(Travel and Leisure) Shedding its reputation as a sunny haven for shady characters, Panama is courting high fliers by giving everything an upgrade—hotels, museums, and even that famous canal.
The Beach Buzz: Solace seekers typically head to Panama’s Caribbean coast, leaving the Pacific beaches to the surfers. But boldface names—Angelina Jolie; Michael Jordan—have been spotted in the remote Pacific village of Pedasí, four hours from the capital. Most visitors stay at the rustic-but-stylish El Sitio Hotel (011-507/832-1010; doubles from $99) or in a beachfront loft at Villa Camilla Hotel & Resort (011-507/232-0171; doubles from $200).
The Passion Project: Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo will finally open this winter on Panama City’s Amador Causeway after a decade of fits and starts. Gehry—whose wife is Panamanian—was aided by industrial designer Bruce Mau and landscape architect Edwina von Gal in the $90 million project, a series of rain-forest-like gardens and biosphere galleries.
The Next Great Neighborhood: Panama City’s atmospheric Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is being scrubbed up for travelers lured by its 17th-century cathedral and crumbling mansions. The six-room Las Clementinas (011-507/228-7613; doubles from $250; dinner for two $50)—whose owner is a pioneer in the area’s preservation efforts—captures the colonial-chic vibe. Its restaurant serves Panamanian comfort food such as coconut-spiked risotto and ropa vieja.
The Luxury Boom: Five-star hotels are rising in Panama City to house business travelers and South Americans on weekend jaunts. The sail-shaped Trump Ocean Club (855/878–6700; doubles from $319) opened last year, as did Le Méridien (800/543-4300; doubles from $230). Also new: the South Beach–style Hotel Manrey (011-507/203-0000; doubles from $224).
The Big Dig: The Panama Canal is two years from completion of a $5.2 billion expansion that will double its capacity—just in time for its 100th birthday—and fit supersize cruise liners, such as Cunard’s flagship Queen Mary 2 and nine Princess Grand Class vessels. The 2004 Miraflores Visitor Center (011-507/276-8325), located canalside 30 minutes from downtown, sheds light on the project’s history.