My cat, Herschel, would love the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City. If he were so lucky as to travel with me, he might choose the following from a room-service menu created for Cats and Dogs: an assortment of dry foods; Sashimi or a Tuna “sandwich.” Fido could chow down on “doggie stew” or “beef au jus” made with meatballs. Choices from the children’s menu are not bad either a marshmallow sandwich after a dish of macaroni and cheese, perhaps?
There’s certainly ample space for children and pets in their 369 guest rooms and luxury suites. The smallest starts at around 500 square feet and escalates from there. Each has floor-to-ceiling windows allowing lots of light, especially if you face Panama Bay on the exclusive oceanfront peninsula, Punta Pacifica. I particularly enjoy the cheekiness of having the half avocado shaped bathtub angled in the middle of the room, maybe a spot where your favorite pet can sleep.
A friend of mine who had visited Panama about five years ago asked me to check if the skyline was still littered with cranes. I report back that all those cranes are now skyscrapers that I can view from my balcony on the 33rd floor (grateful it isn’t the 70th) while gazing at the ocean as well. Heights are not my thing, but after four days at the Trump Hotel, I am getting somewhat used to the outdoor glassed-in elevator that takes me to and from my floor. Maybe the Trump effect is curing my vertigo!
The Trump Hotel brand’s “footprint” is large and growing. But no literal footprint is quite as enormous as that of the sculpture, painted black, of a man horizontally positioned on the ground level of both the hotel and its sister tower residences. Four meters long and made from resin, the largest feature are the feet, which, according to its creator, Israeli-born Idan Zareski, “evoke the roots of our past and our anchor to this fragile planet.” I find it an interesting choice for a Trump property that I soon set out to explore.
When it comes to dining, Tejas Restaurant and Bar is a great spot for fresh seafood: my delicate seabass is awash in lobster bisque and hand-made gnocchi. The mood is relaxed and sophisticated, with low lights and happily, no music. My waiter has a great sense of humor and a gracious manner. Like most of the staff, there is a welcome sense of familiarity without intrusiveness.
If I were a gambler, no doubt the Trump’s Ocean Sun Casino would welcome my money they’re plenty of one-armed bandits but few people pulling those levers. I bet that the night brings out a lot more winners and losers.
Alas, there is no spa, although I’m told that one is in the works. A large gym near the business center is well-equipped for those who shun the sun.
Instead, I take myself off to very sunny Casco Viejo, the old part of Panama City, which is an historic treasure. Narrow winding cobblestone streets, beautifully decaying buildings next to new, hip boutiques, a plethora of Panama hat stores, and an unusually large number of bistros and bars. The concierge of the Trump Hotel suggests I dine at Caliope, a 7-month-old restaurant that shows and tastes like a veteran. Superb.
Equally impressive, for very different reasons, is the BioMuseo, which sits on a narrow strip of land on the Amador Causeway in Panama City. Frank Gehry created this playfully colorful museum (his only architectural feat in Latin America) that houses a most inventive and entertaining series of exhibits with hands-on attractions tracing pre-historic fauna and flora of Panama.
And then, of course, there is the Panama Canal itself. France made an ill-fated attempt to carve the canal through the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s. That failed for a variety of reasons, including the death of a vast number of its workers by malaria, inadequate engineering and financial corruption. Then President Teddy Roosevelt championed the project. The canal was completed in 1914 to great fanfare and is hailed as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The Panama Canal Museum explains it every inch of the way.
Instead of the virtual tour, I and 211 other “sailors” board the Windstar’s Star Breeze in Colon and sail to Panama City approaching the canal through the Caribbean entrance. It takes hours to cruise through, or more specifically, to be raised and lowered through the 48 miles of canal by means of an intricate system of locks. It’s amazing that the bow doesn’t tilt dangerously, as nearly all the guests jockey for position along the bow railing as our 1,000-ton ship is raised like a child’s paper boat placed in an empty bathtub, when the taps are turned on, only in this case the ship is buoyed by water gushing from underwater pipes, enabling it to reach the higher lock level. (If I were an engineer, or a better communicator, I could explain more). Suffice it to say, it is a marvel.
