Provo’s Oceans Group has one of the best views in the county. Outside their second story windows, they watch happy couples outside the Provo City Center LDS Temple. Their desks shake when the Rooftop Concert Series fills Center Street with trendy music.
But their other “office” — based in Panama — is equally photo-worthy. Oceans Group owners did what every little boy dreams of doing: They bought a tropical island and created a livable, luxury-able resort. Red Frog Beach is a 13-year-old jungle/beach paradise only accessible by boat. Pristine, uncrowded beaches lap up against a seemingly bug-free jungle where they’ve built a nine-segment zipline, outdoor spa and 60+ villas available for rent or purchase — many with private pools overlooking the island-dotted ocean.
Chris Padilla invited me to join his monthly tour of the property where his team takes potential buyers on a 4-day vacation. The sales pressure is low and the luxury is high. This was one assignment I didn’t choose to delegate. #obviousreasons
The 24-hour journey to Red Frog Beach sets the tone for the adventure. After flying into Panama City, we spent the night at a Hilton and then caught a 50-minute flight the next morning to Bocas del Toro, an island that is living on island time to the east of mainland Panama. From there, we retrieved our luggage at the cutest little airport you ever did see (think yellow walls and a half-door where they push luggage through one by one and name by name). From there, we loaded our luggage on a motorboat where a local zipped us past several lush islands on the 10-minute ride to our own paradise.
The first sight of Red Frog Beach was contrasting. Multi-million-dollar yachts filled the marina, while hand-carved canoes were also paddling through the still water. We climbed out of the boat and pulled our luggage up the boardwalk through mangroves, where we began our search for red frogs, sloths and monkeys. A 1-minute walk led us to the welcome center — an open-air, thatched roof lobby that removed the last workaholic thought from my soul.
Living and cruising
Our tour group was spread out in separate villas, including a 4-bedroom unit where each room had separate entrances for privacy but led to a common pool and great room. The spacious home would fit in on the Utah Valley Parade of Homes with its furnishings, appliances and space allocation. We also toured other Red Frog real estate, including jungle lodges that sleep six (think Swiss Family Robinson but with modern conveniences). We walked around condos under construction and we flip-flopped our way across ocean-view lots waiting for owners. For the first time, I started to question my promise to my husband that we wouldn’t buy Panamanian property while working on this travel piece.
The villas are spread out enough for privacy but close enough to all have easy access (via golf cart) to the Punta Lava restaurant, the marina, Red Frog Beach, Turtle Beach, the nearly completed Beach Club and restaurant, the grocery store, the spa and the zipline. Part of the fun was whipping around the property on carts and seeing the same happy people coming and going around the island.
Zip and Rub
I couldn’t call myself a journalist if I didn’t experience the open-air spa and the award-winning zipline on my Red Frog adventure. So I signed up for a 60-minute massage, located past the wooden gate and up a trail that crosses bridges and ends at a waterfall pond where the masseuse was waiting for me. The sounds during the service were familiar to me — but I’ve always heard them on a CD in a Utah spa. This experience had the real jungle birds and waterfall sounds happening real-time, real-place. Afterwards, I was shown to the open-air (but private) tiled shower.
I walked my relaxed noodle legs back down the path and headed to my next scheduled appointment — zipline! Our group of seven was sized with safety equipment and then driven into the jungle to harness adventure. Although there were physical components to the 90-minute zipline, the 62-year-old woman in our group easily climbed the wooden staircases and traversed the swinging bridges. One huge and happy surprise for me is that this jungle zipline wasn’t buggy or muggy. We saw red frogs, cartoon-sized ants and millipedes on some of the tree trunks, but nothing was buzzing or biting us. My bug spray stayed securely stowed in my carry-on.
Life’s a Beach
I’m an ocean girl, and this beach welcomed me with its nearly empty shoreline, perfectly clean sand, plenty of seating under thatched umbrellas, and nearby grill and bar where I ate fish tacos and sipped Coke Light (their Diet Coke). I happened to be loving life in this setting on Trump’s inauguration day, and everyone along the beach swapped “did you hears” while we dug our feet in the sand and avoided political debate but instead weighed our options of whether to get in the warm ocean water or watch it from the high-back Adirondack chairs.
