PANAMA CITY, December 4, 2012 — In recent years, Panama has become the “it” travel spot for North Americans.
Thanks in large part to the Panamanian-based Copa Airlines, it’s now easier than ever for North Americans to fly into Panama City. New direct flights from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., for instance, whittle travel time to five hours.
To experience Panama’s riches, from its cultural heritage to its ecological diversity to its sandy beaches, time-strapped travelers needn’t stray far from Panama City itself.
Within twenty minutes, you can weave from Tocumen International Airport to the Westin Playa Bonita. Close to the city, fringed by rainforest, fronted by the Pacific, offering full resort services, it’s hard to find a better all-around property for vacation.
The property opened last January on a strip of land that was previously used by the U.S. military before it ceded the Panama Canal’s control to the local government.
Floor-to-ceiling windows and roomy balconies provide sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean punctuated by the shapely islands that seem to have sprung from a painter’s imagination. Just beyond, freighters from Asia idle, awaiting the call to pass through the Panama Canal.
Rare among Panama City hotel properties, this resort has a small, sandy beach front, where you can lounge, swim or kayak. Five pools — some with cozy hot tubs — ensure that no matter how busy the resort may be you won’t be crowded out. The swim up pool bar is popular with adults, the pool next to the kids’ club draws families and, fittingly, the pool outside the spa, which features a fountain tumbling from a pergola at its center, is the most serene and private.
The new Clarins Sensory Spa at the hotel a study in design, awash in marble, glass and gently flowing water. Walk along the foot massage stream where rocks stimulate the souls of your feet; bake in the hyper-clean herbal sauna; sweat it out in the amethyst steam room; alternate between the hot and cool plunge pools. Booking even the briefest treatment (a 25 minute massage) will give you daylong access to this oasis.
Natural fibers and muted palates are a nod to the Westin’s focus on eco-sensitive design and practices. From rattan chair frames, sea grass floor mats, woven wooden panels and stone overlays, the effect is smart and serene.
Like all Westins, here each room has what the hotel calls a “heavenly bed,” or “celestial” as they say in Panama. And celestial it is. The mattress hits that magical sweet spot: not too firm, not too soft, but just right.
There are five restaurants, including Asiana, which turns out sushi made with fish caught near the resort, and Tierra Y Fuego, a high-end steakhouse that offers serious South American wines.
Plan for a big breakfast at Pacifica, a copious buffet that covers all the basics from yogurt to cold meats, eggs to bacon. And don’t miss the black beans and deep-fried corn fritters, Panamanian breakfast staples.
Oceanica is a glammed up outdoor space that presides over beach and pool. The lunch buffet turns out memorable Panamanian specialties like shredded chicken Pilba and snapper Veracruz.
For a simple lunch, order a glass of Balboa, a refreshing local lager, and a steaming bowl of sancocho, a traditional Panamanian chicken and yam stew on the patio at Starfish.
All of the restaurants use herbs and vegetables that are grown in the bank of greenhouses at the front of the property.
As comfortable as the resort is, resist the urge to stay put. There are group tours you can join, but I highly recommend booking a private a tour, led by Gamboa Tours, which can be arranged right in the lobby.
My guide, Octavio, an English-speaking Panamanian whose roots go back to Barbados, was fun, knowledgeable and savvy, peppering historical facts with insider insights. (Who knew you could buy scorching homemade hot sauce from a vendor crouched on a straw mat behind the city’s fish market?)
A few of the more mainstream excursions worth taking:
Currently the country is in the process of adding a new lane to the Panama Canal that will accommodate larger ships. You can view some of that construction, as well as learn about the building of the original canal and observe it in action today at the new museum.
The highlight of any visit to the Panama Canal is standing on a deck that overlooks the complicated lock system. Here you will witness massive freighters navigating the complex engineering feat that has been connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for more than 100 years.
Viejo and Antiguo
Panama City is now home to two UNESCO sites, the Casco Viejo and Casco Antiguo.
The first, now eerie ruins near the mouth of the Canal, was the original Spanish settlement that was driven out by the pirate Captain Henry Morgan.
The second, which dates dating to the 1700s, is in the throes of gentrification. This neighborhood reveals its Spanish and French influence with its pastel facades and wrought iron balconies. Today it’s a mecca for hipsters thanks to its edgy bars, funky design stores and trendy restaurants.
From the Westin Playa Bonita, you can be in the heart of the rainforest within a half hour. At Gamboa Rainforest, naturalist guides lead you through trails and on a canopy tram where toucan, howler monkeys, poison dart frogs and jaguars share a home.
The Embera are an indigenous people who live in stilted homes along the coasts backing to the rain forest. Tours are very low-key and villagers welcome travelers to visit their homes, take treks, and eat meals, like smoked fish, alongside them.
Ensconced back at the hotel after your excursions, the broad view over the ocean takes on even more meaning. Gaze out just past the shoreline where ships from the Orient ply the sea on their way to the Caribbean and onward to points around the globe. You are at the crossroads of the world, and tonight there is no better place to be.
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