Journalist, editor and producer covering society, business, architecture, tourism, rural regeneration, conservation. I work/have worked for The Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Business Insider, Reader's Digest, Icon Films and the BBC. I also provide consultancy services to international brands.
I’m wading through shoals of fish in a straw hat, herding coconuts to a fishing boat. Behind me is a tropical island, temporary population: three – me, Ruben the boat owner who’s slashing at things with a machete, and the 15-year old captain, who’s clinging forty foot up a palm, kicking off nuts. The buff sand beach is at least two miles long and picks up again on the other side.I’ve had a fair few experiences in the exclusive category, but this is the real deal.
While the pleasures are free and basic, they are also rare and extreme, and the location while easily accessible feels removed and remote. Panama is a global crossroads with a beachfront capital that’s part Miami-style skyscrapers, part-restored Havana, culturally rich with a revolving selection of gourmet restaurants and chic bars, but it feels undiscovered. Obviously it’s not. Balboa found it, as have, more recently, jet-setting New York and European bon vivants weary of Ibiza, Baja and Kitts & Nevis, and Hollywood stars who’ve invested in Pacific coast designer community hideaways. Indeed, it’s the fastest growing tourist destination in the Western hemisphere, and accordingly, has attracted hotel investors from Nikki Beach to Trump, Four Seasons and Marriott. But its special appeal is this surprising conjunction of boundless natural beauty and the super-deluxe, not so much on the Caribbean archipelagos of Bocas del Toro and San Blas (conquered by backpackers and cruise ships respectively), but throughout the hundreds of islands off the Pacific coast, most of which remain intact, untouched.
Partly because as here in the 14,740 square km of Chiriqui Gulf National Marine Park, close to the Costa Rican border, the islands are both protected and unheralded. The hamlet of Boca Chica (one boat, one slipway, one stray dog) is the gateway to a spectacular expanse of sea, littered with uninhabited islands. We weave our way around them, trailing a hand line for pargo for lunch, dolphins slinking alongside, squadrons of pelicans overhead, the silence broken by the frantic scuttle of iguanas and the barks of howler monkeys each time we swim ashore.
Of course what makes this Robinson Crusoe existence so perfect is that it ends at the dock of a boutique hotel, Cala Mia, perched like a mirage in a sunset glow on a promontory dividing two of the wilderness bays. Italian – Dutch couple, Victoria and Max, left Costa Rica (“Florida with monkeys”) for this splendid isolation, hauled in the building materials on a home-made ferry, created eleven stylish screened bungalows with verandas and hammocks overlooking the sea, and added solar power, an organic farm, pool and rancho spa . I pad barefoot down to the beach with a beer, swim out to a lounger on a floating platform, wonder what sort of fish is making the big splashing, do a racing crawl back, have a Swedish massage (listening to lapping waves) and here in the middle of nowhere, one of the best meals of my life, a truly cosmopolitan affair with heart of palm and Emmental, steamed sea bass, crisp Italian pastries and homemade ice cream, as the bats swoop.
Further to the south, coddled in the Bay of Panama, the Pearl Islands have simply been overlooked. Given there are 97 to 220 of them (depending on definition of island and ability to count) and they’re strung together, all creamy scalloped coasts across turquoise seas, the nearest just an hour in a fast boat, or 15 minutes in a cheap plane from Panama City, this seems extraordinary except for the fact that most Panamanians don’t like islands, beaches or flying much, preferring the orderly delights of the burgeoning all-inclusive mainland resorts. A couple (Mogo Mogo and Chapera) attained some fame as locations for several series of Survivor. Had the marooned raised their binoculars they’d have seen migrating whales perhaps, and the blinding white of fabulous villas on nearby Contadora.
This is the archipelago hub (pop. 300), one of two with accommodation, a retreat for the wealthy, once home to Christian Dior and the Shah of Iran. No casinos or glitz here though, or actually a jetty or cars. After the ubiquitous beach landing I put my flip flops back on, find a golf cart and, whirring round the 7km coast track, make an inventory.
