LAGUNA BEACH — You probably have passed by the Laguna Beach Christian Retreats on Front Beach Road, but did you know anyone can stop and stay?
The retreat welcomes not only church and youth groups, but also large families, friends and couples to its properties, all within minutes of other beach attractions.
Director of Operations John Haas and his brother, General Manager David Haas, own and run Laguna Beach Christian Retreats, which was founded by their parents, Pat and Ted Garbutt, in 1986.
“They moved here to retire, found a house in Bay Point and bought it, but they were not content,” John Haas explained. “They miraculously found this place; it was not even for sale. … They’ve always had a heart for ministry. They could have bought a secular type of business or could have easily done nothing, but gave it all up, went for almost 10 years without a salary.”
The Garbutts, who had moved to the beach from Michigan, purchased the Laguna Beach Motel and sold their Bay Point house.
“I used to live here when we first bought the place,” said Haas, recalling the year his family spent living in the management area. “I started working at 14 when I was going to Bay High. Yard work was the first thing I did.”
Laguna Beach Christian Retreats has continued to grow, acquiring the gulf-side property, formerly the Periwinkle, and the cottages. The eight acres of private grounds now includes the Main Camp, Gulfside and Cottages with a total of 90 family-style rooms — 22 beachfront, as well as dorm housing and motel-style efficiencies. Choose from cottages, four bedroom houses and condos.
“You can see the ocean from the deck,” said Kathy Pate, 63, reservations manager and group coordinator. “In the off-season, our families stay here.”
The cottages have several bedrooms and bathrooms. Full-size beds are available as well as rooms filled with multiple bunkbeds. A kitchen, dining and living area allow families and groups to bring in food, even prepare large sit-down meals to gather around the dining room table. The kitchen has a few supplies and appliances, but you need to bring your own pillows and sheets, or a sleeping bag, and your own towels.
Sit back, relax on the couches amidst coastal décor. You might not even find a need to turn on the TV, though all rooms have cable, as well as air-conditioning and heat.
“I have been here almost 13 years. I love it,” Pate said. “Looking at that ocean every day is not bad.”
The campus also includes 13 swimming pools, four heated pools, basketball and volleyball courts on the grounds and beach, 12 fully-equipped commercial kitchens, 20 meeting rooms and a 700-seat chapel.
“We do day retreats for church groups, local groups and birthday parties,” Pate said. “There’s a community kitchen they can use with access to the pools, basketball courts and volleyball courts — a nominal fee for the entire day.”
Four cafeterias can serve groups with catered meals. “In the summer, we feed up to 1,500 people three meals a day,” Haas said.
During January and February, the retreat books up with snowbirds.
The cottages are just across the street from Beach Access 91, steps away from the Gulf in a quiet, uncrowded area of the beach, a tranquil setting to reflect and enjoy the view, or for baptisms in the ocean.
“It’s really cool when they have it in the ocean,” Haas said. In July, Northstar Church of Panama City had a day camp at the retreat with 130 people and “35 kids were baptized in the water.”
But you don’t have to be a Christian to stay at the retreat. The only prerequisites: If you are not married, you have to be at least 25 years old to check in. A few rules are set up as well, such as no alcohol on the premises, no smoking in the rooms and no pets.
“We don’t get into their business,” Pate said.
During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the retreat took in those who needed a place to stay.
“The community started opening up its doors, at the height, we had 500 people staying here, feeding them three meals a day all paid for through community support,” Haas said.
The retreat also gives back by hosting getaways for Big Oak Ranch of Alabama, Anchorage Children’s Home, and free weekends for the Panama City Rescue Mission women’s and men’s groups.
LAGUNA BEACH CHRISTIAN RETREATS
Where: 20016 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach
Office hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to noon Sunday
Details and rates: (850) 234-2502, ChristianCamp.com, email@example.com or Facebook: Laguna Beach Christian Retreat