Monday, May 19, 2008

Country Inn and Suites - Amador

Looking for an immaculate room with aesthetic upgrades on your trip to Panama City, Panama? Then don't stop here.

But if location, service and price are your main concerns, the Country Inn and Suites at Amador is the place to be.

The rooms aren't much to look at, and they're not near as posh as what you'll get at the Marriott. No Ralph Lauren linens or Sleep Number beds await weary travelers after their flight.

But the rooms are amply sized for the price. I paid $125 per night for a springy king bed, sleeper sofa and - count 'em - two TVs. Wireless Internet was free, albeit a bit slow, and the minibar was well stocked. Breakfast was much better than the average continental fare in American budget hotels, and the coffee was tasty and fresh. The room interior was generally on par or a little better than what you get at the average hotel in America. Despite its unremarkable inside, intangibles are where this place shines.

The hotel is situated at the mouth of the Panama Canal, where it runs into the Pacific Ocean. A walking trail runs just outside the fenced pool area behind the hotel grounds, offering great views of the picturesque landscape. Jump the fence and you can walk all the way out on the Amador Causeway, a narrow strip of land constructed by piles of dredged earth from the Canal excavation 100 years ago. The Causeway links the mainland with two islands and tourists with their choice of a variety of restaurants. If you're in the mood to covet, go to the end of the strip and watch the yachts come in.

The Puente de Las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) is in full view from balconies of rooms with a canal view, and boats traverse the Canal day and night on the way through the locks and to and from the Port of Balboa. This is particularly interesting to watch after the sun sets, as giant barges inch their way into the darkness, floating silently like blimps on the water, their little guide lamps the only sign of their formidable presence.

A TGI Friday's is attached to the hotel, and if you don't talk too much to the wait staff, you could really pretend you're in America. To avoid the tourist trap at dinner time, go to the Causeway, or take a cab east toward the center of town. If you do happen to hit the TGI Friday's, go local with the fried calamari appetizer washed down with a Balboa beer. The waitress says Balboa is stronger than Panama Cerveza, the country's flagship brew.

Service is one of this Country Inn's best qualities. The staff speaks English very well and was very charming and willing to help tourists. Great maps of the city are available at the front desk and the drivers outside are always looking to get some business.

Tips for getting the most out of this hotel:

-Try to get a room with a canal view. I think they're priced a little bit higher, but if you're a balcony sitter, you'll think it's worth it. Can't get a view? Check out the cozy pool area and get your views from there. Use the extra money to splurge on a great meal.

-The walls are a bit thin. Sound carries through walls, and you know what that sometimes means.

-There are two types of taxi drivers in Panama - ones that have license to drive up to the entrance of the hotel, and those who don't. The CI&S is back from the main road. Ignore the drivers right outside the door that try to take you in their large white vans. Walk a few extra steps out to the street, to the smaller cabs, and you'll probably pay half of the tourist rate charged by the van guys. But utilize the van guys for scheduled trips.

-Keep in mind, the CI&S Amador is farther away from the airport than a lot of other hotels, but it's extremely quiet, a stark contrast from downtown. And the air is extremely fresh as it blows in from the water.

Photo: Bridge of the Americas at sunset from behind the hotel. Copyright Trevor Williams 2008.

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