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Panama City

Sunday, February 18, 2007

GETTING THERE: Continental, Delta and Northwest have flights from the Washington area to Panama City starting at about $630.

GETTING AROUND: Unless you plan to explore beyond Panama City, stick with cabs. As in Washington, Panama City taxis charge by the zone rather than meters. A typical ride across town is no more than $3, but be prepared to help navigate, as the drivers often don't know their way around.

WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel DeVille (Ave. Beatriz M. de Cabal near Calle 50, 507-206-3100, http://www.devillehotel.com.pa/) is a new boutique hotel with soaring ceilings, comfortable beds and plenty of room to stretch out. Published rates are $155 per night double, but discounts are usually available. There's a hearty room-service breakfast for less than $12, and Ten Bistro downstairs serves tasty dinners.

If you've always wanted to experience a luxury hotel but worried about the price, treat yourself to a night at the Bristol (Calle Aquilino de la Guardia, 507-265-7844, http://www.thebristol.com/). Published room rates begin at $195.

For a side trip to El Valle, Hotel Campestre (Calle Club Campestre, 507-983-6146, http://www.hotelcampestre.com/) is a modest motel in a pretty meadow. Rooms start at $45.

WHERE TO EAT: The staff at S'Cena (Calle Primera in Casco Viejo) treats everyone like royalty. Elegant but not fussy, this restaurant above a jazz club serves Mediterranean food. Entrees are about $28.

If you get to Panama only once, be sure to experience dinner at Manolo Caracol (Ave. Central and Calle 3 Oeste, 507-228-4640). An evening in this boisterous Casco Viejo landmark is more than just a meal; it's a performance. The fixed-price meal (less than $25 a person, not including wine) arrives at the table in waves of deliciousness: ceviche, grilled zucchini, seared tuna, chicken kebabs, salad, Spanish rice and flan.

Panama's local elites congregate at La Posta (Calle 49 and Calle Uruguay in the Bella Vista neighborhood, 507-269-1076, http://www.lapostapanama.com/), a bustling, friendly spot near downtown. Seafood is the specialty of the house; think pan-roasted grouper and succulent sea bass. Entrees are $9 to $15, though wines by the glass were a disappointment.

La Casa de Lourdes (507-983-6450, http://www.lacasadelourdes.com/) in El Valle is a Tuscan-style mansion. Dinners in the gourmet restaurant start at $114.

WHAT TO DO:

· Two museums are dedicated to the engineering marvels and history of the Panama Canal. To see the canal in action and take in a museum, make the short drive to the Miraflores Locks (507-276-8325, http://www.pancanal.com/, admission $10.) The Interoceanic Canal Museum (Plaza de la Independencia in Casco Viejo, 507-211-1649, admission $2) has well-designed, user-friendly exhibits in a glorious former mansion.

· See a performance or simply take a peek at the National Theater (Ave. A between Calle 3 and 4 in Casco Viejo, 507-262-3525, admission 50 cents). Recently restored, the neo-baroque hall features a fabulous chandelier and ceiling mural by Panamanian Roberto Lewis.

· A few blocks away is the Palace of the Herons (Ave. Eloy Alfaro at Calle 4 in Casco Viejo), where the president shares his residence with a group of the elegant white creatures. The building is closed to tourists, but it's worth strolling around the outside and gazing out across Panama Bay.

· The Golden Altar (Ave. A between Calle 8 and 9 in Casco Viejo), one of the few treasures not stolen by pirate Henry Morgan, can be seen up close in the Church of San Jose.

· The Amador Causeway (west of Casco Viejo) provides some of the best views of the Bridge of the Americas and is a good place to jog or bike. The Smithsonian Institution's Marine Exhibition Center (507-212-8000, Ext. 2366, admission $1) has two aquariums, a museum and an outdoor telescope for viewing ships waiting to pass through the canal.

· Panama City's fish market, or Mercado del Marisco (Ave. Balboa), doesn't get many tourists. But it's worth the trip if you want super-fresh, super-cheap seafood. A pound of seafood costs about $5.50, and the kitchen will cook it up for an additional $6.

INFORMATION: Panama Institute of Tourism, 507-526-7000, http://www.visitpanama.com/.

-- Ceci Connolly

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