ever seen at Sharky’s.
We pretty much gave up hope of getting out in front of the band and our group eventually moved back out to the front deck and then across the street to Lucky 13’s for a night-cap. It had been a long day for us so I think it was about 11:00 or so when we decided to pack it in and head back to our condo. We had a big day ahead of us on Friday!
I was up around 6:00am (7:00am EST) and spent the first hour & half knocking out some work while my Debbie and Deb & David slept.
Debbie was up and about by 7:15 and after we had breakfast Debbie and I headed down to the Beach for a nice long walk. It was a beautiful morning and it had been a long time since we’d had one of these morning walks in Panama City Beach due to less than ideal weather. We made up for it by walking to within spitting distance of Pineapple Willy’s and back (about an hour-long / 3.5-mile round trip). We would love to have that as a daily routine! Almost nothing beats starting off your day walking on the beach with your sweatheart!
Dave & Deb were up and about when we arrived back at the condo around 8:45. I got dressed and headed down to wash Thursday’s road grime off of Blue before we headed off with David & Deb to meet up with our friends at the Beach Bar & Package Store around 10:00am. Well, OK; it’s now called ‘The Liq,’ but it’s still the best place on planet Earth to go for Bloody Mary’s and Mudslides.
The plan for the day was to head east past Mexico Beach to Port St. Joe where we’d stop for lunch at the Indian Pass Raw Bar. On the way back we’d stop at Toucan’s in Mexico Beach. Of course, before heading off we’d spend a good hour or so socializing at ‘The Liq’ as the rest of our friends arrived.
As you’d expect, our crazy collection of friends had a great time just hanging out on The Liq’s front patio. We met a really nice couple from our home town of Kennesaw who had driven down for the week; we all fell in love with her little West Highland Terrier, including me! How’s that for a shocker… as I’m well past the point of wanting any pets. However, she was about as dear as a little dog could be.
In addition to the usual shenanigans, we had a little drama when our friend Allan accidentally dropped his wallet into a dead space between an outdoor ATM machine and its protective housing. We could see the wallet but couldn’t reach, but darned if we didn’t try. What we lacked were the proper tools, as the coat hanger that procured from a local hotel just wasn’t robust enough to take hold of the wallet. However, Allan’s hero arrived in the form of a pick-up truck and a fine young man who used a carpenter’s square to pin the wallet to the side of the enclosure and then lift the wallet up and out. It was the first of two wallets to be misplaced during the weekend along with one phone that went missing. Both wallets were recovered, but the phone was a goner.
As best as I can recall from memory and/or photos, our group included 15+ bikes: Carrie Ann & Bobby, Ryan & Jeanette + Patti, Jeff & Sharon, Julie & Chuck, Mike & Kim, Cowboy (John), Mike, Steve & Kristen, Early & April, Alan & Erin, David & Deb and of course Debbie and yours truly. If anyone can tell me who I left out, I’ll be sure to add them!
Shortly after 11:00am our entourage saddled up and was lead out-of-town by Jeanette on her maple metallic & atomic orange CVO Softail Classic. We motored across the Hathaway Bridge & St. Andrew Bay into Panama City on US98, then across Dupont Bridge on the Tyndall Parkway to Mexico Beach, and finally onto County Road 30A past downtown Port St. Joes to the Indian Pass Raw Bar. All told, it was about a 90 minute / 60 mile one-way trip on a day where the weather would have to be described as just about perfect: plenty of sun, barely a cloud in the sky and just the right temperature.
In this four-shot sequence below that was caught by the Go-Pro, you can see Kristen abandoning Steve & his cruiser for the comfort of Bobby’s Ultra Limited Touring bike during a red light. Too much fun!
Debbie and I had never been to the Raw Bar and what a treasure that was! The chargrilled oysters were out of this world good as was the tuna dip. Carrie Ann kept feeding me some of the best crab legs I’ve ever had (forget the butter, they were that good) and the company was as good as it gets. I thought the Oyster Pub in Daytona scored top marks for their chargrilled oysters but must now confess that the Raw Bar may now hold that mark!
We must have stayed at the Raw Bar for a good hour and a half before saddling up to head back towards Mexico Beach. I’d mentioned to Jeanette that there was a more scenic and faster route through Panama City via Alt. Route 98 so I was promoted to ride captain for the return trip. We’d originally planned to stop at Toucan’s in Mexico Beach but after a few of us talked about it we decided to give it a pass – likely too crowded with slow service – and instead I suggested checking out one of the restaurant / bars on St Andrew Bay near Buena Vista Point along Bayview Avenue. So, that was our destination.
