Chapter 13: Life on Our Private Island During the Pandemic

Theme song: “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” by George Wyle and Sherwood Shwartz

Scott, deeply satisfied with his morning workout, exits Frangipani Island’s air-conditioned gym onto a steamy palm-lined boardwalk. It is almost too quiet. Just 10 days ago, he could hear hammers pounding, workers shouting, and generators humming, creating a cacophony of noise and activity – the sound of progress.

He observes an empty resort on the verge of grandeur interrupted like a train screeching to a halt. The grounds are strewn with debris and mud from the final stages of construction. After 14 months of exhaustive effort, the project has been stopped just two and a half months short of the finish line.

A stroll to The Elephant House Restaurant lifts Scott’s spirits as the nearby villas perch proudly above the Caribbean waters. He’s immensely proud reflecting on the obstacles the team overcame to construct it all. Scott could write a book about what it took just to build those villa pools, let alone the structures themselves, shipped from halfway around the world.

The view from The Elephant Restaurant of Villas one through seven

Returning as hoped post-construction, several starfish rest in the crystal-clear waters below – a reminder that life will return to normal after the pandemic. It may be a new normal. But regardless of how the world changes, Bocas Bali will flourish and bless the lives of those who visit.

The coronavirus pandemic strikes

In mid-February, we were scrambling to meet a May 1 deadline to open our over-water resort on a private island in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. Over 50 people were working on the island when the COVID-19 hit. Living full-time on Frangipani Island, General Manager Scott, Hotel Manager Gerson, and mixologist David were preparing to open the resort. The Panamanian government reacted quickly to the virus and shut down everything including roads and waterways.

Within days, Panamanian authorities issued warnings to stop all construction; workers would be fined if they disobeyed these orders. Construction halted on Bocas Bali less than three months from the projected completion of phase one.

In addition to Scott, Gerson, and David, five tile installers from Columbia were stranded on the island with no way to get home. This totaled eight people – almost like the seven on Gilligan’s Island that included Gilligan, Ginger, Mary Ann, the professor, the skipper, Thurston Howell III, and his wife “Lovey.”

Life on the island

So this is the tale of our castaways,
They’re here for a long, long time (hopefully not too long!),
They’ll have to make the best of things,
It’s an uphill climb.

The first mates (Gerson and David) and his Skipper (Scott) too,
Will do their very best,
To make the others comfortable (the Columbian workers),
In their tropic island nest.

(R-L) Bocas Bali’s five Columbian workers, Gerson, David, and Scott

In some ways it felt like a weight was lifted off our shoulders when construction stopped. We were all feeling overwhelmed with the grand opening date looming. After working at a frantic pace for far too long, everyone could benefit from a little rest.

The eight people who remained on the island have decided to make the best of it. The Columbians were able to finish the tile work on the clubhouse pool during the first couple of weeks. Now, they’re working on the landscape with David. We do not have access to plants, so they’re digging a pond and using the dirt for filler between the clubhouse pool and boardwalk in preparation for sod.

The new pond being dug during the coronavirus pandemic, with the dirt being used to fill.

Scott and Gerson have been planning the finer details of the resort all the way down to spoons and forks. Scott has also been working with Booking.com and Expedia to launch Bocas Bali. The biggest challenge has been getting photography as everything is “almost finished” – not ideal for pictures. We also launched our website at www.bocasbali.com.

With most of the workers gone, the guys are enjoying the beauty of the island. In the quiet jungle, David and Gerson spotted three different kinds of poison dart frogs. While snorkeling to pick up construction debris, Gerson discovered a beautiful section of coral just beyond the last villa, where the water depth drops off quickly to create a kind of shelf. During the day, Scott and David excitedly spotted dolphins and an occasional ray from the villas. On one crystal clear night, Gerson counted over 30 shooting stars.

When asked about living on the island, Scott quickly points out, “Gerson can cook!” Also, “We really miss pizza” and “We watched Tiger King in one day!” Last Sunday, Gerson and David exercised their creative juices by responding to “the homemade cocktail challenge” from friends in Europe. You can view the video on David’s Facebook page. Many followers enjoyed the video, so Gerson and David plan to create more videos on Frangipani Island.