The next morning, the Star Breeze sails smoothly onto the Pacific Ocean and all on board are treated to a celebratory buffet breakfast in one of several indoor/outdoor restaurants. I have to say here that the staff, to a person, is hard-working, amiable and has a God-given or trained memory. One evening in the al fresco Candles restaurant, I ask for fresh papaya for dessert, although it is not on the menu. My waiter says that he will find one for me. A few moments later he appears with the fruit. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite ripe.
I soon leave to attend the night’s entertainment. The next morning at breakfast, that same waiter (do they ever sleep?) approaches my table, smiling, with a ripe orangey, red papaya and addressing me by name, says he hopes it is to my liking. Not only do I like it, but I am duly impressed.
Another example of this kind of thoughtful attention to Windstar’s guests is the gracious thank you card I receive, in my suite, after a soothing massage from Nadine, a lass from Ireland. The little, thoughtful gestures make a big difference.
This is only my fourth cruise second on the Windstar line. Several couples I meet on this trip have sailed with Windstar on many occasions and keep coming back. It is not a fancy ship with over-the-top entertainment, or pool slides, nor children in fact. It is quietly understated and tastefully decorated. Even though my suite doesn’t have a balcony, which I must admit, I would have preferred, it is roomy, with a walk-in closet and an ample sitting room area dressed in light greys and midnight blues. I do find the bed a touch hard and, disappointingly, no feather or down pillows available.
The housekeeping staff is amusingly creative. Each evening when I return to my suite, I find a different animal, formed from towels a monkey, here, a frog there, until the last night when I must admit, I let out a scream, when I see a man lying on my bed. Well, that is my first impression. On second look, the towels are arranged to look like a person, with my straw hat on its head, their signature bathrobe around the body of towels and my sneakers on its feet. Thank God I have a strong heart!
Feeding 212 people several times a day is no mean feat. Chief Chef Budhi Thakur from Himachal Pradesh, India, handles it with a dimpled smile and impressive aplomb. He seamlessly overseas 2,000 plates a day, working with 15 cooks and chefs. At each port we visit, Chef Budhi disembarks to personally buy the best fish, and produce. One evening he surprises us with a special dish on the menu inspired by his native cuisine an aromatic Chicken Mandiali Masala. Delicious.
Part of the pleasure that cruising affords is not only a leisurely pace and the relative comfort of moving from one well-chosen port to another, but having onboard access to a variety of performances and events that would take arduous organization to personally plan. So, one afternoon, the packed Show Lounge is treated to folkloric dancers from Portobello, Panama, whose ardent dances showcase a joyous aspect of the country’s cultural history, displaying the Spanish influence with castanets clicking, and the drumming of native descendants of the Cimarrons (African-Panamanians). The costumes are a kaleidoscope of color with the most extraordinary dresses called Pollera de Gala. Each one is handmade and takes at least four months to create. They are considered to be the most luxurious and expensive dresses in the world.
But the greatest performer on our sojourn along the Pacific coasts of Panama and Costa Rica is nature in all her splendor and whims. You know the old saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” Well, the Star Breeze’s Capt. Roman Krstanovic and his crew had to cope with that in spades, and came off sparkling like diamonds. Each day of our week’s cruise is chock full of pre-planned excursions. One day I visit a small, sustainable chocolate farm (Kobo) in Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce; another, a private island (Isla de Coiba) off Panama’s mainland. However, not everyone on board is lucky enough to experience their choices. Riptides and impassable swells prevent, on two occasions, safe passage for the hovercrafts to take us to shore. Instead of disappointing the guests, the captain and his crew work tirelessly to find alternative ports and last-minute activities to satisfy even the most cynical of guests. In one case, the ship is redirected to the Curu Wildlife Refuge and conservation area on the southern Nicoya Peninsula. While walking in the tropical forest, a troop of curious Capuchin monkeys come to check us out while the shrieks of Howler monkeys provide the background sound effects. If that isn’t enough for a single day, we are taken to Tortuga Island, as well, where we play like kids in its emerald waters.
Perhaps that’s why we cruise, to be coddled, to be carefree, and to relinquish all responsibility to those whose expertise it is to ensure our safety, while providing innumerable adventures.