For those that have done the jungle villas of Costa Rica and the private island retreats of the Caribbean, luxury resorts in Panama offer a fresh dose of character, exclusive amenities and unmatched wilderness adventure. Three new boutique properties are raising the bar for the tiny isthmus, inviting the discerning leisure traveler to delight in its uncharted natural beauty as Panama boldly carves out its niche among the world's most celebrated luxury hotel destinations.
Far away from the traffic-jammed capital city thunderous with construction and from the ramshackle towns of the Caribbeancoast, these ultra-luxury escapes are immersed among Panama'slush forests and fronted by empty beaches, accessible only by boat, with no other civilization in sight. Otro Lado in Portobelo Bay, Isla Palenque in the Gulf of Chiriqui and Simca Island in Coiba National Park elevate Panama travel while earning this this much-anticipated new hot spot a visit from the discerning luxury traveler. These boutique properties – all under 20 rooms – offer sumptuous luxury, private access to Panama's pristine wilds and exude tropically-inspired modernity and the distinctive taste of their bold proprietors.
In the historic Portobelo Bay on the Caribbean coast is Otro Lado, a rainbow-hued Design Hotel featuring four bungalows adorned with custom masterpieces crafted by local artisans. Caribbeanfusion cuisine is served in the central gazebo that looks onto the oceanfront pool, and artisan demonstrations offer a dose of local culture without ever leaving the property. (Bungalows from $490/night; www.elotrolado.com.pa)
Travel Tip: The Sun House offers the most privacy; order the Passionfruit Mojito – you won't be able to stop at one.
Across the isthmus, Panama's Pacific Gulf of Chiriqui is dotted with dozens of volcanic islands, most completely uninhabited and many of them unknown even to local residents, earning it the nickname "Lost Coast." In the midst of this oceanic wilderness is Isla Palenque, a 400-acre private island home to a 6-room beachfront estate that proves no luxury need be sacrificed while preserving the pristine jungle ecosystems. Fulfilling the aim to leave all old-growth trees standing, the award-winning design of the rooms and suites provides sweeping ocean views, indoor-outdoor living spaces, and observance of monkeys and tropical birds from the spacious balconies. 12 beaches and 10 miles of hiking trails allow for utmost natural seclusion, while amenities including a 2-tier infinity waterfall pool, 7-course tasting menu featuring a gourmand take on local cuisine, and hikes, kayaking, island-hopping tours led by the island's team of local guides, ensure a catered adventure experience. (Rooms from $349/night; http://www.amble.com/IslaPalenque)
Travel Tip: Do the Sunset Hike to Playa Palenque – it ends with complimentary cocktails, gourmet snacks from the Chef, and front-row seats for sunset on a palm-lined beach stretching almost a mile long.
For the celebrity set, Simca Island tops the list for decadence in Panama. Iconic businessman and philanthropist Jean Pigozzi rents out his private island estate for a cool $20,000 a night – which buys not only use of the 290-acre private island and its full staff, but access to 18 miles of coastline that Pigozzi acquired to ensure that he owned everything seen from the estate. Two pools, a 3,000-title movie collection in the onsite cinema, and prized African art pieces placed throughout the estate offer sumptuous luxury and international flair, while a rooftop observatory allows 360-views of the surrounding Coiba National Park. The bright and funky estate is more a statement of eccentricity than sustainability; however Pigozzi established the Liquid Jungle Lab on the island, a state-of-the-art marine research facility that facilitates health of the surrounding ocean ecosystems. (Island rental from $20,000/night; http://rent.privateislandsonline.com/islands/isla-simca)
Panama's new boutique properties offer a welcome alternative for travelers looking to luxuriate in one of the world's greatest uncharted wildernesses. Like the colorful local culture caught in the middle of the country's great economic shift, these trend-setting properties are unmistakably charismatic, wildly colorful, and challenge their lucky visitors to explore – finally offering discerning vacation-seekers a window to a country as driven towards progress as it is to preserving its incredible wilds.