One of the awesome things about the age that our kids are now (7 and 9) is that they have a bit more patience for longer plane trips and are thankfully out of the highchair and stroller age, which opens up more possibilities for travel destinations. For our February break, we knew we wanted to head to the sun, and we also wanted to tick a new country off our list (an obsession of mine that my husband finds super-annoying given that he plans all our trips). We hit upon the idea of heading to Panama with our kids for a week, spending two nights in Panama City and then enjoying luxury eco-resort, Isla Palenque in the Gulf of Chiriqui, near the border with Costa Rica.
Panama City with Kids
The flight to Panama City from JFK is around five and a half hours on Copa, Columbia’s national airline. We stayed at the Hotel Bristol, a pleasant business hotel a twenty minute drive from the airport. The Hotel Bristol has a tiny pool which you basically have to be in if you want to oversee your kids, but the girls were more than content with it after a New York winter without swimming! We only had one full day in Panama City, so we headed to the Biomuseo first thing the next morning after breakfast. The Biomuseo was designed by Frank Gehry and is an amazing structure dedicated to the bio-diversity of Panama, with a strong eco message. The museum is extremely interactive, and we spent a happy couple of hours there before heading to the Old Town for lunch and a wander round. The Old Town or Casco Viejo is gorgeous and full of tons of highly instagrammable buildings with beautiful paint colours and shutters! We had lunch at Tantalo Hotel which has a very cool restaurant with amazing murals and the coolest bathroom ever which kids will love! You can check out the harbour and do a bit of souvenir shopping or grab a bite to eat before heading back to your hotel.
Onwards to Eco Resort Isla Palenque
The following morning very bright and early (5.30am!) we headed to the airport for the super-quick flight to David, Panama’s second largest city. Top tip: grab some pain au chocolat the night before from the Paul’s across the street from the hotel as you’ll be skipping breakfast! The flight to David is the only domestic flight that Panama seems to have, so you have a slightly weird airport process, but the flight is totally painless because it’s basically just straight up and down! Once we landed in David, we were met by Isla Palenque‘s driver and drove for an hour and a half through beautiful countryside before taking a speedboat for ten minutes to Isla Palenque. Arriving at Isla Palenque is breath-taking; it’s a private, densely tropical island, surrounded by warm, calm water and gorgeous pristine beaches. Because most of Panama is volcanic, the beaches are black sand, but it’s a fine, powdery sand and still very pretty. Aside from a VERY gentle hum from a generator on one side of the island, all you’ll hear is the sound of animals and birds for your whole stay. We barely even saw other boats going by.
To get to the area of the island where the villas are, you travel in little mini-buses across the island, which is about a five minute drive over rough dirt tracks. Aside from one large private villa which can sleep up to 14 guests, everyone else is accommodated in eight beachfront “casitas” along the largest beach next to the pool and restaurant. The limited number of rooms of course keeps the number of guests small! The casitas are quite rustic in their style, with outdoor showers and toilets, but they’re extremely well-designed, and yes, they do have air-conditioning! We managed to make our casita sleep our family of four, as we requested single beds for the kids which they placed at the end of our bed. The space was a little snug with the extra beds, but we really only slept in the casitas, so it didn’t bother us at all.
We spent five nights at Isla Palenque, and mostly just lazed around the pool, swam in the sea and ate our bodyweight in delicious food during our stay. The resort puts on a daily schedule of activities including hikes, kayaking, paddle-boarding and kids’ entertainment, but the main event at Isla Palenque is definitely just chilling out and enjoying the beautiful natural surroundings. I did a couple of yoga classes (one of which ended up being a private class) and the kids did some pastry-making, a mocktails class, bracelet making and a “Secrets of the Island” Hike. My husband and I also headed out one day for some snorkelling off the coast of a nearby island. We didn’t spot much aside from some pretty reef fish, but the guide said you can spot barracuda, shark and turtles, and in fact on our last day we spotted a large-ish shark right next to us while swimming in the sea which made us scramble out pretty sharpish! We loved spotting all the wildlife around the island, including howler monkeys who make the craziest noises in the trees in the early mornings.
The beaches at Isla Palenque are amazing, with the one nearest the casitas and pool being 1.3km in length, so it’s perfect for strolling along. If you get bored of reading, swimming, strolling and the resort activities, they also have a small selection of board games and card games, and of course there are also lovely cocktails on offer. So time passes! I would say our stay at five days is probably the upper limit of how long you would wish to spend, especially if you’re not quite as lazy as us!
If we were to pick any holes in our stay, it would be that the pool is quite small for the number of guests who can be using it at any one time. We were there during New York’s February school vacation, and most of the other guests had kids too, so at times it got a little bit noisy and busy at the pool. It didn’t bother us, but I felt a bit bad for the child-free couples trying to have a romantic time. Also the menu, which uses only local, seasonal and organic ingredients, is a bit limited if you’re staying more than a few days. We were extremely impressed by the quality of the food though, which was fresh, healthy and delicious. They do have a kids’ menu, but we just ordered fish, chicken or steak for our girls along with grilled veggies and yes, french fries rather than having them eat burgers or chicken nuggets at every meal. One lovely thing about Isla Palenque is that all the water comes from the island’s natural springs, so you can drink the tap water and don’t have to worry about your children swallowing the water in the bath or shower.
The staff at Isla Palenque could not have been nicer and all spoke perfect English. The service is very casual and un-stuffy, and the waiters were warm and friendly with our children. Margot, our 7 year old started suffering from some bad allergies after our first day at Isla Palenque and I was kicking myself for not having thought to bring any Benedryl or Zirtek to such a remote place. I asked around all the other parents and no one had any allergy medication for kids. After a quick chat with the staff, they arranged for their driver to pick some up in David and bring it to us the next day when he brought some new arrivals. So kind and helpful! And no extra charge.
We loved our stay at Isla Palenque and would really recommend it to families who want to get away from it all and really immerse themselves in pristine natural surroundings. We came back to NYC well-rested and totally chilled out. Our stay in Panama also made us really want to explore more of central America, so we’ll be planning to head to Costa Rica or Belize soon hopefully!
Isla Palenque’s Eco Credentials
Obviously we flew our family of four from New York to Panama City and then took a second flight to David, so I’m not going to talk about our amazing environmental track record! We were super-impressed though by the efforts Isla Palenque have made to banish single-use plastics, replacing straws with papaya leaf straws, using only refillable glass toiletries bottles and providing reusable water bottles to all their guests. Your hot water is heated using solar power, they only serve locally sourced, sustainable seafood, and all their buildings use renewable materials. Isla Palenque also grows as much fruit, vegetables and herbs as possible in their organic garden.
For more information about Isla Palenque, visit their website.
*None of our stays or flights were gifted.