Afloat in Panama’s Gulf of Chiriqui is Isla Palenque, a 400-acre, all-inclusive private-island resort that promises visitors a back-to-nature break from everyday stress. Here are five reasons you should consider adding it to your list this winter.
It isn’t easy to get to
This sounds counterintuitive but bear with me. Because sometimes, when you really need to get away, a two-hour non-stop flight just isn’t enough distance from the real world to totally detach and relax.
From the U.S. East Coast, it takes a lot more effort to reach this vacation nirvana. Coming from Miami, I took a three-hour Copa Airlines flight into Panama City (where I chose to overnight, but you don’t have to) and then an hour-long flight to the city of David. From there it was another hour’s drive to Boca Chica, on the gulf of Chiriqui, where we boarded Isla Palenque’s launch for the 15-minute ride to the resort.
But trust me when I tell you that the moment I stepped onto the pier (where a retinue of the island’s staff were waiting to meet us); took in the sight of spindly palm trees sprouting from the black-sand beach; and then a hearty swig of a fruity welcome cocktail, the hours it took to get there were forgotten. Not only did I instantly feel as if I was a world away from the realities of my day-to-day, I took comfort in the fact that I really was!
You’ll have your own casita
Tucked into the tropical greenery that borders Isla Palenque’s beach are eight thatch-roofed, a-frame villas, each named for authors who wrote books about islands, and one of which you’ll call your own. Simply yet comfortably appointed (with low-slung wood furniture handmade on property) and blissfully air-conditioned, these are the digs Robinson Crusoe would have built if he had better tools and supplies.
For me, the highlight was the outdoor bathroom (bathing al fresco is my jam) with two showers; double sinks; and, in the garden, a cast-iron soaking tub. I’ve no problem with answering the call of nature in … well … nature. But if flashlight-lit nighttime bathroom runs aren’t your thing, better stop drinking early in the evening, because the toilet’s outside, too.
You’ll get a window on wildlife
If, like me, your experience with wildlife is mostly limited to watching it on TV, you’re in for a treat. Secreted within Palenque’s tropical forest are all manner of animals and birds that screech and hoot in the night, and the waters surrounding the island teem with marine species. Catfish, snook, jack and roosterfish are plentiful, and you’re practically guaranteed to come back from a fishing trip with a decent haul.
From August through October, humpback whales and their calves can be spotted about a 30-minute boat ride from the resort, and guests with eagle eyes (and a good measure of luck) will see them breeching during private or group whale watching tours. (Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, too).
On land, armadillos, anteaters, and raccoons shuffle about in the undergrowth beyond the resort (which occupies only a tiny part of the island). And you can get up close and personal with them on (included) hikes led by Isla Palenque’s experience coordinator, José Chavarria. But it was the howler monkeys that caught my attention quickest.
You hear them most in the early morning and evening, barking loudly and insistently like disgruntled dogs on your doorstep, although they may be as far as three miles away. The primates sound huge but, if you manage to see one, you realize that they’re actually quite small—about the size of cat—with big personalities and even bigger vocal cords. Brings earplugs or prepare to wake up early!
The food is superb
I expected fresh fruit and fish, of course. But on an island this isolated from the mainland, I certainly didn’t expect the variety I enjoyed on my four-day trip. The island’s chefs—all local talents—wowed us with Panamanian dishes that were inventively prepared and beautifully presented, taking advantage of the bounty from the resort’s own kitchen garden and micro farm.
From “Palenque Benedict” (poached eggs with homemade jerky and sofrito hollandaise on tortillas) to chilled beetroot soup with yogurt foam and orange zest to seafood rice with sofrito, cream and gouda cheese, every meal was a delight. Gluten-free and vegetarian options were plentiful and desserts irresistible. I devoured my weight in soursop sorbet and don’t feel even a tiny bit guilty.
Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword
At Isla Palenque, they walk the talk when it comes to sustainability, and the resort is remarkably self-sufficient. On the culinary front, 95 percent of the F&B is either farmed on grown on property (tours of the garden are welcome), the only exceptions being olive oil, wine, and scotch. Toiletries are locally made, and straws are fashioned from the hollow stems of papaya plants, also grown at the resort.
The staff of 40 people is 99 percent Panamanian, many of them from the local area. And the roster of included activities—from jewelry making to rum tasting and Panamanian cooking to guided hikes that reveal relics from more than 2,000 years ago-–acknowledge and celebrate the country’s unique culture and traditions.
The result: A vacation at Isla Palenque is one you can feel good about, because while you’re enjoying your stay, the community is reaping tangible benefits from it, too.