Perfect parties are held at Tejas' private deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean

Perfect parties are held at Tejas’ private deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. photo by Karen Kuzsel

When the invitation to attend a press trip for Panama arrived, I immediately thought how cute I’d look in one of those darling Panama hats and that I’d finally get to see the famed Panama Canal that was the highlight of one of my parent’s many cruises. Not until after I arrived on COPA Airlines into Panama (a three-hour direct flight from Orlando) did I discover that those Fedora hats worn famously by Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper, were actually Ecuadorian creations brought to Panama in the mid-1800s by gold rushers en route to California. They became defined as Panama Hats by Canal workers in the early 1900s who wore them as a shield against the blistering sun. As for the Panama Canal—let’s just say it was much like the rest of its namesake Central American country: it’s transitioning from a small but significant entity into something that will soon demand the world’s attention. (More on the Canal later. Keep reading.) Like its literal meaning of “flowers and butterflies,” I see Panama, especially Panama City with which I became most familiar over the next five days, as emerging into an eye-opening colorful beauty.

About a week before my invite arrived, I read that several travel and lifestyle magazines had named Panama as one of the top 13 destinations in the world to visit.  Other cities or countries named (San Francisco, Ireland, Las Vegas for example) were no-brainers. Panama was an intriguing surprise. Upon discovering that my stay would be hosted by Donald Trump’s latest luxury condo-hotel, Trump Ocean Club (the only hotel located in the plush condo enclave area known as Punta Pacifica), I was more than intrigued. Donald Trump may be a controversial figure, but one thing no one can dispute: he is an astute businessman who isn’t going to build a 70-story high-rise unless he is pretty darned positive it’ll be successful. With my curiosity piqued, I couldn’t wait to discover what made Panama such a hot spot.

PRESERVE, PROTECT, RENOVATE AND CONSTRUCT

Much of Panama has been dredged up from the ocean floor. In fact, since work began in 2009, two new islands are being formed near Punta Pacifica. Just as the country’s dimensions are expanding, so is its financial base.  Corporations such as Caterpillar, Johnson & Johnson, Jenson Pharmaceutical, Pfizer and Procter & Gamble have established Latin headquarters.  Often referred to locally as the New Little Miami, Panama is home to more than 100 international banks and more than a 100 multinational companies. That financial investment, more airlines servicing Panama, and a lower cost of living are powerful inducements to attract business travelers, according to Erica Moreno, International Sales Manager for Trump Ocean Club. “About 35% of our business is from U.S companies,” she notes.

As financial investments pour in, Panama understands what is needed to compete for corporate and leisure travelers. The Tourism Authority of Panama has just opened, and two incentives are being promoted. Panama has been approved by the Tax Information Exchange Agreement as a country in which the business expenses incurred related to a convention while in country of any U.S citizen can be deducted. Also, The Tourist Authority provides free health insurance for any visitor who has an emergency medical situation within 30 days of receiving their passport entry stamp.

Panama has caught on that tourists are just as interested in its history, architecture and culture as they are in what will be built next. If you’re in construction and can’t find a job there, then you just aren’t interested in working. Panama City actually has two “old towns.” Both have been destroyed by massive fires.  All that remains of the original old town is the shell of a tower, visible from the Corredor Sur highway as we drove from the Tocumen International Airport to the hotel, about 20 minutes away. (Quick side note to the airport: I don’t speak Spanish and found it quite easy to maneuver my way through baggage, customs and transportation.)

The second old town is the Casco Antiguo district, where the rich flavors of Panamanian and international cuisines filter into the streets, and renovation is rampant. Straw hat vendors ply their wares on numerous corners.  Narrow sidewalks and narrow cobbled streets front crumbling buildings dating from the 16th century and bearing Spanish, French, and Italian influences. Panama has no army, but an army of police in military-styled uniforms directs traffic and provides protection in the UNESCO heritage site from fast-moving cars and the throng of construction vehicles. Everywhere is the thumping din of a city being reborn to the splendor it once exhibited. My intrepid group of travelers examined the refurbished Ministry of Foreign Affairs, built originally in 1673 as a monastery. The UNESCO preserved space has glorious views of the Pacific Ocean and contains the original congress meeting space of Simon Bolivar, established in 1826.

