Panama, Casco Viejo, and the Canal

My first stop on this trip was two days in Panama City, arriving on a Friday evening and departing on Monday morning.  We flew down via Chicago and Cancun, MX using 30,000 United miles per ticket for business class service plus a grand total of $13.00.  The connection through Cancun was not particularly easy – one of the reasons low mileage awards were available on this route – since a chance of terminals is required.  This means any check bags must be claimed, Mexican immigration and customs cleared, a shuttle bus to the other terminal, recheck in at the Copa Airlines counter, and back through Mexican passport control.  We had three hours to make the connection, and it was enough to do this without undue stress.

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Panama City from Casco Viejo

 

On arrival in Panama, the drive into Panama City proper took about 20-25 minutes with little traffic at this time of day.  Many of the hotels and restaurants are clustered in the El Congrejo area which is where the financial and business districts are located.  This is an area with plenty of amenities and safe to walk around at most hours of the day and night.

Our hotel of choice was the Doubletree by Hilton – El Carmen, located right next to the Iglesia de Carmen. There are many choices in the area but our decision was driven by the ability to get a junior suite with a separate bedroom and living area for $89.00 per night.  Traveling with my daughter, this made it easier to accommodate our differing sleep schedules.  The Doubletree served our needs well.  With tile floors in the rooms and hallways, there was some sound carryover between the living area and the hallway but not noticeable from the bedroom with the doors shut.  The buffet breakfast that was included in our rate was robust and offered nice selection.

On our first night, we simply stayed near the hotel and ate at Manolos which had a wide ranging menu and was decent food at a decent price.  Reviews on TripAdvisor are generally positive.

Day 1 – Casco Viejo, the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama, and Tinajas

After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the old town, one of the “must sees” of Panama City.  We arrived fairly early at the Plaza Catederal and spent a few minutes checking out the church.  As was the case with most of the churches we visited in Panama, it is not particularly elegant or decorative when compared to the soaring cathedrals of Europe or Mexico City with the exception of nicely done altars.

Plaza Catederal, Casco Viejo

Plaza Catederal, Casco Viejo

 

Across the main square was the museum that tells the story of the building of the Panama Canal.  Now, our Fodor’s guidebook said this about it in relation to the visitor’s center at Miraflores Locks (on the second day agenda), “Once the only museum dedicated to the Panama Canal, the Museo del Canal Interoceánico has been put to shame by the visitors’ center at Miraflores Locks.”  I beg to disagree.  Perhaps it was because we went to this one first, but we found it to be very well done and more informative than the displays at Miraflores.  Entrance is only $2 or $5 with the audio guide which is well worth it since most of the displays are in Spanish only.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the old town and along the promenade by the water.  There are wonderful views of downtown Panama City from this viewpoint and there is a raffish charm of the area although much of it is in varying stages of renovation.   It was early when we were there and the crowds were definitely picking up when we left in the early afternoon.  Actually, there isn’t that much to see other than the aforementioned activities.  We had some shaved ice in the main plaza and lunch at the Finca del Mar.  We loved the location and the breezes.  The food was good.  The service was slow but not a bad place to relax, if you have time.  We saw several parties give up and it took us about 15 minutes to get waited on so be forewarned.

After an afternoon visit to the rooftop pool at the Doubletree to cool off – it was 90 degrees and humid – we got ready for a dinner show of the type that I rarely go to when on the road.  Tinajas Restaurant is literally a block from the hotel and features “cultural shows” several nights a week.  Basically, this consists of traditional song and dance on stage while you eat.

Traditional dance at Tinajas

Traditional dance at Tinajas

 

Shows start at 9:00 p.m. and a reservation is recommended.  Also, we reserved for 8:30 p.m. so we could have our dinner served prior to the commencement of the show.  I had a dish billed as typical Panamanian fare – arroz y pollo (rice and chicken) and ropa vieja (literally “old clothes” but actually stewed beef).  The food was fine.

