Van Halen called it back in 1984 (ok, maybe it was a song about a car). Nevertheless, Panama is a hot spot for 2012. Tons of cool new restaurants and hotels have opened, and the destination has been relatively untapped considering Costa Rica and Honduras have ruled Central America tourism for decades. Hand over the crown! Ends of the Earth journeys are huge this year. I went to Panama last week to find out what the hype was all about.
While Bocas Del Toro reigns as the top beach resort town, I felt like going off the grid—and off the mainland. Panama has a number of stunning islands, many of which have rarely been visited by foreigners. I booked a casita at Islas Secas, a private island on the Atlantic coast. Getting here from NYC was no joke. It took three flights, an overnight stay in small town David, an hour drive in the morning then a 45-minute boat ride. It sounds like a sh*tshow but, rest assured, the private-island resort was worth the commute.
Isla Secas was a fisherman’s secret for years but that’s changing, and fast. Not only because I’m divulging this secret now but because honeymooners have also taken note: it’s unbelievably special and romantic. Swaying palms. Deserted beaches. Coral gardens. Sunset deck with champagne and private butler. Even a honeymoon suite on its very own islet. There are only seven luxury casitas, whether perched on a cliff or along the sea, which means there are no more than 14 guests at a time. Unless you’re in-room dining, you’ll theoretically never see anyone for days. Each casita is equipped with its own private cabana with hammock and, thankfully, no TVs or telephones. Activities included everything from snorkeling to scuba diving, stand-up paddleboarding or just getting pampered with spa treatments in your casita. The meals were top-notch, thanks to it’s awesome chef Alex and, should you go out fishing (Panama is allegedly one of the best places for this recreation), you can have your catch cooked for dinner. Talk about fresh.
Panama City is also worth some exploration, especially the revitalized Casa Viejo District (the old city). Once it wasnamed a UNESCO site in 2003, locals saw opportunity and started opening restaurants, bars and even hotels, like the new Hotel Tantalo, the city’s first modern boutique, only open less than a month. The 12-room Tantalo truly impressed me with its vertical garden in lobby with tiled flooring and rooftop bar (the only one in Panama City). The rooms—all individually designed by a local artist—are comfortably chic without being completely over-the-top with design, as many new boutiques are these days. My room had three outdoor patios, one that offered a birds-eye view to some local, centuries-old apartments. The contrast of old and modern is unbelievable. With the cosmopolitan flare slowly emerging through, the neighborhood has character. In fact, the whole country has character. From David to Isla Secas to Panama City, enthusiasm for the growth of the country was infectious. Even Frank Gehry’s designed BioMuseo is slated to open this winter, and the buzzing beaches of Pedasi (recent celeb sightings include Angelina Jolie and Michael Jordan) rival some of the best in the Caribbean. Though I didn’t have time to visit, it’s a good reason to go back!