In 2013 travelers to Panama can enjoy a luxury beach vacation without leaving Panama City. Across the fabled Bridge of Americas over the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal and down a winding road is Playa Bonita or "pretty beach," a resort area just minutes from downtown Panama City. The small cove with a one-mile-stretch of sand and only two resorts may not exactly be Miami Beach; however, last January's opening of the Westin Playa Bonita alongside the Intercontinental Playa Bonita has given Panama City a viable, if compact, resort area with amenities you'd expect to find in, say, Jamaica or the Domincan Republic. And recently the area got a nice bump in amenities offered with the Westin's Aquabella Sensory Spa by Clarins.
Completed in October, Clarins' state-of-the art technology introduces a modern, destination-spa experience to the area. Navigate your way through the "Thermal Circuit"—a network of treatment chambers that deliver hot-, cold-, and hydrotherapies. Waterflow and temperatures are adjusted in each treatment to relieve tension and promote deep relaxation. For example, the "Heat Experience" portion of the circuit has such esoteric but delightful features as the amethyst crystal steam room, a detoxifying treatment that diffuses essential oils through amethyst crystal. In all there are 16 treatment rooms and a full menu of massages, facials, and baths, as well as a beauty salon and large fitness center. Spa treatments are by appointment and available to both Westin and Intercontinental guests. However, Intercontinental guests would be hard-pressed to forgo their own 10,000 square foot spa, also by Clarins.
And therein lies the beauty of this small Panama City oasis. You don't have to choose. Day-use fees may apply to some of the facilities, but between the two resorts guests can choose among 9 restaurants, from Latin steakhouse to Asian-fusion; 9 pools, including the Westin's extensive canal pool, and 2 gorgeous cocktail lounges with live entertainment. Both hotels have kids' clubs, making them great family destinations.
When you're ready to explore some of Panama's must-see attractions such as Calzada Amador, the Miraflores Locks, Casco Viejo, or the soon to be opened Frank Gehry Bio Museum, you're just a short cab ride away. It all makes for a kind-of mini mega-resort destination, perfect if you want to experience the urban highlights and excitement of Panama City from a more secluded home base.
When to Go: Playa Bonita is a year-round beach escape for locals, particularly on weekends, but fewer crowds and lower rates are found from mid July through the end of August.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Westin Playa Bonita