Destination
Edition

Destination of the Week: Panama City, Panama

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Panama City at dusk.

We’ve hit beach getaways and cities escapes already, but for this Destination of the Week, we settled on a place that combines the best of both: Panama City.

It might seem an odd choice, but Panama City is becoming a bigger and bigger destination by the day thanks to a beautiful, warm climate, a friendly relationship with the US, secure financial markets, a place of importance in the global economy because of the Canal, a huge American expatriate community, and plenty of cosmopolitan city charms plus beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Also, the US dollar is the currency, making things super easy for visitors from the States

We’ll just stick around Panama City and its environs, but if any of you have ventured farther afield in the country, please leave comments with your suggestions below.

WHAT’S THERE?
Well, there’s the Panama Canal, of course, just a few miles from the city center. It’s known as the eighth wonder of the modern world, and is still considered one of man’s most ingenious engineering feats, liking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Tourists can visit the Miraflores locks to watch huge ships pass through and learn about the canal’s history and construction in the visitor center. The Museo del Canal Interoceanico also chronicles the history of the project and conducts free guided tours in English.

Tourists can visit locks along the Panama Canal.

Visitors also flock to the city’s historic center, the Casco Viejo, where travelers can take guided tours of sights dating back four hundred years. The Parque Natural Metropolitano is a city park that’s also a rainforest—with monkeys and over 200 species of birds, as well as hiking trails and a natural history museum—while San Jose Cathedral is one of the city’s oldest landmarks.

There’s also plenty of shopping at megamalls like the Multicentro complex, which has over 260 stores, the new MetroMall development and the Metroplaza.

The gorgeous, isolated stretches of Pacific beaches along the coast in Playa Bonita are just a 20-minute drive away from the city, and home to some of the country’s loveliest resorts, but even if you stay in the city, you’ll get plenty of sunshine, and most hotels have big pool areas for soaking up the rays.

The Plaza Francia in Panama City's Casco Viejo.

YOUR EXPERIENCES
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.

Copa is Panama's official airline.

GETTING THERE
In terms of flight times, Panama City is about 3 hours from Miami, 4 hours from Houston and Dallas, 5.5 hours from New York, and about 6.5 hours from Los Angeles. There are non-stop flights from Panama to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Ft. Lauderdale, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando, Washington DC, and Toronto.

American flies non-stop from Dallas and Miami. Delta flies non-stop to Atlanta. United flies non-stop from Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Newark.

Copa, a Star Alliance carrier, is Panama’s international carrier, and flies non-stop to Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, Orlando, Toronto and Washington DC. Because it was affiliated with Continental, its miles program is actually MileagePlus, making it easy to earn and redeem for the United flyers out there.

Tocumen International Airport is just about a 15-minute ride via a super highway from the city. The fare for an official private taxi is about $25, and shared vans run around $15. There is no bus service.

HOTELS
There are plenty of points-earning and redeemable hotels in Panama City from the major chains, and more in the works, so it’s only going to become a more attractive, accessible destination.

The Radisson's martini bar.

Club Carlson
Radisson Decapolis Hotel Panama City: Pretty much smack dab in the middle of the city near the Multicentro shopping center and Majestic Casino, this Radisson is in a huge glass tower and has all-modern rooms and public spaces decorated with local Panamanian art. The 240 guest rooms and suites are in a neutral black-white-taupe color scheme and have ocean and city views as well as small sitting areas and full granite bathrooms. The hotel also houses the Radisson Aqua Spa and Gym, a beauty salon and an outdoor pool deck. The hotel’s three restaurants include Luxor for group events, a Sushi Bar in the lobby, and Fusion, a gourmet restaurant next to the pool, while The Martini Bar anchors the lobby. Rates in April start at $149, or 44,000 points or 10,000 points + $84.90 Points + Cash since this is a Category 5 property.

There are also two Country Inn & Suites properties here, one in the city and one by the Canal.

Hilton
The Hilton Panama is set to open in November 2012 at the corner of Balboa Avenida and Aquilino de la Guardia about 20 minutes from the airport in the city center. Guest rooms will start at nearly 500 square feet with views of Panama Bay, the Pacific and Balboa Avenue, as well as standard Hilton Serenity Beds,  42-inch flatscreen TV’s, high-speed WiFi, and laptop safes, as well as walk-in rain showers with separate handheld showerheads, separate bathtub, granite sink areas and a small make-up vanity with enhanced lighting. 52 deluxe rooms will also have expansive outdoor terraces. There will be a fitness room and pool, a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, a sports bar and lounge, and the Society Café for casual meals and coffee.

Hyatt had plans to build two new hotels in Panama including Latin America’s first Hyatt Place as of two years ago, but it doesn’t look like much progress has been made, and neither has opened yet. Stay tuned for updates.

Marriott
Panama Marriott: This 20-story tower is has 366 rooms and 23 suites as well as tons of meeting space for business trips. Guest rooms are looking a little dated (especially the carpet), but have nice touches like wooden headboards, big work desks with ergonomic chairs, high-speed WiFi (for a fee), 2-line speakerphones, plus small sitting areas with a sofa and chair and 37-inch flatscreen LCD TV’s. They’re also spacious, starting at over 400 square feet. Executive Level rooms have access to the Executive Lounge for complimentary continental breakfast, midday snacks, hors d’oeuvres and dessert plus complimentary non-alcoholic beverages, and upgraded in-room amenities like Jacuzzi spas. There is also a small health club with a spa for basic treatments. The hotel has the Sabores coffee house, Champions SportsBar, and the Marriott Café for Mediterranean food. Rates here start at $169 in April, or 25,000 points (20,000 PointSavers) since this is a Category 5 hotel.

