Panama. So much more than a Quenelle.

Our southernly neighbour is a super spot for either a weekend R & R, or a longer trip if you can get to the fabulous San Blas islands. The capital Panama City is an exciting town, with decent restaurants and clubs, an interesting old quarter, and plenty of opportunities for great photography.

Way too much hair.

Out and about in Panama City (less hair this time)

The canal itself is probably worth seeing as its undoubtedly a triumph of engineering, ingenuity and the human spirit, though your make sure your visit doesn’t interfere with more important activities such as sleeping, eating and drinking. The afternoon we went, a dozen-odd container ships, stacked to the top with jeans, bath rugs and cleaning products from China, made their way along the channel on their way to stores across the continent. As a spectacle, it was right-up-there with watching my Rottweiler clean himself, and I was happy to get back to town to explore the Old Town, which is situated across the bay from the sparkling new city, allowing a thousand cliched shots that juxtapose the two.

Chaos at the canal.

In the Old Town there are some buildings of architectural merit and a fun restaurant area, where we ate one evening in a fish restaurant that had their last tables in the sand, and another spot on the Independence square with mandatory palms, balminess, wrought iron and beautifully lit stone buildings.

Lunch with pals in Panama City

The new city is noisy, fast and fun. We went to a club where everyone was in coats, rather than jackets, such is the cities love affair with air-conditioning. We actually had to leave after fifteen minutes, not because of the music (great) cocktails (super) but because I was developing frost-bite in my extremities. Weird.

Anyway, Panama City is a great destination for a long weekend, you know, just to mix things up a bit and have a different experience, but the San Blas islands are truly extraordinary. When we booked a catamaran to take us around the islands, I assumed the company who sent us the online brochure had been playing with Photoshop and had set all pictures on ‘insanely rich colours’ filter. They hadn’t. The colours really were incredibly intense.

So, we had to drive a few hours outside of town to pick up our ride where our captain was waiting for us. Probably better that we took a French captain as some of the British ones such as Henry Morgan, or Captain Kidd sound like complete ruffians. Morgan was apparently the source for the Captain Blood novel, and his exploits sound as riotous as Ozzy Osborne, making rum, pirating and plundering Panama City. Kidd, who was equally dashingly dressed, treated the region worse than any spring-breaker. Anyway, there are 365 islands in the archipelago, an easy number to remember, unless it’s a leap year when an extra island presumably emerges from the water like Atlantis or Brigadoon. We set sail in the afternoon and enjoyed a fabulous sunset.


Local fishermen came beside our boat and sold us live crabs and lobsters, which our French captain duly cooked for our table. I had a feeling that with the comfortable lounge area on the boat, the captains culinary talents, not to mention his Gallic appreciation of good wine, our voyage was going to be a far superior experience than earlier Caribbean cruises that seemed to be marred by sword-fights, plank-walking and scurvy.

Piracy on the high seas.

As it was our friends birthday, we had had the foresight to stock up on pink champagne, which worked perfectly with the shellfish extravaganza of our first night. We even managed to get a birthday cake organized.

There is something incredibly soothing about sleeping on a boat, as the gentle lapping of the waves against the sides creates a perfect rhythm with ones breathing. The next morning, everyone agreed it had been a wonderful sleep. By the time we had gobbled-down our breakfast, the captain was taking us into open waters as we dashed around the islands. The views were really beautiful. By mid-morning he had us anchored close to one small island and distributed snorkeling gear for us all to explore the waters and its inhabitants. The fish community was most obliging that morning and put on a wonderful spectacle for us as they swam past in their most colourful garments. The waters were warm and clear, the sands on the tiny islands looked like white sugar. It was really paradisal.

Everyday followed a similar pattern. Breakfasting as the captain took us to new, yet equally magical spots, then diving, followed by lunch, siestas, a good book or some chess. An afternoon swim, then dinner, drinks and wonderful sleep.

By the fourth day, the captain was obviously feeling more comfortable with us and started wearing a thong in which to cook and sail the boat. Frankly I preferred the outfits of Morgan and Kidd, you know, those thigh-high leather boots, the three cornered hats, loads of gold braiding and a parrot perched on your shoulder, but he was still doing a great job captaining and cooking, so we didn’t complain, though we did try to avert our gaze as he bent down to retrieve things from the oven.

By day six, he had exhausted his pantry and the last meal was some grilled Barracuda and a dessert of separated Chocolate Mousse, all of which went over the side when he wasn’t looking. Like the movie Snakes on the Plane, it was so bad, it was memorable, especially our furtive efforts at disposing of it without being caught. In an era when we dutifully, yet lazily, capture every inconsequential event in our lives, it’s nice to remember so many memorable images in ones minds eye. The San Blas falls into that category and when I’m feeling down, I often take myself back to this wonderful place. Truly special.

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