VIEW FROM THE STREET: PANAMA
Is Panama City The Next South Beach?
Sunday, February 18, 2007
It was sticky hot, and I was grungy after a morning exploring the cobblestone passageways of Panama City's Casco Viejo, a 300-year-old cross between the crumbling charm of Old Havana and the restored glow of New Orleans's French Quarter.
In my baseball cap, khaki shorts and sweaty T-shirt, I was dressed for a sidewalk hot dog stand. But a Panamanian friend had been raving about S'cena, the new Mediterranean restaurant in this colonial-era part of town, and when I stumbled upon its entranceway, it seemed the food gods were summoning me.
Still, I felt a little sheepish as I passed the first-floor jazz bar and stepped into a scene of sophisticated serenity: white tablecloths, fresh flowers and waiters in pressed shirts. I braced myself for dirty looks and a dreary table near a swinging kitchen door.
Instead, the owner greeted me like a lost cousin, whisking me to a prime table and gently draping a linen napkin across my lap.
And apparently I wasn't the only one getting VIP treatment. They were calling the guy in the next room "Mr. President."
"No, no," the waiter whispered, "it is the president -- of Panama."
Somehow, it all made sense. After just a few days in Panama, you start to recognize faces, and the prospect of sipping a midday chardonnay a few feet from the country's most powerful man doesn't seem so far-fetched.
I had seen ads touting Panama City as the next super-swanky Miami, and I was prepared for velvet-roped lines and South Beach-style snobbery. Heck, Jenna Bush was clubbing here just before I arrived. So not having to deal with a waiter with an attitude was a relief.
But I can see why it gets the Miami comparisons. The city tucked on Panama Bay offers a hip urban vibe and a distinctive skyline. It has sunshine, seafood and shopping opportunities galore. And although Panama is part of Central America, its rhythm and stylish Latin inhabitants have a Caribbean flavor.
There are notable disappointments. Panama's tourism industry sometimes struggles to meet the demands of travelers. (The man at the Avis counter had no idea how to get downtown, and cabdrivers were no better.) And though the country has many exquisite beaches, none is within walking distance of the hotel strip as in Miami's South Beach.
But ultimately, the beauty of Panama City is that it hasn't become Miami yet. It's much more welcoming and manageable. And now is the time to go -- before the Panama Canal gets its third set of locks, before Donald Trump finishes his 65-story tower and before the prices shoot just as high.
Glitches, Then Fixes
The woman behind the Louis XV desk at the Hotel DeVille looks puzzled.