Stay The Night: Cala Mia, Panama
Set apart from the big mainland resorts, this low-key luxury retreat on Isla Boca Brava offers sanctuary, says Sarah Gilbert
Sunday 15 January 2012
While Panama's Pacific and Caribbean coasts are starting to crowd up with behemoth resorts – the Sheraton, InterContinental and Trump for starters – happily there is still sanctuary to be found in this most seductive sliver of Central America.
Look no further than Isla Boca Brava, a sparsely populated fragment of land that has seemingly snapped off the Pacific coast. It is one of the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí. Here, Cala Mia's 11 bungalows are perched on the tip of a rocky promontory on the island's east coast. Set in landscaped gardens filled with towering palms and tangles of tropical blooms they overlook two idyllic bays flanked by mangroves and dense forest.
Rustic-chic Cala Mia was created by an Italian-Dutch couple who lived in Costa Rica for many years, before it got too developed for their taste. At their secluded Panamanian hideaway, you can go for hours without seeing another soul. I started my day with yoga by the beach, before taking a boat to a spit of sand to snorkel over dazzling reefs.
Other days were spent kayaking through mangroves, riding along deserted beaches and hiking in the rainforest with an indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé guide. There was also time to lounge by the infinity pool and the cobalt-blue ocean.
Meanwhile, solar-powered Cala Mia was offsetting my hedonism with a variety of community and environmental projects. A percentage of the room rate goes to support programmes for indigenous peoples. Waste is recycled or composted for farm use.
The stylish bungalows, just a pebble's throw from the ocean, are decorated with eclectic, handmade furnishings – copper lamps from Mexico, wooden cabinets from Guatemala, molas (embroidered cloths) by Panama's Kuna Indians. All are spacious. They vary in size from one bedroom to the family-sized deluxe villa with a thatched-roof terrace complete with hammocks and sofas. There's no air conditioning, but screened glass doors slide back to allow the breeze to filter through. There's no TV either: just the sound of lapping water.
The food and drink
Shoes are optional at Cala Mia's congenial indoor-outdoor restaurant, where much of the produce comes from the owners' organic garden and dairy farm. Breakfast and lunch – a selection of salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes (from US$8/£5.30) – are best enjoyed al fresco, serenaded by birdsong and the guttural roar of howler monkeys. In the evenings, guests gather for cocktails – try Abuelo, a fine, aged rum – and relaxed chat, before dining on fresh lobster, or organic beef from the Chiriquí Highlands (three-course dinner $37/£24).
A rustic spa is perched on top of a rocky outcrop, reached by a rope bridge; massages come with a soundtrack of ocean waves. Guests can also star-gaze using the lodge's telescope.
Children and pets are welcome. There are no rooms modified for guests with disabilities and the steep path from the dock will present difficulties for those with limited mobility.
Doubles start at $195 (£130), including breakfast, welcome cocktail, use of kayaks and snorkelling equipment. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers two weeks in Panama from £3,820 per person including flights, transfers and three nights' accommodation at Cala Mia.
Cala Mia, Isla Boca Brava, Archipelago Chiriquí, Panama (00 507 851 00 59; boutiquehotelcalamia.com).
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