Well, there are certainly many options in your price range.
Look at the Omega Speedmaster 3570.50 - the original moonwatch. It is excellent and can be had for under $3k.
Panerais are distinct and have no real competition in terms of styling and heritage. Their size precludes them from working for everyone, so try before you buy.
I would not dismiss Rolex simply because others around you won't understand. Are you buying a watch for yourself or for others?