Ex-Pats in Panamas Paradise

By: Jim Hollister

Opened in 1914, its rustic structure may be affectionately described as "Scandinavian cottage", perhaps "Russian dacha". Its accommodations are home-style and comfortable, ranging in size from small, twin-bed spaces to larger efficiencies with wet bars and private patios. The cozy 19 rooms are attractively furnished and reminiscent of an earlier time in highland travel. In 1946 the inn was acquired by the Elliot-Collins family and it is now operated by the current descendant, Mrs. Inga Collins. When in residence she is often found at the stone fireplace in the recently redecorated cocktail lounge where she is known to share stories on the history of the inn, the region’s natural attractions, and its native people.

In fact, the cocktail lounge is one of the great rooms in Boquete and a draw for guests and locals who gather most nights to share their day’s adventures. With two roaring stone fireplaces, the décor extends the inn’s European flavor by adding a little California and a dash of the Old West. Spanish-style wrought iron lamps, brass candles, and sheer, floor-length curtains frame large, open windows. Overstuffed couches and wicker chairs add the right degree of casual comfort. Throughout the room fresh Bird of Paradise are set in large vases. The lighting is romantic and the mood completed with aromas of highland air and oranges wafting in from outdoors. You might imagine Connery or Bergman sidling up to the new, exquisitely-made hardwood bar, the work of design consultant Michelle Fogarty de Brewer who also conceived the room’s redecoration. Overall, the design is a sophisticated balance of mountain and tropical elements that fit wonderfully with the inn’s unfussy elegance.

There is an atmosphere of excitement in Boquete with travelers feeling like they’ve arrived early to the next great getaway. It’s common in conversation to reference Costa Rica as being “over", while Panama is considered the rising star. In the last two years Boquete has realized something of a land rush beginning with its selection as one of the Best Places to Retire by Modern Maturity and International Living magazines. Its location at 3,500 feet, nestled in the craggy hills below the dormant Baru Volcano and year around temperatures of 75—85 degrees are idyllic. Stories have appeared in travel features of the LA Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, and others. Once considered a tiny hideaway in the distant Republic of Panama , Boquete is officially on travelers' radar screens. Europeans, mostly Swiss, Germans, and Yugoslavs, along with English and Canadians, began moving here in the earliest years of the twentieth century and were instrumental in the development of the coffee industry and establishment of the town. Of a total population of around 4,100 the new ex-pat community in Boquete is estimated to be as large as 600 and growing everyday.

The Panamonte Inn & Spa is ideally situated at the edge of town at the head of the main street as you drive in. It’s close enough to walk to the shops and bodegas, but still a little away from the traffic and noise. Just beyond its covered main entrance, past the reception hall and the restaurant is one of the Panamonte’s real gems: a garden bounded by the back portion of the inn and its cabanas, all connected by covered walkways. The result is a semi-secluded retreat joyously filled with several flower varieties, verdant green trellises, a water fountain, and clusters of comfortable outdoor furniture. Hammocks tucked under overhanging trees provide cozy places to escape for siesta. On a line strung between two ivy-covered trees we found dozens of dark-brown bark chunks sprouting new orchids.

In the dewy mornings all manner of tropical birds can be heard chirping in the new day. These are some of the same reasons to consider the Panamonte Estates, a development of 26 home sites on a new road adjacent to the inn. The exclusive enclave is situated in a prime location with beautiful mountain views and in-place infrastructure designed to support a range of hacienda- or Caribbean -style homes to be built by the owners. Nearly half the properties are already sold with prices for most remaining sites ranging from about $66,000 — $92,000. Four are priced from $103,000 — $145,000.

Panama is home to some of the most pristine tropical rainforest in the world. In a country of less than 30,000 square miles (smaller than the state of Maine) there are over five million acres of national parks and nearly one-third of the country is set aside for conservation. Panama has over 1,500 islands along its Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the two oceans are so close together, you can swim in both the same day.

The diversity of flora and fauna is so great there are hundreds of species found nowhere else on earth. A naturalist and bird watchers' paradise, there are a recorded 944 bird species, 218 mammal species, 226 species of reptile and 164 amphibian species. It’s no wonder that visitorA Guide to the Birds of Panama: With Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Hondurass to Boquete spend a good portion of their time in outdoor activities, including the most exciting whitewater rafting in Central America (See the accompanying feature, Panama ’s Best Chiriqui River Rafting.) The inn can arrange excursions to the magnificent 11,490’ Baru Volcano, Caldera Hot Springs, bird watching on the Quetzal Trail, horseback riding, cloud walking through the forest canopy or visits to one of the 1,200 coffee farms or “fincas" that dot the hillsides around Boquete.

