I have been to Panama twice and it remains my favourite tropical winter vacation spot. We spent a lot of time off the resort and in my opinion Panama is very safe and is actually much safer than the Dominican and Mexico for example. There are sections of Panama City and Colon that may be a little riskier but that is no different than any other country, including the US and Canada. In any country there are always less desirable areas unfortunately.
In terms of getting a feel for what Panama has to offer I would recommend you read all the reviews for the various resorts in both Debbies and Trip Advisor. The Royal Decameron resort has lots of reviews on both sites. The Royal Decameron is where we stayed both times we were there and we would highly recommend it if you are looking for an all inclusive resort. We are actually considering the brand new Intercontinental Playa Bonita for a change of pace next year but I wouldn’t hesitate to return to the Royal Decameron as well.
The only possible downside to Panama in comparison to the destinations you have already visited is that the ocean on the Pacific side of the country does not have the crystal clear turquoise water you will find in the Caribbean. The beaches and ocean are not great for snorkeling but other than that the beaches are wonderful. The beaches are wide and huge.
I would think that you should be able to meet your budget of $1,500 a person (Canadian I assume?) in early January 2007. That is when we usually travel and the prices are definitely lower than in February or March. One of the many benefits of Panama is that the weather is absolutely perfect at that time of year. Unlike Cuba or Mexico you are guaranteed HOT and sunny weather (much hotter!). Although it is very hot the humidity is low during the dry season so it’s fabulous.
I could go on and ON about all of the wonderful things Panama has to offer but again I suggest you check the reviews where everything is covered. If you have any specific questions there are numerous posters who frequent this forum who can fill you in on just about everything. Personally, in my opinion, you can’t go wrong with Panama. We like Mexico and Costa Rica but Panama beats them both!!