Luxury Living International Magazine - Destination: Panama: Panama's Got It All

Panama: Panama's Got It All

Panama's Got It All

With two oceans and boundless coastline, the entrancing "bridge of the world" country is a vacation home panacea, from the coffee plantations of the Boquete Highlands to high-rises, golf courses and both Pacific and Caribbean oceanfront

by Skip Knowles

The first thing you decide before going to Panama for the first time is this: which country are you going to visit?

The largest metropolis and only world-class city in Central America? No problem. Leave Houston or Atlanta or Miami on a jet, fly south a few hours to Panama City, and hit the innumerable fine restaurants, casinos and nightlife at the only major metropolis in Central America. Then stay at one of the many luxe hotels like Decapolis and the Intercontinental, or, better yet, in your new spacious condominium overlooking Panama Bay.

Panama: Panama's Got It AllOr that other Panama? The one featured on Survivor? Maybe disappear down the mysterious lost coast by boat, surf a new break and name it whatever you wish?

The next day, hop a 20-minute flight to the paradisiacal Pearl Islands, or over to Pinas Bay for the world's best marlin fishing, or into the misty mountains north of David in Boquete to hike the volcano.

Or you can go golfing, of course. Hmmm, what will it be, throw on a light sweater and hit the temperate high country course amid the pine trees and coffee plantations of Boquete? Or 18 oceanfront holes and a Panama hat on the beach below the lush coastal hills? What Panama offers is everything. From downtown condo living to the ultimate in eco-adventure, seaside golf, swimming in calm Caribbean shallows or Pacific big game fishing, sailing and surf, you'll find it.

One modest sized country. Two oceans, and two different worlds. Panama has a way of getting under your skin like an internal suntan. This past decade, the fun fast-paced city has definitely earned a reputation as one of the fastest growing and most international cities in the world. Famous Balboa Boulevard is being revamped, converting the city's waterfront to essentially one long pretty park. Luxury towers sprung up all over the place, and it was possible even at the peak of the boom to score a nice condo with ocean views or access for only $250,000 to $400,000 on average, worlds below most places. Hundreds more towers were planned.

But with the real estate slowdown, and with the adventurous experiential spirit and attitude of the waves of retiring baby boomers, perhaps Panama City is not where it's all at these days. A slower pace, a hammock on the water, an address where you need either no shoes or flip flops, and that's it. That's what most people are looking for.

Panama: Panama's Got It AllHead west of Panama City along the Pacific or Caribbean coast of Panama and you start to find just that. Bocas de Toro on the Caribbean side is just an hour flight from Panama City, north of David. One of the world's most renowned surf towns, with a mind-blowing number of beach, reef and point breaks scattered among an archipelago that would take a lifetime to explore. Bocas is now home to some cutting-edge upscale communities that are keyed on sustainability.

The Emerald Monkey on Shepard Islands is a prime example. With claims to become the first zero-carbon footprint development in the world, it consists of the kind of open, airy villas that define paradise. Assembled by hand by traditional Balinese craftsmen, the designs follow that eastern influence to maximize good energy. The turquoise waters surrounding the island can be viewed from gigantic boulders, beaches and rolling hills, covered in lush tropical foliage. Amenities? An "island within the island," the Banjari village will be home to a village dock, activities center, yoga and pilates, World of Cigars & Wines shop, gourmet foods, and even a tea hut.

Not enough? How about a butterfly farm on-site? After all, "Panama" is an indigenous word for "land of fish and butterflies."

For those who want to stay closer to Panama City, places like Playa Blanca just an hour west of town along the Pacific side have numerous towers and ownership-opportunity hotels. Vista Mar, an 11-tower beachfront golf resort community an hour west of Panama City is being developed by Steve Paskus. Paskus started sniffing around Central America a few years ago for an escape. Friends told him "Costa, Costa, Costa" but he decided to give Panama a shot instead. "I came for two weeks, fell in love with Boquete and on the last day I was here I bought property."

