The Hardrock Hotel in Panama just opened three new restaurants. Being a sushi lover, I couldn't wait to try Soy, the newest Asian fusion restaurant. When I walked into the restaurant, I was overwhelmed with the size of it. The Hardrock is about to open another 500 guest rooms, and the restaurant is sized to feed a full hotel of hungry guests.
Surprisingly, though, the restaurant is full of intimate niches that make it seem like you're in a smaller restaurant. We chose to sit on the floor for a more authentic experience. But unlike a real sushi house in Japan, we're given comfy leg wells to we can dangle our feet into an open area below the table. The photo shows just how sexy this section of seating is. What you don't see from the photo is that these floor-seating tables look out through a floor-to-ceiling window onto a spectacular city view.
Although I continuously rave about the food in Panama, service can be spotty. In my opinion, the lack of good service is most restaurants is a direct result of servers not earning full tips due to tip-sharing. So when you get good service, you really appreciate it. The service I got at Soy was phenomenal. It wasn't just my main server, who would kneel down Asian-style every time he spoke with us, brought us a dish, or took a dirty dish away. The secondary servers were just as fabulous. They were attentive without being overwhelming.
For an appetizer (or entrada in Panama), we the spicy tempura lobster. One bite and I was firmly in love. Each bite-sized morsel of lobster was tender, sweet, and just spicy enough to be interesting. A small bowl of lobster bites was $12, and it was worth every dollar.
The next course was two different sushi rolls. I love cream cheese in sushi, but I'm amazed at how many people I've met don't. The Philadelphia Roll had a small amount of cream cheese and a large portion of tender smoked salmon. The second sushi roll was stuffed with tempura lobster and avocado. Both rolls were very good, although not the best sushi I've ever had.
As a main course, we ordered another entrada... the Chicken Curry Balls. We got 3 large tempura-fried balls of chicken curry. It was on a beautiful plate that had 3 indentations for the 3 balls, and then a square indentation that held a creamy yogurt sauce. It was imaginative and flavorful, and a beautiful way to end the meal.
The newest restaurant Soy at the Hard Rock is just one more reason to love Panama. If you know you'll be there, be sure to reserve a table on the "floor" so you can experience the romance, the view, and the
The question I get asked most frequently is, "Why Panama?"
Good question. I'm glad you asked.
I grew up in California, which is a state full of micro-climates. Within an hour or two, you can drastically change the weather and the view. In one weekend, you can be at the beach, in the middle of a vineyard, or in the mountains. When I moved to Texas, I realized how unique California was. In Texas, you can drive for two days and never leave the unending plains ... nor escape the oppressive heat in the summer. With each passing year, I longed more and more for the climate and scenery of my college years in Santa Barbara. I missed the water, I missed the view, and I definitely missed the temperate climate.
I thought of moving back to Santa Barbara, but the sad truth was that I couldn't afford it. Southern California in general has gotten exceedingly expensive, but real estate in Santa Barbara went from expensive to prohibitive. Since Santa Barbara was out, I started looking at other options.
I'd been to several Latin American countries before coming to Panama. I didn't like Costa Rica because of the huge discrepancy between the local poverty and the Gringo affluence. Chile made the short list, but I wasn't impressed with the food. When I first came to Panama, I was prepared to be under-impressed.
What surprised me about Panama was how much I liked it. I'm a foodie, so the diversity and quality of the restaurants and food available for purchase was a happy surprise. Plus, like California, Panama is blessed with a variety of micro-climates. I adore the coolness and lushness of Boquete, but for lifestyle reasons, I wanted to be closer to the action. I found a condo at Playa Bonita that combined my love of the ocean with the proximity of the city. I can get into the heart of Panama City within 15 minutes if I'm not going at rush hour, which means restaurants, shopping, doctors, and any of the services I need are at my fingertips any day of the week.
But the real reason I moved to Panama is the million dollar view I have from my condo. I sit in bed each morning and drink coffee while I watch an unimpeded view of the sun rising over the water. I'm a morning person, so getting up at 6 a.m. and watching ships make their way to the opening of the Panama Canal as the sun peeks over the horizon is the perfect start to every day. I love to see the sun sparkling on the ocean, but I'm just as fascinated to see the dark clouds swirling during rainy season as a tropical storm brings a quick daily shower.
I have different views from different rooms in my condo. My living room offers a half ocean-half jungle view, and I've found that I like staring into the jungle as much as I like looking at the ocean. The photo above shows my view from my dining area. The photo at the top of the blog post was also taken from my condo--this time from my balcony. You can see dozens of ships dotting the horizon as they wait to make their way through the Panama Canal.
