The vibe: an adults-only, overwater villa escape in a nature lover’s paradise
Location: Frangipani Island, Bocas Del Toro, Panama | View on Google Maps
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The AFAR take
Located off the north central coast of Panama, Nayara Bocas del Toro makes a stunning impression: 16 overwater villas and two tree houses hover above a turquoise-blue sea on a private island. The all-inclusive, adults-only resort is a lavish base for exploring the region’s natural beauty. But the more impressive story is behind the scenes: This resort is entirely off the grid, powered by sun and rainwater.
Who’s it for?
Since this is an adults-only retreat, it’s ideal for couples and honeymooners, particularly those who enjoy a combination of beachy relaxation and adventure activities, both above and below the water. (Friend groups are welcome, but keep in mind that only two guests are allowed per villa.) This part of Panama is popular for surfing, snorkeling, and diving, as well as for its rain forest, which is filled with such wildlife as sloths, birds, bats, and red frogs.
This resort, part of Nayara Resorts, a group of sustainability-focused properties born in Costa Rica, is the sole occupant of Frangipani Island in Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago. The island is covered in mangroves, which makes for a lush green backdrop when you’re walking along the raised boardwalks. But the villas face the water, with floor-to-ceiling windows framing turquoise-blue views of Dolphin Bay Reserve and Bastimentos National Marine Park.
To get here, travelers can fly from Panama City into the archipelago’s main hub of Bocas Town, a small hippie surfer spot with cute shops, waterside bars and restaurants, a party scene, and several budget hotels. A few 45-minute commercial flights run each day, and the resort can arrange charter flights as well. For those who choose to brave the 10-hour drive on occasionally rough roads, several companies offer shared shuttle-van services.
Once in Bocas Town, water taxis are the main method of transportation to the many nearby islands and activities. The one that takes guests to Nayara Bocas Bali is a private 20-minute transport that comes with prosecco and, if you’re lucky with your timing, the nicest captain in the archipelago, Elket. During our meander across the bay, he toured us around mangrove islands and shoals dotted with bright starfish, entertained us with stories about the region and his life, and stopped numerous times so that we could snap photos. Later he took us out again for a sunset cruise so we could watch the bay’s namesake dolphins jump and play.
Airy villas hover over the water, bamboo tree houses stretch into the sky, and a maze of trails winds around more than 80 acres of mangroves to secret gardens and ponds.
Nayara’s tropical island compound has a fairy-tale feel: Airy villas hover over the water, bamboo tree houses stretch into the sky, and a maze of trails winds around more than 80 acres of mangroves to secret gardens and ponds. All of it has an Indonesian inspiration: The 16 overwater villas were handcrafted by artisans in Bali. More than 1,000 hours of carving went into each one, including the elaborate wooden canopy, called a tupong sari, which hangs over every bed. And speaking of beds, they are big and inviting, draped with flowing white curtains and positioned in front of a wall of French doors that open onto a spacious terrace with loungers and a firepit.
Inside, the bathrooms are spacious, colorfully tiled, and supplied with reef-safe bath and shower amenities. (Heads up for the shy, though: The showers are entirely doorless.) The main living area has a peekaboo floor window with a blue light, so guests can watch the marine life go by even at night.
Outside, some of the villas have plunge pools, but all guests can get into the bay right from their terrace’s swim-up steps. On an active day, we had kayaks delivered and then paddled out to explore the scenic bay. On a more relaxed day, we had wine delivered and then zoned out on the lounge chairs.
Behind the villas, two whimsical tree houses stretch 50 feet above the jungle (two more will be completed this year). They’re the work of bamboo-architecture visionary Elora Hardy and her Bali-based design firm Ibuku (watch her TEDTalk), though they draw from local sources too: The bamboo is Panamanian, and the hardwoods are reclaimed from the bottom of the Panama Canal.
The entire property, except for the tree houses, is wheelchair accessible. The resort is adding handrails to showers and bathrooms, and is working on making their boats accessible.
Things to do
The Bocas del Toro archipelago is beautiful, and the resort offers many ways to take it all in. Excursions include kayaking, scuba diving, surfing, fishing, jungle hikes, private boat tours, plus day trips to see botanic gardens, wildlife (Sloths! Monkeys! Frogs! Bats!), and other beaches in the area. The spa can provide massages, facials, and wraps after such adventures and will even come right to your villa’s terrace. Or head for a swim at the sculpture-lined pool in the open-air main building or at the private “overwater” beach built on low stilts to protect the mangroves. (I highly recommend getting a drink and an inflatable chair from the beach bar and descending the steps to float in the warm protected waters.) Whatever you do, do not miss the chance to join a guided night swim with the bay’s bioluminescent plankton. As another awestruck traveler so aptly put it, “It’s like holding the night sky in your hand.”
The food and drink
The Elephant House is the on-site fine-dining restaurant led by executive chef Joseph Archbold. He’s a Bocas Del Toro native with international experience that shows in the menu, which draws as much from overseas influences as from the local waters (green curry vegetables, sous-vide short ribs, mahi-mahi and chickpea stew, roasted sea bass). Take note of the structure itself: It’s a 100-year-old, peak-roofed wooden building shipped over from Bali that sits on its own pier. That means you can enjoy dinner on the terrace overlooking the bay as the sun goes down. The alfresco Coral Café serves more casual meals and cocktails by the pool, and the Tipsy Bar takes care of guests at the beach. The property is working toward a “zero kilometers” concept for its kitchens, meaning that all their food would be sourced locally.
Staff and service
The staff here could not be more genuine in their wish to make sure you have a good stay. Everyone we met was helpful with anything we asked for, whether it was providing bottles of natural bug spray when we ran out or making calls and arranging a boat trip so that my friend could get a prescription refill.
Since 80 percent of the staff is Panamanian, it was cool to hear their own stories about the region and get their insider tips on things to do. Behind the scenes, the company offers free staff housing, English classes, and monthly seminars on environmental and sustainability practices, and also covers a percentage of the cost for career development opportunities, such as sommelier and pastry courses.
Going above and beyond
The resort is solar-powered, rainwater-supplied, and 100 percent off the grid. When it was being built, environmental studies ensured that the development didn’t negatively impact the isle’s flora and fauna. The learnings resulted in some creative solutions both out of view (a wastewater management system engineered specifically for a mangrove island) and in the open (an elevated beach built on stilts to minimize impact). Grab one of the snorkel kits in every villa to see more of the work the resort is doing in its cove. It has partnered with locally based Caribbean Coral Restoration to create new reef structures to help coral and marine life recover and flourish. It is also transitioning to be plastic-free (currently, they have refillable glass jars of water in the rooms, but some plastic bottles), and is partnered with Wasteless World Bocas del Toro to recycle plastic waste.