What about the show?  It was good in the sense that it was well-done and, as far as I know, authentic.  It is not something you are ever going to want to see again.  There is, in fact, a reason that even Panamanians stopped doing these dances and singing these songs long ago.  But, none of this is a criticism of the troupe or of the event as I think it did exactly what was billed.  I’m glad we went.

Day 2 – Driving Tour of Panama City, Amador Causeway, Cerro Ancon, and Miraflores Locks

On our second day, we had a driver who was recommended to me by a Colombian friend who lived in Panama for a couple of years.  Victor helped us cover a lot of ground over the course of 5+ hours at a cost of $70.  We started by simply driving around the city a bit to get a lay of the land – financial district, Punta de Pacifico, Avenida Balboa, past Casco Viejo, and then on to the Amador Causeway.

The Amador Causeway connects four small islands that just into the Pacific and was constructed from rubble and excavation from the construction of the Panama Canal.  There are resorts on these various small islands and many people bicycling, walking, and rollerblading along the way.  Personally, I’m not sure why one would stay out there unless the primary point of the trip was to lay on a beach.  That is fine but a very different experience from what we had in Panama City.

Next up was Cerro Ancon or Ancon Hill.  At the base of the hill are the settlements and administrative offices of the Panama Canal.  Further up the hill – either by taxi or a steep hike – are sweeping views of Casco Viejo and Panama City on one side and the Miraflores Locks on the other.

Panama City from Cerro Ancon

Panama City from Cerro Ancon

 

There is also supposed to be some superb bird-watching, if that is your thing.

Finally, we headed for the canal itself.  No doubt about it, the canal is quite impressive in what it accomplished and how much effort went into it.  A ship that transverses the canal can save almost 8,000 miles of travel as compared to going around the tip of South America.  About 20,000 people died in the French effort to build the canal, that ended in failure, and another 6,000 died during the American project that ultimately got it done.  If you are interested in all the other factoids, I’ll let you google them for yourself.

Miraflores docks and Railway Yard from Cerro Ancon

 

We first stopped by the Pedro Miguel locks and saw a Swedish registered ship heading slowly toward the Miraflores Locks and Pacific Ocean.  Victor told us we would see it about 90 minutes to two hours later at the Miraflores Lock. It was $15 to get into the visitor center and first stop was a 10 minute film about the canal.  Nothing in the film was new to us since we had been to the awesome museum in Casco Viejo.  We did a quick trip through the exhibits and then up to the fourth level observation deck to watch the ship we has seen up at Pedro Miguel entering the locks.

A Big Ship Goes Through the Miraflores Lock

A Big Ship Goes Through the Miraflores Lock

 

The crowds were five deep at the rail and in frenzied excitement about see the impending transit of the dock.  Honestly, it was pretty boring.  Nothing happens quickly and the water level changes pretty slowly.  A time lapse video of the process – which I’m sure exists – would be the best way to watch it.  But, we stuck it out to the end and can now say we have seen it.

After a quick trip back to the hotel and a dip in the pool, we finished our last night in town with a really fabulous meal at Market, a steakhouse just a few blocks away.

Market Steakhouse

Market Steakhouse

 

An impressive wine cellar, nice atmosphere, and quality steak were all enjoyed.  We got there just before 7:30 p.m. and the place quickly filled up even though it was Sunday night.  I would assume that weeknights are filled with business dinners from the surrounding offices. Service was excellent and would definitely return here on a second trip to the area.

Final Thoughts

On Monday morning, we made our way back to the airport, leaving the hotel at 7:00 a.m.  It only took about 20 minutes to the airport as we were going against that is the Monday morning rush hour.  We found departure out of the airport to be straight-forward and efficient.

We enjoyed Panama City and two full days were about right for the ground we covered.  If I was to go back, I would go into the interior and experience the jungle and wildlife and/or go to the beaches at Bocas del Toro or San Blas based on recommendations from others.  I would not go back to the canal and, if I went to Casco Viejo, it would be for dinner.

On to Bogota..

