A hideaway villa gets its inspiration from the exquisite beach houses of Bali.
By Michelle F. Solomon
Trips to Southeast Asia and influences of the beautiful beach houses of Bali are the muses for Casa Naga, an exquisite villa in Playa Bonita, Panama. This is an exclusive hideaway built by a Panamanian businessman, the son of one of the most prominent Panama developers. Wanting to share the atmosphere and surroundings of his private abode, he’s making the 25,000-square-foot retreat available as a vacation rental.
“Anyone can book a hotel room, but luxury is getting into someone’s home, living the true experience, and seeing what they consider luxury,” says Herman Bern, Jr., vice president of Product Development of Bern Hotels & Resorts, who built the residence as his beach getaway-from-life in idyllic, yet hectic, Panama City. “The vision came from a pleasure trip to Bali in 2010. When I went and looked at the homes there, I thought that the setting felt familiar.”
Bern says he has grabbed escape time at the hideaway since its completion last January, but when he’s traveling or residing at his main residence, he wants the property to be enjoyed.
Perched on a cliff at the edge of a rainforest — with the Pacific Ocean as its central focus — the seven-suite villa, Casa Naga, translates from Indonesian into “Dragon House.”
Interior designer James Derry says the atmosphere of the villa is a “bit more glamorous and sophisticated than a rambling country house. The space is created for those who appreciate elegance,” says the English designer, who says he “went for a look that had much texture, but not too much color.”
Wide open spaces are a signature with exquisite 50-foot ceilings. “I wanted there to be a ‘wow’ factor — for it to be an experience — so we went for these extremely high ceilings,” says Bern.
Derry admits the ceilings were a bit of a challenge. “I had to make sure each individual area felt comfortable. With these high ceilings, it could be easy to feel like you’re lost.” Derry’s use of indirect lighting was a way to make the environment softer and cozier.
The home fits into its natural surroundings, blurring the line where the villa ends and the grounds around it begin. Ocean breezes waft through the open space of the house.
“It’s what we wanted to capture,” says Derry.
Nature doesn’t just enter the house from the outside; the walls and floors don’t fight nature — they surrender to it.
“The idea behind the house was for it to be eco-friendly and to use as many natural products from Panama as possible,” according to Bern. Panamanian artisans did much of the detail work, including floor carvings in the home’s main room.
“I wanted to get away from the white, modern steel and create a look that emphasized stone and wood,” he says.
Most striking is the use of a special type of wood. An antique, hand-carved wooden chair is more comfortable than it looks; it is carved from Cumaru, a rare local wood reclaimed from Lake Bayano, buried there when the original canal of Panama was created.
In 1913, when President Theodore Roosevelt dammed the Chagres River in Panama, an old-growth jungle flooded. Now, more than 100 years later, the Canal Cumaru — a teak wood — is being harvested. It was important for Bern to use this specific wood at Casa Naga.
“I wanted to have what was available in Panama — the local, natural elements.”
The underwater jungle remains, and the fresh water has actually preserved the wood instead of rotting it. Logs that are brought up from being submerged are petrified, which has made the wood hard and impenetrable.
The wood is the focal point on floors and walls. Forest-green marble and black stone, accented by sand-toned fossil rock and porcelain tiling, balance the richness of the Cumaru.
A massive front door, created locally and crafted from steel and brass, is made to represent the gates of the locks of the Panama Canal. Through the front entry way, indoor water landscapes maintain the flow. On the other end of the expansive main living area, steps descend to a semi-Olympic infinity pool that appears as if it extends right into the Pacific.
Inside, the villa is a travelogue of Bern’s trips abroad and an homage to his native Panama — from items from his private collection and others bought as new acquisitions to complement the home.
A solid brass Burmese bell from Myanmar welcomes guests as they ascend the grassy walkway that leads to the villa. Four antique Thai chofas, hornlike structures that resemble birds, are made of gold and displayed on a multilevel base at the center of the villa’s hanging octagonal staircase. A large temple gong from a trip to Thailand invites anyone who enters to pick up the mallet and strike so that the sound reverberates through the expansive structure.
“The pieces are a mixture of rare finds from Asia, Africa, and South America,” says Derry.
The contemporary mixes with the antique. A modern show kitchen, Bern says, was purposefully created to encourage guests to interact with whomever is cooking — whether it is one of the property’s top chefs or when the homeowner is hosting private guests. A double opium bed in the living room invites lounging.
Individual rooms are decorated with more acquired pieces. In one of the upstairs suites, a pair of antique, hand-carved doors from Jaipur, India, have been turned on their sides and converted into a headboard. These are combined with a carved mirror that was found in Rajasthan.
The master suite, at a sprawling 1,500 feet, features a private plunge pool, indoor garden, and a Water Temple, a large open-ceiling shower at the center of the room, which continues the water theme that’s evident throughout the house.
“There are some elements of Casa Naga that make you feel as if you’re in a boutique hotel,” says Bern, who confides that even when he arrives, someone greets him with a fresh towel and a cocktail. “I want to make sure that I feel as if I’m on retreat as well.”
Casa Naga stands as a contemporary companion to his parents’ holiday home, Villa Bonita, the 20-bedroom escape only a stone’s throw away. Villa Bonita has hosted many VIP guests — most notably, President Barack Obama, his family, and his staff during the 2015 Summit of the Americas. The larger villa provides access to a helipad for both properties. More traditional in its stylings, Villa Bonita is also available for vacation rental.
“While the villas were created as private properties, they were created with a hospitality point of view,” says Bern.
Guests staying at Casa Naga or Villa Bonita have access to the private Pearl Club at the Westin Playa Bonita, one of the Bern family’s hotel properties. Should there not be enough to accommodate you at Casa Naga, the private beach club — just a few minutes away — includes a private restaurant with poolside service, two swimming pools connected by a double waterfall, a game room, and private beach access. Meanwhile, guests of the villas can book tours of Panama through the Westin’s tour operator, Gamboa Tours, for a visit to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and a must-see on a visit to Panama. Both villas and the Westin are only 20 minutes away from downtown Panama City.
“Casa Naga is a haven to get away, but there’s also so much to do in Panama,” says Bern.
Casa Naga is available with a four-night-minimum stay for $12,000, plus tax. There’s an additional charge of $1,500 a night for use of the master suite. Daily breakfast with private chef and house staff is included in the daily charges, but other meals and beverages cost extra. New Year’s rate is a seven-night minimum at $35,000 per week. With master suite, rental is $50,000 for the week.