Editor’s note: TPG’s Cameron Sperance accepted a free trip from Sofitel to stay at the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo Panama City. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by the hotel company.
Sofitel Legend’s latest property, Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo Panama City, manages to achieve the triple crown of luxury, history and style.
Accor hosted TPG at the grand opening of the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo in March in Panama City. While this isn’t a typical under-the-radar TPG review of the hotel, I made plenty of observations during my three-night stay about what this means for Sofitel’s broader initiative to revamp the brand. I also observed what this hotel means for Panama — one of TPG’s best places to travel in 2023.
Panamanians and Sofitel Legend’s parent company, Accor, both have something to be proud of with the new hotel.
It’s both a symbol of broader redevelopment underway across much of the historic Casco Viejo neighborhood as well as a boost to the city’s hospitality scene. We’ve heard and observed that many luxury hotels in the city are overdue for a little cosmetic touch-up. The new Sofitel Legend will more than satisfy cravings for upgraded ultraluxury in the city (and, hopefully, pressure the competition to step up their game).
Casco Viejo might not be your only stop when craving a little sun and fun in Latin America, but the Sofitel Legend is certainly worth a multiday stopover.
What is Sofitel Legend?
Sofitel is a well-known hospitality brand, but the Sofitel Legend offshoot might not be as familiar to American travelers. The brand aims to infuse Sofitel’s French luxury service into historic, centuries-old heritage buildings in locations such as Amsterdam, Vietnam, Colombia, Egypt, China and now Panama.
Originally built in 1917 as the Club Union, the property was once the hub for the Panamanian elite. Queen Elizabeth II even visited in 1953 during an official state visit, and Albert Einstein was a guest of Club Union.
The club lost its luster when members began moving to the outskirts of the city, and it eventually shuttered and sat empty for decades. The U.S. bombed it during a 1989 invasion while looking for dictator Manuel Noriega. The shell of the building was later used as a backdrop in 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” James Bond film. Developers brought the structure back to life in recent years, resulting in its luxury hotel reincarnation.
The final result is very much in line with Sofitel Legend’s brand standard of preserving historic properties and transforming them into modern, luxury hotels.
The mix of French luxury and local history isn’t forced, either. Settlers from around the world have come to Panama for centuries, including the Spanish in the 16th century and the French and Americans during the construction of the Panama Canal.
You’ll hear a “bonjour” here and there from staffers (more a nod to Sofitel’s influence than any French holdover from the canal), and the focal point of the lobby is a tiled mural of the Panama Canal. Greeters in front of the colonial-style building don Panama hats and cream uniforms by local designer Federico Visuetti. There are also cozy spots tucked away, like the library off the lobby that pays homage to various queens of Carnival.
Evening entertainment includes the candle ritual, a Sofitel Legend staple inspired by the custom of lighting the streets of Paris during the reign of Louis XIV. Every Sofitel Legend hotel infuses this historic French tradition with local flair. Each night the Casco Viejo hotel features dancers in traditional Panamanian costumes, adding a mix of song and dance to the lighting.
One must remember Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo was a hollowed-out shell of a building when the redevelopment began. So, while it might feel like the mosaic floors and breezy terraces have been here for decades, this is all newly built and only months into its lifespan.
My Oceanfront Magnifique guest room included a king bed, a sitting area and a balcony perfect for dining outside and enjoying views of Panama Bay. The spacious room included an entry corridor with an entire row of built-in closets and a storage area for my luggage (something I wish more hotels would do instead of the collapsible luggage racks).
Opposite the closets was a large bathroom with a stand-alone, claw-footed soaking tub, double vanity and walk-in shower. The bronze and porcelain hardware throughout gave the room a more mature feel even though it was only a few weeks old. I’m not a huge fan of the open-concept bathrooms taking over the luxury hotel space these days, so I was happy to see the Sofitel Legend’s spacious bathroom didn’t include a bird’s-eye view into the bedroom and beyond.
The expansive bedroom and sitting area included a large workstation and four-poster bed (each in dark wood that popped against the cream walls). A sitting area included a velvety light-blue couch and coffee table perfect for enjoying coffee, reading or catching up on emails away from the workstation.