 

Barcelona – Les Ramblas, Camp Nou, and Le Meridien

After finishing up in Madrid, I walked down to the Atocha station and caught the high speed train to Barcelona.  This trip only takes about two and a half hours and arrives at the Sants station where you can get an easy connection to the Metro for your final destination.

Again, I was using Starwood points and staying at a hotel that I have not been to before this trip – Le Meridien Barcelona.  This elegant property is directly on Les Ramblas just south of the Plaza de Catalunya.  In other words, it is the heart of the nightlife, restaurant, and shopping scene.  The nightly rate using points was 12,000 points per night versus a cash rate of 229 euros plus VAT.

Despite being directly on the main drag, my interior room was very quiet even with the window cracked.  Staff was top-notch and attentive and fluent in multiple languages.  I had a chance to have lunch in their restaurant and it was a good meal at a decent price.

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Barcelona is very different than Madrid and has many fans.  I have been here several times and have enjoyed it but I never felt it has the same attraction to me as London or Madrid.  Barcelona feels more like Paris – a bit more rushed, harder to find a place to sit down and relax, and a bit more pretentious.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful destination but not a place I will go back to over and over again.

However, two of the highlights of my trip occurred here.  First, I got to see the Champions League match between Barcelona and Manchester City.  A few weeks ago, I got to see the first leg of this match in Manchester City and Barca was bringing a 2-1 advantage into this game.  Not only did Barca win, they played brilliantly.  It will be hard for my American friends to understand how a game that finished 1-0 could be so one-sided and dominated.  It was an incredible display by the team and by Lionel Messi, the best soccer player of all time.

Second, my daughter was traveling around Spain this week with a concert band from her university and I got to see their final performance at a small church near the center of town.  For some reason, she has developed an attraction to international travel and had a great time on this trip.  She has said she might want to write a guest post on the blog, so we’ll see if she comes through with it!

The Westin Palace – Madrid

The contrast between the two hotels I used for this trip in Madrid could not be more dramatic.  From the hostal, La Perla Asturiano (below), to one of the grand dames of Madrid, The Westin Palace.  As previously commented, I had a great stay at La Perla but wanted to use some points for my last three nights in Madrid and experience a different location.

La Perla Asturina, Madrid

La Perla Asturina, Madrid

View from my balcony

View from my balcony

The Westin Palace is a Starwood property and I was redeeming 12,000 points per night in lieu of the cash rate of 389 euros a night – a price I could never imagine paying for a stay.  Commissioned by King Alfonso XIII in 1912, it is located across the street from the Museo del Prado, Museo de Thyssen-Bomemisza, the Congress buidling, and short walking distance to Plaza Cibeles, the Reina Sofia, Atocha Rail Station, and the Puerta del Sol.

The Westin Palace

The Westin Palace

While the location is great, the neighborhood – not surprisingly, I guess – feels a bit stuffy.  When looking for a restaurant or tapas bar, I inevitably ended walking back up by the Puerta del Sol and Plaza de Santa Ana areas.  I did not try the restaurant but did have a 13+ euro beer in their bar, if that gives you any idea of prices.

All in all, it was a very nice stay, as one would expect, but I would have to hit the lottery before I stayed here for cash and, even then, I’m not so sure..

London: One of My Favorite Cities

I often get asked about my favorite cities in the world and it is hard to not put London at the top of chart.  I have been about 30 times over the years and always look forward to my return.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, “If you have tired of London, you have tired of life.”

If you think about it, the American equivalent to London would result if you pushed Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC together.  London is the political capital, the historical center, the financial hub, and home to the arts and theaters.  It is easy to get around on foot and via public transportation and has, over the past 10 years or so, dramatically improved from a culinary scene perspective.

The laundry list of attractions and sites is exhaustive and easily found in any guidebook or website and it is not my attention to supply a “top 10” list.  However, I might highlight a few or my favorites that are not necessarily hidden gems, but might not be at the top of everyone’s list.