Too Busy Having Fun To Relax
The morning of my third tour day we jumped into a boat and headed out to see the dolphins. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at a large, naturally occurring deep-water bay. I had barely adjusted my sunglasses to help spot dolphins when a pod of five were seen coming our way. Our tour group was full of successful entrepreneurs and affluence, but the excitement about the dolphins matches the frenzy of free T-shirts being thrown at a Jazz game. Everyone was “all-eyes on deck.” I could have watched them swim behind our boat all day, but we had some serous snorkeling still to do.
Our boat pulled up to a restaurant built on posts sitting in the ocean, and our group climbed out to get drinks and food. I kept eyeing the snorkelers swimming all around us, and even though the water was so clear I could already see what they were seeing, my FOMO took over and I jumped in the water with my mask and flippers. The lunch-goers above tossed some crumbs into the water, which increased my fish-watching by 1,000 percent. As it turns out, Panamanian fish love cracker crumbs. The variety of fish rivaled my snorkeling experiences in Hawaii. As I towel-dried and climbed back in the boat, I learned that this was one of 30 snorkeling and scuba spots around Red Frog. I made a mental note to come back again and next time plan an excursion to Zapatilla Keys, which is part of a protected marine park and has been called the best reef snorkeling in the world.
Tour de Panama
Although I wouldn’t consider myself a group tour aficionado, the format of the trip turned out to be one of my favorite parts. Our group brought together the unlikely pairing of a sea captain, a New York coffee shop owner, an international real estate broker, a mechanical engineer, a couple that had just finished living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, a Mormon journalist and a serial entrepreneur. (Oceans Group hosts a similar trip each month.)
We ate most meals around the same table, and before long everyone in the group was showing each other iPhone photos of kids, club-footed cats (no joke), homes and websites. We celebrated the birthday of my new friend Vanessa on one of the nights, and by then it truly felt like we were lifelong chums clapping along as the Panamanian waiters created a toe-tapping beat of “Happy Birthday” using measuring cups and ice cream buckets.
The three Oceans Group/Red Frog representatives on our trip created just the right mix of structure and free time on the itinerary. Plus, they always had the water taxi ready when we needed, they knew which restaurants served the best fish and which villas had the closest access to the beach. Think “cruise director,” but without the uniform.
Back to Bocas
For one of the evenings, we caught a motorboat ($5 taxi fare) back to Bocas for what turned out to be my favorite meal of the trip. I sliced through my sesame-crusted tuna while we watched the sun go down around 6:30 p.m. Then we walked the quiet, safe streets of the town where street vendors were selling jewelry and kabobs, which we bought even though we had just turned down dessert on account of our fullness. When in Bocas, eat like a Bocan.
I adored the quaint stores, including one called “Super Market My Shop.”
The boat ride on the way back to Red Frog that night was my all-time favorite “pinch me” moment on the trip as I was mesmerized with the star-filled sky while the warm water slightly sprayed us as we made our way back through the countless islands — some inhabited, some not.
I hung my head out over the side of the boat as I looked up at the constellations and let my hair get damp with salt water. One of my tour mates passed around his app identifying the constellations. Again, we bonded over the beauties of the world and the unlikely situation that we all found ourselves in this tropical paradise nearly off the grid when we all have busy lives back in the United States.
[pullquote]For 5 reasons to put Panama on the bucket list, click here.[/pullquote]
Fun for Everyone
I found myself thinking of my five kids back home wishing they could ride in my golf cart and bob up and down in the waves with me in Panama. Fortunately, the rates are reasonable with units going from $100-$400 a night. I’ve spent more than that in Hawaii for a crowded, everybody-has-done-this experience. Truly, on this Panamanian adventure, I felt like I was living in a novel from the 1800s when islands were being discovered. Maybe this is why I’ve found myself recommending to family and friends not to take my word for it but to go and experience it for themselves — and I’m hoping they take me with them.