Lunch that day was a feast at the Casablanca Bistro Club. We wanted Panamanian fare and were told by locals that this was the best of the best. We gawked a bit at the bordello-burgundy fabric walls and riddling wine rack that divided the already small restaurant into halves, but dived right in to the Executive Menu, which indicates traditional styled food. Full meals were $6. (Did I mention that American dollars are the currency, so no worries about exchange rates?) My meal was just delish. Abundant portions of white rice yellowed by saffron were covered by a savory sauced stew of julienned carrots, peppers, green olives and chicken. My only regret was that I was too full to eat it all.

Once you’re out of Old Town, Panama City is like architects were granted carte blanche budgets and creative control to erect iconic structures. There are buildings painted in multiple colors with matching alternating lights that blink in sequence at night. There’s a verdigris-colored building that twists around like a Dairy Queen soft ice cream. Everywhere one looks, there’s yet another structure that elicits an “ahhhh” but none more so than the Trump Ocean Club.

TRUMP OCEAN CLUB

Trump Ocean Club rises from the tip of Punta Pacifica like a towering behemoth. Indeed, it is the largest structure in all of South and Central America. Arguably, its sloping twin towers can either be likened to a giant sailboat’s masts blowing full to catch the wind or it could the gentle, curving wings of a butterfly. Opened in July, 2011, it has 369 guest suites, about 660 privately-owned condos. Some offer spectacular ocean views. My junior suite on the 23rd floor had two enormous balconies that cornered the room. At night I could hear the ocean roar or hear the Latin music pumping from parties at neighboring condo complexes.

Like the hotel itself, my room was dazzling with sleek chrome and glass fixtures and tiled flooring. A claw foot tub sat next to one of the balcony doors for sinfully exquisite relaxation. The bathroom area is a thing of beauty with designer fixtures, imported granite countertops, marble flooring and frameless showers. Also like the rest of the hotel, no structure is without design. A lobby plant may be partially surrounded by a open-weave metal screen or a door would have design elements carved into it so that wasn’t just a rectangular chunk folding into the frame… it fit into slots like a Chinese puzzle.

Actually, little about the hotel is what you might expect. Registration is on the 15th floor in the Sky Lobby, an airy, open contemporary room of varying dimensions and tucked-away niches in case you and your laptop and a close friend or two want a private chat. Located off the lobby, Cava 15 Wine Bar offers hundreds of wine labels and handcrafted cocktails. Try the signature Trump Breeze, a tasty concoction of amaretto, Malibu rum, pineapple and cranberry juice.

The 13th floor pool deck contains five pools, including two lengthy infinity lap pools that aren’t really used for taking laps. They have lawn chairs resting in them so you can laze with nothing but ocean in front of you.           That same level also has a fitness center that takes advantage of natural light. By 2014, a luxurious spa is planned for the 14th floor and a 75,000 sf international casino owned and operated by Sun International will rise from the 60th to the 66th floors. There will be 32 gaming tables, 600 slot machines, a fine-dining restaurant and expansive bar and lounge. A private salon will occupy the top floor with an intimate restaurant, lounge and private gaming.

There are three main restaurants currently at Trump Ocean Club. Each is a gem that pays tribute to Panama by its décor, although the menus are quite international.

Azul (blue) Pool Bar & Grill is an open space lazing between pools. This was January and my group and I were sleeveless, with the ocean before us and subdued lighting and soft music around us. Candles lit the clothed table. We chose to sample and share a multitude of the tapas-portioned menu. We had amazing spicy meat-filled arepas (the best I’ve ever had), grilled spice asparagus, Panamanian styled roasted potatoes that were so delicious that I think we bid on who’d get to lick the bowl. We ate much more, but those stand out as exceptional.

Each morning we chowed down at BARcelona Tapas Restaurant & Bar on the 14th floor, with a choice of indoor or outdoor dining. There was an extensive buffet of the usual suspects(bacon, oatmeal, potatoes), but there was also fantastic Panamanian coffee (from a private source), made-to-order omelets, and some interesting Panamanian specialties, like Carimanolas, which is composed of yucca that’s been ground and boiled and made into a dumpling or fritter, filled with minced beef or chicken and pieces of boiled egg.

