San José Island, Pearl Islands, Panama
Tucked into the cliffs on the southwestern corner of San José Island, the second largest of the 90 islands that make up Panama's Pearl archipelago, the Hacienda del Mar Hotel overlooks a volcanic cove dusted with powder-white sand and deep blue Pacific waters dotted with gravity-defying rock formations.
On an island uninhabited except for the Hacienda del Mar, you arrive by a 30-minute charter plane or Air Panama flight from Panama City's Albrook airport, the old Canal Zone airport. After an exhilarating landing on a dirt strip carved into the tropical forest, four-wheel drive trucks meet your flight. Whisking down a palm-lined, smooth dirt road obstructed only by occasional darting iguanas, you arrive after a 15-minute drive to an open-air reception desk housed at the entrance of a three-story building at the foot of the property.
Staffers transport luggage to rooms while you embark on a brief orientation complete with an umbrella-clad welcome drink. A few steps away stands the two-story main lodge constructed of caña blanca (cane). The splayed facade opens up like an oyster elegantly displaying the large second-floor deck that functions as the Hacienda del Mar's main dining area. The restaurant where macaws fly overhead and keel billed toucans make regular visits is definitely the jewel of the hotel. From the coconut ceviche to the day's catch prepared in mouth-watering seafood, cashew nut or curry sauces, each dish is consistently cooked to perfection.
If you are tired from a day in the sun, the lodge's ground floor offers an array of indoor activities. The clubhouse has a full bar, a pool table, darts, table games and a giant flat-screen TV where guests gather in the evenings to exchange tales about the afternoon's events. A children's recreation room sits just opposite.
A gift shop stocks just about every toiletry you might need as well as clothing and souvenirs, a welcome sight in this remote location if you've forgotten anything. There is also a small library with a pricey pay-per-minute Internet connection which if anything serves as a friendly reminder to detach and relax.
The Hacienda del Mar provides a plethora of activities. Pool lovers can scan the Pacific waters while floating or swinging from one of the hammocks. The pool's only downside is the surrounding tile that captures the sun's heat making barefoot jaunts virtually impossible. At the lodge's entrance, a series of signup sheets invite you to select from a range of outdoor activities including night safaris, ATV tours, and deep-sea fishing trips with proper notice (communicate specific equipment needs in advance). The added luxury of having the skilled kitchen prepare your catch-of-the-day may encourage even land lovers to hit the seas. Snorkel, kayak and jet ski rentals are on site for jaunts from the shore.
While the Hacienda del Mar offers a variety of places to take refuge, the 14 cane cottages are equally inviting. More rustic than luxurious, they are nonetheless very comfortable and small touches such as nightly turndown service bring it up a notch. All rooms have good toiletries, high thread-count sheets, comfortable mattresses, and fluffy pillows, though the faded purple and green floral bedspreads detract from the otherwise carefully appointed rooms. Ten standard cottages surround the property's edge and are equipped with two queen-sized beds and hacienda-style armoires and nightstands set atop cool terracotta tiles. The ceiling fans together with the steady breeze usually render the air conditioning inessential.
Wooden louvered and screened windows open up to rear balconies with views of the Pacific and of the beach on the west side.
Cottages nine and ten have sea views. All Suites have king-sized beds, minibars, coffeemakers, and granite counter bathrooms. The Junior Suites are not bigger than Standards but offer more privacy. One clings to the south-facing bluff, while another sits slightly uphill within a small field. The two VIP cottages perch precariously over the water on the property's southwestern edge, number 12 commanding a nice beach view. Both VIP cottages feature large living areas topped with white paneled as opposed to cane ceilings and spacious bedrooms.
Recent additions include two floors of Deluxe and VIP Suites above the reception area. On the second floor, two identical VIP Suites connect and offer separate comfortably furnished lounges opening up to west-facing balconies. The VIP Suites have dark wood furnishings and decorative art pieces tying together a royal blue and maroon color scheme. Similar in décor, the third floor Deluxe Suite enjoys beach and sea views from a plush sofa through a pyramid of glass and from rattan chairs lining a veranda. The master bedroom adjoins a large bathroom with a shower-tub combination and connects to a small room with two twin beds. The VIP and Deluxe Suites have the quickest access to the small but well-equipped exercise room and two-person dry sauna on the ground floor.
The always smiling staff is highly attentive to individual guest needs. Equally important, not only are they friendly, but they are also well-trained and take pride in doing a good job. It comes as no surprise that some staffers have been at the Hacienda del Mar since day one. The only issue the staff has been unable to control is the pesky no-see-ums, also known as sand flies, appearing mostly at dawn and dusk. Guests are kindly reminded to wear long pants and shirts during these times. On the plus side, the weather is good. Compared to island adventures on Panama's Caribbean side, the upside here on the Pacific side may be the possibility of more sunny days.
Similar to Popa Paradise Beach Resort in Bocas del Toro, the Hacienda del Mar is a place where young and old, day-trippers and weekend visitors, and outdoor enthusiasts and lounge lizards can all discover a little piece of island paradise.
Web Address: www.haciendadelmar.net
Total Number of Rooms: 17
Published rates: $330 - $525
Review and photos by Beverly Gallagher
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