A large chest opposite the couch housed the minibar and complimentary boxed waters, tea and coffee for use in the in-room French press. The minibar included local and international brands for snacks and beverages.
Considering how much of a goblin I can be in the morning until I have my first cup of coffee, I was initially a little uneasy about the idea of so much effort going into making my much-needed java.
It ended up being a fun addition to the morning routine, considering the hotel provided precise measurements and instructions on how to get the temperature and timing just right. It packed more of a punch than my usual hotel Nespresso, so I was energized for a full day of activities after just one cup. I learned more about Panama’s high-end coffee culture during my stay and even bought a bag of Panamanian Geisha coffee to take home.
My favorite part of the room was the balcony outside, as it included a stunning view of the Panama City skyline and was a fabulous spot to drink coffee and eat breakfast in the morning while watching the sunrise. While it was warm during my stay, it wasn’t overly humid, so I often kept the French doors open to let in the sea breeze. (Keeping the doors open for longer than a minute shut the air conditioning off automatically.)
The room was luxurious, but it was also cozy and comfortable. You could control all the lights from a switch panel over the nightstand on either side of the bed, and it was easy to sleep in, thanks to blackout shades over the windows. Housekeeping came by twice a day, and the evening turndown service included drawing the blackout shades and tidying up.
The mix of Panamanian hospitality and French luxury made for a relaxing stay with highly attentive service that wasn’t stuffy.
Since much of my visit was tied to the grand opening, I can mostly only speak to some initial observations of the Sofitel Legend’s bars and restaurants that are currently open.
For starters, if you get an Oceanfront Magnifique room, it’s going to be hard to pass up room service each morning. Breakfast swiftly arrived within 20 to 45 minutes after I ordered it. Dining on my balcony was a great way to forget about how it was still 35 degrees back in Boston while soaking in the sun. I sampled avocado toast packed with a pile of smoked salmon one morning and indulged in granola, medium-boiled eggs, bacon and an enormous fruit platter the next.
However, I still recommend checking out Caleta, the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant that is open for all three meals of the day (and also provides in-room dining). The French brasserie aesthetic of Caleta’s dining room is a clear nod to the French luxury at the core of Sofitel. There are also other nice touches, such as the bakery cart a waiter rolls by at breakfast to serve various treats like croissants and pain au chocolat.
Meals were included in my comped stay, but I did look at the menu and noticed prices seemed pretty standard as far as hotel restaurant pricing goes. The large portions really stood out and could make it seem like you get more value for your buck, though. The avocado toast was $18, but the pile of smoked salmon it came with was enormous.
Additionally, I went with the $25 “healthy” option one morning. It included cereal and berries with milk, a mini-loaf of carrot and ginger bread, Greek yogurt, a fruit plate, fresh juice and a choice of any hot beverage (I went with an espresso). Prices were less than you’d find at a city hotel in the U.S. While they were a few dollars more than breakfast down the street at the Hyatt-affiliated Hotel La Compania (more on that in coming days), portions were significantly larger.
Executive Chef Lorenzo Di Gravio oversees Caleta. The restaurant features a seafood-forward menu of entrees like grilled octopus, scallops and grouper, as well as other options like veal chops and rib-eye.
While I didn’t have these dishes as stand-alone options, the hotel treated us to a multicourse dinner hosted by Di Gravio; the chef showed off his talents through courses of marinated yellowtail with caviar, steak tartare, sea bass and short ribs. There was no weak link here, and it’s clear Panama City has a new hub for power dining with Di Gravio at the helm.
The dishes are delicious, and the restaurant atmosphere is just as good. It’s easy to imagine travelers wanting to sit in Caleta’s beautiful dining room for hours while sipping a glass of Champagne.
Mayda, the hotel’s main bar off the lobby, offers views of the courtyard outside. This is the main social area of the hotel at the moment, and it was the hub of activity for the duration of my stay. Here you can order a mix of small bites like oysters on the half shell or sandwiches in addition to cocktails. The vibe is more laid back than at Caleta.
