Bristol Panama

Panama is having a major moment in the travel industry and it is very well deserved indeed. Not only is it easy to get to and around in—you don’t even have to change your money; they use American currency—you can see and do so much in a relatively short period of time. With coastlines on both the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean—a bit more about those fab beaches later—it also offers mountains and rainforests to explore. Oh, and did we mention the balmy tropical weather with zero chance of snow?

Outside, everything is bustling and noisy and the weather is doing its hot and sticky thing, but inside the Bristol Panama in the downtown Financial District, it’s all delightfully chilled with the air lightly perfumed with fir-scented candles conjuring up brisk winter afternoons. Everyone speaks in low voices. There’s lots of rich wood paneling and chic furnishings and lighting fixtures. After a long day of traveling, the very welcome effect is that of an elegant oasis. And so it remains as the hotel serves as our landing pad during the busy two days we spend exploring the city, parts of whose skyline is still being fashioned as we view it. We are in the charming Casco Viejo, admiring the red tile-roof buildings of the city’s oldest standing neighborhood, and our guide points to the futuristic skyline across the water. “See all that? Ten years ago, it didn’t exist.” Certainly the highlight of any tour of this vibrant metropolis is a visit to the Miraflores Visitors Center at the Panama Canal, whose 100th anniversary is being celebrated this year. Watching a ship come through the locks—wow, it is really close—viewing a film about its construction, and touring a very informative, hands-on museum—one exhibit’s authenticity makes me wish for Dramamine—is utterly fascinating. On our drive back, our driver points out the striking structure for the BioMuseo, a museum that explores the isthmus and the diverse range of species that inhabit the region, is still under construction; designed by architect Frank Gehry, it’s his only work in Latin America. Featuring asymmetrical bright blue, red, orange, and yellow roof panels, it appears from our vantage point like gigantic crumpled-up pieces of paper. After 10 years, the $60-million facility finally opened in July. Don’t miss it.

More travel: 2014’s Fantastic Fall Getaways

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Evenings back at the oasis find us reviving in the time-honored tradition of hot, tired, and sweaty tourists everywhere—nap, shower, then drinks. A cool spot to catch up over cocktails is the hotel’s swanky 8º58′ Lounge, and its restaurant offers up small plates of Panamanian fusion cuisine with an Asian accent. Offering a panoramic view of the twinkling lights of the city, it is also adjacent to an invigorating new fitness center and rooftop plunge pool. We dine on excellent gourmet Panamanian cuisine by famed Chef Cuquita Arias in the hotel’s other eatery, Salsipuedes, where my husband makes swift work of his traditional churros dessert. Do visit the hotel’s heavenly top-floor spa; an excellent massage followed by soaking in the breathtaking views of the city below proves the perfect antidote to my Weary Tourist Syndrome.

Details: The rate for a Deluxe room in high season (December-March) starts at $229 and includes breakfast; taxes extra;

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