Two Ocean Thrill

Two Ocean Thrill

You’ve spent months fiddling with the tiniest details to personalise your wedding, so why stop there? Sure, you can choose your honeymoon destination by flicking to the nicest-looking photo in the brochure, but the decision really deserves the same attention you have given to other aspects of your special day.

You’ll certainly need pampered relaxation, but also maybe want some lively nightlife and a cultural taste of the exotic. After a normal hectic wedding my wife Christie and I found the perfect blend of beach, city and adventure all within easy reach in Panama, Latin-America’s newly discovered destination. As seasoned travellers, we knew that newly discovered often means rough around the edges, but – thanks to the riches brought by bananas and a canal – Panama offers first-world creature comforts as well as deserted beaches, picture-perfect Caribbean islands and rainforests teeming with wildlife.

The capital offers more than a transit point to get to your resort: within a short distance you will find an UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as soaring office blocks and apartments, including the forthcoming Trump Ocean Club, International Hotel & Tower. The old city, Casco Viejo, crumbled forgotten as Panama’s modern city was built around it, but since UNESCO status was granted in 1997 a major re-furbishment is underway. Luckily, the trendy restaurants and bars tucked into narrow streets that make Casco Viejo a fashionable spot for a night out haven’t diminished the area’s old charm.

You can’t come to Panama without seeing the canal and even if you don’t have time or interest for the various day or half-day excursions, it is well worth spending a couple of hours at the Miraflores Docks Visitors Centre. Exhibits let you marvel the engineering ingenuity, admire the perseverance and squirm at the models of gigantic bugs and creatures that kept the workers company throughout the construction.

The canal joins the Pacific and Atlantic, meaning both oceans’ beaches are within easy reach. The Pacific offers resorts like the newly-opened Las Islas Secas Resort or Hacienda del Mar, but we chose the Bocas del Toro archipelago in the Caribbean, probably swayed by hearing that over a dozen countries have filmed their version of the Survivor TV series there. After a short flight to Bocas airport, we were picked up and zipped through tiny islands and mangroves by boat to the Tranquilo Bay resort (www.tranquilobay.com).

The owners’ dedication to protecting the precious eco-system doesn’t mean skimping on luxury in their six cabanas, and the activities on offer made us appreciate that commitment. Some days we hiked through part of the rainforest, kayaked, or visited a local cacao plantation, while on lazier days we just relaxed on the hammock outside the cabana or were taken to a small island where we were completely alone, miles from any tourists. On the way home the water was clear so, thanks to GPS, we stopped in the middle of nowhere, donned snorkels and dived into a virtual aquarium with thousands of fish and multicoloured coral.

Leaving the Caribbean we travelled inland to El Valle de Anton, a quiet little town in a volcanic valley that offers a more authentic Panamanian experience. The area has long been a playground for folk from the capital – many have bought second homes here – and La Casa del Lourdes (www.lacasadelourdes.com) was built to meet the growing demand of those weekenders, attracted by the food of celebrity chef Lourdes Fábregas de Ward. She came to El Valle to retire and open a small restaurant, but that has grown into a luxurious hotel complete with spa. The combination of wonderful food, relaxed Tuscan-inspired setting and the general sleepy feel of El Valle combine into an ideal honeymoon getaway. The more energetic can explore local wildlife, play one of the best golf courses in Latin America (if that is your idea of romantic) or take the nearby Canopy Adventure, where you can zip-line down through a forest and over the Chorro El Macho waterfall.

Panama’s emergence as a tourist destination is likely to peak in the years ahead, and may come a time when it becomes as over-developed as neighbours like Costa Rica. But right now it offers the perfect combination of romance with a sense of adventure, which is what any honeymoon should be all about.

Romantic highlights

  • An afternoon lazing on a small Caribbean island, where we were the only inhabitants.
  • Dinner on the Amador Causeway overlooking the night skyline of Panama City.
  • The ever-changing light at dusk in El Valle.

Hip-hotels

Panama City’s Bristol (www.thebristol.com) is popular with business travellers, but is a lot more than just a corporate pad. In El Valle, La Casa de Lourdes (www.lacasadelourdes.com) attracts Panama’s trendy set and was hosting a local TV celebrity’s wedding while we were there. Panama’s most unusual hotel has to be the Canopy Tower (www.canopytower.com), a converted radar station that has 12 rooms on five levels overlooking the rainforest.

Romantic Restaurants

Romantic doesn’t have to mean chinzy décor. In Panama City Limoncillo’s wooden furnishings, soft lights and funky colours will inspire sighing gazes and footsie between courses of excellent food. Advance booking is essential, particularly at weekends. (www.limoncillo.com)

Getting there

If booking your own flight the easiest route is Dublin-Newark-Panama City with Continental Airlines (www.continental.com), which also gives you the option of tagging on a few days in New York. Any other route will involve an extra stopover. Whatever you do be sure to book Panama City, Panama (PTY) rather than Panama City in Florida! Because Panama is an emerging destination you won’t find many of-the-shelf honeymoon packages, but there are some two-week itineraries at Trips World Wide (www.tripsworldwide.co.uk) and Responsible Travel (www.resonsibletravel.com). Panama Holidays (www.panamaholiday.co.uk) is based in Panama but has an office in England and offers honeymoon packages with flights from UK airports.

Tell me more

Whet your appetite on www.visitpanama.com and www.panamainfo.com. When packing its worth throwing in the Panama guide in the Moon Handbook series, whether you’ve planned your own trip or will be whisked around as part of an organised itinerary.