One level below the courtyard is the hotel’s pool and bar. This bright space includes a mix of table and counter service with fresh juices, smoothies, ceviche and cocktails.
Vera Cafe, a coffee shop off the lobby, is also open for pastries, grab-and-go sandwiches and beverages from early morning until early evening.
Ammi, a rooftop bar, isn’t officially open for business yet. However, the Sofitel Legend team gave me a sneak preview with passed appetizers like ceviche and grilled fish, along with Paloma cocktails and Champagne. The indoor-outdoor layout of the space, coupled with cozy tables along the terrace, shows the hotel is clearly aiming to be the new nightlife hotspot of Casco Viejo.
While photography wasn’t allowed, a members-only speakeasy under construction shows the Sofitel Legend also wants to court a local audience — and keep them coming back.
You can’t help but feel like all the extra effort to make these distinct on-site dining and drinking spots is a clear attempt to return this stretch of Casco Viejo to its high-society past.
A date with history
Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo is within Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo neighborhood — also a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and is part of a broader redevelopment push underway in the surrounding blocks. The juxtaposition of Casco Viejo with Panama City’s long expanse of soaring towers feels a bit like the French Quarter-meets-Dubai.
There’s plenty to do just within the Sofitel Legend’s surrounding neighborhood. While the Panama Canal is a 25-minute drive from the hotel, Casco Viejo has plenty of sites tied to the country’s iconic piece of infrastructure.
The Plaza de Francia, a few blocks south of the hotel, pays homage to France’s initial attempt at building the Panama Canal before the Americans took over. The Arco Chato, a couple of blocks to the west, includes an arch said to be a selling point to the Americans to proceed with building the canal through Panama. (The fact that the arch, first built in the 1600s, was still standing was supposed to be a testament to the stable weather of Panama relative to competing Nicaragua.)
While a lack of maintenance led to the arch collapsing in 2003, it has since been restored — and the story is still a good one for the many Americans walking through Casco Viejo.
Travelers will also find plenty of high-end coffee shops, boutique stores and, yes, shops to pick up a Panama hat.
While my stay was comped, rates are routinely around $415 a night for this specific room category in early April. Entry-level guest rooms (still with waterfront views but not a balcony) start at $314.
Anyone considering a stay should look into Accor’s ALL Plus Voyageur subscription plan (more details here from TPG, and you can sign up via Accor here). It gets you 20% off the best rate of select Accor brands, including Sofitel and Sofitel Legend. Plus, you’ll be able to get a discount at 17 other Accor brands for future travel.
While the Sofitel Legend is a tranquil property, it’s still in the middle of one of Latin America’s busiest cities. The Sofitel Legend team recognizes that its city location won’t satisfy travelers’ desires to enjoy beaches.
So, the team is already organizing tag-on trips where guests can spend two or three nights in Casco Viejo before flying off to one of the popular Panamanian island destinations, like the Bocas del Toro Islands or San Blas Islands.
What it means for Sofitel
Accor just went through a major corporate restructuring. Sofitel, Sofitel Legend and the MGallery and Emblems collections are now under the purview of Maud Bailly, formerly the company’s CEO of Southern Europe.
One of the biggest hurdles for Sofitel at the moment might be the fact that it’s a fairly well-known brand in the U.S. but only has a few hotels in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They’re perfectly fine hotels, but growth comes from shock-and-awe experiences that bring in guests and woo potential owners to ink a deal.
“The awareness of Sofitel is super powerful in the U.S., but we can do much better,” Bailly previously told TPG.
Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo is an excellent beginning for Bailly to take the brand to a new future. We’ll have more details soon, but it’s clear she plans to revamp many properties and elevate the customer experience at the broader Sofitel brand.
Sofitel Legend’s heritage property guidelines mean travelers shouldn’t expect a wave of these hotel types flooding the market anytime soon — there are only so many centuries-old buildings that fit the bill, after all.
Still, it’s clear this hotel is the better experience in Panama City compared to more long-in-the-tooth competitors like the InterContinental Miramar Panama and the Waldorf Astoria Panama. That presents a major opportunity to win over more travelers in the region and tempt them to book other Sofitel properties when and if it starts to expand.