Luxury Resorts Are Booming Along Panama’s Coast. Go Here First

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- “Islas Secas—I’ve heard of that place,” says Richard Cahill, my guide.

We’re roaming through the historic center of Panama City, Casco Viejo, a jumble of pastel colonial-era buildings bordered by a seaside promenade. He’s just asked me what’s brought me to Panama, and I’ve told him I’m on my way to a new hotel on an archipelago miles away in the Pacific—one so hidden, not even my travel-expert colleagues have ever heard of it. The excursion is part of my mission to explore how the country’s surging economy is creating exciting luxury businesses.

Cahill, the co-founder of the Panamanian ecotourism outfit Ancon Expeditions, rattles off what he knows about the ­enigmatic place. “Gorgeous, undeveloped islands,” he says. “It was owned by Michael Klein, the famous hedge funder, until he died in a plane crash. Mick Jagger used to go all the time, since it was so under the radar.”

Unintentionally, Cahill is presenting two truths and a lie. The 14 islands are a largely unknown natural wonder ­surrounded by vast marine biodiversity. And Klein, the onetime chief executive officer of hedge fund management company Pacificor LLC, did own them for six years. But the Rolling Stones singer never hid out there. (He did have a home in the country, in a compound 220 miles from the nearest town.)

Until his sudden death in 2008, Klein ran his version of the resort, which shares the name of the island chain, as a passion project. It was an exclusive, no-frills fishing lodge, with a handful of comfortable yurts scattered across its largest land mass, Isla Cavada. It was then purchased by American billionaire conservationist Louis Bacon, whose intention was to protect the marine ecosystem while developing the resort as a playground for high-end travelers. (The name Islas Secas, or “dry islands,” refers to the area’s extreme low tides, when the water level can drop more than 12 feet, exposing long stretches of sand.)

After a five-year-long overhaul—which brought nine villas, 1,556 solar panels, and a water treatment plant—Islas Secas Reserve & Lodge soft-opened early this year. It will officially open in January 2019, with rooms starting at $1,000 per person a night, all inclusive.

A day after my tour with Cahill, I hop on a 45-minute flight from Panama City to the coastal town of David, near the Costa Rican border. “If you’re here, you’re here for a real adventure,” says Rob Jameson, a lanky Brit who greets me and my friend. His job at Islas Secas is to uncover the thrills and scientific appeal of an island chain that, before Klein built his yurts, is thought to have been uninhabited since the 15th century.

During the hourlong boat ride to the lodge, the sleepy mainland gives way to the wide-open Pacific. Then a series of primeval islands emerges: all ashy, basalt rock jutting out of the sea floor and topped with tangles of green. Over some, pterodactyl-like frigate birds circle ponderously.

Jameson rattles off the activities ahead of us: Snorkeling and diving are common ways to spend the day; you’ll see spiky blowfish, “blunthead” triggerfish, and iridescent parrot­fish. If you’re lucky, you might find bright-blue starfish off the coast of Granito de Oro, an island whose name means “nugget of gold.” Catch-and-release fishing trips led by television personality and award-winning angler Carter Andrews usually turn up marlin, jackfish, and various types of snapper. On dry land, guests can hike to promontories and visit towering geysers that blast out of small caves and inlets.

It’s while zooming around on a Seabob—imagine a child’s swimming kickboard but jet-powered—that we encounter one of Islas Secas’ few weaknesses: jellyfish. They’re never visible, but their stingers are a ­frequent nuisance, leaving small red marks on our ankles and wrists. (The staff offers reef-safe sunscreen that includes jellyfish protection, along with spandex rash guards and bottles of vinegar to treat stings.) “It’s not an adventure unless there’s a certain element of risk,” says Jameson, who never once asks us to wear life jackets on the boat. “But it’s managed risk. And I’m there to catch people if they fall.”

In the coming months, the resort will add more science-­based activities on dry land, including archaeological digs to uncover pre-­Columbian pottery from almost 1,000 years ago. By 2020 there will be a field station for scientists to study the humpback whales that migrate here in the summer, and visitors will be able to participate in research work. “We want to keep linking back to the conservation ethos and involving guests in our mission,” Jameson says.

Another thing the resort is gaining is competition. Not far from Islas Secas, on Isla Palenque, the Costa Rica-based Cayuga Collection has just opened a resort near 400 acres of protected jungle. Its 14 rooms and suites run upwards of $770 per night. And just a few nautical miles from Panama City, a portion of the virginal Pearl Island is being developed into a resort by Ritz-Carlton Reserve, Marriott International Inc.’s most rarefied brand, slated to open in 2020. Developer Hart Howerton, which also designed Islas Secas, intends to bring four or five more top-end resorts to the island.

Back in Panama City, I can feel the buzz of the country’s booming economy in the restaurants, nightlife, and urban development. The country was seen globally as a safe place to invest during the U.S. banking crisis, and an expansion of its famous canal is also boosting growth. Down the street from Ace Hotel’s American Trade Hotel, I slide into one of six stools at the chef’s counter of Donde José. Rapturously creative chef José Carles builds modernist dishes here out of his childhood stories, his grandparents’ recipes, and Panama’s native ingredients. A skewer of almost caramelized duck is presented with a bouquet of aromatic, indigenous herbs on a yucca shell to be eaten like a taco; a smoked ­quarter-chicken is served with a shot of golden, umami-rich broth that’s simmered like mole for a month.

The restaurant, similar to Islas Secas, is reason alone to plan a trip. Although small, both brim with secret delights, just waiting to enchant you.

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