Elegant. It’s the perfect word to describe The Bristol, a five-star property in Panama City’s Financial District. Understandably, it’s a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.
The Bristol is Panama’s first luxury boutique hotel, opening about 20 years ago before the concept was well known. It’s hard to believe the hotel is that old — the gorgeous public spaces and room do not show their age one bit.
The hotel is simply beautiful. The Bristol’s furniture is all custom made; Benjamin Moore even named one of their paints Bristol Grey after the rich grey found throughout the hotel. The breakfast room is one of my favourites; it’s decorated more like a living room than a hotel restaurant (which makes it a popular spot for receptions too). Original art by Latin American artists — over $3.5 million worth — is sprinkled everywhere, some are from the private collection of the hotel’s owners and some are for sale. The hotel also participates in a foundation to help up-and-coming local artists develop.
My suite is exquisite and incredibly spacious, and has every amenity you can think of. I’m able to get some work done at the very comfortable desk (unfortunately meaning not enough time for a soak in the deep tub in the immense bathroom). My king bed is luxuriously soft and I have one of the best sleeps I’ve had in ages.
While Panama City has a wealth of great restaurants, you won’t want to leave The Bristol. One of Panama’s best known chefs, Cuquita Arias de Calvo, helmed the Bristol’s Salsipuedes restaurant and is known for creating Panamanian neo-cuisine. Her legacy is now in the excellent hands of Chef Bolivar, young and innovative, whose respect for local ingredients results in perfectly executed Panamanian dishes with vibrant flavours. Outside on the sidewalk terrace, enjoy one of The Bristol’s innovative cocktails — preferably with Panama’s national alcohol, seco — before heading inside for a dinner you won’t forget.
The Bristol also has a gym and a pool (sadly under repair during my visit) and sun deck near the breakfast room. Before and after your spa treatment, enjoy the spectacular views from the 25th-floor relaxation room over Panama’s architecture and out to the sea.
Just a few blocks from the long promenade bordering the sea, The Bristol is a wonderful luxury stay in downtown Panama City whether you’re here for business or pleasure. The hotel is stunning, and, best of all, The Bristol’s staff have the ideal combination of gracious hospitality with perfect service.
I enter my room at this Autograph Collection Hotel in the Marriott family, going straight to the balcony and open the doors. What I see makes me giggle with delight. This is going to be an amazing stay.
I’d already been impressed by the welcoming staff in the Buenaventura’s breezy lobby, as I gratefully accepted a refreshing drink while I admired the vivid indigenous art decorating the downstairs walls and tables.
Upstairs, the beachy feel of my spacious room — with its pale greens and yellows softening the dark woods — immediately puts me in the holiday mood. The sunny balcony ushers me to a spectacular view of a curving lagoon complete with the relaxing sound of fountains. A few small bridges connect the lagoon to a treed-area where I can see the turquoise of several swimming pools peeking through palm fronds. Further out, past villas, is the deep blue of the Pacific. Bathing suit on, I go out to get a closer look.
Over a boardwalk bridge, I stroll past a small cocktail bar, with the enticing sound of ice being shaken inside. At the first pool I find, I’m tempted to crawl onto one of the canopied beds, but push on. Past more trees than I can name, I find tennis courts and follow the curving path towards a lighthouse. Next to an elegant restaurant are more pools — I quickly lose count at how many.
And then I arrive at the beach. The pale grey sand looks like it has diamonds sprinkled on it, as everywhere I look I see flashes of tiny light. The gentle waves beckon and I’m delighted to find the temperature neither too cold nor too warm. Indeed this is going to be an amazing stay.
I’m delighted at every turn at the Buenaventura. Though not a golfer, I admire the iconic trees, vast fairways, water features and landscaped sand gardens of the 18-hole Nicklaus-design golf course. I take photos at the animal rescue centre, giggling at the bearded goats and frolicking monkeys. I bliss out at the spa, wishing I had time for a second treatment.
And I eat, boy do I eat! And drink a fair bit too. The Buenaventura’s many bars and restaurants, both on-site and in the nearby residential community, are fantastic. Master mixologist Miguel treats me with a shaken passionfruit cocktail at the Palapa bar; I gorge myself on ceviche overlooking the pool and ocean at El Faro; I eat barbeque and paella on the beach at Bar Chiringuito; I breakfast on all my favourite fruits at lagoon-side Criollo. And I can’t resist any of the sweets, including the popsicles from the cart by the pool. There’s a traditional Japanese restaurant, a tapas bar, and so much more too.
My stay comes to an end before I can try it all, but I leave the Buenaventura happy, relaxed and eager to return.
My stay at Panama’s The Santa Maria is just one week after the hotel opened in February 2017, though it is almost impossible to tell. Workmen quietly installed a few last minute items, but the hotel is beautiful and the level of service is as smooth as a well-oiled machine.
The hotel is lovely from the front, but breathtaking within and out the back. The beautiful lobby has subtle pieces of indigenous art throughout its elegant decor. Dining locations include Ocean Prime, Mestizo, the lobby bar, and the coffee shop which serves Geisha by Coffee Hat, one of the world’s most unique and expensive coffees. Outside by the U-shaped pool and looking out onto the golf course is the AQVA pool bar with its beachy vibe. I sample from all of them (well, several I feast from!) and am very impressed.
The Santa Maria has a destination spa with a sauna and steam to enjoy before or after your treatment. The spa has unique techniques and services you won’t find elsewhere. As lovely as my massage is, I wouldn’t mind just sitting in the quiet lounge curled up with a blanket and sipping their marvelous ginger tea.
Upstairs is impressive too. Those who like plush beds will adore The Santa Maria. My king-sized mattress is a pillow top, the pillows immense, and the duvet fluffy. I especially appreciate the all-too-rare-these-days top sheet.
The elegant bedroom has a long dark wood shelf reclaimed from Lake Gatun in the middle of the Panama Canal. It’s perfect for keeping cameras and other small items. The desk is near the doors to the balcony — mine overlooks the golf course and the pool — and a comfortable seating area, decorated with beautiful handmade pillows. There’s a coffee station with several pod selections and, underneath, a well-stocked minifridge.
My Italian marble bathroom is spacious and includes a long counter with double sink and a separate toilet room. Towels and bathrobes are almost impossibly lush. Little touches are thoughtful, like the basket holding the sewing kit, cotton swabs and shower cap which is handmade by Panamanian indigenous peoples. Lighting is bright as befitting a bathroom. Under the sink is a light which switches on with movement, so if you’re travelling as a couple you might want to bring a sleep mask to block the light from any late night bathroom visits.
The top half of the large shower has pinstriped glass walls which let daylight into the bathroom and create an even larger feeling of space, but allow for privacy. The shower thoughtfully has a small calf-height shelf so that women can rest a foot on it to shave their legs in comfort. Amenities are lavish with a beautiful subtle scent. Anyone with long hair like me will very much appreciate the thick and rich conditioner.
Even the Santa Maria’s closets are thoughtfully designed. While there is a luggage rack, the main shelf is the perfect height and width from which to unpack and repack. Underneath are three drawers, one holding a large top-loading safe. You can unpack and have everything organized.
The Santa Maria is convenient to the airport (just a 10-minute drive) and to the UNESCO-site Panama Viejo, important given Panama’s notorious traffic. Since it’s a Luxury Collection property, there’s even an excursion included in rates so that you can learn about Panama’s ancient lost-wax goldsmithing method at REPROSA.