After a very busy few weeks at work, a beach getaway was just what the doctor ordered. Packed and ready we left the house bright and early Friday morning and flew Southwest into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. The cutest little beach airport ever. I picked up a rental car on one of the discount websites a few weeks ago, and while we really didn’t “need” it, having the car came in handy. That said, it would be totally doable to take a Taxi or rideshare from the airport to the main drag and if your hotel is as close as ours – walk daily to and from the festival. More on that later.
After my normal obsessive days long studying of hotels, I settled on the Days Inn – it is oceanfront (all rooms), has a cute pool area, free parking and free breakfast, and is walking distance to the festival. PCB (as they call it) is bustling this time of year. There are two festivals in town and some spring breakers However, it is nowhere near the level of madness that I expect hits this place when spring break is in full swing and we have had a great, relaxing time. I had picked the hotel out well in advance of convincing my friend Sarah to come along.
The hotel wasn’t quite ready for us, so we picked up our wristbands and headed to the first oceanfront spot we could find. Harpoon Harry’s. We shared a gigantic drink, had our first taste of delicious seafood, and enjoyed the view and the breeze.
After that, we headed to the room to get ready and hit the gate right as it opened. On our way to get credentials we found a nearby parking lot and parked there all three days for $50 total. It was easy to get in and out. You really could walk from most hotels and there is some sort of shuttle, but with camera equipment and flip flops we made the decision to drive.
The setup for SandJam is simple and easy to navigate. You enter at the pier level – where food, drink and cool vendors line a paved area. Three sets of beach stairs lead you down to the sand level where two stages and more bars fill the space.
There are no conflicts between sets at Sand Jam and you will spend your day making the brief walk back and forth between the stages. Or, sitting on a towel in the middle.
On Day One we saw, Revel in Romance, Max Frost, Kongos, Anderson East, Blackberry Smoke and Cold War Kids – before tiring out and heading back to the room. It was hot that first day, but once we cooled down we wanted to grab a snack and some drinks to keep in the full sized room fridge. We headed across from the Days Inn to a little food store and picked up all the essentials,including mimosa fixings.
Musically, the first day was one big highlight. I was especially surprised by Blackberry Smoke. I had never heard of them, but they were really good.
We (and by that I mean Sarah who dutifully grabbed us water at every opportunity) took advantage of Happy Hour (for buy one get one free waters) and I had teriyaki chicken and noodles from a little stand. I also snagged Creme Brûlée from Firefly (apparently a well known local restaurant). It was fresh and one of my food highlights of the weekend. Sarah reports that the sun killed her hunger, but when it went down she was ready for a side of noodles (she described as not as good as Island Noodles) and a popsicle.
The hotel was full of fellow festival goers and a few partiers, so it didn’t quiet down as early as I hoped. But we got a full night sleep (note to self bring sweatshirt next time).
After a pretty substantial continental breakfast, I went for a walk on the beach and collected shells, while Sarah relaxed. We had been planning a pool morning, because the pool here looks like something out of a water park – but it wasn’t quite warm enough. They have an awesome bar, but didn’t serve any food.
We headed to a local restaurant that promised all you can eat southern favorites, Capt. Jack’s Family Buffet. It was delicious and they had fried okra and hushpuppies so I was happy. After making our final wardrobe choices for the day – we headed down to the festival in time to see Heritage.
That show was quickly followed by Them Dirty Roses and The Shadowboxers. Then a mild camera related freakout. Once again involving a dirty lens and a kind stranger. Have you heard this story before . . . I was worried I wouldn’t have it up and ready to shoot Alice Merton, so at one point was on the verge of tears. But thanks to a kind photographer – my lens is clean and I now permanently have a lens cloth in my bag. Shortly after, I ordered my very own camera cleaning kit from Amazon.
This was the third time I have been able to see Alice Merton perform, but the first time I have been able to have my DSLR with me. I got there extra early to make sure I could be get some fun pre show pictures, while also totally fangirling the whole time. She killed it.