Although I have a million-dollar view, the real estate in Panama is more in line with Texas property prices than California prices... which means I can actually afford the view. When I tell people why I moved to Panama, most people don't understand until they come visit. One minute in my apartment, though, and people finally understand with crystal clarity why I moved to Panama.
If you've ever been interested in visiting Panama, now is the time to do it. Stay for a week in 5-star accommodations, including all food and beverages for just $1400 per person. Here is the itinerary for this super-deal for the Panama week-long trip on August 15-August 21. To reserve your spot, email me immediately as space is limited.
Day 1: Arrive in Panama City (August 15)
Arrive in Panama in the early afternoon or evening and take a private air-conditioned bus to the Westin Hotel and Resort at Playa Bonita. Check in and enjoy deluxe accommodations as well as all-inclusive meals and beverages. Relax by the pool while you enjoy a breathtaking view of the Bay of Panama. Check out the hotel at http://www.westinplayabonita.com/.
Day 2: Panama City Tour & the Panama Canal (August 16)
Start the day with a walk on the beach and then enjoy a buffet breakfast. Leave on a half-day Panama City tour where you will see many sites in Panama, including:
Go back to the hotel and have a leisurely lunch. After lunch we will be visiting the Panama Canal, seeing a brief movie, and getting an up-close-and-personal guided tour as we watch the ships passing below us. The Panama Canal is what shaped Panama into the country it is today. See the locks in action while a guide explains what is happening in English. Get a glimpse of the canal expansion due to be complete in 2014.
Take the private bus back to the hotel and relax before dinner. Enjoy the many amenities the hotel offers, such as 5 swimming pools, a swim-up bar, water volleyball, a first-rate gym, pool, ping pong, and all-you-can-drink cocktails.
Day 3: The Wholesale Produce Market & Panama Pacifico (August 17)
Start the day with a walk on the beach or a workout in the gym and then enjoy a buffet breakfast. Leave mid-morning on a private bus for Panama Pacifico, a free trade zone. Get a firsthand glimpse of the transformed Howard Air Force Base and see how other international companies are capitalizing on the tax-free in and out status.
Take the bus back to the hotel and enjoy a buffet lunch and dessert bar.
Leave early afternoon for a trip in an air conditioned bus to visit the famous Wholesale Food Market, also known as the Ancon Produce Market. See a different side of Panama, where you can fill your refrigerator with every type of produce imaginable for under $20.
Return to the Westin Playa Bonita, where you will get a private tour of the entire Playa Bonita property, including the newly open members-only beach club, The Pearl Club. Conclude the tour with a private champagne reception at the high-end condo project Casa Bonita, led by wine expert Melissa Darnay.
Enjoy dinner at your leisure.
Day 4: Travel to the Coronado Beach Area (August 18)
Have a walk on the beach and enjoy a leisurely breakfast. Then, leave on a private bus for Coronado. An hour from Panama City, Coronado is the main beach area on the Pacific Coast side of Panama. There are many small towns that make up the beach region, but Coronado is the hub of the beach area. It has two grocery stores, a dozen or so great restaurants, a Machetazu (like a Target that sells both home items and groceries), and just about everything else you need to live comfortably, from pet groomers to nail salons to an upscale wine store.
After breakfast, ride in an air-conditioned private bus to Coronado. Tour a resort community and then have lunch as a group at La Teca, one of Coronado’s many fabulous restaurants. Wine and beer are included with lunch. See one more resort property after lunch, and then check into a rental condo. After a short time to relax, we will walk one block as a group and enjoy dinner as a group at Luna Rossa, a lovely Italian restaurant serving typical Italian fare including moderately priced pastas and pizzas. Again, wine and beer are included with dinner.
Day 5: Coronado & El Valle (August 19, 2013)
Start the day with a walk on the beach. The Coronado beaches are a swirl of black volcanic sand and traditional colored sand. The magnetic properties in the volcanic sand and the negative ions from the beach will melt away your stress as well as your aches and pains. Let the black sand squish between your toes and see how good you feel.
Eat a continental breakfast from the Fruit Basket you’ll get upon check-in. Take a private bus to see a resort community on the way to El Valle. El Valle is an inactive volcano, and an entire town was built INSIDE the volcano. At the base of El Valle, there is a local’s market that sells plants, produce, and native goods. This is a great place to get fresh produce to eat during your stay in Panama and souvenirs for all your friends back home. Have lunch at Restaurante Rincon Vallero where a stream filled runs through the restaurant. We’ll enjoy lunch with wine or beer as a group, and then you can feed the fish and the turtles in the indoor stream.
