Friday, November 13, 2009

A foodie vacation in Panama

Fall in Central Texas is in full swing, bringing with it chilly morning fog and afternoon breezes with a snap to them, a reminder that colder days are ahead. When the weather turns cooler, my favorite activity is to plan a vacation. With our trees scattering brown leaves on the yard my thoughts turn toward visiting a land of vibrant flowers, lush green fauna and, of course, delicious food. I want to visit Panama.

Panama has it all: mountains, beaches, rainforests and bustling urban living. Forbes Magazine recently named Panama as one of its top retirement havens. Paradise, it seems, comes in the form of a country framed on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the opposite by the Caribbean Sea. The long, narrow country is home to teeming wildlife, is extremely popular with birders, offers a multitude of activities from surfing, diving and hiking to eco-retreats and cooking tours.

The cuisine of Panama is as diverse, as the population is mainly Mestizo, a mix of European and Amerindian people. Throughout the years the food of Panama became a mix of African, Spanish and Native American cooking. Immigration over the years has left a mark on Panama. It’s simple enough to find Italian, Greek, Chinese, French and American restaurants in Panama City. But when I think of vacation I think of cooking tours. Others may relax by rappelling down a Cliffside; I relax by learning how to make a new dish or utilize an unusual spice.

Chef Charlie Collins has opened his home to foodies like me who wish to spend their days chopping, stirring, learning and eating. His Panamonte Culinary School is most prestigious, offering a chance to sample native foods like yuca and plantains and other tropical fruits, vegetables and ingredients from organic hydroponic farms and local markets. Guests take a “hands on” approach from selecting ingredients to cooking them, under Chef Collins instruction. The day ends with a tasting dinner of the dishes made in the chef’s professionally equipped and designed kitchen. Chef Collins’ masterful cooking has led to many awards including Life Time Achievement Award from the Bon Appetit Gourmet Club. He’s cooked for presidents of many countries at some of the most important events in recent Panamanian history. In short, if you are a food loving person in search of an unforgettable vacation, look no further.

Panamonte Culinary School is in the highland town of Boquete, in an area of Panama well-known for its coffee production. With verdant green mountains and a cooler climate, it’s a highly desirable tourist area. Chef Collins has both cooking school guests and those who wish to simply enjoy his Panamonte Inn & Spa. The boutique hotel has much to offer, from its gourmet restaurant and highly rated spa to arranging canopy rides and river rafting trips. And so, with the turn of the seasons here, I dream of a charming inn, of deeply flavored coffee, empanadas, patacones, meals of comfort foods like sancocho and ropa vieja. I dream of Panama.

In Austin, those wishing to book a trip to Panama with ease can do so by contacting Panama Boutique. The staff of Panama Boutique are experts in travel to and from the country. Their first-hand knowledge of Panama means a trip can be tailored to fit your desire, from cooking tours to lazy beachfront resorts.

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jbjourneys said...

We've just come back from Panama, and had a sample one day cooking class with Chef Collins. I learned how to take the skin off of garlic without smashing it (put the clove in warm water), and how not to have milky looking ceviche (rinse the fish prior to adding lemon juice)...among other tips & stories!

We highly recommend this cooking class - fun, interesting and best of all - YUMMY!

www.panamaboutique.com