Panama’s Finest Hotel That No One Knows About
Friday, December 21 2012 @ 11:33 AM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
Its launch spawned one of those temporary paradoxes that make Panama City’s historic district so unusual: a luxury guesthouse preserving the enchantment of a bygone era, but a luxury guesthouse that nobody really knew was there.
The initial question was pretty straightforward: Have you ever heard of the Canal House?
Neighbors were unanimously confused. One immediate neighbor said he thought the building was “a governor’s association” and another had heard the name, but believed the establishment was located “somewhere along the Canal.”
Five years later, the question is a little more complicated because many people have heard of the Canal House. They just don’t know much about where or what it is. Which is not to say that the hotel has shied away from the press…
“Follow in the footsteps of Daniel Craig,” suggests a writer in Conde Nast, “who stayed at the Canal House for 3 months while filming James Bond 007 Quantum of Solace.”
Families and groups “hold court in this colonial mansion,” styled with “individually designed rooms,” said a travel writer for The New York Times.
We liked their “spacious rooms with exposed brick walls and plush beds,” echoed a lifestyle piece in the WallstreetJournal.
But to understand completely what Casco Viejo's first boutique hotel really is, these sorts of accolades don’t really help. You need to somehow get inside.
Located on the back corner of Casco Viejo’s historic Canal Museum sits a yellow-hue villa with wide bougainvillea balconies and a hidden doorway with the letters “CH” frosted in glass. As is oftentimes the case, you could be standing in front of the Canal House and have no idea what's beyond the wall.
Buzz the unsigned doorbell and one of the guesthouse’s staffers – all motherly women who've graduated from the neighborhood’s famed Calicanto hospitality program – welcome you into a small lobby to ask about your purpose. “Are you looking to stay the night?” “Would you care for a tour?” “Perhaps a drink at our private honor bar?”
What’s so incredible (and strange) about the Canal House is that it’s over-the-top intimate customer service has a way of winning over any and everyone who is either a) lost enough to wander up to its door or b) insider enough to make an actual hotel reservation. It’s as if the moment you cross that doorway threshold, you transition (from anonymous street denizen) to being at home.
The hotel itself has just three rooms (which makes 100% occupancy a frequent obstacle), each of which are distributed throughout four floors of preserved cherry hardwoods and vases of fresh tropical flowers. The décor is antique and immaculate and the furniture supremely functional; a vibe designed to replicate the type of high-society living Teddy Roosevelt or Ernest Hemmingway might have selected when visiting the isthmus.
The Canal House’s staff-to-guest ratio is 2:1, which is to say, after a few hours, your coffee preferences have already been memorized. As for entertainment, tour itineraries are tailored to guests’ interests and can include deep-sea fishing, dinners at the local chef’s tables, and helicopter outings in the islands.
As the neighborhood’s first-ever boutique hotel, the Canal House’s “grand” opening in 2006 was subdued with anonymity. But that few Casco Viejo residents today even know the guesthouse’s location is perhaps a testament to its secluded charm. And this is why the Canal House really matters: it raises real questions over how locals and travelers alike are supposed to appreciate hidden gems, without ever knowing they are there in the first place.