Trump Ocean Club’s fine dining restaurant, Tejas, plays strongly to its roots. When the Panama Canal was built, it was necessary to flood a town. For the past (nearly) 100 years since the Canal was completed in 1914, the wood from the sunken trees sat on the bottom of the ocean. Donald Trump was one of the many individuals who decided to honor Panama’s past by recycling some of that wood in his new hotel. Scuba divers scavenged and the rescued the wood became the bar and tables. The texture and shapes are purposefully rough-hewn to maintain the integrity of the wood and its natural colorations. Tejas, which translates to tiles (used on residential roofs) is a beautiful indoor-outdoor intimate restaurant that specializes in seafood locally sourced. One main wall is lined in boomerang-shaped tile pieces. The rectangular dropped ceiling lamps look like white cotton puffs, signifying the cocoons from which beautiful butterflies emerge.

The stylized patio deck outside Tejas seats 50, though 250 can be accommodated when other pool deck areas are used. John A. Cardona, Director of Sales & Marketing says “The perfect size group for us is an executive group of about 80. We’re a meeting destination and just don’t have the space for large incentive groups, but give us up to 150 people maximum for a three day stay, and we will pamper them completely.” He said the Tejas patio, which directly overlooks the ocean and is somewhat shielded by decorative masts hung from the building, is often used for events. “Panama has never been hit by a hurricane. We only have two seasons, summer (January into March) and winter (when it’s really hot, rainy for an hour or two a day, and humid). Guests love our year-round 80-degree average temperatures and they love being outside where they can see the lights from passing cruise ships and hear the ocean.”

One night during our stay, a wedding reception danced and partied on the western pool.

Jose Barreda, Director of Catering, said that pool is often used for corporate events. OK, big deal, I thought. Who doesn’t have pool side receptions at Florida hotels?  And then Barreda told us how Trump Ocean Club takes the concept up another notch or two.

“We surprise them with a precision water ballet. They have no idea what’s going to happen when these ballerinas start down the stairs and enter the pool until the music begins and they dance.” Wine tastings have become de rigueur, so Jose presents a Central America rum tasting. “We let them sample rums from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Aruba and Panama. Then we include a cigar roller who represents five generations of cigar rollers.”

A last-minute party idea has become one of their most popular offerings. “We call it the White Champagne Party,” says Barreda. Guests had been told to dress in white and knew there would be champagne. At the last minute, he bought some artisan necklaces made of colorful seed beads that emit a tinkling sound when shaken. He presented one  to each woman, planning on giving the men some other trinket. When the men demanded the necklaces also, Jose immediately sent a courier to buy more. “The necklaces are considered lucky. It signifies a wish for them to return,” says Barreda.

Did it work? “Yes, we’ve already gotten repeat business from that party.”

When I asked which foods are most chosen for corporate meals, Cardona says, “Latin Americans want big juicy steaks, potatoes and anything else deemed American. When the Americans come, they want to taste local Panamanian flavors.”

Barreda says Panamanian-styled barbeque is the favorite group meal. Ever the nose hound for what I can add to my cooking repertoire, I wanted specifics. He says, “We make a mixture of celery, green tomatoes and vinegar. That’s added to everything as a marinade or basted on top. It’s a bit sweet rather than hot and spicy.”

For groups of at least 400, the ballroom is an elegant and festive setting with light woods and colorful carpeting. It can hold 600 for a sit-down dinner or 800 for cocktails.

Queen Eliabeth is guided by mini trains through the Miraflores Locks of Panama Canal

Queen Eliabeth is guided by mini trains through the Miraflores Locks of Panama Canal. Photo by Karen Kuzsel

PANAMA CITY MOVES AGRESSIVELY TOWARDS THE FUTURESeven ethnic communities reside in Panama. Over 35% of the country is considered a nature reserve.  It is likely the most economically-stable country in all the Latin Americas. That growth prompted a construction boom. There are currently 23,500 guest rooms in Panama City. By the end of 2014, the additions of the Panama Canal expansion, a new convention center, and the Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum should draw enough worldwide attention to more than fill those accommodations.

