Calle Aquilino de la Guardia
Tel: 507 265 7844
The discreet and luxurious Bristol, located in the heart of the financial district, is arguably the best hotel in the city—in part because of its extremely attentive service. The impeccably turned out guest rooms (there are 44) and 12 suites don't hurt, either; all are spacious, decorated in rich colors with mahogany furniture and Panamanian art prints, and have bathrooms tiled in Italian marble. The communal areas include a small fitness room, an elegant restaurant serving regional dishes, and a bar with vintage cognacs and more than 50 kinds of rum.
Semaphore Hill Road
Soberania National Park
Tel: 507 264 5720
Tel: 800 854 2597
Bird-watchers, or those who want to get their eco-fix without venturing too far into the jungle, will feel right at home at this small inn, set at treetop level on a mountain in the middle of Parque Nacional Soberanía (a 30-minute drive from Panama City). Occupying a five-story former radio tower, it has 12 breezy guest rooms with basic furnishings, ceiling fans, netting-draped beds, and big windows that look out at the surrounding rainforest. The top floor has panoramic views and is used as the main dining room; the roof deck above is the perfect place to perch with binoculars and spy Blue Cotingas, Green Shrike-Vireos, and Great Tinamous. The property offers tours with bilingual bird guides, maps of the best birding spots in the area, and an extensive library of bird books.
Tel: 507 317 6754
A comfortable yet thoroughly eco-sensitive resort on an undeveloped part of the Caribbean coast just north of Kuna Yala (a.k.a. San Blas), this property consists of six thatched-roof bungalows perched above the sea. From one's outdoor deck is an uninterrupted view to where the surf rolls in, or a view straight down into clear water and coral that shelters many small fish and crabs. The air-conditioned bungalows are spacious though spare: tile floors, a couple of armchairs, a whirlpool tub, with each deck accommodating a chaise lounge, as well as a ladder leading into the water. The small crescent beach with miles of red mangroves at either end encourages swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. There are also local expeditions to ride horses, explore rivers, or dive. A central dining pavilion and pool sit several hundred feet up on the beach; the innovative food is locally sourced (a set menu includes steak with cilantro and onion sauce), and the wines Chilean. The mostly local staff are efficient and friendly.
Corregimiento de Cristobal
Soberania National Park
Tel: 507 314 9000
Tel: 877 800 1690
Set right on the Panama Canal, this expansive 107-room resort has amenities galore—which will appeal to those wanting their creature comforts along with their adventure. As well as tennis courts, a massive pool with a swim-up bar, and a full-service spa offering citrus baths and hot stone massages, there are seven restaurants, a subterranean disco built inside a man-made cave, and golfing at the nearby championship Summit course. The resort even has its own aerial tram, which zips guests up to a mountaintop lookout for spectacular views of the surrounding Gamboa rainforest. For those inclined to venture off the property, the hotel staff organizes fishing trips, kayaking, and wildlife-viewing tours around nearby Gatun Lake. An expansion of the property—including the creation of 58 new rooms and suites—will be completed by early 2008.
Isla San José
Tel: 507 269 6634
You could say this hotel is off the beaten path—if there was a path. Set on a private, 22-square-mile island in the middle of the Gulf of Panama, it can only be reached by boat or plane. Needless to say, it's the top choice for those who like their peace and quiet. There's not much to do here besides hike in the nearly 5,000 acres of virgin rain forest, snorkel the offshore reefs, or head to the pool or one of the dozens of secluded beaches that ring the island. The 14 cabanas are basic, but the timbers of caña blanca wood and the red-clay tile floors give them a simple elegance. All have private terraces with views of the Pacific and a trio of rock formations called the Three Monks. The open-air dining room is lovely, with an angled thatched roof that maximizes the water view.
