For years, visiting Central America really meant visiting Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. But recently, Panama – especially the capital of Panama City, which celebrates its 500th anniversary next year – has been gaining the attention of those seeking an experience just as culturally rich, but a bit less well, obvious.
In addition to being a financial hub – which accounts for its surprisingly diverse population – Panama City is a beguiling mix of contrasts: historic and contemporary, man made and natural, rough and refined. It’s small enough to comfortably explore in a couple days, yet filled with distinctive neighborhoods and attractions–like Casco Viejo (old town) and naturally, The Panama Canal.
As for where to stay? There’s no shortage of hotels in the city center, but it’s The Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort – which opened this past February – that’s been hosting discriminating business and leisure travelers alike seeking a more serene side of Panama City.
Background in Brief
The Santa Maria is conveniently located a short drive from Tocumen International Airport and downtown, and is scenically set on an immaculately-groomed, Jack Nicklaus-designed, 18-hole golf course. But make no mistake: world-class golfing is just the beginning of a long list of perks and amenities here. For starters, the service is seamlessly polished, and warm. Everyone, from the porters to Fidel Reyes, the general manager, is always keeping an eye out on guests – to answer any questions, and to ensure a completely comfortable stay. The decor throughout the property is chic, yet understated, with thoughtful accents – from the colorful masks made by the Emberá tribe in the lobby, to the Mola (a textile worn by the women of the Guna tribe) blankets gracing the beds – that lend an authentic sense of place and identity throughout.
All 182 rooms and suites – there’s five categories, ranging from Urban to Master Suite – offer either picturesque views of the golf course or the city, and are cloaked in a soothing palette of ivory, beige, and brown. My Executive Suite provided more than enough space to properly unpack, work, and unwind (thanks to a deep soaking tub and separate living room). Even my bathroom was super spacious. I especially appreciated having ample counter space, so I could neatly organize my beauty products (including the beautifully-scented toiletries by the hip Swedish fragrance house Byredo). Though I was a bit wary of Panama’s intense heat and humidity, my room kept breezily cool and quiet, and I slept soundly and comfortably every night.
Dining and Drinking
Headed by chef Carlos Alba, Mestizo is the resort’s all-day restaurant with a menu that’s equal parts Panamanian and globe-trotting. Alba’s renditions of traditional cuisine like sea bass ceviche, patacones (flattened, fried plantains), and gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic sauce) are deeply satisfying, and his tapas (especially the creamy corn croquettes and gyoza with carrot puree and seaweed) are exceptional, too. But it’s the legendary weekend brunch buffet that’s an absolute must. With healthy and hearty options galore, it’s a seemingly endless spread that has something for everybody, including sushi, roasted meats, dim sum, and freshly-baked breads. AQVA Pool Bar is the perfect spot to enjoy a refreshing drink or light bite al fresco, and the coffee shop pours top-notch coffee with world-famous Geisha beans, alongside to-go pastries, salads, and paninis. Whether you fancy a glass of wine or well-crafted cocktail (request something with the locally-made Ron Abuelo Rum) to cap your evening, the lobby bar has you covered. Even better? Soon, The Grill STK & FSH, an elegant seafood and chop house, will open its doors.
Spa and Fitness
Naturally, golfing takes top billing when it comes to fitness here, but there’s also a spacious outdoor pool if you prefer to swim laps. And if you’re like me and prefer to break a sweat indoors, check out the spacious, light-filled fitness center outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and a water machine. Santa Maria’s spa may air on the smaller side, but it’s well-appointed and the services are exemplary. Not to be missed is the signature Espiritu Santo Signature Massage, which incorporates aromatherapy to mirror the heady fragrance of the namesake holy spirit orchid, along with firm, fluid strokes to promote a deep sense of relaxation and calm.
The Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort
Calle 125 Este, Urbanizacion, Panama City, Panama