Not far from Panama’s airport and its cosmopolitan urban core is The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort, perfectly placed to allow you a lush home away from home within easy proximity to top tourist sites and the shimmering Pacific Ocean. Once at Central America’s only Marriot Bonvoy Luxury Collection property, you’ll be warmly greeted like an old friend. Fidel Reyes, General Manager of the country’s newest resort, can often be spotted mingling with guests, embodying the hotel’s passion for superior hospitality, which is essentially authentic friendliness. Take a minute to chat with him, and you’ll see what I mean.
Stroll into the Lobby Bar toward the wall of massive glass doors and you’ll glimpse dreamy pool waters and beyond that, the elegant greens of the city’s only Championship Nicklaus Design golf course. The 18-hole, 72-par course has hosted its share of events and in 2020 will welcome the US Open Kids Golf Tournament. Personally, the pool was whispering my name upon arrival, especially as I could spot servers from the poolside restaurant AQVA carrying cocktails to lounging guests.
Thoughtful expressions of Panama’s history and cultural heritage are woven into the resort’s design and offerings. Even the resort’s decision to make the Holy Spirit Orchid, the country’s national flower, its logo artfully furthers Panama’s story. In the lobby, run your hand over the statuesque dark wooden columns, mined from the construction of the historic canal from the depths of Gatun Lake. When you enter your room, note the colorful blanket at the end of your bed, a traditional “Mola” of the Guna Yala indigenous people. Every one of the guestrooms and suites includes handmade artifacts crafted by one of Panama’s indigenous groups.
Like yours will, my room offered all the perks of modernity without compromising on the cozy. Each night, I anticipated returning to my dreamy room and when morning arrived, I wasn’t yearning to leave. You’ll likely want to linger and rest on your chaise lounge, warmed by the plush resort robe and slippers while sipping a beverage from Coffee Hat in the privacy of your chambers before launching into another day in this tropical paradise.
Savor your view of the pristine golf course with the ocean glimmering in the distance, or the dramatic city skyline boasting over 60 skyscrapers, making Panama City one of the world’s skyscraper cities.
Guests wishing to learn more about Panama will appreciate the off-site private complimentary tour to learn about efforts to preserve local culture and artifacts. The resort concierge team can also arrange a visit to Panama’s iconic sites, such as the charming colonial old city Casco Viejo—where you must stop for an Indiana Jones cocktail at the sumptuous Salvaje Restaurant. Hop on a boat for monkey-spotting in the rainforest, learn about the Emberá people and revel in the engineering feat of the Panama Canal.
Because of its diverse population—indigenous, African, European, Asian—Panama’s food scene is exciting. Known as the Crossroads of the World due to its unique geographic position, Panama is a narrow isthmus connecting Central America to South America, as well as the Pacific to the Caribbean Oceans thanks to the 50-mile long canal, making the region a wonderfully stimulating melting pot.
Correspondingly, the food scene mirrors the mash-up of nationalities, especially thriving in Panama City, Central America’s largest city. I tasted some of the best ceviche, paella and cuatro leches cake during my visit.
The culinary scene at The Santa Maria provides cultural-slant offerings and then some. Daily at 4p, guests can sip a complimentary Panamanian Chichita. The traditional cocktail combines Seco Herrerano, a local spirit made from sugarcane, with pineapple and grapefruit juice.
Executive Chef Dani Osorio serves a cultural meal weekly at The Mestizo Restaurant. It’ll be like Panamanian Cuisine 101, allowing you to interact with Osorio, who will discuss the menu, local ingredients and field questions. Fans of al fresco dining will be glad that the restaurant also offers terrace seating, with a view of the pool and palm trees, where you can enjoy breakfast and later, happy hour.
I experienced fine dining at its best the eve of my departure at The Grill House FSH & STK. Located in the stately clubhouse with superb views over the iconic 9th hole, the establishment is popular with guests as well as the who’s who of Panama.
With a menu inspired by the famed Sous Chef Julio Artigas, the restaurant serves fresh local seafood and top cuts of steak. Artigas creatively incorporates Panamanian flavors to craft unique dishes. Share the Lobster-stuffed Avocado and Crab Croquettes as starters before your tomahawk steak—or in my case, shrimp risotto—arrives.
Just entering The Spa will make the stress fall away. The air hints of soothing essential oils such as lavender, guaranteed to make your shoulders relax. The stylish facility goes above and beyond, such as an expansive shower-for-two in the couple’s treatment cabin and a full-service beauty salon for that pre-dinner emergency blow-out. The sauna and steam room facilities are complimentary to guests, regardless of a spa booking. After your workout, for example, you can feel free to step into the steam room.
The Spa offerings come with a seductive Panamanian twist. I’d argue their most alluring service is the Cacao & Coffee Santa Maria, which mixes local coffee with a cacao spa service, a truly unique cultural experience. The 90-minute treatment starts with a full-body coconut oil massage and coffee exfoliation, then wraps you in a soothing organic cocoa mask.
Afterwards you’ll be welcomed at The Coffee Shop for a coffee tasting. The coffee sommelier will educate you on Panama’s renown coffee, most notably Geisha, the priciest coffee in the world which hails from the country’s coffee region of Boquete.
Eco-tourists will appreciate that coffee grounds are composted and used for landscaping the golf course and fertilizing the resort grounds. Another demonstration of the commitment to operate responsibly is the resort’s pledge to limit the use of plastic bottles, opting instead for water stations and glassware. Plastic straws have been replaced with paper.
The Santa Maria also donates house-slippers and toiletries to the local oncology hospital. Leftover food is shuttled to women’s shelters and area hospitals when logistically possible, yet another example of efforts to better the local community, country and environment.
Learning of these behind-the-scenes initiatives raised the resort’s stock even higher in my mind, enabling me to relax 100 percent and freely indulge.
Kathryn Streeter is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. Her work can be found in publications including USA Today Go Escape and Best Years, The Washington Post, The Week and AARP. Find her at kathrynstreeter.com.