basic ingredients Panama City: The main gateway to the rest of the country is Panama City, a waterside capital full of good hotels and restaurants, nightclubs and nonstop casino action. Left over from earlier days is the colonial center called Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many parts of this 17th century district have been restored, and it’s a treat to walk along the narrow streets, beneath wrought iron balconies, stopping to visit the Santo Domingo Church and National Theater, and dropping into the boutiques and restaurants that face pretty plazas or are tucked into dungeons beneath the San Felipe ancient ramparts.
Although historic Panama City keeps a low profile, the modern capital is bursting out all over, with a rather nice profile of glass skyscrapers that catch the setting sun along Panama Bay. The views of the capital are particularly stupendous from the Amador Causeway, a 2-mile-long breakwater where people walk, jog and bike by day, and come for the restaurants and live music by night.
Panama Canal Zone: Just outside the capital, no excursion is more rightly famous than the Panama Canal that links the 50 miles between the Pacific Ocean on the Panama City side and the Caribbean at the port of Colon. A must-do visit will include the Miraflores Visitor Center, whose four exhibition halls are full of state-of-the-art exhibits from canal lore to operations. But, of course, the best way to appreciate the size and scope of this man-made engineering wonder, as well as to enjoy a top-deck view of the natural wonderland that the whole watershed embraces, is to cruise through the canal itself.
Chiriqui Province: David is the gateway to Chiriqui, whose leading vacation center is Boquete, surrounded by coffee and flower plantations. From this perch at 5,000 ft., visitors fan out to hike the mountain trails, fish for trout or canter about on horseback. This corner of Chiriqui is a particular favorite of whitewater rafters who take to the fast-running rivers whose waters are at their best from May to mid-December. And Boquete is the place to be to visit the Volcan Baru National Park, with panoramic views and the nation’s highest concentration of the elusive resplendent quetzal.
Bocas del Toro: This north coast archipelago is Panama’s most popular island getaway, for birdwatching, snorkeling and diving among the reefs, and exploring the mangroves on the leeward side of the islands. Everyone’s favorite excursion is to Bastimentos Island National Park, made up of 68 tropical islands and considered the most biologically diverse Caribbean marine park in the Americas.
San Blas Islands: No one should miss this second of Panama’s north coast island groups, with more than 350 islands and islets ringed in white sand, coral gardens and mangrove swamps. Accessible by air from Panama City, San Blas is home to the colorful Kuna people who administer this province. Their fascinating culture is reason enough to visit the islands. Kayaking is a good way to visit the communities, and other pastimes include swimming in crystal-clear waters and sunning on the lovely beaches.
adding some spice Zipping through the treetops on a canopy tour is now part of the adventure scene in Panama. In the Chiriqui province, there is Boquete Tree Trek (canopypanama.com), and in Valle de Anton, Canopy Adventure (canopylodge.com) operated by the Canopy Lodge, sister lodge to the Canopy Tower in the Canal Zone.
Come for the country’s best Carnival, held in Tablas on the Azuero Peninsula (southwest of Panama City). Carnival time for 2010: Feb. 13-16.
new products on the shelf Bristol Buenaventura—yes by the same owners as The Bristol luxury boutique hotel in Panama City—is a new Pacific coast beach community located just 80 minutes from the city. Opened just this year, the luxury Leading Hotels of the World resort has 126 guestrooms, including five suites and eight lagoon villas, three restaurants, a fitness center, three pools, and tennis court. Coming soon are a Nicklaus-designed championship golf course and a luxurious spa. Double room rates start at $451. Call (800) 745-8883 or visit thebristol.com/buenaventura.com.
SuperClubs Resorts is expanding its Breezes brand to Panama with the opening this fall of Breezes Panama Resort and Spa, the hotel group’s first property in Latin America. Located along the southern Pacific coast, the hotel will feature 300 rooms, a Blue Mahoe Spa and a casino. Nightly room rates pp dbl will start at $125 for a mountain-view room, $139 for ocean view, and $175 for a suite. Call (877) 273-3937 or visit breezes.com.