Hotel

I again find myself at the Strand Palace Hotel for this trip.  While I have stayed at a number of different properties in and around London, the Strand Palace is almost impossible to beat for location, amenities, and cost.  Every once in a while I will stay at a Hilton property if I am using points and have been in about eight of the London locations, but one can rarely book at night in one of their properties for less than 150 GBP.

By contrast, I’m staying at the Strand Palace for 100 GBP per night with free wifi and a free travel card for each day of my stay.  The room is very small but functional and I’m literally steps from Covent Garden, the West End, four tube stations, and tons of restaurant options.  The only thing to consider with this property is that the rooms do not have air conditioning so you might regret a stay on a hot week in July.

Two New Finds

This week, I walked by a new business several times and finally popped in to try their service.  Ted’s Grooming Salon is in the Holborn area just east of Covent Garden.  They have been in business for about four months now and every time I passed, it was busy.

While they offer haircuts, I opted for a traditional shave complete with all the works.  First, he gave me a quick shampoo with cold water to help me cool down from all the walking around I had been doing that day.  This was followed by a face balm that was massaged into my face followed by old-style hot towels wrapped around the head.  Then, warm shaving cream applied with a brush and a straight blade shave that is surely the closest shave I’ve had in a long time.

The most unusual thing about the entire experience came towards the end – after the hand and arm massage.  I smelled something burning about the time I felt him gently tapping me around my ears.  I was a bit surprised to open my eyes to see him with a small metal torch that was lit and that was what he was tapping me with.  He was actually burning some of the small hairs off.  It didn’t hurt, but was unexpected.

All of this for just under 20 GBP and this is a an indulgence I look forward to on my next trip.

The second discovery I made this week was the Top Secret Comedy club in the same neighborhood.  With a 1 GBP cover charge (and voluntary donation at the end), we got four acts plus an emcee who may have been the funniest of all of them.  A small venue where you get to sit close, it was a great time.  By contract, I went to the 99 Club the next night and, while more critically acclaimed, it did not measure up to the previous evening.  The other London area comedy club I could recommend is Up the Creek in Greenwich which is a fairly large venue that attracts top talent.

Definitely will go back to the Top Secret club..

Hampton Inn – Waterloo: New Option in London

Over the years I’ve been visiting London, I’ve had a chance to stay in many of their properties in and around central London.  In the past two years, they have expanded their DoubleTree brand and have now introduced the Hampton brand.

This property offered an outstanding “Points and Money” option for the dates of my travel and, given the high cost of hotels in London, I jumped at it.  This four night stay cost me 20,000 points and 55 GBP per night.  My total bill was right about 250 GBP – the equivalent of just over $400 USD in a town where nice hotels routinely run to $250 USD per night and higher.

The location, 157 Waterloo Rd., is just two blocks south of Waterloo Station, a major transportation hub and a fairly short walk of 15 minutes can take you past the Southbank area and over the river to the West End.  Several restaurants and pubs are in close proximity and the famous Old Vic theatre is on the same block.

I did have the opportunity to have dinner at the very popular pub The Fire Station, which is named for the building it inhabits with ample evidence of its previous function.  This place is absolutely packed after work but offers a separate dining area that has a high-end menu and excellent steak offerings.  A ribeye dinner with two pints of beer ran to 42 GBP, so it is not inexpensive but I was very happy with the meal.

The Hampton is very modern, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and the service was always outstanding.  They have been open for only two months but seem to have hit stride quickly.  Their lobby has a unique approach with a bar area that is an extension of the front desk and service by the front desk personnel during non-peak times.  It reminds me of a bigger version of Hyatt Place’s combined front desk/bar area.

This is definitely a good option and one that I will check on when making future bookings in the London area.

 

Headed Home on Thai Air – PEN – BKK – FRA

I’ve never flown Thai Air before but had a short 2 hour flight this morning from Phnom Penh to Bangkok where I picked up my 12 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany for overnight stay.  My seats were booked in their “Royal Silk” business class so was looking forward to their offering.

