SARA WAXMAN: Five years ago, you sold Metro Label, one of the largest of its kind in North America, and one of the best packaging label makers in the world. No doubt you thought of retiring at that time and resting on your laurels. But that was not to be. What prompted you to make a multi-million-dollar investment in Panama?
SANDEEP LAL: My success in my business life was a result of my motivation and passion to do things well. I have tried to carry that style over to the development in Lucero. This requires a longer-term vision of what’s right for the business and the clients, and just taking the right actions to support that vision. It’s also about anticipating trends and having the foresight to be a leader who accepts the fact that not all decisions will be right, and I will learn from things that don’t turn out as expected. My family had started a development in Panama in 2003. I became involved and acquired the property in Boquete in 2013, with a goal to complete the development. I chose to stay engaged in this project, Lucero, that my family had invested in out of a sense of responsibility. I have a great deal of pride in what I accomplished, and besides, I enjoy spending time there.
SW: Tell me the highlights of Lucero, outside of the personal satisfaction you have from creating the development.
SL: For me personally, Lucero is a magical place because it is so serene and the views are never-ending. It is an environment of peace, where you wake up to the sound of birds singing. Because of the mountains and the ocean there are an unusual number of rainbows year-round. At night the sky is filled with twinkling stars. There is no industrial pollution. I always have a sense of amazement, and the beauty of nature is something that fills me with awe.
SW: You had me with the stars and the rainbows. It sounds like a romantic paradise. What is the best time of year to plan a visit, and how can we get there from here?
SL: The most popular season for Canadians is mid-December to mid-April. These are considered the dry months and the average temperature is 23 degrees with an occasional high of 28. However, if you love rain, monsoon season is September, October and November. Air Canada and Copa Air fly four times a week. Booking early gives you a better rate. The town of Boquete has about 6500 expats who come from the U.S. or Canada and a smattering of Europeans from the U.K., France, Italy and Germany. Many visitors return yearly and rent a vacation home, (a Tree House Living experience is popular) and often eventually buy a retirement home. As well, there are Panamanians who want to have a second home or in some cases, a principal home. There is no tax on foreign income for residents.
SW: Considering today’s world, personal safety and security are on my mind. What is the mood in Boquete?
SL: Lucero is a gated community with good security and there has never been a break-in. In the ten years I have been coming here, I have never had any issues, nor do I know of anyone who has had a personal safety issue.
SW: While almost all the people come from elsewhere, I imagine they are eager to meet new people and enjoy the activities Lucero offers such as Golf, Tennis, Hiking, Whale-watching for example—it’s always more fun with friends.
SL: Since I am a tennis player, we’ve built three courts on the property. And while I don’t always have time to get on the golf course, I try to get out for a few holes later in the day, after office hours. I’m an entrepreneur who is particularly hard on measuring the quality of my own business. I am always interested in the assessment of other professionals. I invited my Pro to come along when our golf course was visited by a group of golf journalists from the U.S. and Canada, as they researched the courses in Panama. They rated Lucero in Boquete as the best in the country. The views of the mountains and the ocean that surround us on three sides are breathtaking. In fact, early evenings when golfers have all left the course, some people just hop on a golf cart and drive around enjoying the magnificent landscape. In addition, there are many things to do for residents and visitors. There are water sports, fishing and whale watching an hour away. There is zip-lining and white-water rafting. In February, there is a terrific Jazz Festival, in March, a Flower Festival, and on many occasions the culture is celebrated with parades and music. There is a glamorous nightclub with live music and DJs. And for more reserved pleasures, there are Bridge Clubs and Coffee Tasting sessions since Panama is a coffee growing region, painting classes, Bocce Ball, Table Tennis and even Pickleball to work off some of the energy.
SW: Tell me about the dining scene. Is it sophisticated or middle of the road?
SL: We have built Seasons, a fine dining restaurant on the property, and the opinion of friends from Toronto who have travelled far and wide, tell me it is a match for the best Private Club restaurants in Toronto. The difference is that the cheque for dinner-for-two with a bottle of wine (gentle markups) will be around $80. And at moderate restaurants, you could pay $30. for two. Keep in mind, there are many growers of fruits and vegetables, and the fish is definitely fresh. Most everything served at Seasons restaurants is farm-to-table. The weekly organic Farmers Market showcases an extravagant array. Many of the restaurants have live music.
SW: It seems that boredom has no place in Boquete. There are so many activities to enjoy, one just might find themselves saying they are too busy–enjoying life.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.