Car Reviews

Beach getaway with the Toyota Highlander Hybrid

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This year has been whackadoodle to say the least, wouldn’t you agree? After two months of lockdown we were ready to get out of town and we headed to the beach. Lucky for us, my father in law lives in Panama City Beach, Florida. That was Memorial Day weekend. Fast forward to Labor Day, closing in on the six month anniversary of “two weeks to flatten the curve” and we headed to the beach for round 2 of beach vacay. 

 

Thanks to Toyota for letting us take the all new Highlander down to Panama City Beach with us.  I couldn’t have been more excited! Side note: my father in law has a Toyota Highlander that he loves and we were interested to see how it compared to the all new Highlander.

Our Highlander Hybrid made the drive from Atlanta smooth and easy. In fact, we only stopped twice for bathroom breaks. 

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Easily fit all you luggage in the back of the Toyota Highlander and still have the third seat available.

I’ll admit, I instantly fell in love with the cherry red color and the camel leather seating. 

There aren’t a whole lot of restaurants to choose from on the way from Atlanta to Panama City Beach, unless you are going to make a small detour to Columbus. It’s a fun stop off if you do, but I prefer to stop when I am closer to the halfway point of the drive to Panama City Beach. Anticipating a full five days of vacation eating (and drinking) we ate rather light on our way down. 

Day 1 Arrival in Panama City Beach and dinner at Bella Roma in Panama City Beach

When we first arrived at my Father in Laws house, it was early evening. The good thing about the panhandle of Florida is that you gain an hour when traveling from Atlanta (east coast). The bad is obviously that you lose an hour when returning home. 

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Bella Roma in Panama City Beach is a superb Italian restaurant!

My FIL had discovered a lovely Italian restaurant he had just visited the week before and was excited to introduce us to it. We began with the calamari which was outstanding (light and fresh) and not full of peppers like many of the other ones we’ve had lately. Portions are huge and while I’d normally avoid pasta dishes I couldn’t resist the sausage in vodka sauce with mushrooms. Glen’s salmon was equally appetizing. We’ve definitely earmarked this as a go to spot for future visits. Protip: if you find yourself in Panama City Beach at a popular time (when restaurants are really hard to get into) this off the beaten path spot is tasty with hardly any wait and takes reservations. 

 

Day 2 of our Panama City Beach trip was definitely a beach day.

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These white sands in Panama City Beach are therapeutic!

I’m a beach girl and I don’t like to be away from it for too long. I brought some premixed margaritas with me and had a couple of those in the afternoon. Then we headed out to our best meal of the trip – Copper Tap Grille! 

Here’s another tip PCB newbies might not know. There’s Panama City Beach and Panama City. The two are not very far apart at all. I think it took us about 10 minutes from driveway to parking to get to our Panama City dinner destination. Why does this matter to visitors? Many (not all) of the restaurants that are in Panama City are superior to the beach restaurants in the sister city. 

 

Copper Tap Grill dining in Panama City 

Do you remember the popular song from the 90s, “She’s in Love with the Boy?” by Trisha Yearwood? I LOVE that song so much. Anyway, they mentioned the Tastee Freeze restaurants in the lyrics (never been to one but I imagine something like a Dairy Queen). Copper Tap Grille used to be one before they converted it. You’d never guess it though, the place is totally transformed. Large neon lights beckon you inside. 

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We had such a fantastic meal at Copper Tap Grille. Can’t wait to go back!

Known for their beers, my recommendation is to get a beer flight which I loved. CTG has wheat, pilsners, IPAs and Amber beer. So there’s something for everyone. The IPA stole my heart, though. Oh my goodness and Copper Tap Grille makes incredible cocktails too. I had a decadent French 75 which was amazing. Next time I’ll be headed back for the Manhattan. 

Start your meal off with the tuna dip. Not too creamy and full of delicious chunk pieces of tuna, one appetizer was plenty for the three of us. Portions at Copper Tap Grille in Panama City are huge so, don’t fill up on the appetizers. I loved my Grouper topped with crab and shrimp cake. My FIL’s shrimp po boy (see it above) was humongous. And it was chock full of shrimp too, not just all bread like at some places. 

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You can’t go wrong with the salted caramel cheesecake or the key lime pie at CTG in Panama City

We took home a salted caramel cheesecake and key lime pie for dessert and had no regrets. Damn. Delicious. The service was some of the best I’ve ever had when visiting the beach. I can’t wait to go back. Plus, everyone we mentioned it too (locals in PCB) were like “Oh yeah – I love that place.” 

Day 3 Farm Visit – an hour drive from Panama City Beach in the Toyota Highlander

I’d heard stories about this cool farm Glen’s aunt and uncle had started years ago. Growing vegetables and all the animals roaming free was just a small part of it. But the gem is the gorgeous farm house. If you can imagine- it is a mix of farm house, European manor and ski lodge all combined into one. See below? That’s where we dined on delicious fresh vegetables of corn and butter beans straight from Judy’s garden. How would you like that for your kitchen / eating area? 

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This room in the farm house is so warm and welcoming!

