British art historian Hugh Honour wrote that entering Venice in any way other than by sea is like entering a palace through the back door. The reason being that the presentation and pomp of the Italian city — and of particular affection to Honour, the approach from the sea to the church of Santa Maria della Salute — is as much a part of the city culture as the canals are. To maneuver around a city whose canal system is as established as Venice’s without using the canals means you haven’t done Venice the right way.
I had Hugh Honour on the brain at 7 a.m. when I drew the drapes in my room at the Westin Playa Bonita in Panama City and got my first daylight glimpse of my surroundings, because what I saw was nothing short of an absolute revelation.
I’d taken a flight from Dallas/Fort Worth the previous evening and landed at around 11 p.m. Panama time. Then came a 45-minute cab ride to my hotel on the Pacific Ocean side of the country. I’d never been to Panama, but there’d been a lotof talk in travel circles lately about the emergence of this Central American country as a major commercial, cultural and medical hub. To that end, it was rumored that you couldn’t throw a rock in Panama without hitting a crane because of all the construction. Which was why I decided to visit when I did: I like watching a city grow; I like watching a population slowly adapt and welcome its new neighbors before the proliferation of ?McDonald’s and Walmarts.
During that cab ride from the airport, the first shock I had was passing through downtown Panama City. It is gigantic. More skyscrapers than in Cleveland, and more first-world. The second shock I had was when we passed the actual downtown of Panama City, whose skyline is very similar in size and aesthetic to Miami. If I hadn’t just cleared customs, I’d never have believed I was in Central America — and I was still in the cab. My boots-on-the-ground tour of the town, however, would confirm that Panama City is wrestling with growing pains. But that was still a night and a wake-up away.
The cab dropped me off at the opulent threshold of the Westin Playa Bonita. The place was spectacular and teeming with life, even at midnight on a Tuesday. I checked in, threw my backpack on the bed and opened my drapes, which is an old habit with me whenever I’m on the road. To say my view was spectacular would be a tired but appropriate cliché. The hotel was in a half-moon bay, flanked on the one side by cliffs and on the other by a strip of restaurants and shops. Unfolding in front of me was the azure Pacific Ocean. I took a seat on my balcony and observed the beautiful scene in front of me, the lights of the east bank twinkling in the early-morning hours and the moonlight’s illumination of the tree-lined cliffs to the west. It was the perfect welcome present from the Republic of Panama. As was the plush hotel room. I was zonked from the trip, so I pulled the shades and went to sleep.
Another old habit with me when I travel is that as soon as I wake up, I pull open the drapes and go on the balcony. Only this time, I was amazed at what I saw, as was Time magazine’s Joel Stein, who wrote this issue’s cover story (page 44).
The twinkling lights of the east bank from the night before weren’t those of restaurants or shops, as I had assumed. Rather, what I saw in the daylight was a line of gigantic boats that stretched as far as the eye could see. The freighters and cruise ships were waiting their turn — up to 14 hours or more — to pass through the Panama Canal, which is only six miles from the hotel. To see that much commerce lined up while knowing the history of the canal and what it means to global business (coupled with the fact that the night before, I thought I was looking at a line of strip malls) was a rousing moment. The very next day, I went to the canal. And I came away believing that traveling to Panama City and not stopping at the canal is akin to entering a palace through the back door.