Calle 50 (at Calle Beatriz M. de Cabal)
Tel: 507 206 3100
It looks like something you'd find on a quiet street in Paris, but this mansard-roofed boutique hotel sits right in Panama City's financial district. And that's not a bad place to be, considering many of the city's best restaurants are within a few blocks. (You might not get farther than the ground-floor Ten Bistro, where the white-on-white dining room is a perfect backdrop for chef Fabien Migny's French-influenced dishes.) The 33 rooms and suites all have plenty of room for spreading out; the standard units have spacious sitting areas with tartan-print couches and executive-size desks, and broadband Internet access. There are luxurious touches everywhere, from hand-carved chairs to silky-soft linens to marble bathrooms—but the three top-floor luxury suites up the ante, with staircases leading to bedrooms tucked under the eaves. Ground-floor rooms have no view and little light, so ask for an upper-floor suite when you book.
Road to Veracruz
Tel: 507 211 8600
Barely outside Panama City—just a 30-minute drive from downtown—is one of the country's loveliest resorts. The sprawling white InterCon resembles a sandcastle (if a sandcastle could hold 300 rooms) and sits completely alone on a mile-long stretch of golden-sand beach. The property has plenty of charms, including a 10,000-square-foot spa offering seaweed wraps and facials. The rooms themselves are pretty compelling: All are spacious and minimalist-luxe, with rattan-and-wood furnishings and cream-colored fabrics, hand-carved headboards, and cool tile floors. Many guests take advantage of the 24-hour room service to dine on their private balconies; birdsong from the adjacent rain forest makes for a romantic soundtrack. Just make sure you lather up with repellent before you go for a nighttime beach stroll; the sand fleas can ruin the mood.
Tel: 507 720 2685
Set on a working coffee plantation in the mountainous central region of Boquete, this seven-room hotel was originally built—but never used—as a horse stable. Renovated in 2005, the rustically charming guest rooms all have terra-cotta tile floors, wrought-iron chandeliers, and hand-hewn wooden beds. Though the five ground-floor units have private patios, the two top-floor suites are even better, with terrific views of nearby Volcán Barú. (The suite called Sol has a sunnier sitting room than Luna.) The property has Wi-Fi—a rarity in this part of the world—and beautiful common areas, including a breakfast room that opens onto a blossom- and bird-filled garden, and an elevated concrete walkway through rows of coffee plants. Activities in the area (which the hotel can arrange) include whitewater rafting and hikes through the cloud forest in search of tropical birds like metallic-green quetzals.
Volcan Baru National Park
Tel: 507 771 2182
Tel: 507 771 2291
The highest-altitude lodgings in Panama—7,200 feet above sea level, to be exact—are this property's five private duplex chalets. These are set on a mountainside in a spectacular 700-acre rain forest preserve—part of the larger Volcán Barú National Park, near the Costa Rican border. Each chalet sleeps between four and ten people, and has log-cabin-style walls, rustic furnishings, a full kitchen, and many windows and skylights for enjoying the greenery outside. If you'd rather be near, rather than in, the mountains, the hotel also has a complex with rooms, suites, and dorms on a riverbank in Guadalupe; the trek from the complex to the private chalets takes 30 minutes on foot, 15 minutes on horseback, or 20 minutes in a four-wheel-drive vehicle provided by the hotel. The whole point of coming here is getting into nature, and the hotel obliges with an array of guided hiking, horseback and whitewater rafting tours.
Bocas del Toro
Tel: 507 6612 1088
On the main island in the spectacular Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Punta Caracol's nine bungalows sit on stilts above the turquoise water (as do many locals' houses in this part of the country). The thatch-roofed structures aren't exactly luxurious, but their spacious simplicity is just what the location calls for. Each has an upstairs bedroom with a bed encased in gauzy netting (mostly for show—insects aren't a problem); below is a bathroom with a roomy shower and a sitting area with doors that fling open to your private terrace. From there, it's only two giant steps before you're in the water (we checked—many times). Ask the staff to borrow a mask and snorkel; the undersea world here includes astounding sights such as starfish the size of dinner plates. The hotel runs tours of local villages and excursions to Bastimentos Island National Marine Park, but you might just prefer to relax in your hammock or on a chaise longue and watch the sun set. The open-air restaurant specializes in seafood, including the conch that gives the place its name.