What happens on spring break

Last week our family managed to take a three-day getaway during Gwinnett County Public Schools’ official spring break.

We spent the rain-soaked time relaxing in a cabin in Highlands, N.C., where we escaped during the pandemic in 2021. This year we ate in restaurants, shopped in downtown Highlands and nearby Cashiers, grilled out, played games, watched movies, read and generally relaxed. It was a decidedly family friendly mini-vacation bearing no resemblance to the stereotypical college spring break of lore.

The Wallace family on the porch of a cabin in Highlands, NC
The Wallace crew highly recommend relaxing at Five Apple Farm in Highlands, NC, if you need a spring break getaway. For the record, there are no wet t-shirt contests.

Part of that lore was a travel piece I wrote for The Macon Telegraph way back in 1996 when I was a cub reporter. It was the height of the college spring break phenomenon at Panama City Beach, Florida, and MTV was broadcasting shows live from PCB during the college spring break season in March and early April.

My story for The Telegraph was part travelog, part service journalism. It was meant to appeal to those considering going on spring break to Panama City Beach as well as inform those who would never go but wanted to know what it was like. It appeared in the special Monday feature section I was coordinating for Generation X readers named “Tel X.” The audience for the Tel X section was young adults who were abandoning newspaper readership in droves. The enterprise attempted to provide content twentysomethings might find compelling and useful. Spoiler alert: Tel X did not reverse that trend. It lasted about a year.

Cover of the Macon Telegraph Tel X feature section from April 1, 1996
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How could this type of jazzy design and compelling newspaper coverage NOT inspire a generation to become regular readers of The Macon Telegraph?”

I don’t remember how I got the idea but it was an eye-opening and exhausting experience. It had mostly faded in my memory until I recently found the story in my basement archives of old Tel X sections and Macon Telegraph story clips. Rereading the piece invoked a few chuckles and some winces.

The executive summary of the story is that college students went to Panama City Beach to party.

The details of the story revealed that the “party” was not nearly as glamorous in real life as it was on MTV.

Upon checking into the hotel I had been directed to by a newspaper colleague at The Panama City News Herald, I immediately found six guys from Georgia Southern who allowed me to join their group for the weekend. They gave me permission to use their names and print exactly what I saw.

“Dude! This is awesome! It’s like ‘Real World’ but for the newspaper. We’re going to be famous!” one of them enthused.

(For those who may not remember, “The Real World” was one of the first reality shows on television appearing on MTV with the opening lines, “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped — to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”)

There’s famous and then there’s Macon Telegraph Monday Tel X edition famous. So, yeah, not that famous. I’m sure their parents read the piece with great interest.

I will refrain from reprinting the entire story here, but I will give you the opening graph to set the scene: 

Tel X coordinator Lance Wallace spent the weekend on spring break at Panama City Beach to see what happens when young adults from across the country gather to cut loose. PANAMA CITY BEACH – A white shoe polish sign on a Honda hatchback from Georgia sums up the spring break attitude… “Spring Break: Get tan, get drunk, get laid, but not necessarily in that order.” For college students, spring break presents an opportunity and excuse to vent all of their anxieties and frustrations.”

The story included timed dispatches like this: “Friday, 5:42 p.m. Donald Hansil and Stephen Clark pile into the hotel elevator, each clutching a Natural Light and an empty ice chest. They’re in search of an ice machine that hasn’t already been plundered… After scouring the entire hotel for ice, it was 15 feet from their room.”

Other highlights included beach volleyball matches, a bikini contest at Club La Vela, dinner at Hooters, being summoned to the stage by a female rap artist and miraculously incurring no additional damage charges for their room upon checkout. They had crammed 12 people in a room for eight to keep their costs down. For the record, I did not stay in their room, and I left them each night about 2:30 a.m. Even at 25, I could not keep up.

I have never been a partier. My visitation to that scene was like an anthropologist conducting research in a remote jungle village. It gave me enough distance to be objective, and I was not tempted to join in. I merely observed and captured such moments as this: “The group is beginning to look haggard. Steve explains how difficult the room situation has become. Jeff says as long as everyone’s drinking, people get along. Shower time is especially complicated  – 12 people, one shower.”

As I drove away from Panama City Beach on that Monday morning in mid-March 1996, I resolved that if I ever had offspring and they ever asked to go to Panama City Beach with their college buddies for spring break, I would advise against it.

So far that’s one parenting resolution I’ve managed to stick to.

What are your memorable spring break experiences? Maybe you don’t want to put it out for the internet, but if you are willing to risk it, leave a comment below and join the conversation.

Some beach, somewhere

Southerners don’t just go to the beach anymore. They go to a particular beach.

Carla's toes at Santa Rosa Beach
Carla's view from her beach chair at Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. This year the seaweed washing ashore has affected the visual beauty, but the beach is still the beach.

These beaches aren’t just the popular ones: Panama City Beach, Daytona Beach, Myrtle Beach, Virginia Beach, Hilton Head. In the New South, it is fashionable to go to a boutique beach with its own charming small-town feel.

There are still thousands of people who flock to the popular beaches each year. Clearly the Destins and Panama Citys and Daytonas are still popular, but the trend I’ve noticed over the last few years is how specific everyone is now about where they stay. It has almost turned into a competition to see who can come up with the most obscure beach. I’m beginning to think half of these beaches don’t really exist.

My friend, John, pointed out this trend back at the beginning of the summer when he asked when and where we were taking our family vacation.

Santa Rosa Beach. It’s between Destin and Panama City.”

“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “Everybody goes to one of those beaches these days. No one says
they’re going to Destin anymore.”

In the weeks that have passed since that conversation, I’ve given this some thought. I believe he’s right. Maybe it’s pretentiousness, maybe it’s pride in finding something we think is relatively undiscovered or maybe it’s rationalization for spending so much money on vacation, but it seems some of us need to go to a smaller beach so we can feel special.

We discovered our boutique beach about 10 years ago. Friends told us about the beautiful beaches in Florida’s panhandle. My wife went online, did some investigating and, voila, we rented a condo in paradise. I knew a little about the beaches of South Walton County from interning back-to-back summers in the early ’90s at The Destin Log. Not as crowded as Destin and Panama City, these beaches, such as Seaside, used principles of new urbanism to guide their development.

30A logo
Doesn't this make you want to go to these special beaches?

So each July we make a trek from Atlanta to Scenic Florida Highway 30A. If you see the little “30A” bumper circle, that’s what they’re hinting at: bragging about their little boutique beach. Another common way to show off your beach is the “SoWal” square, which stands for “South Walton” as in “the beaches of South Walton County.”

Those of you who have discovered these communities of Rosemary Beach, Seagrove, Seaside, Alys Beach, Watercolor, Grayton Beach and Blue Mountain Beach (still haven’t found the mountain) etc., already know the flavor and appeal of a boutique beach.

I have to resist my own snootiness when it comes to my beach vacation. The fact is, there are only so many things you can do at the beach, and people do the same things at the beach no matter which beach it is. Sure, the sand may be a different color and texture or the water may be colder or wavier, but the beach is still the beach.

Maybe I’ll adopt the practice of my children. When asked where they are going on vacation, they say simply “the beach.” Isn’t that all that really matters?