The main floor with it’s wide open room combining kitchen, dining and den, is perfectly appointed with gorgeous furnishings and high end kitchen appliances. The downstairs even includes a safe room, outfitted in camouflage. The upstairs features European touches in the bedrooms with faux painted walls and decor. 

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How amazing is this beautiful deck at the farm house in Panama City?

Wait I’m getting ahead of myself. Pillars of the community doesn’t begin to describe Judy and Grover Davis (Glen’s aunt and uncle). They began their Marine Shipping Supply company in the 1970s and went on to employ more than 100 employees. They even owned a shipyard where they built their own ships. 

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At the farm we picked muscadines – they even have a canning kitchen built into the farm house. How cool is that?

On the 1200+ acre farm about 40 minutes from PCB, Grover took an old school bus, gutted it, then outfitted it in camouflage. They hosted various school kids and other groups for a ride on the farm. Sadly Grover passed away in 2019, but Judy, a petite and lovely lady still runs the farm along with the help of her sons. 

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How would you like to tour the farm in this cool bus?

I loved seeing the antelopes running around as we toured the property. They even have a separate cabin built for overnight guests. However, my favorite spot was the fishing pond – so tranquil I could have spent all afternoon there. 

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The best part of the farm (besides the beautiful house) is the fishing pond.

 

 

My favorite features of the Toyota Highlander

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  • I loved the wireless charger. No cord necessary. The phone just lays flat by my side as I am driving. 
  • Huge sunroof let in all the cool air at night. I wish we had more evening drives to take advantage of this! 
  • Rearview mirror converts to a rearview camera with an easy flip (see above)! Why don’t more cars do this? 
  • Huge display console for navigation and music. I love that the console doesn’t take away from storage space or viewing space! 
  • Plenty of outlets for charging or anything else you’d need a plug for. 
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No lack of plugs / charging ports in the Toyota Highlander

Day 4 in Panama City – Eden Gardens State Park and more beach time

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If you have not been to Panama City Beach before, you may not know how hot it is in the summer. For us, a summer beach day means a walk early morning before it is scorching and then maybe jump in the water for a while but no lounging on the beach until like 4:30 or 5 pm. So what’s a couple to do? Head to a gorgeous state park. My FIL took us to this lovely park not. far from his home. 

I’m envious Florida has so many parks that are kept up so well and completely free to visit.  We had originally thought we’d stop off at the Florida Caverns which you pass on the way to Panama City Beach but sadly they are closed due to Covid. 

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Can you believe it is free to go to these gardens in Panama City?

The garden was established in 1963 and a mansion was built in antebellum style. Walk around and take in the gardens, stroll down to the pond and have a picnic, or just rock the afternoon away on the porch. 

We were back in Panama City Beach for an hour of ocean fun before we had to get ready for dinner. About that: you know how something gets hyped up so much you just put it on a pedestal in your mind. That’s kind of how I felt about Firefly restaurant. It’s the number one rated restaurant in Panama City Beach, and while our meal was good, it wasn’t over the top. I will say our appetizers were the best part: brussels sprouts, crab and tuna stack. 

Protip: they advertise a beautiful room with twinkly lights wrapped around a tree, but it is unlikely you will get seated there. The other rooms are quite boring and uninventive. Oh well, they all can’t be a home run like Copper Tap Grille. 

 

Day 5 – Our last full day at the beach with the Toyota Highlander 

This was the laziest day of all. We slept in, went to the grocery to pick up some steaks to grill for dinner and went on the hunt for some brunch. Who knew that could be such a difficult thing to find. Being a holiday weekend, we did get stuck in traffic one the way to my top pick for brunch. Thank goodness we had a comfy ride (thanks Highlander). We definitely put those cooling seats to use!  Pulling up we turned right around after seeing the line out the door. Next idea? Drive through. No biggie, right? Scratch that since the line was wrapped around the building. 

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Thanks Toyota for getting us to and from our destination and ensuring a smooth ride both on and off roading!

We finally stumbled on a place called Taylor’s and ONLY had to wait 20 minutes at 11 am. Portions were huge and we had leftovers for breakfast the next morning before heading out. Returning home we lounged and napped and moseyed down to the beach and on our last full day, finally caught the sunset. Sadly we only captured this one in our minds, having left our phones in the house. But it was the perfect end to our trip.

As if our clothes didn’t fit snug enough, we couldn’t resist stopping at Smokey Bones in Columbus, GA on our way home for a burger. Worth it.

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Stop at Smokey Bones on the way to or from Panama City Beach

We loved getting to drive the Toyota Highlander down to the beach. We are a Toyota family for sure (love the 2017 Highlander my FIL owns) but this new Hybrid is pretty awesome too! Where would you take the Toyota Highlander SUV on a road trip?

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About the author

Malika Bowling

Malika is the author of several books including Culinary Atlanta: Guide to the Best Restaurants, Markets, Breweries and More! and the founder of Roamilicious. She is also a Digital Marketing and Social Media Consultant. Follow us @Roamilicious on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest for the content not shared on the blog. And don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter (subscribe box below) and never miss a contest, giveaway or the latest must visit restaurant!