What Contadora does have is a couple of stores selling tours, snorkels, batteries, phone cards, the Punta Galeon hotel, some inns and cabanas, Rincon Romantico and Restaurante Gerald serving fresh lobster and catch of the day, a dozen pink-white beaches, airstrip, and Architectural Digest villas with lush gardens and walls smothered in bougainvillea. There’s a plane parked in front of one; this sleepy place drips nonchalant wealth. I’m flagged down by passing traffic, an American desperate for conversation. I ask if he lives here and he says ‘God no, it would KILL me, it’s so boring. There’s nothing to do. There’s not even an ATM machine.’ I think I could cope. Most residents divide their time between here and the capital, hence an abundance of private villas for rent. Mine has bedrooms opening onto a pool that overlooks the sea. I spend the rest of the day on a blow-up shark drinking pink champagne pretending to be rich.
I’ve made a few attempts to explore the archipelago in the past but the lack of a yacht and information (Balboa’s 1513 report to King Ferdinand – “There are many islands in this sea. They tell me that there are pearls in abundance, of great size, and that the natives possess baskets filled with them” – remains the most inciteful) has thwarted me. But things are cautiously changing with the influx of high-end developers. With a shared vested interest in both protecting and promoting the area, several, including representatives of projects on Islas del Rey, San Jose, Viveros and Saboga, have joined forces to form the Pearl Islands Sustainable Tourism Association. The primary aim is to set standards regarding green technology, minimal environmental impact, marine and land conservation, social responsibility and micro-enterprise and capacity building for the local islanders. The by-product is a pool of information on the archipelago, an emergent transport network of boats and planes making island hopping relatively straightforward, and ideas for tailored tours that take in multiple locations over the course of a week, for which I am the chosen guinea pig.
First port of call is Isla del Rey, at 74,000 acres, the largest of the Pearls. Swiss developer, Andre Niederhauser, pilots our plane, commandeers a boat to his perfect beach graced by a single white pagoda, and rustles up a gourmet lunch (seafood soup, spaghetti vongole, baked bananas with complementary wines), while sketching out his vision for Cuna de Vida. This is a capable man, no doubt, and he has a high-value, low-density, eco-techno vision. In a few short years there will be three ultra-luxury sister resorts of villas (with wine cellars and infinity pools), a residential eco-development, restorative clinic with ayurveda spa and health-enhancing architecture, full service marina with village, hotel, restaurants, bank, shops and condos plus a Six Senses Resort and behind us, the first full-service private international airport in the world (in-villa immigration). Just as now, there’ll be great food and personal service. I study the empty beach, a glass of wine in hand, then go swimming among the pelicans. If it’s better than this, it’s going to be fabulous.
Next Isla Viveros with 32kms of white sand dazzle and shells it takes two hands to lift. “Imagine an island you could call your own” they say. Well, actually, I’m finding this increasingly easy, although I happen to know this one belongs to two French bon viveurs, one from the Soutiran champagne house, the other a wine producer from Provence, and work is already underway to create the nirvana of neighbourhoods with an international community basking in mansions meeting on the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course or at the marina parking their 200ft yachts. Still, not to be bitter – tourists can share, arriving by boat for lunch at the beach restaurant, or staying in paradise at the bijou guesthouse, La Peregrina, named for Elizabeth Taylor’s gargantuan pearl which, the story goes, was plucked from these seas for Mary 1. I think they should ask for it back.
San Jose, lies at the furthest point of the archipelago, a green and hilly place with 100km of grassy roads, airstrip, farm, workshop and hotel of some years standing, Hacienda del Mar, a heart-warming collection of stylishly furnished cabanas perched on stilts along the cliff top around a clubhouse with the creaking warm wooden decks of an old galleon. Many of the islands were occupied by pre-Colombian Indians; the archaeological remains most evident on San Jose are culverts and foundations of houses built by the US military here bombing the sea and testing chemical weapons in the run up to the Korean War. However, owned and preserved for decades by a Panamanian family, it would be harder to conjure up a place more conducive to pleasure and peace. I divide my days between a lounger in the cove and my balcony above it, reading paperbacks from the library (“It was the last day of March and a vestige of plowed snow lay grey along the highway’s edge”), inhaling wafts of steam and heady ylang-ylang while toucans call from the cecropias, and squawking blue and gold macaws feed in the wild almond trees.
Eventually a friend appears on a boat. We head for the last port on the Pearl circuit, Isla Saboga, but fish on the way. These waters have yielded 16 records for black marlin and are thick with sailfish, barracuda, roosterfish, and wahoo. We manage to hook three tuna instead, (exempt from the catch and release rule), make sashimi, and jump off the boat to float on our backs in a deserted bay. The fact this area is also popular with scuba divers for being jam-packed with white-tip and hammerhead sharks is something it’s best not to focus on.