After lunch, we will take a brief hike to a waterfall. Once we get to the waterfall, feel free to enjoy a refreshing swim in the water or just relax in the cool rain forest. After a short hike back to the private bus, change into dry clothes and then ride back to Coronado.
After a short time to rest and relax, we will walk as a group two blocks to Picasso’s Ristorante, a favorite local’s hangout. This is an outdoor restaurant so dress casually. Dinner with wine or beer is included.
Day 6: Coronado & Playa Bonita (August 20)
Start the day with a walk on the beach. Eat a continental breakfast from your Fruit Basket.
Every vacation should end with some hardcore relaxation. Return to the Playa Bonita Resort, this time staying at the Intercontinental hotel and plan on relaxing. You can take a walk the beach, lay by the pool, read a book, workout in the gym, get a massage in the Clarins Spa, and generally let the beautiful surroundings wash away your fatigue.
Day 7: Travel back to the US (August 21)
Enjoy a leisurely buffet breakfast and a mimosa or two, and then take a private bus to Tocuman airport to meet your flight. Transportation to the airport is included for those who have morning departure flights.
If this sounds too good to pass up, email me and reserve your spot. There is only room for 22 people, so be one of the 22 on this incredible tour. I will need a valid credit card, and the hotel may charge 2 nights on your credit card at their discretion.
See you in Panama!
** All prices are per-person based on double occupancy. Single occupancy will incur a higher charge. The prices are based on a minimum of 10 people. Prices may be slightly higher if fewer people attend. A valid credit card number is required to secure the reservation, and one night’s hotel may be charged at the hotel’s discretion. Everything is included except airfare, spa treatments, spending money, and items not listed on this itinerary. Certain aspects of the tour may change based on availability, but the overall feel of the tour will remain the same.
I belong to a Yahoo group for Americans living in Panama. Every day, people can air grievances, share solutions to problems, and connect with other Americans. Because we're gringos living in a Latin American country, there are things that are different--or even frustrating--because we're not used to them.
After a tongue-in-cheek comedy fiction article about living to Latin America was passed around, one person who'd been thinking about moving to Panama wrote on the message board that this story had persuaded him not to move to Latin America.
Whoa! Although those of us who live here knew that the fun prose had taken a kernel of truth and twisted it into the absurd, newbies don't understand that. They think that every day is filled with bad experiences. So I want to set the record straight.
For every bad experience you hear about Panama, there are dozens of good ones. It’s just that the horror stories get more air time in social media as well in casual conversation. As the saying goes in journalism, if it bleeds… it leads!
To make matters worse, the story was written by a "grumpy old man" whose glass is perpetually half-empty. The Walter Matthau-wannabe's account was entertaining, but it was filled with over-the-top exaggeration, as all good comedy fiction should be. That’s what made it so amusing to those of us who live here. But for those of you who haven’t moved here yet, please note: Every day is not filled with crazy or bad experiences. In fact, once you get settled, most days are normal.
Has my normal changed since I moved to Panama? You bet. City traffic is unpredictable, which means a drive to the grocery store can take 10 minutes or half an hour. Setting up a bank account takes infinite patience… and then deep breathing afterwards. But I also look out at the ocean from every room in my condo and take long walks on the beach almost every day. I have a maid who makes my condo sparkle twice each week for less than I spend at happy hour, and I fill my fridge with ultra-fresh, super-cheap produce each week. I buy fresh fish from the fish market for about $1 per fillet, and having spent 15 years of my life landlocked in Dallas, the buttery taste of freshly-caught fish is downright fabulous. Even the chicken and eggs are more flavorful than in the States.
This was a lesson to those of us who like living in Panama. We need to be more proactive in spreading the word about what is good about living in Latin America.
If you're thinking about living in or retiring to Panama and want to read about the negative, the bad, and the ugly... make sure you also find out about the good, the great or even the fabulous about moving to Panama. Rather than letting the naysayers keep you from pursuing a life in Panama, check it out for yourself. After all, the large group of expats who live in Panama wouldn’t be here if the good didn't outweigh the bad.
Have you ever dreamed about living on vacation? If so, you can turn your dreams into reality. Casa Bonita is the newest condo development in Panama with a slight twist... it's smack in the middle of a 5-star resort.
Imagine spacious condos, marble floors, luxurious bathrooms, high-end appliances, and stunning views of the ocean and the Panama Canal. But that's just where it starts. The social areas on the top two floors of the 26-story building offer 360 degree views of Panama City, the Panama Canal, the entire Playa Bonita resort, and nearby islands. The social area includes a pool, hot tub, gym, two saunas, a pool table, a ping pong table and a party room.
