Vacations are hard.
No… let me correct that – my vacations are very very hard.
The difficulty in my vacations is not about quality time spent with family away from work – that, in fact, is the noble goal of each our outings – but in the expectation-setting, design, and execution of a perfect time away together.
Most everything is working against me when I dive into vacation-planning mode. First there is the cast:
me with my very busy professional life,
a super athlete wife who is always training and is strictly opposed to roughing it,
a 15-year, always-starving young man who has a very narrow comfort zone,
and a just-about teenager with a dedication to her friends so intense that requires a therapist if they are to be separated for more than two days.
To create more “hard”, I combine the cast with my inability to stay in any TripAdvisor-recommended safe zone and my unhealthy allergy to vacation planners. I seem to steer us toward the untried and new (not exactly sure why) and that means a big roll of the dice almost every time we step out the door. If my vacations were a high dive, I am certain the difficulty factor added by my planning weaknesses would have folks steering way clear of the diving platform.
I am extraordinarily relieved to report that all the not-so-great vacations of the past finally married with statistical probabilities to allow me to hit it out of the park on our most recent adventure. Actually, I hit it so hard and far that we found ourselves on a largely-undeveloped island off the Pacific coast of the Chiriqui province in Panama – Isla Palenque.
This vacation was born just the same as other less-than-ideal frolics. First, there is the internet stumble over a universally-appealing idea. In this case, a Chicago-based company (Amble Resorts) was changing an undeveloped, super-biodiverse 400-acre island into a eco-conscious luxury residential and resort property. It was the power formula for the new age of family travel: adventure + guilt-addressing sustainable practices + pristine beauty + lush amenities = what is not to like?
My stumble occurred early in the fantasy-to-reality process, and I casually followed along with progress eagerly and reliably shared though the company’s social media efforts. Somehow the maturation of the project cosmically aligned with our vacation-planning, as evidenced by an email regarding a “soft opening” that hit my inbox at the exact time my plan for a spring break Belize adventure crumbled for lack of availability.
“Soft opening” is the type of descriptor that, if I was able to learn lessons, should be both a warning flare and a hard stop in my vacation planning. But because I am me, I was drawn in, made the plans, then worried about the imminent vacation disaster in the intervening months.
So what did we find on the island? Something so indescribable, rare, and unique that I have avoided talking about it for several paragraphs. So as not to perform a disservice to this place, I only wish to paint the overall experience with moments briefly described:
- Incredible black and white sand beaches (“zebra” is an apt descriptor), endless at low tide; beautiful, warm, restoring water; just us or us and a guide from the resort.
- Estate Rooms where each item (furniture or art) fits, uncluttered and comfortable; how you would furnish your dream beach home.
- Kids touching new things – alive or not; eating new things (how do we move this back to our daily lives?); connected to home through internet just enough.
- The athlete found a new level of challenge in her off-road training, and welcomed it.
- Food: get out of here; three-course creative and fresh offerings; true dining experiences.
- Monkeys, iguanas, and anteaters, oh my (and how cool).
- Plants and ecosystems of so many types that it feels like several places all at once; palm species placed perfectly as if by some set director.
- Staff: waitstaff, hotel staff, guides – all reflect the privilege of being here in the gracious and generous manner in which each interaction occurs.
- Safe? We left things and kids behind without a care and that is truly not us.
- Adventure everywhere; planned excursions were “just right” in length and things learned.
- Relaxing whenever necessary – near the pool (our extended living room); on the beach; in room; on balcony overlooking beach; no hassles.
- Other guests all clearly sharing a point of view that this moment, this place is ours and special – and I imagine all of us also share a bit of regret that there may be more or many in the future.
- A sunset on an impossibly-inspired beach shared only with our family and the guides who poured sangria and put out chairs; a blood orange moonrise that along with guests, amazed the staff (it is cool to feel like we are all discovering together).
I am glad we took the chance and that I gained a bit of credibility that might carry me through a couple less-than-ideal future outings. If you are looking for your own refined adventure, dive into the written media that is out there (well done and, in fact, rather than overselling, it understates), take a look at the pictures emerging from the resort and the travelers (like the media, no picture can capture the true reality) and – like us – be amazed that a place like this exists.