In my search for the right hotel for our Panama trip most of what I discovered fell into two distinct categories. The city of Panama is a busy financial center housing plenty of comfortable accommodations similar to what you might find in major US cities like Chicago and New York. That wasn’t quite the right fit for a week-long vacation with two young children enjoying spring break. I also discovered resort properties that showcased beautiful beaches. While that was more what we were looking for, the one property I was interested in would require a 2-hour drive from Panama. Since we wanted to see the canal and downtown Panama, that property also seemed like a bad fit.
Fortunately, I discovered a 3rd category. Frankly, I only discovered one property that fit this category, so maybe it wasn’t a category. The Westin Playa Bonita was located only 10 minutes from downtown and about 30 minutes from the airport. It was a fairly new property that seemed to have a mish-mash of positive and tepid reviews from folks in the frequent travel community. I decided it was worth the risk and began the booking process. Because we spent quite a bunch of time at the resort, I’ll be dividing the hotel stay up into a few different posts to discuss the rooms, activities and restaurants.
Because I stayed 100 nights with Starwood last year I was given the services of a Platinum Ambassador to help book reservations. Since this trip would involve two rooms for our family and a third for my father who was tagging along, I planned to rely heavily on my Ambassador. What I came to find quickly was that the process was very slow. Oddly, I would find upon arrival that my Ambassador had been communicating mostly with the Executive Club staff as opposed to front desk staff, which may have complicated matters.
A week long vacation with the family was something I wanted us all to enjoy, so I was eager to secure a suite. Another benefit of the Starwood Preferred Guest program are Suite Award Nights, which you can redeem for specific suites at various properties. But, the property also had very affordable rooms for our period of travel, including suites. The room descriptions weren’t great on the SPG website, so there was some back and forth trying to figure out what was what. I was hoping to secure a suite in advance, either by paying or using Suite Award Nights. We were fortunate enough that the property agreed to confirm a suite for one of our two rooms using Suite Award Nights well before the 5-day guarantee period. With planning done, all that was left was arrival. Important note: The property has Revival Junior Suites and Renewal Ocean Suites. They are listed as the same size on the website but I was never really able to find out the difference. So, if you like the pictures you see below, it’s definitely a Renewal Ocean Suite.
The drive from the airport at night was tricky. I would not recommend it unless you feel quite comfortable driving in a foreign country. The roads were very well marked between the airport and downtown Panama. Downtown and beyond were much trickier to navigate at night. A few wrong turns and a bunch of one-way streets and road construction slowed us a bit further.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by a valet attendant who took all our bags and escorted us into a large, modern lobby. The check-in process was relatively easy and we were on our way to our rooms shortly thereafter.
The suite we had been guaranteed was a renewal ocean view suite. The website description surely doesn’t do this room justice as it’s much larger and comfortable than we imagined. The entry hallway has a half bath and opens onto a large seating area with a dining room table for 4. There’s also a sizable bar area with a refrigerator/mini-bar. This room and the bedrooms had balconies that overlooked the pools and the Gulf of Panama. We were greeted by one of the more authentic complimentary amenities I can recall receiving in quite some time. There was a Panama hat, a bottle of wine and a wooden puzzle box for the kids to play with. A truly nice touch.
The bedroom was separated from the living area by two large sliding doors. It had a sizable bathtub in the bedroom area as well as a double sink for the bathroom. There was a very functional desk area, something I don’t find often when I travel to resort properties in foreign countries. New flat screen televisions complemented the bedroom area along with some soft seating. Everything was in pristine condition and the beds were very comfortable. A separate room adjacent to the bathtub housed a toilet and shower. This suite was plenty spacious for a romantic vacation or a family trip.
The hotels use the standard Westin green tea soap but use a local shampoo and conditioner that were all just fine. The bathrooms are preset with packs of “Defender”, billed as a moist towelette to combat mosquitos. We expected the mosquitos to be omnipresent but only had one unfortunate run-in. More on that later when I review the restaurants.
The renewal ocean view suites are all set up the same way and there are lots of them on property (2 per floor). They connect to a room with 2 double beds. These rooms are configured a bit differently than the suites in that the bathroom is completely self-contained. Even so, these rooms still feature a large soaking tub and separate shower. They still managed to fit the comfortable desk/workspace into the room along with plenty of closet space. My wife had no problem unpacking with the amount of storage space.
The front office manager took me on a tour of a couple suites the hotel has. The rooms were located on the top few floors of the 25-story hotel and were big enough that most floors only had one room. These rooms were spectacular. The front office manager did indicate that these rooms were made available sometimes for Platinum Suite Upgrade Nights, and that the hotel also worked with guests to upsell into these rooms.
This is a strategy often overlooked when you’re trying to get that aspirational room for a special vacation, and one I tried to use on this trip. Some properties will allow you to book a room on points and then pay a small cash upgrade fee to move you to a bigger than normal suite. Alas, this property did not have any of those spectacular suites with more than one bedroom, so not an ideal fit for us traveling as a family. But, if my wife and I were to return for a romantic trip I would certainly inquire about these bigger suites. The property was renovating the rooms during our visit because of some difficulties with initial construction so they asked me not to take pictures. Trust me, they are well worth it.
As you can see, the higher floors offer a great view of the Gulf of Panama both during the day and at night. All the glowing dots on the horizon in the night picture are ships awaiting their slot to transit the canal, which does a brisk business at night. Our littlest one, Charlie, definitely enjoyed the view!
This hotel is a Category 5 property in the Starwood Preferred Guest program for award redemptions. Technically, that means a range of 12,000 to 16,000 points per night. However, we paid 12,000 points a night and I didn’t see any time periods where the higher rate applied.
We were very satisfied with the rooms at Westin Playa Bonita. The soft product was impeccable, the rooms showed absolutely no sign of wear. While there were a few bumps and bruises getting things the way we wanted for our reservations, the rooms staff was extremely accommodating.