What I Liked about Thai

  • Service was very attentive and professional
  • The menu and wine list impressive if one is into high cuisine.  There was some stuff I tried that I didn’t particularly care for but it was all presented nicely.  For instance, the various appetizers and sides included foie de gras, salmon, shrimp, and various items that I do not recognize and did not particularly care for, to be honest.
  • I’m not a wine connoisseur but was impressed they were serving a 2004 Bordeaux as an option.
  • In Bangkok, they have a spa where they provide a complimentary massage pre-fight.  You can choose a neck and shoulders or foot massage.  I opted for the neck and shoulders which lasted about 20 minutes and was very good.
  • While I didn’t really partake of it, their food selection in their business lounge was pretty varied and had enough heft that one could make a meal of it.

What I Didn’t Like about Thai

  • Really only one thing, their business class seat.  I was on the Airbus 340-600 with an angled lie-flat seat.  It just wasn’t very comfortable in any position.  And, it was very noisy when changing positions as the person across the aisle seemed to do for most of the flight.

Hilton Garden Inn – Frankfurt, Germany

Upon arrival, I was very happy with my selection of the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport.  Since I’m only staying overnight for an 8:00 a.m. flight in the morning, I wanted something easy and reliable.  I did not even have to step outside as the hotel, and the adjacent Hilton, are connected to the terminals by walkways and are just by the rail link station.

Tomorrow morning, I finish the trip.

Vietnam/Cambodia – Hotel Arrangements

After getting my initial flights in place, the next question was developing my itinerary within these two countries.  The easiest part of deciding on hotels was for my first and last ones since I knew I would be starting the trip in Hanoi and finishing in Phnom Penh.

However, throughout the hotel planning process, I faced one dilemma.  On the one hand, good hotel rooms can be very inexpensive in both Vietnam and Cambodia.  Depending on location, $25 – $65 USD can get you a room in a nice hotel with air conditioning, free wireless internet, breakfast, and, maybe, a pool.  At the same time, my plan was to use hotel points to stay in great hotels for no cost.  At the end of the day, I used a blended method based on which city I will be in and what hotels are available.

In Hanoi, my plan was to stay with a tried and true program that I know will take care of me.  I will have been traveling for about 27 hours when I arrive and, while the Business Class experience will be good, I will be tired and ready to get situated quickly and with no hassle.  Therefore, I’m booked into the Hilton Hanoi Opera.  Of course, this gives rise to jokes about staying at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where American POW’s were kept, but this will be a much nicer accommodation in the French Quarter.  As a Diamond HHonors guest, I will likely get a room upgrade, will have access to their Executive Lounge, have free wireless internet, and breakfast and snacks in the evening.  Based on my previous experiences in Asia, the amenities and Executive Lounges are outstanding.

In Hoi An, there are not really any options in the realm of the major hotel chains and this presents a great opportunity to try a smaller, local hotel.  Based on reviews on TripAdvisor, I settled on the Vaia Boutique Hotel at a price of $78 that includes all taxes and service charges.  The location, within walking distance of the major sites and Old Town, was a major factor in settling on this property.

In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I’m back to a major chain with my booking at the Park Hyatt hotel on Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Park Hyatt’s have a sterling reputation and the ability to book here at only 15,000 points was a great value and will provide me a outstanding location in a crazy, hectic city.  I will continue on in luxury as I stay at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap when I head to the temples in Angkor.  Again, only 15,000 points a night and it will provide me with top notch amenities.

For my two nights in Phnom Penh, there were chain options available, most notably with Accor’s Sofitel location.  But, I opted for the smaller, local option in a great location based, again, on TripAdisor reviews of the 240 Hotel.  I splurged for an upgraded room with a “Mini Plunge Pool” for a total of $63 USD per night.  It is named for the street it is located on, 240 Street, which offers all types of shops, restaurants, and boutiques.

So, I ended up with a blend of upscale hotels for free on points and the chance to experience smaller, local properties that should still provide a good stay at a very reasonable price.  I’ll give more info and reviews on the hotels I selected as I stay at them and form an opinion.

In my next post, I’ll share my packing and preparation considerations for the trip.

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