The 70-foot-long clubhouse pool’s tile is completed with green quartz imported from India and black lava stone imported from Indonesia. We’re filling the area between the pool and boardwalk with dirt from the pond.

Bocas Bali moving forward

In the region surrounding Bocas Bali, no cases of COVID-19 have been reported. Far from any major city, Bocas Town has the advantages of constant breezes and warm, humid weather, which scientists are finding may help kill the virus and prevent it from spreading. Despite no coronavirus cases, the area is in lockdown like the rest of Panama.

Large resort projects like Bocas Bali are susceptible to the devastating financial effects of a worldwide pandemic. Commercial mortgage payments and on-going expenses must be paid although there is no income.

Thankfully, Bocas Bali is in an enviable position. We have no debt, we are 100% off the grid, and we have a 20-year property tax exemption from the country of Panama no property tax. This allows us to ride out the coronavirus pandemic for as long as we need to and open when the time is right.

This pandemic is teaching all of us life lessons. The last year of construction has been intense – the antithesis of Bocas Bali. It is time to slow down and enjoy the warm Caribbean breeze. We have created something unique to the world; now we look forward to enjoying it with you.

When do you think people will be traveling internationally to countries like Panama again for vacation?

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12 thoughts on “Chapter 13: Life on Our Private Island During the Pandemic”

  1. Avatar
    Dave Huntleu

    Dan and Scott,
    The new resort looks amazing. It’s definitely on our list once the world returns to normal. By the way, our friends who had their son Alex’s wedding at El Castillo in March were blown away. Could not speak highly enough about everything. Of course we knew they would have an incredible experience. Stay safe and take care. Dave and Marcia Huntley.

  2. Avatar
    Jessica Magnuson

    So wonderful to see the progress, we cannot wait to visit – wonderful to see familiar faces! Stay safe!

    Dan & Jessica Magnuson

  3. Avatar
    Tom Schneider

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for writing the latest blog. We have enjoyed keeping up with the progress. We truly enjoyed our visit to El Castillo and can’t wait to see what you have in store for us at Bocas Bali. In the mean time we look forward to summer in Grand Haven.

    Tom

  4. Dan Behm

    Sorry that we were having problems with accepting comments on this post. The post function is now working. We welcome your comments.

    Dan

  5. Avatar
    Alexia & Rick

    Hi Dan,

    Great to read you and the guys are in good spirits, despite this final hurdle. Can’t wait for the well-deserved grand opening.

    All the best wishes from us,

    Alexia & Rick

  6. Dan Behm

    Hi Alexia and Rick,

    It is so nice to hear from you!

    Thank you for your well wishes.

    I hope all is going well for you in Bali.

    Dan

  7. Avatar

    Dan and Scott
    Bocas Bali is gorgeous- I expected nothing less from you all! Funny thing- all the girls I brought to El Castillo 2 years ago for our girls trip were coming to Bocas last week and we had to cancel our trip. I was going to ring you when there and surprise you and swing by to see your progress! So much for that trip! We’re looking at coming hopefully either Nov or late January once we get a feel for travel in the coming months… we’ll definitely make plans to stop by for lunch as we miss your fine cooking!!!
    xoxo Karen

  8. Dan Behm

    Hi Karen,

    Sorry for the late reply. It is alwayus good to hear from you! Do you have an iterest in staying at Bocas Bali for part of your trip? Either way, we would love to see you.

    Dan

  9. Avatar

    Hello Dan,
    It’s great to see an owner that gives recognition to his staff. Your project is looking fantastic and your team and leadership is a good indication that the customer experience will be met with a similar amount of dedication and care. In your Chapter 14 post: If We Build It, They Will Come? I enjoyed the anecdotal story that shows the value of Bocas Bali compared to other over-the-water resorts around the world. However, I gotta say that your video of the reef shows the true pristine environment that the majority of the others simply just can’t offer. The bungalows and amenities are beautiful, but with THAT location I don’t think there’s any over-the-water resort that can even comes close to what you have to offer.

  10. Dan Behm

    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for your kind words. We have a wonderful team of people working on this project which I am so grateful for. Scott, Gerson, and David will make it a magical place for our guests.

    Please let others know about the blog through social media.

    All the best,

    Dan

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