Panama: Panama's Got It AllHe came back every six months for two years buying something each time, but not just to invest. "I'd come back because I missed it! Every time I'd go through withdrawals upon return and be like why did I come back? My friends would say 'oh you just got back, huh, you're acting depressed.'"

Panama has so much going for it as the latest tropical second-home destination it's tough to argue against it. A free-trade agreement with the U.S., a massive expansion of the canal and generous 20-year real estate tax exemptions have created a frenzy. And Panama's use of the U.S. dollar, the low cost of living overall and senior discounts on everything from medical care to movie tickets appeal to retirees. No hurricanes, either. Sandwiched between oceans, Panama is mild all year and boasts first-world medical facilities (John Hopkins).

Further west down the coast, the cultural heart of Panama beats in the stunning Azuero Peninsula country. There are many projects currently under construction in the Azuero, ranging from hotels and resorts to housing areas. The lovely small fishing town of Pedasi has many noteworthy and high profile property owners. A luxury hotel called Villa Camilla is now an established getaway for the likes of Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Mick Jagger, Tom Cruise, Eddy Murphy, Bruce Willis, Michael Jordan and many others according to ThinkPanama. The country's most well known beauty, Pucha Garcia, the professional competitive surfer and model, owns property in Pedasi.

Maybe you don't have to choose between the two Panamas. Paskus doesn't. The city now has couture shopping in modern malls (Prada, Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Cartier), and Paskus has homes scattered around the country and on both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, yet he and his Panamanian wife, Diana Acevedo-Paskus, a realtor, love spending time in their downtown condo. The view is amazing, and the central location means all amenities are within five minutes, including restaurants with world cuisine (try the French at Pen Bistro and the Lebanese at Habibi) and euro-style outdoor dining is the standard.

When that grows tiring, he heads out into the wilds of Panama and escapes amid some of the nicest people you'll find anywhere. Amenities and marinas certainly complete a great locale, but it's not just the place but the people that are the reason for the Panama Effect-that cultural hangover people have upon departing.

"People are so much warmer. I was walking down the street in Boquete from one end of town to the other, three miles and without exception every single person said 'Buenos días' to me. That's when I decided to move there," Paskus said.

Panama: Panama's Got It AllBoquete-Golf in the clouds: What's your favorite season? If it's spring, you need to go to the Panamanian highlands. High in the mountains, things shift to pastoral charm and the "perpetual spring" of Cielo Paraiso in Boquete, a coffee-growing mountain town, where the 18-hole golf course blends with surrounding forests, creeks and lakes of the tropical highlands. The stage is set for something special from the first hole with 50-mile views to the Baru Volcano, the jagged Talamanca Mountains and Pacific Ocean. Golfers realize this is no ordinary course. "Having designed over 200 courses around the world and in virtually every climate, I can truly say that the Cielo Paraiso is one of the most spectacular and visually stunning courses in all of Latin America," says course designer J. Michael Poellot. "The 18-hole championship-quality course will without question be the centerpiece of beautiful Cielo Paraiso."

Panama: Panama's Got It AllOpening in late 2009: the luxurious Inn at Cielo Paraiso. With private terraces, some with fireplaces, and oversized bathrooms in each of the rooms, suites and garden villas, visitors have views of the golf course, mountains and Pacific Ocean. Days can be spent walking trails, lounging by the infinity pool or relaxing at the spa followed by an evening enjoying the warm nights at the bar and mixed grill restaurant. With almost 800 acres but only 200 homesites, the estates-style setting draws tourists who end up dropping anchor. Homesites range in size with most averaging over an acre. Though there are model options, the developer also offers approved architects to work with homeowners in creating a unique home. The low cost of land shows why people continue to migrate to Boquete. For around $200,000, buyers at Cielo Paraiso will enjoy unparalled views of the surrounding Jamarillo Mountains and Pacific Ocean, not to mention an unbeatable year-round temperate tropical climate.

"The natural beauty of this area is almost indescribable," say owners Colleen & Raideep Lal. "We searched the Caribbean, the South Pacific...Panama wasn't on the radar. What a surprise it turned out to be. When you have found your place you know it."

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