Fed up with the frigid Southern Ontario winter, we were looking for a bit of paradise to escape to. There’s been a lot of press lately about Panama being a hot (literally and figuratively) retirement destination for Canadian baby boomers, so why wouldn’t it be an equally appealing vacation spot too? Panama beckoned and we couldn’t resist.
Although there are a number of highly recommended resorts in Panama, sharing a vacation with 2,000 other holiday revelers at an all inclusive isn’t for us. And, I’m not a beach babe either. My idea of holiday perfection is visiting interesting gardens or hiking in natural environments discovering the plant life of the area. I also like amenities that are comfortable, well... the truth is I’d really like them to border on luxurious. But, if need be I can give up some of that luxury for nature’s best. Walter’s needs are simple, he asks only for a rainforest filled with birds he hasn’t seen yet. A little Internet research revealed a place called The Coffee Estate Inn (La Montana y el Valle) in Boquete. It had potential to be that piece of paradise we were both looking for.
Boquete is located in Panama’s western Chiriqui Provence bordering on Costa Rica. It’s a six to seven hour drive from Panama City, so we opted to take the 45-minute flight to the city of David and then rent a car for only an hour-long drive to Boquete. When we exited the plane in David, we were immediately hit by a blast of stiflingly hot, humid air. Maybe I should have been a beach babe, I thought. But, as we headed toward the highlands, the air cooled considerably. By the time we reached the Coffee Estate Inn the temperature had dropped by 10 C°. Thanks to its 1,200-metre elevation Boquete enjoys spring like temperatures with sunny days and cooler nights.
Our hosts Barry Robbins and Jane Walker, a couple of transplanted Canadians from British Columbia, purchased their six acre property 11 years ago and have transformed the neglected coffee estate into a secluded and exclusive Shangri-la for their guests as well as revitalizing the coffee plantation. Though we arrived at dusk, the WOW factor kicked in right away. My first impression was “aaahhhh this is going to be glorious”. Near the main house the heady scent of roses filled the air. A closer look revealed an extensive rose garden located just behind the main house. Who would expect roses growing in a tropical climate like Panama? The rose garden turned out to be just a teaser. The Coffee Estate Inn is a garden lover’s heaven. Each of the three very private guest bungalows is surrounded with perfectly maintained gardens filled with exotic flowers and coffee trees in various stages of development.
The three-room bungalows (living room/kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom) are immaculate. Simply, but elegantly furnished, they have everything you need to be comfortable. Satellite TV and high speed Internet means you can stay connected to the outside world if you want to. I didn’t want to. Not surprisingly, the kitchenette is outfitted with coffee makers (French press and drip) and of course a coffee grinder for the gourmet quality coffee beans grown on the estate. A basket of tropical fruit welcomes guests and is kept filled throughout the week.
It turns out that Barry and Jane are not only innkeepers par excellence, but they are gourmet chefs too. Several nights a week guests can enjoy a “Date Night” experience. Barry and Jane provide the food – you look after the romance. You make your menu choice by 11 a.m. and dinner is served to you in your bungalow later that evening. There are several starters, mains and desserts to choose from. When we entered our bungalow, the glow of candlelight set the tone right away. The table was set with crisp white linens. An exquisite arrangement of fresh flowers from the garden was draped along the corner of the table adding a romantic touch. Once we were settled in, Barry delivered our meal, a barbecued pork tenderloin for two marinated in a sublime orange sauce accompanied with Greek potatoes (lemony/garlic, yum!), asparagus and grilled tomatoes. What a treat that meal was! In the coming days we enjoyed several more Date Nights, each with a different menu. In our bungalow each morning we enjoyed a selection of Barry’s freshly baked breads – banana bran, raisin cinnamon and cheese biscuits that were delivered each day to us while we were out touring the countryside.
A trip to Boquete isn’t complete without a tour of a coffee plantation. We spent a couple of hours one morning following Barry through the estate as he pointed out the nuances of coffee production. At the Coffee Estate Inn, the coffee trees are scattered throughout the property rather than row on row as in a large commercial plantation. Here they are a decorative part of the landscape, although the coffee trees produce 1,800 kilograms of beans annually. Barry’s tour ended with a coffee roasting demo in his kitchen. I was fascinated to observe that green coffee beans swell and double in size when roasted. Barry’s roast only takes about 20 minutes to produce a mellow blend without bitter overtones or aftertaste. He points out that some of the dark roasts are really coffee beans that are burnt. Barry’s tour is available only to their guests, but commercial plantations such as Café Ruiz and the Kotowa Coffee Estate offer comprehensive tours open to the public. They all end with a tasting.
Though our time in Boquete was short, it was easy to see why more and more Canadians make Panama and especially Boquete their retirement home. The weather is perfect, real estate is attractively priced, and we were told that the cost of living is much lower too. Then there are the many perks and tax breaks that the Panamanian government offers foreigners. All of this means that business in Boquete is booming with amenities that attract tourists too. We left Panama wondering if a week-long vacation just might evolve into a more permanent retirement home.
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Veronica's travel stories appear in a variety of magazines, newspapers and on the Web including East of the City, Circa, Toronto Star, Canadian Gardening and Garden Making as well as online at HGTV.ca. She appears as the Armchair Traveler on Rogers Cable TV. Visit her website at www.slivacommunications.com and blog at www.gardenersworld.ca.
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