Before visiting Panama I was under the impression that coffee was grown, harvested, roasted, and delivered. Not much else was required, or so I thought. A visit to the Kotowa Coffee Estate changed all that. Boquete is coffee country with its rich black volcanic soil, frequent fog, and great variety of trees, like cedar, ash, guayaba, and cuellito. As your eyes scan the hillsides, you’ll notice all the trees, including the Valencia oranges – imports from California .

But where, you may ask, are all the coffee plants? Soon you’ll discover nestled underneath the aforementioned shade trees are tall coffee shrubs, in season laden with ripe, red berries. The bean is actually the seed of the berry and that’s where the fun begins. A process that requires picking the red berries at precisely the right time — not too green and not past red — means the plants progress is continually monitored, often up to three times a day. Beans are picked on schedule and begin a journey of separation by size, weight, and density, all designed to bring the best quality beans to the surface. Boquete coffee is 100% Arabian — no bitter Robusta beans used here. Those are for the “mass" coffee growers in Brazil and Vietnam. Ultimately, the process has about a dozen steps which will take several months from picking to roasting. You’ll learn about it from A to Z and enjoy some delicious home grown coffee on any number of tours. We enjoyed the three-hour outing hosted by Terry and Hans Van Niekerk; call (507) 720-3852 or (507) 634-4698.

Dining Is Evolving Delightfully

The Boquete restaurant scene is small and constantly changing. Standouts in the center of town include Boquete Bistro, owned by Loretta Bonfiglio, an Aspen transplant, who cooks up an enjoyable mix of Latin and American dishes. Hibiscus, a French restaurant started by Parisian-trained Christophe Giroud, who returned to Boquete with his Panamanian wife to start the new business. Both restaurants serve lunch and dinner entreés under US$10. The best dining in town, both for food and ambiance is right at the Panamonte. Charlie Collins, son of the owner, is a well-known chef d’cuisine who has consulted with Panamanian presidents and has a successful catering and retail business in Panama City . Collins created the menu and oversees the dining room which features fresh fish including trout, salmon, and corvina (sea bass), as well as New York steaks, rib-eyes, fillet of beef, plus grilled pork chops, and my personal favorite, Mignon de Cerdo (Grilled Pork Mignon). There’s a delicious shrimp and plantain appetizer and a lemon meringue pie that is famous. Entreés run US$8.50-$11.00. They also have the best wine selection in town, with French, California, and Chilean varietals well represented.

Relax In The Spa

Kate Traicos has managed spas in five countries, including three in Africa where she worked for several years in connection with the upscale safari trade. Recently, she took over as manager of The Panamonte Spa to the delight of her expanding clientele. Located on the second floor of the inn the spa is rapidly becoming THE place in Boquete for everything from therapeutic massage, hot stone treatments, aromatherapy to reflexology, and shiatsu to facials. Currently, the spa occupies one large room divided into three, white-linen, tent-type, private treatment areas that provide calming environments for her clients with a separate room for couples massage. In the works are a steam room, hot tub, and additional massage spaces, plus Kate expects to introduce the first yoga classes in town, most likely by the time of this writing. Prices are reasonable, especially by U.S. standards, with a full-body, one-hour massage at US$50 and other treatments ranging from US$35-US$95. Call the inn’s main number for reservations (507) 720-1324 or e-mail Kate at spa@panamonteinnandspa.com

The Inn Is Growing

A wonderful catch for the Panamonte has been manager E. David Brewer, who joined the team last year. His three decades of management experience, first at Little Dix Bay Resort in Virgin Gorda, B.V.I., then at Kapalua Bay Hotel on Maui prior to 15 years at Caneel Bay Resort, St. John, U.S.V.I., plus additional stints in Jamaica, Antigua, and the Seychelles, add up to a career of running some of the finest resorts in the world. David is a man in motion who can be found darting around the inn on his mission to make the experience more unique. He has seen it all when it comes to the upscale hospitality trade, so his confidence and know-how translate into a gracious way with guests. Working closely with Inga Collins on new ideas for the inn, David reports plans for ten new rooms in addition to the spa improvements already in the works. He promises the first new addition in decades will in no way interfere with the Panamonte’s present allure.

Boquete Is Wired

Jim HollisterFree Articles, Jetsetters Magazine Editor – Read Jetsetters Magazine at www.jetsettersmagazine.com To book travel visit Jetstreams.com at www.jetstreams.com and for Beach Resorts visit Beach Booker at www.beachbooker.com

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