There’s also a Marriott Executive Apartments in Finisterre designed for longer-term business travelers, a Courtyard at the new MetroMall complex, and the Courtyard Panama Real Hotel in the Multiplaza shopping mall near the Torre las Americas.

Priority Club
Crowne Plaza Panama: This hotel is in the central financial district, but not too far from the Casco Viejo either. Rooms look a little plain, but serviceable, with pillowtop mattresses and thick duvets on the beds, 32-inch cable TV’s, and a little sleep kit amenity with soothing lavender spray. Standards also have armchairs with ottomans, a work desk and high-speed internet access for a fee. Executive Club rooms have access to the club lounge for continental breakfast cocktail hour, dinner snacks and complimentary beverages. The hotel has a Memories Sports Bar and La Galeria Restaurant for all-day fine dining. There’s also a pool and small fitness center. Rates in April start at $152 or 25,000-35,000 Priority Club points.

A guest room at the Intercontinental Miramar.

Intercontinental Miramar: This soaring 25-story glass tower is in the center of the financial district and near the Atlapa convention center and the old city as well, with views of the nearby Panama Canal. There are 186 rooms and 14 suites, which look spacious, though somewhat plain with a muted taupe color palette. The views look great. Club Level rooms come with access to Club InterCon for complimentary continental breakfast, snacks, light dinner canapés and drinks. There is also a health center and spa, as well as a small pool area for sunbathing, tennis courts, and a beauty salon, plus yachts in the nearby marina for hire for fishing and watersports.

The hotel’s Bay View Restaurant near the pool offers all-day buffets and a la carte dining at night, as well as a cocktail lounge. Rates in April start at $163 a night or 30,000 Priority Club points.

The Intercontinental Playa Bonita's infinity pool.

Intercontinental Playa Bonita: Located in the up-and-coming resort area of Playa Bonita, about 20 minutes south of Panama City, this is a secluded, sprawling resort with amenities like a 10,000-square-foot Sensory Spa Clarins and a beauty salon, five free-form pools, a private beach with water sports and activities, an oceanview health and fitness center, and children’s activities at the Kids Club. The resort’s Lighthouse restaurant serves gourmet continental meat and seafood for dinner, while the Pool Bar and Lobby Bar are good for more casual cocktails and meals. Rooms look bright and cheery with ocean and mountain views, tile floors, small sitting areas, double or king beds, work desks, and standard bathrooms with shower-tub combos except in the suites where there are separate soaking tubs. Rates in April start at $255 or 30,000 Priority Club points.

There’s also a Holiday Inn near the Panama Canal.

A guest room at Le Meridien.

Starwood
Le Meridien Panama City: Right on the edge of the Bay of Panama between the old and new city, this hotel is a good business choice since it’s close to the financial district. The lobby space has a huge atrium and a multi-colored glass pyramid suspended from the ceiling. There are just 111 guest rooms and suites with a severe but chic red-white-black palette and standard amenities including marble bathrooms, 32-inch flat-panel TVs, pillowtop beds, and WiFi access for $15 per day. The hotel has an all-day lounge, and an upscale restaurant and bar called Latitudes as well as a terrace with a pool overlooking the city and a small four-room spa. Rates in April start at $179. This is an SPG Category 5 property requiring between 12,000-16,000 for a free-night redemption, 4,800 points + $90 for Cash & Points.

The Sheraton is adjacent to the Convention Center.

Sheraton Panama Hotel & Convention Center: This sprawling hotel is about 15 minutes from the airport, right next to the Atlapa Convention Center. The 361 guest rooms including 18 suites with 32- or 46-inch plasma TVs, Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Beds, Bliss bath amenities in the bathroom, and WiFi for $13 a day. Club rooms get free bottled water and fitness center access, as well as access to the Club Lounge for complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres and beverages. The hotel home to Crostini Italian restaurant, Cafe Bahia for all-day dining, Las Hadas for baked goods and desserts, and a Lounge Bar with a small bar menu, as well as S Rumba Bar for cocktails. It also has a small pool area, an Ygia Spa, a fitness center with a full range of equipment and classes, and the signature Link@Sheraton casual business center. Rates in April start at $140, or 7,000 Starpoints or 2,800 points + $45 since this is a Category 3 property.

The Westin Playa Bonita's beachfront.

Westin Playa Bonita: This resort property lies on the coast just about 20 minutes from Panama City, and only just opened back in December. Its rooms and suites look beach-chic with dark wood accents, tile floors, white linens, and a few pieces of wicker thrown in. They have 42-inch LCD TV’s, iPod docks, Westin Heavenly Beds, private terraces and Heavenly showers and separate soaking tubs in the bathrooms. The resort has eight restaurants including Asiana for Asian and Tierra Y Fuego for international cuisines on the high end, Oasis Bar for cocktails and snacks, and Oceanica for casual light fare. The resort also has free-form lagoon-style pools with lounge chairs fronting the beach and a Westin Kids Club to keep the little ones occupied. Rates in April start at $245. This is an SPG Category 5 property requiring between 12,000-16,000 for a free-night redemption, 4,800 points + $90 for Cash & Points.

There are a couple other Starwood properties in town, including the Four Points by Sheraton, an Aloft that will open in January 2013, and the all-inclusive Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort about 50 miles south of Panama City along the coast.

Trump Ocean Club's dramatic 70-story tower.

Others
Those looking for a bit of luxury can opt for the swanky Trump Ocean Club, which opened about a year ago and is housed in a dramatic 70-story tower on the city’s Pacifica Peninsula with 369 rooms and suites, a stunning pool deck, four upscale restaurants and a Spa at Trump. On the other end of the spectrum is the French-style Hotel de Ville, with an ambiance of understated, historical elegance—but with modern amenities including broadband and WiFi and a gourmet Mediterranean restaurant—in a quiet central location.

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