Rare respite at Panama City's Santa Maria

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The Nicklaus Design golf course at the Santa Maria, a Marriott Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort.
The Nicklaus Design golf course at the Santa Maria, a Marriott Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort.

Located near the myriad corporate offices of Panama City's Santa Maria and Costa del Este areas, the Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort is ideally situated to cater to the scores of business travelers who make their way through the country known as the "Crossroads of the World."



But the developers of the 182-room property, which held its grand opening celebration last month, envision guests doing more than holding breakout sessions amid its 18,000 square feet of meetings and event space or enjoying a few rounds at the Nicklaus Design 18-hole, par-72 golf course.

Indeed, Bristol Hospitality Group is billing the property, the sixth Central/South American property under Marriott's Luxury Collection and the first in Panama, as an "urban oasis" as well as a "destination authority" hotel. Last month, as a hosted guest of the Santa Maria, I experienced what both of those terms meant.

This was my third visit to Panama City, and I was immediately struck by one major difference: the short ride from the airport. In a city where morning "rush hour" is a gross understatement of the daily, hours-long gridlock that appears to kick off sometime before 7, the Santa Maria's location about 7 miles east of downtown means it's located away from the worst of it, and a mere 15 minutes or so from Tocumen Airport. So in less than a quarter-hour we were pulling up to the Santa Maria development, where the hotel is adjacent to residential towers, the golf course and not much else. I was starting to understand the "urban oasis" aspect of the hotel.

The lobby, meanwhile, offered a few hints at the "destination authority" aspect. No nondescript check-in area, the tribal masks and handwoven baskets on display and wood accents made of indigenous timbers dredged from nearby Gatun Lake immediately offered a sense of place.

A deluxe king room at the Santa Maria hotel and golf resort with a view of the golf course and a mola patterned blanket on the bed.
A deluxe king room at the Santa Maria hotel and golf resort with a view of the golf course and a mola patterned blanket on the bed.

The theme continued in my deluxe king room, where a mola patterned blanket, like those found in Panama's Guna Yala province, lay atop the king bed. The spacious balcony offered a view of the golf course, and ample bedside outlets and complimentary WiFi ensured easy connectivity. 

The bathroom featured two sinks and a rainfall showerhead; executive suites add a bathtub. For sale in the minibar was the usual assortment of snacks, soft drinks and beer and next to that an exceptionally large selection of full-size liquor bottles. Appreciated conveniences included a pod-style coffeemaker and iron and ironing board.

Restaurants include the lobbyside Mestizo, which serves a buffet for breakfast and Panamanian/Mediterranean fare for lunch and dinner, and the poolside AQVA. Still to come is Ocean Prime, a fine dining venue serving select meats and seafood and offering golf course views.

The Coffee Shop & Deli serves baked goods made on-site as well as Geisha coffee, a locally grown variety that has garnered accolades in coffee competition and thus commands high prices (a cup in the Santa Maria's shop was $14). During a tasting set up for our group, the shop pitted its prized brew against coffees from Colombia and Cuba. We graded each on criteria such as aroma, bitterness and aftertaste; it wasn't a blind tasting, and I confess my grading might have been biased toward the hometown contender. Still, Geisha's delicate, sweet flavor and aroma were definitely distinctive.

The Santa Maria's spa features five treatment rooms, and golfers seeking a little post-game attention will find therapists ready to assist with skin care (to ease the effects of a few hours in the tropical sun) and golfing-related aches. But nongolfers are hardly ignored, with Santa Maria touting "a unique selection of authentic, ancestral spa treatments inspired by natural, local ingredients such as the Holy Spirit orchid," Panama's national flower. The facility also features steam rooms and dry saunas and a full-service beauty salon.

Passengers onboard the Island Princess and visitors at the Miraflores Locks exchange waves as the cruise ship transits the Panama Canal.
Passengers onboard the Island Princess and visitors at the Miraflores Locks exchange waves as the cruise ship transits the Panama Canal. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Canal transits, capuchin-spotting

Of course, being a "destination authority" hotel, the Santa Maria doesn't expect guests to stay put, and the morning after my arrival, my group set out to take in some of Panama City's essential sights.

From the hotel, it was about a 30-minute ride to the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. I'd been to the locks during each of my previous visits to Panama, so I was quite familiar with the visitors center. This time, I skipped watching the short documentary (though I highly recommend it for first-timers) and spent our group's whole visit on the observation deck. After all, I'd never seen a cruise ship transit the canal, and on this morning we were treated to two: the Island Princess and the Crystal Symphony right behind it.

As the 2,200-passenger Island Princess made its way past the observation tower, guests onboard waved to us with varying degrees of vigor; meanwhile, a staffer at the visitors center chatted up the passengers via public-address system, commenting on the poster boards they had decorated, complete with stenciled Princess logos, and placed on their balconies for the occasion.

Our group couldn't wait around for the Crystal Symphony's transit, however, as we were scheduled to take a Gamboa boat tour accompanied by Hernan Arauz, our guide from Ancon Expeditions.

Arauz — perhaps you'd recognize him from his appearance in the Panama episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" — specializes in birding tours, and he offered up a few bird calls, catching the attention of an array of avian species as we navigated the shores of Gatun Lake. I admit I was more interested in spotting monkeys, and because we were told they generally retreat to shadier areas once the late-morning sun hits, we weren't optimistic. But thanks to Arauz's expert eyes, we spotted both howler monkeys and capuchins, at least from a distance. (Luckily I had my telephoto lens.)

Additionally, the Santa Maria can arrange for what it describes as "custom-curated tours designed to immerse guests in the authentic Panama, whether through a lunch at a favorite local restaurant or a canoe down the Chagres River to spend the day with the Embera tribe." I suspect guests of this "urban oasis" would be in good hands.

Rates at the Santa Maria begin at $245, including breakfast. Visit www.luxurycollection.com/santamaria.

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