Resort offers adventure Indiana Jones-style

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anama is a Central American Rip Van Winkle waking from a long, deep sleep. For years this odd-shaped country, the land bridge between North and South America, was so wrapped in the embrace of the U.S. that it existed in the minds of most as "the country with the canal."

But today Panama is very much awake and is very actively promoting itself as one of the most ecologically diverse, culturally rich, tourist-friendly destinations in the world.

And as tourism gains traction, Panama has taken aim at developing its family travel product, with the Gamboa Rainforest Resort taking the lead.

It's arguably the country's preeminent destination for curious, adventurous families with somewhat older children.

Laura deArment of Solar Tours, a Washington-based wholesaler, said at least half of the clients she and the travel agents who work with her send to Gamboa are families.

"Gamboa is perfect for the better-educated, better-traveled, curious family," she said. "The activities are creative and interesting, the staff is helpful, they all speak English. The reviews we receive are all very positive."

Gamboa, about 17 miles from downtown Panama City and 31 miles from Tocumen Airport, is a spectacular place.

Set within the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, a protected rain forest, Gamboa is surrounded by vivid vegetation, birds the colors of stained glass and an ecosystem that's the basis for its family activities.

Gamboa has hosted dignitaries from former President Jimmy Carter to Queen Sophia of Spain and Prince Hitachi of Japan.

But, for all that, it's laid-back, unpretentious and welcoming.

The visiting families I've seen here create instant cultural bridges.

The Gamboa Rainforest Resort is located about 17 miles from Panama City in the 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, a protected rain forest in Panama. Herman Bern, director of marketing and a scion of the family that owns Bern Hotels and Resorts (which, in turn, owns and manages Gamboa, Miramar InterContinental Panama, Suites Ambassador and Holiday Inn Panama) made it clear that the property was designed for families from its inception.

"Not just parents with children," he said, "but uncles, aunts, grandparents. We are seeing the face of family travel change, and reunions are very big here. I come from a close family, so it's a personal matter that we serve families."

Bern said every aspect of Gamboa, from placement of beds to landscaping, was undertaken with family travel in mind.

Each room is furnished in what the resort calls "tropical elegance" -- colorful prints, vivid fabrics and light-blond wicker furniture.

But the balconies, complete with hammock and uninterrupted views of the broad Chagres River, the rain forest and sprawling botanical gardens, are the most compelling feature.

The vast, all-glass main lobby with Tiffany lamps and chandeliers offers a panoramic view of the wilderness and, in the distance, the Panama Canal.

All this creates a fun Indiana Jones-type adventure.

Panama and Gamboa make a point of helping clients, especially families, understand the delicate balance and beauty of the rain forest's ecosystem, so the various paths and trails lead to a frog research pond, a freshwater fish aquarium and, a family favorite, the turtle and iguana nesting area.

The kids I saw, between ages 8 and 14, especially appreciated the reptile exhibit and butterfly nursery.

Families note: These are not random wildlife exhibits or tacky tourist traps. The on-property attractions are staffed by Smithsonian researchers who manage to make learning enjoyable and engaging.

The model Embera Indian Village, for example, and the nighttime Wildlife Boat Tour or Kayaking on the Chagres River, where the keen-eyed get to see Toucans feeding in the trees, are memorable adventures.

Gamboa's accommodations include 107 rooms and suites, plus 48 refurbished villas dating to the 1930s, when they housed the families of the Panama Canal workers.

Gamboa has tennis courts, a marina, a nearby golf course, three restaurants and two bars.

Los Lagartos, the most interesting restaurant, is on the resort's marina and serves tropical cuisine and features views of huge, hulking ships transiting the canal.

Bern said Gamboa's family package, the three-night Gamboa Family Getaway, (see related sidebar Gamboa: Where active folks meet sloths) appeals to families who seem to be taking more frequent but shorter vacations.

Patrick Hogan of Elegant Adventures in Atlanta and a father of two said Gamboa and the package are perfect for those who have "done Disney and are seeking a cultural and educational experience."

Hogan added that clients need the advice and guidance of travel agents in booking Gamboa, and agents often need the advice of tour operators -- because the destination still is so new and the travel experience anything but routine.

Kaleel Sakakeeny covers the family travel market for Travel Weekly. He can be reached at [email protected].

• • •

Panama: Facts and tidbits
• Yes, the water is drinkable.
• The national currency is the Balboa, but U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
• A valid U.S. passport is necessary and a tourist card must be purchased at the airport for $5.
• Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services in Washington places Panama in the highest category of tourist safety.
• For more information on Panama, contact the Panama Tourism Bureau at (011) 507 260-7000 or visit www.panamatours.com.

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