A honeymoon in Panama City is a honeymoon for the indecisive: So you want places to laze and places to explore, beach and rainforest, historic city and modern metropolis, the Caribbean and the Pacific? No problema.
As your plane arrives to a skyline that looks like Miami, you’ll realize this is a city on the verge. Further proof: Some folks by the names of Westin, Trump and Waldorf-Astoria just showed up here (as did The Bachelor this past winter), and the New York Times named Panama one of “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.” Since the U.S. gave back control of the canal in 2000, Panama has boasted Central America’s fastest-growing economy and established itself as a business hub. But beyond the busy cranes erecting the latest and greatest, the country rivals neighboring tourist mecca Costa Rica by flaunting its own natural beauty—not to mention plenty of good old-fashioned romance.
BY DAY: You don’t want to miss the canal, but do it the fancy way: Instead of jockeying for space with other tourists on the deck at the Miraflores Locks—one of three sets of gates that raise and lower ships to different levels of the canal—head to the restaurant upstairs,where you can grab a table and watch vessels pass through the architectural marvel over lunch and drinks. As for daytime excursions, Panama is known for eco-tourism, and its unique geographic positioning makes it home to more diverse wildlife than any other Central American country. (It’s got more than 900 species of birds alone.) Gamboa Tours can take you bird-watching or on a boat tour down the canal to Monkey Island, where you’ll spy not only capuchins and howler monkeys, but crocodiles, sloths, iguanas and other jungle creatures. Opening in 2013, Panama City’s $60 million Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo will feature exhibits on natural history and science. If all the exploring wears you out, rejuvenate in the Panamanian sand. At the brand-new $100 million Westin Playa Bonita, the beach spans the property, and three pools, swim-up and poolside bars and snacking options are just steps off the beach. Or get pampered at the hotel’s Clarins spa and soothe Big Day stresses away with a Reiki reflexology or an aromatics massage.
BY NIGHT: Casco Viejo, a UNESCO world heritage site, is Panama City’s gorgeous old city. It’s perfect for strolling hand-in-hand and letting afternoon turn into evening, with views of the water and city skyline. Centuries-old homes flank churches, ruins, restaurants, galleries, coffeehouses and bars. This is where Panama City’s cool crowd comes to play. Hip wine bar DiVino makes a great before- or after-dinner drink stop. If said drinks have you two feeling like a dance, nightlife can be found on Calle Uruguay, where clubs line the street and partyers bounce from one to another. For a more chill after-dinner spot, have drinks at a wine bar along the Amador causeway, a raised highway near the southern end of the canal that was created with dirt displaced during its construction.
WHERE TO STAY: The Westin Playa Bonita offers luxury rooms with those comfy Heavenly Beds, a high-end spa, three pools, six restaurants, four bars, and private balconies with views of the Pacific, mountains, and distant ships in line for the canal. Just 20 minutes from Panama City, it’s a luxe retreat from the hustle and bustle. Or stay in the rainforest, at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort—an American naval base turned nature preserve and hotel.
WHAT TO EAT: There are plenty of upscale options in Casco Viejo, including Mostaza, where they serve the biggest lobsters you’ve ever seen, and where you can sit outside in the shadow of the Arco Chato, ruins of a 17th-century church. Also popular in Casco Viejo is Manolo Caracol, which offers Spanish tapas and a lengthy wine list. If you stay at the Westin, you’ll never get bored with those six restaurants, each with its own flair. Tierra y Fuego, a Latin steakhouse, and Asiana, a loungy Asian-fusion spot, are the resort’s upscale options. For more casual fare, there’s beachside snacking at Soleo, the hotel restaurant, which offers Pacific Rim cuisine, and Starfish Grill, for oysters, lobster, jumbo shrimp and fresh fish.
WHAT TO PACK: Because Panama is situated so close to the equator, the sun is extra-strong. Don’t forget sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, light clothes, sundresses and bug spray. For exploring, hiking boots or sneakers are a must. At night, Panamanians like to get dolled up, so don’t be afraid to do the same. A Spanish-English dictionary is helpful here, too, as Panama isn’t as touristy as other Central American countries and most locals don’t speak English. Have no worries when it comes to exchanging currency—Panama uses the U.S. dollar.
BEST TIMES TO GO: Panama’s dry season (mid-December to mid-April) is its tourist season. For extra fun, come during El Carnaval, which starts the Friday before Ash Wednesday; the revelry includes parades, water fights and Mummer-like costumes.
NEWLYWED NEWS: The Westin Playa- Bonita is happy to set up a table-for-two dinner on the beach. Call for other romance package options.
GETTING THERE: Delta, United and American offer one-stop flights out of Philly that’ll get you there in about eight hours—though there aren’t a ton, so book early or you could be stuck with a long layover. There are also direct five-hour flights out of Newark on either United or Copa Airlines. — Jessica Remo