Aside from an abrupt stop when a car and truck ahead of us suddenly stopped on our way out of Mexico Beach it was a pretty uneventful ride back to Panama City. However, that sudden stop probably raised the pucker factor a few points for some of the following riders who had to grab a handful of brake and skidded their rear tires: sorry about that; I should have gotten my hand up sooner.
As we crossed back over DuPont Bridge from Tyndall Parkway we hit a gas station so folks who needed to could top off. Our friends Ryan + Patti & Jeanette went on ahead to make a stop back at a gas station on US98 where Patti may have left her phone during a stop on the way out to Port St. Joes.
Once we were back underway, and as promised, the first part of Alt 98 wasn’t all that scenic with its paper mill and chemical factories. But, after passing through downtown Panama City I think all was forgiven once we turned onto the lightly-traveled, tree-covered West Beach Drive, Beck Street, Frankford & West 9th Street: it’s just a spectacular ride along St. Andrew Bay.
We lost a few of our friends who had to press ahead when we stopped at Gracie Rae’s for our afternoon cocktails, but we were rejoined by Ryan + Patti & Jeanette after taking their detour to see if they could find Patti’s phone: no luck with that.
Gracie Rae’s turned out to be a nice pick: attentive servers, good seats along the bay and pretty tasty mudslides and oysters! I’m guessing we spent a good hour or so enjoying everyone’s company before heading back over the Hathaway Bridge and then scattering off to our respective condo’s to get ready for the evening. Dinner was looking to be somewhat on your own with everyone coming together down at Club La Vela’s Kid Rock tribute show later in the evening.
Sadly, I apparently had some issues with my GoPro cameras where two of the three cameras failed to collect any video. This was a carry-over from Friday that I didn’t discover until Saturday morning when I downloaded the cameras to my laptop. One of them has audio, but I’ll be darned if I understand what went wrong. So, no video’s from this trip… just still captures and, frankly, that’s OK: putting together those videos is another big time-suck.
David, Deb, my Debbie and I decided to ride up to Runaway Island for dinner. It’s owned by the same folks as Sharky’s and Hammer Head Fred’s, but with slightly higher end fare… or at least that was the case when they first opened. We arrived just before 8:00pm and found it easy to get a seat; which suggests we either did well by eating late or turn-out for Thunder Beach was light. They had a really good musician playing out on the deck – same guy as last fall and a regular at the Barefoot Beach Club Bar who we’ve always enjoyed – and Geneva would go on a 9:00pm upstairs in their performance lounge. Debbie had the salmon and I had the swordfish special; both were excellent. Not sure that we both needed our own entries, but at least we were eating fish! We finished our dinner about the same time that Geneva went on and I’ll say that for the brief time that I listened she sounded better than she had in previous years at the Outpost for Bikers and Sharky’s.
We made our way down to Club La Vela and after paying our $10/per person cover and getting frisked for contraband (quite poorly I might add) we found our friends and spent the next hour or so having a great time listening to “Cowboy,” a pretty good Kid Rock tribute band: no kidding, the lead singer was excellent and the back-up band was strong. My Debbie was definitely rockin’ to the music which is always fun just to watch: just love my baby! Jeanette was also way into the tunes and the rest of us were definitely having a good time. As the band wrapped Ryan challenged me to lead us to five more clubs enroute to the final destination: Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge at Pier Park.
The next stop was Miss Newbies and they were slammed. There was also a rider down on the street in front of the venue who had apparently ridden out in front of a car: not good. We ended up parking about two blocks down along Thomas Drive and camped out in front of and inside the package store. Not sure where all of the people were, but there must have been 300 motorcycles along Thomas Drive with another 200 in the parking lot. As often happens, there were a few outlaw M/C clubs showing colors at the bar which can sometimes get interesting. Our next stop was going to be Coyote Ugly, followed by the Salty Goat and then most likely Tootsies. However, after conferring and looking at our watches, we decided to bypass Ugly and the Goat and headed straight to Tootsie’s; it was the right call!
I’m guessing we arrived at Tootsie’s around 11:30 and didn’t leave until 2:00am. It was crowded when we arrived, but as often happens, a few tables cleared out and we eventually had a nice piece of real estate in the middle of the club. Miss Debbie and I did a little dancing in the isles and at some point I ended up gettin’ down with Jeanette. We simply had a blast; almost as good or even a bit better than the real deal in Nashville! The talent on stage was amazing and at one point one of the singers was taken aback by the gals in our group: he had no idea what he set himself up for when he came out pimping for tips. Again, just an amazing end to an amazing day spent with amazing friends.