I can’t imagine anyone coming to Panama City and not wanting to see the Panama Canal. It’s likely considered the 8th Wonder of the World because it was a wonder it was ever built. Construction began with the French in 1880, but after malaria and financial difficulties all but rendered it a failure, the Americans took over in 1914. They immediately set about eliminating the ills of malaria and yellow fever with stringent sanitation measures before even tackling the actual construction. History tells us that President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that would return the Panama Canal to the supervision of the Panamanian government in 1999. Fifteen years later, on the 100th year anniversary, the Panama Canal will complete an expansion that doubles its size. The new Canal locks will be the size of four football fields. Until my group went to the Biodiversity Museum (more on that in a bit), I didn’t realize the importance of the Panama Canal. I just knew my Dad thought the coolest thing he’d ever done was to be on a ship as it passed through the locks.

Our group was guided to the Canal by PBA Holding Group, a preferred vendor for Trump. We began with the museum tour, complete with video clips, photos and interactive exhibits. Then we saw a 3D film with Dolby surround sound that delved into the history. There are two presentations each in Spanish and English. We knew ships would be soon approaching, but considering that it takes them hours to move at less-than-turtle speed through the canal’s locks, we ate (oh, sorry… I mean gorged!) at a phenomenal international buffet at a restaurant owned and operated by the Hotel Panama, located in the downtown area. They also own (and rent) a second floor event space that can seat 180. The picture windows and wide decking overlooks the Miraflora Locks. Next door and one level up, an event space owned and rented by the Panama Canal can accommodate 500.

I wish I could adequately describe the awe of watching the Queen Elizabeth liner be guided through the locks. Her berth is so wide she only has 8” of space left on each side of the canal walls, so eight mini trains running on tracks tie long chains to the ship and guide her through. After she passed, we saw a cargo ship bearing 3,000 cars and then a monster army-green military ship. Until the new lock is complete, only one ship can pass at a time. In the morning, ships line up from the Pacific Ocean heading to the Caribbean Ocean. In the afternoon, the order is reversed. The Canal operates 24/7, but to get a close up and personal peek, check the times when guests are permitted. Oh, and the prices are really inexpensive. I think for the museum and watching the ships go by was about $8 a person.

gehry museum model

Model of Biodiversity Museum designed by Frank Gehry in Panama. The $100 million+ museum should open this year. Photo by Karen Kuzsel

In late 2014, the new Panama Convention Center opens. Its state-of-art architectural design celebrates Panama’s national emblem, the Harpy Eagle. The $193 million infrastructure will comprise 613,532 sf of total space, including an Exhibit Hall, 16 meeting rooms,  and two amphitheaters: one for 2,000 people and a second for 1,600. Its design will symbolize the Panama Canal doors that connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Convention Center will be located near the new Biodiversity Museum.If you’re familiar with Architect Frank Gehry, you know he does nothing simple or small. Grandiose. Flamboyant. Curving concrete. Whimsical. Your first impression of the Biodiversity Museum will likely include neon crayon-colorful as the eight-gallery buildings seem to move in all directions. Gehry is married to a Panamanian, hence part of his dedication to this project which began construction in 2000. So far it has cost $95 million and is expected to run another $10 million before its doors open. Fingers are being crossed that the much-delayed project finally opens this year.

We were there for a hard hat tour, except we weren’t wearing hard hats. Our docent introduced the museum by asking if we knew that building the Panama Canal changed the world’s climate. We were all properly blank. Then she explained. That explanation will be covered in clarifying detail in the museum. Just as a teaser though, building the Canal separated two oceans, the Pacific and Caribbean. It changed the flow of the currents and severely impacted plants, animals, and sea life. Many species are now extinct. The ripple effect of all these factors forever altered global temperatures.

The Biodiversity Museum is about 25 minutes from Trump Ocean Club. It is the first museum to be built in a tropical climate. Each of the eight galleries will have innovative interactive exhibits unlike anywhere else, including Panamarama, a 360 movie in a room with a glass floor. Everything will move around you so that you totally engaged in the action. Each gallery depicts a section of the world’s history and shows its geological and human evolution. Surrounding the museum will be a botanical garden, with lectures available on the significance of indigenous and imported plant materials.

All I know about world climate, geology, plant materials and extinct species could fit into my size 8 New Balance sneakers, but I know that this museum is going to be a drawing card for international corporate groups, including environmentalists, botanists, engineers and pharmaceuticals. Panama may be in a state of transition, but I venture that by 2015, it could very well be vying for number one on the list of destinations you should visit.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; http://www.ThePsychicLady.com

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