After that, it was time for dinner. It was hot and I understood what Sarah meant the prior day about the heat killing your hunger. At this point I was starting to fade energy wise. Frankly, I had a really rough time all weekend keeping my energy up. This was my excuse to grab another Creme Brûlée (yet again delicious and the perfect combination of cool custard and hot torched topping. Still hungry but also still hot and not feeling like fried festival food – I happened to perch my plate next to King of Pops. Check out their website and find them at one of many festivals on the east coast this summer. Had a great chat with the guy selling at that spot, he happens to be in charge of things and doesn’t usually get out to the actual festivals. 45 calories and perfectly simple, a raspberry lime pop hit the spot.
I was able to recover, mostly – and spent the rest of the evening chilling in the sand. It gets super cool here at night, so that combined with just being wiped out – led me to leave a bit early. Fortunately, our hotel is listening and sight distance – so I got to rest on the porch with a mimosa and listened to Third Eye Blind.
Cool and rested, my hunger finally returned and we found a spot that was still delivering and got pizza rolls and salad to go with our mimosas. Sarah’s salad came with no fork, and in my exhaustion I figured ranch dressing was somehow the right choice for her greek salad. She was therefore forced to eat her salad with her hands.
This isn’t the quietest hotel in the world, but we got another good night’s sleep.
After another solid free hotel breakfast (this time including grits), I set off for a walk on the beach. Sarah hit the pool and we both ended up with our first sunburns of the weekend.
We originally had big plans for the morning, but I settled in with some work (blog and otherwise) in an attempt to get energy back and finish out the weekend strong. One of the things that is very different about covering a festival with my big camera is that it is a little (a lot) stressful. I am still learning how to take good pictures and lugging the camera around all day can start to feel like “work.” I find myself needing to remember to take it all in and enjoy. It takes a lot of concentration, especially while learning, to get a good shot. That said, I think we can all agree that festival work still beats real work any day and I am so grateful for the opportunity to SandJam gave me to cover the festival.
After much debate, and me being largely listless, we decided to head back to our buffet restaurant from yesterday for our pre-fest meal. Nothing major to report about the food – but at dessert I wandered over to the soft serve machine and literally screamed out…DOLE WHIP!!! OMG!!!! It was delicious and a real sweet treat.
After filling ourselves on southern buffet, we headed back to the beach for one last day in the sand. We caught about 7 bands in a row – all of them good, but there were definitely a few highlights.
Kirstie Lovelady absolutely rocked her mid-afternoon set. I had the opportunity to check out some of her music online in advance, so had no doubt she was going to absolutely blow us all away with her voice. If you were a person who thought she was on the lineup because of her dad – you learned your lesson fast! Her set was one of the highlights of the day.
She was quickly followed by The War and Treaty. A duo out of Atlanta that just floored me with their talent and their rock, soul, amazingness!! If you have not heard of them and heard their music before – you are missing out!
My festival ended with Matt + Kim – and what a way to go out. Sunday of SandJam already had a great party vibe, but Matt and Kim turned it up a notch (or ten) and led a singing, dancing crowd through an epic set.
I went to bed early with a mission in mind.
Panama City Beach does not look like a place that was hit by a massive hurricane last year, but as a Facebook friend pointed out, that is just what we get to see as tourists. If you drive even 30 minutes outside the tourist areas – to Calloway, Marianna, and Mexico Beach – you will fine clear indications of the storm. Most of the major debris has been cleared, but trees are still down and the damage is raw. Lots that once held businesses, homes or actual landscaping are now barren and brown.
My plan was to take my camera out and shoot these landscapes to contrast with what we see as tourists. But when I saw it – I just felt it wasn’t respectful to take pictures of people’s destroyed hometowns – even for a good cause. If you want to see what things look like – Google will show you.
The people of Bay County say they are 850 Strong. They have had to be, because national attention moved on once the storm was over and the initial cleanup completed. There are hundreds of volunteers and workers still in the area, but these areas still haven’t received the federal support they need and deserve. It is amazing that SandJam even happened in the first place – and we should not forget what lies beyond the borders of this beautiful party town.
As always, if you have any questions about the festival or want to share your experience, we would love to hear from you. #RockTheBeach