But the amenities don't stop there. You also get access to The Pearl Club--a private beach club that transforms the extraordinary into pure decadence. Two enormous swimming pools are separated by a walk-through waterfall, and individual shaded cabanas surround the pools like elegant sentinels.
The Pearl Club also includes a large gym, a Clarins spa with every feature you could possibly imagine in a high-end spa, and poolside beverage and food service. Other plans for The Pearl Club include a private restaurant, snack bar, gourmet mini market and wine shop, coffee house, and members lounge.
The condos range from 108 square meters (1,160 square feet) to 369 square meters (3,972 square feet). Each unit at Casa Bonita includes round-the-clock security, secure parking, 24-hour concierge service, maintenance of common areas, and a 20-year property tax exemption (through January 2033).
Casa Bonita is 15 minutes from Panama City just over the Bridge of the Americas on the Panamerican Highway.
How do I know so much about the lifestyle of Casa Bonita? Because I was one of the first residents. I'm now living my dream of full-time resort living. When you see the sun sparkling off of the ocean on your walk to get a massage, you'll wonder why it took you so long to find paradise.
For more information about Casa Bonita, contact me. I'd love to show you around.
One of the things I love best about Panama is the local produce. I grew up in California eating fresh-from-the-earth fruit and vegetables, and I know what fresh produce should taste like. During my life in Texas, eating fruit became a chore because even my favorite fruit was almost tasteless. Moving to Panama, I’ve rediscovered the joy of fresh fruit. But what makes it even more appealing is how inexpensive fresh fruit and vegetables are at the Whole Food Market in Panama City.
The Wholesale Food Market is referred to by several names, including “the produce market,” “the Ancon produce market” and “Mercado de Abastos” for those who speak Spanish. If you think this is a produce market that you roam with a basket over your arm, you are underestimating the size of this market. It’s more the size of a small fairground than a typical farmer’s market.
The Wholesale Food Market is a Latin American adventure. The traffic is chaotic, the streets are often muddy, the air is pungent with ripe (and sometimes rotting) produce, and many of the vendors could benefit from a few more teeth, but once you accept the market for what it is, you’ll learn to love it as I have.
I’m amazed how honest the vendors are. I have yet to really understand my numbers in Spanish, which means I overpay on a regular basis. Each week, there are one or two vendors who could make an extra dollar or two from me, but they always give me back the money when I overpay. When I first started going, I would literally hold out my hand and allow them to take the money that I owed. I’ve never felt cheated. In fact, just the opposite. I know many of the vendors are poor, but they always have a ready smile and often offer a free piece of fruit to try. These are salt-of-the-earth, hardworking Panamanians and you can’t help but adore them.
The market is located next to the National Police station on Ave. Los Matires on the way to Albrook Mall. You pay a quarter to drive in, and then you drive from area to area. Each vendor has his own small stall. Some vendors carry general produce while others may just have a few items. There is one area of the market for pineapple and a different area for plantains. Sprinkled throughout the produce sellers are distributors who carry other food items such as rice, beans, eggs, cooking oil, fresh honey, stick cinnamon, spices, and restaurant supplies.
I go to the Wholesale Food Market every Saturday and have developed relationships with favorite vendors. They give me preferential service (meaning I get to cut in line if there’s a line) and a bit of discounted pricing, but most importantly, they greet me like I’m a movie star. One vendor literally runs out into the street waving and shouting happy greetings as soon as he sees me.
I typically spend $20 or less and my SUV is bursting with fresh produce. Because everything is indeed just-picked-fresh, it must be eaten or cooked within a few days.
Here is just a sampling of what you can get and the approximate price.
Other produce that I’m not as familiar with the pricing on include:
As you can see, there is something here for everyone, as well as local products that we’re unfamiliar with. At these prices, you can eat like a gourmet chef and have a fun adventure as an added bonus.
These pancakes are delicious right off the griddle but the flavor is even better the next day. These are my favorite weekend treat and the leftovers can be enjoyed all week.
2 cups Bisquick
½ cup Skim milk
½ cup Coconut milk
1 tsp. Vanilla
¼ tsp. Coconut extract
2/3 cup Shredded coconut
1 cup Diced Pineapple
¼ cup Rum (can substitute water or pineapple juice)
Mix ingredients well. Ladle ¼ cup of batter onto buttered griddle or smooth-surface pan and cook on medium-low heat until golden brown on both sides. Serve with warm Pineapple Coconut Chutney or syrup and butter.
Store leftover pancakes in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Reheat in the microwave for 30 seconds or in the toaster oven for a crisper pancake.
Makes 18-20 pancakes.
Melissa Darnay is a marketer, a serial entrepreneur, and a relocation concierge in Panama. Learn more...