Saboga has what most of the islands don’t: a local community, close-knit and easy-going, ensconced in a village of vibrant-coloured houses, screeching grackles and loping dogs, spread out around an old church up a steep, rutted track from the natural harbour. The pulsating heart of island life is the cafe, three plastic tables and a settee under a tin roof, minimal electricity. Having got the chicken off my seat, I have the best fried fish and hojaldre (fried dough) two dollars can buy. The rest of the island is deserted, although not for long. The village faces Contadora, just five minutes across the water; a golf cart hurtle through forest to the opposite shore brings us out onto a wide, endless beach bathed in sunset which one day soon will be El Encanto, a community of treetop villas with decks and pergolas and wi-fi, five-star hotel and spa. In accordance with the aspirations of the Pearl island sustainable group, 70% of the 1200 acres will be preserved, there’ll be no clear-cutting or cars (just the darn golf carts), and the community will be involved in this radical makeover, as recipients of donations – computers for schools, medical equipment, but also, more crucially of training and jobs.
You could be back in the capital twenty minutes after paddling ashore and flagging down a plane at Contadora, but still closer to the capital there are islands time forgot, like Taboga, the mountainous island of flowers. Its small population is swelled by weekend visitors from Panama City visible across the bay, but on weekdays it reverts to its steamy, dreamy best. The ferry timetable allows for 7 hours on Taboga, sufficient for wandering wistfully between white shell-stuccoed cottages, a $2 tour in the back of the pick-up truck, lunch – the catch of the day usually pargo, robalo or octopus -at the three-table restaurant above the jetty, a bit of kayaking and a long swim off the sandbar. But the heat and pace is seductive. I check into the laid back romantic Vereda Tropical, fling open the shutters to the breeze and wake to the dawn chatter of fishermen puttering out to sea, cargo ships in the silvery light beyond them, passing these islands on their way through the canal to the real world.
Cala Mia: Tel (507) 851-0059, boutiquehotelcalamia.com
Boat trips to deserted islands (around $110 for 4 people); also: kayaks, sailboards, horse riding, deep sea fishing and scuba diving.
Tailored tours (Spanish only) Rubén Villalobos, email@example.com, Tel. (507) 6814-3818
Ferry: El Calypso from the Amador Causeway $10 return; Weekdays out 8.30am, return 4.30pm with additional sailings on Mon, Wed, Fri. Tel (507) 314 1730. Also: fast boat from Balboa Yacht Club dep. Panama 8am, 3pm, dep. Taboga 9am, 4pm. Tel (507) 314 0572.
Hotel Vereda Tropical: (507) 250 2154, veredatropicalhotel.com
The Pearl Islands / Las Perlas
Transport: scheduled flights to Contadora (15 mins, 5+ a day), Isla San Jose (daily) and San Miguel, Isla Del Rey with Air Panama flyairpanama.com; also aeroperlas.com. Charter flights and helicopters can also be arranged, and to additional airstrips at Punta Cocos, Isla del Rey; Isla Viveros and Cassaya.
Regular ferry from Balboa Yacht Club to Contadora (2 hrs). Plans are underway to introduce a fast ferry, and fast 19 passenger boat service Panama City-Contadora / Saboga. Charter boats between all the islands can be arranged with 48hrs notice (Spanish speakers can negotiate passage with local fishermen.
Golf cart rentals available on Islas Contadora and Saboga
Tours: as outlined above, a 5-day, 4-night Pearl Island package (min 6 people); a weekly day trip with options for lunch, snorkelling, sea kayaking, sport fishing for marlin, sail fish (mandatory tag and release), dorado and wahoo, as well as activities at Pearl Island locations. (min 6 people). Motor boat and yacht charters available for 1-7-day itineraries. Coming soon: a 7-day mini-cruise Explorer package.
Accommodation: Isla San Jose: Hacienda del Mar haciendadelmar.net; Contadora: private rental villas, also Punta Galeon puntagaleonhotel.com;
For all further Pearl Island transport, tours and hotel information and reservations: pearlislandstravel.com
With thanks to Panama Tourism Authority (ATP). General information on Panama available at www.visitpanama.com
SORREL DOWNER / HIGHLIFE