The first Westin Hotel to open in Panama is designed to impress: it boasts soaring towers, a magnificent entrance, and the largest meeting and banquet space in the country. Opened in mid-2012, the hybrid all-inclusive Westin Playa Bonita Panama is poised to make an impact.
The Westin Playa Bonita Panama (on the same beach as the Intercontinental Playa Bonita) enjoys an enviable location: perched on a beautiful, serene strip of white sand, the resort is just 20 minutes from bustling downtown Panama City. The expansive vistas from the sweeping lobby, as from the ocean view rooms, overlook the queue of ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal from the Pacific on their way to the Atlantic. The hotel's proximity to the capital city makes it the ideal choice for an executive who wants to take his or her spouse or family along on a business trip to Panama.
Whether at the Westin primarily for business or pleasure, there are plenty of amenities to enjoy. Always inviting in the hot and humid climate are the three infinity pools running parallel to the beach. Partially submerged chaises longues — and full poolside bar service — keep the cooling feeling going. A large, separate children's pool is adjacent to the Westin Kids Club, which offers a range of supervised sports and activities for youngsters aged 4-12.
The Westin Workout gym is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and can provide personal training sessions and specialty fitness programs. The Pearl Club & Spa offers massages and facials in seven treatment rooms.
Guests wishing to relax in more intimate and luxurious surroundings can kick it up a notch at the Executive Lounge, an exclusive open-air retreat high on the 19th floor featuring lounging cabanas, a plunge pool, and private bar and food service.
Right on the Westin's premises, at the office of Gamboa Tours, guests can plan half-day or full-day outings in the hotel's proximity. Popular sightseeing attractions include Casco Viejo, Panama City's picturesque historic quarter, now a UNESCO World Heritage site; the Panama Canal's fascinating visitor center at Miraflores Locks; the wildlife-rich Gamboa Rainforest and other nature reserves; the Embera Indian Indigenous Village; and the unique Museum of Biodiversity, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Panama City itself, with all the dynamism of an international city ranked consistently at the top of annual lists of hottest tourism destinations, is so close that there is always the temptation to go into town to eat or shop. Yet there are enough choices on property to keep one happily in place.
For one, the lobby gift shop is a pleasant surprise: not only is it large and stocked with a nice representative sample of ethnic handicrafts, but the prices are remarkably reasonable. It's nice to know that souvenir shopping can be this convenient.
And there are six other reasons as well: the hotel's varied restaurants, designed to satisfy up to 1,300 diners. The Westin is an unusual combination: both a conventional resort and an all-inclusive, with three buffet and three a la carte restaurants. Cafe Pacifica is the restaurant guests are likely to frequent most often: it is where breakfast is served, with both indoor and al fresco seating. Breakfast will never get boring, with omelet and waffle stations complementing an expansive buffet offering both American and Panamanian options. In the evenings, the buffet rotates its menu to feature cuisines from different countries.
Oceanica is the resort's largest restaurants, whose buffet always presents an array of international selections. The Starfish Grill is a seafood buffet that can source super-fresh ingredients from Panama's two oceans and mountain rivers. Soleo serves up tapas — like small plates of Mediterranean delicacies. Asiana, specializes in pan-Asian fusion cuisine and Tierra y Fuego is a Latin steakhouse that is the resort's fanciest eating establishment. (Note: Not all restaurants may be open every day, depending on occupancy.)
After dinner, there are several places to chill with live music: the Oasis Bar is lit by a spectacular, colorful Chihuly-style chandelier, while the patio next to the poolside Tidal Bar is a great place to dance.
Of course, the ultimate test of a hotel is the comfort of its rooms, and here is where guests can rely on the Starwood/Westin reputation, for touches like their trademarked Heavenly Beds, plus 24-hour Guest Services representatives available at one touch of a phone button from any extension. All of the guest rooms and suites come with private terraces and ocean or rainforest views, 40" LCD televisions that receive US channels, and iPod docking stations. Refreshment centers comprise coffee makers, one complimentary bottle of water, and mini-fridges that will be stocked on request. Bathrooms are equipped with oversized tubs, spacious shower stalls with massaging heads, and comfortable bathrobes.
Wi-fi access — with Internet-based printing service — reaches all rooms, as well as public areas; be prepared to pay $15.95 a day (plus tax) for the privilege of connecting.
Guests wanting more room will find the resort very accommodating: there are 64 suites, and 240 rooms that connect with adjoining ones to create 120 family-friendly units. There are also three exclusive presidential suites that provide both more space and an extra measure of luxury.
The Westin debut in Panama was still in its opening phases during my visit, but first indications are that it will take its place among the elite hotels in the capital city region.
Review by Buzzy Gordon, photos courtesy of the hotel.