Boutique Hotel Cala Mia: Chiriqui Golf

Thursday, 05 July 2007 17:19
When traveling off the beaten path to unspoiled, clinic virgin landscapes, the human heart has a tendency to want to preserve it and claim it all at once. European couple Victoria and Max tried to grasp the best of both worlds when they purchased a small peninsula on Isla Boca Brava in the Chiriqui Golf and constructed an eco-friendly boutique hotel. The Hotel Cala Mia debuted this past December 2006 with 11 bungalow suites, a main bar restaurant area a thatch roofed spa and yoga center, and a private palm tree lined bay. The complex is almost completely self-sufficient with a solar panel-powered generator, organic garden, fresh water well and compost heap. The owners ask that guests embrace this concept, and have also vocalized that "Bush-lovers" are not welcome.

The majority of the guests that visit the hotel have heard about it through tour agencies and come from a variety of locations including Europe, Panama City, Colombia, Mexico and the United States.

The seclusion of the hotel is at once a blessing and a curse. It provides visitors a chance to experience undisturbed natural surroundings and makes for quite the arrival process. Having underestimated the journey, I arrived to the island seven hours, three taxis, two buses and one boat ride later - obviously not the recommended means of transportation. Guests generally get a flight to David, and choose between a one hour drive to the small town of Boca Chica, where local fisherman provide transportation to the island for $25 per group - or a shuttle directly from the David airport followed by an hour-long luxury boat ride of almost an hour to the hotel with beer, wine and soda included in the price ($200 for four people, add $10 for additional people).

The hotel's boat captain, Beto, was waiting for me when I arrived to Boca Chica. He navigated the boat around the mostly uninhabited Isla Boca Brava, part of a 100-island archipelago. After 15 minutes we pulled up to the long narrow wooden dock, I saw the rustic circular restaurant and reception building poking up from the narrow peninsula like something from the Swiss Family Robinson novel, complete with a second-story lookout point and swinging bridge. A permanent natural soundtrack of crashing waves, crickets, geckos and howler monkeys quickly set in. Other local critters and sea life include iguanas, ocelots, raccoons, jaguars, coyotes, ant-eaters, dolphins, whales, sea turtles and numerous tropical fish.

As I walked up the ramp, the property sprawled out before me with little paths with random mosaic designs leading this way and that among small one-story buildings. It seemed nearly deserted until Diana, the captain's wife, popped out of nowhere to take my order for dinner - a choice between two entrees (this time steak or lobster) at a set price of $18, to be served in the restaurant at 7:30pm sharp. She then introduced me to Elena, an adventurous Italian who took a four month break from her company in Tuscany to serve as hotel manager for her good friend Victoria, who gave me a tour of the property.

Elena introduced me to several other hotel employees and explained that the majority of them are from the nearby inland town of Horconcitos. Three employees come from the neighboring indigenous village just behind the hotel, and one family moved to Panama from their hometown of Dominical, Costa Rica where they had been working at Victoria and Max's hotel, Las Casitas de Puertocito. In all, the hotel only employs seven permanent staff members who live on the island for two weeks at a time, just beyond the compost heap, solar panels and guest housing. It is at once their home and their office, and the high spirits of the workers and respect for the surroundings was apparent.

The décor mimics this geographic trend in that the majority of it is locally found, with some international flair thrown in. All of the wood doors, chairs, tables and columns that are displayed throughout were handcrafted by an artisan in Guatemala who worked closely with the owners to create a unique touch for the hotel. There are also random pieces from Morocco and Italy and other personally chosen items that represent a montage of the owners' travels.

My reaction upon entering my bungalow for the night was literally one of awe. They are all similarly designed and decorated in earth tones. The floor of my room was made of crisscrossed wooden beams and cream tiles that matched the beige walls accented with an earthen clay color. Each room has gauzy cream curtains covering the large sliding door that leads to the furnished outdoor rancho overlooking the bay or ocean. Each rancho includes a hammock, couch with waterproof woven reed cushions, and coffee table, all under a high cone-shaped thatched roof with outdoor lighting.

The bedroom was decorated with Kuna molas on the wall, a handicraft wooden table and chairs matching those in the rest of the furnishings, and two full beds with light cotton bedspreads made in India. The bathroom has a unique thick glass tiled circular shower area, distorting the light from the outside. Centered in the shower is a stained glass window that opens up to the lawn. Mine happened to portray three fish swimming upside-down - perhaps an artistic touch? The floor has mosaic stone fish that match the mosaics found throughout the outdoor pathways.

After admiring my new surroundings, I made my way to the restaurant area, which includes indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the small, freshwater infinity pool and both sides of the peninsula, a long curved couch next to a small library, and a second story circular viewing area, reminiscent of a rustic lighthouse.

The bonus of sitting atop a peninsula is the ocean breeze that was constantly present during my stay. The tropical setting can get a little humid however, and I definitely recommend using the main desk's supply of OFF bug spray if you hope to enjoy a relatively insect-free evening cocktail or meal.

Dinner was served at 7:30pm, as directed. Seating options include a long community table for guests to socialize around as well as smaller tables for a more intimate dining experience. The menu changes daily, but is always anchored by an entrada of crusty bread - imported half-baked from Spain - with olive oil and rosemary for dipping. The first plate was a cool avocado gazpacho, followed by a main meal of fresh lobster with olive oil and rosemary potatoes and a red cabbage and walnut salad. For desert, we were served flan topped with fresh coconut and a maraschino cherry.

Their dedication to serving organic foods does not limit the food selection offered by the Michelin-trained chef from France who specializes in European cuisine. For breakfast, which is served from 7am on and included in the price of the hotel stay, I enjoyed a fresh fruit plate, pancakes and homemade bacon. Lunches are served "a la carte" and the menu includes a Mediterranean style selection of pastas, sandwiches and salads. What is not grown on the property is shipped in weekly from David markets and an organic grocery store, while fish and lobster are purchased locally from fishermen.

After a long day of travel, island exploration and socializing with the only other guests at the hotel, a friendly couple from Ft. Lauderdale, I headed back to my bungalow exhausted and hoping to wake up early to appreciate the day. I had to fight off a small herd of large leaf cutting ants who were scouting out my room for a new home - further proof that the hotel blends harmoniously with the natural surroundings.

I awoke early and decided on a relaxing day of kayaking around the surrounding waters and laying out on the small sunbathing deck that floats, anchored to the center of the bay and is fully equipped with patio furniture. A sudden irrational fear of sharks cut my afternoon swim short, and I climbed back into the safety of my kayak and ended up spotting jumping needle fish and a large sea turtle surface right next to me.

Other activities offered include beach, boat and fishing tours, tours of the local Indian village, kayak tours through mangrove forests, horseback riding, snorkeling and scuba diving. They soon plan to employ full-time spa staff as well. Almost anything within reason can be organized as long as the hotel is contacted in advance of your arrival.

It is this kind of personal attention that makes the hotel unique. It is in every sense of the term a romantic "getaway" destination with relaxed, personal service. This is in part due to the fact that the Chiriqui Golf has yet to be splattered across travel magazines and the hotel is small enough that you won't find yourself vying for the staff's attention. Currently there is only one other hotel on the Boca Brava island, which caters more to budget travelers and is located directly across from Boca Chica.

When the owners are not busy constructing their own home on the other side of the bay, they, too, can be found dining and sharing stories with their guests or sailing around the island on their yacht that is parked in the middle of the bay.

Rates: Low Season: $140/bungalow double occ. incld. breakfast (mid-April to mid-December)
High Season: $180

Last Updated on Thursday, 21 August 2008 16:19