The Bristol Hotel Panama City is one of those places you have trouble leaving – of course, never due to problems checking out. The quiet ambience and seamless service makes this business-friendly hotel one for the books indeed. Never short of compliments, guests rant about everything from the ambience, and the lobby scents, to the prime location. A stone’s throw from Iglesia del Carmen, Calle Uruguay, Via España and Calle 50, lies this stylish haven with optimum service at its heart.
Bristol is part of The Leading Hotels of the World consortium, one of only two such hotels in Central America. No stranger to well-heeled guests hailing from all corners, its doors swung open way back in 1997. Set in the heart of Panama City’s banking district, there are knock out views to be had from both its Classic and Executive towers to take in the Panama city skyline in all its glory.
This hotel is international in a Panamanian way. Attentively infused into each aspect of their aesthetic is a hint of Panamanian culture, right from the spa, to the catering and décor. Customers declare that Bristol invokes a gallery-like feeling through the elegant paintings that stylishly adorn the walls of every look and corner with works from Panamanian and Latin artists. A neutral colour palette runs through the property, from top to bottom.
That elusive feeling of home is attained through the intimate hallways and stylish yet unassuming ambience. Many do indeed call Bristol home as the property has residences for guests that wish to stay for up to one year. The welcoming lobby staff are bilingual and the hotel even offers employees English classes twice a week, with levels, graduations and the works. The Bristol experience has invited a lot of copycats. They know where their bread is buttered and serve their high-end clients well with all the expected luxury mod cons as well as personalised touches.
The hotel has an event space in the Executive tower called lounge 8*58 which are the coordinates for the hotel and once again, there’s art everywhere. It’s exclusively for private bookings and can hold 150 people in banquet style, or 200 cocktail style. A piano elegantly watches over guests in the in the corner.
Besides obligatory 24-hour room service, Bristol boasts a pool with a view and a peaceful open-air relaxation area alongside it. The gym is well equipped and spacious with complimentary water, fruit and magazines for your reading pleasure post-workout. Yoga classes are also coordinated in the mornings depending on the number of sign-ups.
The lobby bar is bustling in the evenings when suits and ties flock there after meetings. There are also two separate reception areas. As you walk in, turn right for hotel guest check-in and left for the residences.
There are 125 rooms in both towers of the hotel, each with impeccable city views or partial ocean vistas. Egyptian cotton sheets are standard and the mattresses are divine. In accordance with Panamanian law, all rooms are non-smoking and there’s a laundry service as well as 24-hour in-room dining. The turndown service includes Hershey’s chocolate and there’s both a dry and liquid mini bar (that’s not so mini) with fine Panamanian rum.
Photo Credit: The Leading Hotels of the World
Despite being in the hustle and bustle of the financial district, you won’t hear a peep from your room, as the windows are double-glazed. Relax in the tranquillity of your bathroom that’s stocked with Etro products and the most delightful bathrobes. So popular are the Bristol bathrobes that guests often ask to buy them. This is now possible through the housekeeping service. Bristol has a PO Box and can handle all guest mail (ask anyone – receiving deliveries is notoriously cumbersome in Panama).
If available, ask for the Tower Executive Room on the 12th floor (it’s the best one) because who wouldn’t want to watch TV from the comfort of your bathtub? Bristol started out with 52 rooms in the Classic tower and then Executive tower was built about five years ago.
The longer-term residences are on the 13th – 24th floors and there are quite a few of them. These are popular with corporates and expats relocating to Panama in the process of pinning down permanent accommodation. Each residence has a bathtub and a shower, glassware, microwave, dishwasher and a washing machine. The residences are organised by categories (1-4) depending on the location and space. Categories 3 – 4 all have 2 closets and 2 bathrooms – bathrooms big enough to fit a bed or two. A Category 4 residence is essentially a large apartment with an adjoining room from the main bedroom.
I was particularly excited about dining at Bristol’s trademarked Salsipuedes restaurant. “Sal si puedes” means “get out if you can” in Spanish, and the name harks back to a once-chaotic street in Casco Viejo, Panama’s old town, which previously enjoyed a boisterous and menacing reputation.
The food and drinks incorporate local ingredients and derive inspiration from the land (do try the San Blast rum cocktail, named after the San Blas archipelago). The restaurant brings back Panama City’s Casco Viejo (the old town) of yesteryear through vintage photography, hanging art and Panama hats that garnish the ceiling. Casco Viejo is the colonial enclave of Panama City where old and new collide, with chain-lit walkways and beautiful balconies existing alongside crumbling structures. Salsipuedes embodies that old feeling of Casco with an attractive, modern twist.
My exquisite dining experience began with a cornbread muffin, one of Salsipuedes’ staples. Back by popular demand, its disappearance from the menu a while back prompted a myriad of complaints. This was followed by a Roasted Vegetable Salad and the Agnolotti; homemade pasta filled with smoked mushrooms and creamy sweetcorn, which was enjoyed to no end. My favourite was the Seafood “Guacho”, a Panamanian dish of fluffy Arborio rice with langoustine and scallops. It would have been rude to ask for more, but I was close to doing so. Guests come from far and wide and what they love most is the Panamanian Sancocho chicken soup (said to be the best hangover cure in the world). Also, should you ache to sample crocodile, Salsipuedes is one of only two places in Panama where you may do so. Much to my surprise, it’s rather good.
To wash down your meal, you can’t go wrong with the Buko Lychee Martini. “Buko” is a curious Panamanian Frenchism; it comes from the French word “beacoup”, which means much or many. The Martinis here invite gossip for good reason and most evening gatherings will include one or two.
There is good food to be found anywhere in the city, but at Bristol the highest service quality is offered on a silver platter. Panama isn’t particularly known for its service culture, but Bristol hopes to shift that. Salsipuedes serves cuisine so fine it would be criminal to confine it merely to the restaurant: Bristol also caters for external events, which have previously included soirees at Panama Viejo and the Bio Museum.
Undoubtedly the most decadent part of the Bristol is the amazing spa, which sits on the 25th floor, the highest point of the Executive Tower. The spa has a tropical essence and there are Pacific Ocean views to be had, or of Panama’s Metropolitan Park. On opposite sides of the spa are separate male and female steam rooms and relaxation areas, each with their own distinct skyline view.
A Zen-like feeling takes over you as you enter the spa area, with a gift shop stocking BioEffect, Mesoestetic and a salon with Alfaparf and Moroccan Oil products. Come here for your manicures and pedicures.
You can opt for a dark spa room or one with natural light (the most deluxe spa room has a lovely and sizeable balcony). The naturally lit rooms are preferred for facials to get up close and personal with each pore. There’s also a couple’s massage room with a private bathroom area with a five-head shower. That’s really something. Last but not least comes my ode to the Vichy shower rain massage, whereby a jet is applied to the body so a rain effect washes over you – literally – while the masseuse treats each area. The massage is carried out on a gel pad and balloon-like pillows.
Bristol’s peak months are between October and April when snow bunnies escape to the tropics en masse. Panama is the unknown Caribbean and the Bristol is an ideal place to experience it. The delicious food alone is good enough reason for me.