Blessed with virgin beauty, tiny Belize is wedged between Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Pristine beaches give way to translucent azure waters that wash over the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Two hours inland, dense rainforests and remote rivers shelter endangered species, many indigenous and unique to Belize, the rich foliage also concealing Mayan ruins. Alongside the astonishing array of marine and jungle life, a laid-back Caribbean vibe completes the allure.
Belize has become renowned for its luxury eco-lodges and retreats, and its government has earned praise for designating large swathes of land as protected. Although an influx of visitors means that things are changing fast, eco-conservation remains at the heart of the tourism industry, which is determined to preserve the Belizean soul.
And what a soul it is! Distinctly different from its neighbours, Belize is Central America’s sole English-speaking nation, with an ethnically diverse population of Mayans, Mestizos, Mexicans and Afro-Indians alongside immigrants from across the globe, the latter attracted to the relaxed work-life balance of the country’s cayes and atolls that lie just off the coast. Myriad luxury properties are peppered across Belize, offering serious rest and recreation. None are finer than the multiple-award-winning retreats of film director Francis Ford Coppola, a godfather of the country’s hotel industry.
With a determination to match his vision, Coppola decades ago converted his private 28-hectare forest home into Blancaneaux Lodge, an enchanted fairy-tale retreat that consistently tops travel polls. Coppola uses the subtlety and drama of nature to play on surrealism, stimulating the subconscious mind while pandering to most conscious desires; and all with a serious eco-friendly lead.
The dramatic hideaway is captivating, shrouded by the wonderland of the jungle-clad Cayo district. In the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, 20 luxurious casitas sit among tall and elegant Honduras pine trees. Below, rainwater glides off granite boulders into the swirling cascades of Privassion Creek, collecting in turquoise pools, while the thunderous echoes of distant waterfalls and wild animals nibble at the senses.
By nightfall, the jungle comes alive with the reverberations of wildlife. The loudest culprits are tiny frogs, while the dawn chorus begins each morning as regularly and insistently as an alarm clock. A symphony of bird calls announces the day, with knocks, clicks, whoops and trills from green jays, red-lored parrots and melodious blackbirds. Lovers of nature and the outdoors will delight in the rainforest. Its soft limestone bed beneath the damp exotic canopy of sail-like fronds and huge palms stretching skywards is punctuated with caves and cenotes — sinkholes that the ancient Mayans believed led to the underworld and now serve as natural swimming pools.
Horse-riding is my passion and Blancaneaux Lodge has its own stables complete with guide-trainers. Trotting down muddy slopes surrounded by dense wild bush, ducking branches, then breaking into a canter through flowing brooks and dusty pathways is pure exhilaration.
After a few days I leave for Placencia, where I discover a different face of Belize, one that lies on a long, narrow, sleepy peninsula, bordered by white-sand beaches and azure seas to the east and a mangrove lagoon to the west. The tight-knit community survives off beach bars, boho boutiques, laid-back restaurants serving divine seafood and affordable massage and yoga retreats.
It’s also the home of Coppola’s other Belize boutique hotel Turtle Inn, which reopened in 2003 after being destroyed by Hurricane Iris two years earlier. Occupying a breathtaking setting and rebuilt from the best materials that were sourced from around the world, Turtle Inn is evidently a labour of love, embracing both luxury and all that’s rustic about Belize.
Outside my sumptuous eco-friendly cabana, I while away the hours on a hammock on the beach, tucking into fresh shrimp tacos on the baby chairs and wooden table in the shallows of the sea and rocking myself into a lull on a tree swing, then take long walks on the white-sand beach, utterly devoid of people.
Within days, half the villagers become first-name friends. The locals cherish this atmosphere, but for those who find Placencia a little too quiet, Belize’s northern island of Ambergris Caye is the most popular spot in the country. Home to the town of San Pedro and made famous by Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita”, the island is far more commercial, with bars, restaurants and cafes spilling onto the beach.
One seriously sexy way of arriving in Ambergris Caye is by helicopter, flying in over offshore cayes and atolls. My pilot Gustavo runs Astrum Helicopters and exudes his glamorous lifestyle through a suave, easygoing demeanour. Rising out of Belize City feels particularly Bond-esque, the multicoloured metropolis shrinking by the second. Exquisite jewel shades progressively deepen in intensity around swirls of shallow milky islands under the water’s surface. A family of sharks and rays can be clearly seen over Shark Ray Alley and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, both world-renowned diving spots. We fly low over the reef and savour the view of the endless deep blue sea. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s a highlight of my visit to Belize.
San Pedro is as hedonistic as Belize gets, which means it’s relaxed and casual with open-sided clubs on the waterfront that radiate a drop-in-and-duck-out feel. I get around by golf buggy, which I rent from the hotel. Ignoring the staff’s suggestions, I head north, where the rough, potholed roads ensure a tumultuous ride. Along this stretch is Palapa Bar, a marvellous spot to enjoy a fiery Belizean sunset. At a crossroads in the dirt track, the choice is mind-boggling: Main Road or Dead End. Such is the enviable simplicity of life here.
The fastest way to get around is by speedboat. Locals use the taxi ferry, which picks up at piers along the seafront. After dark, however, the service is so infrequent that when I tire of an evening at the upmarket beachfront bar Rojo Lounge, there’s no other way to get back than to charter a speedboat from my hotel. It’s an affordable and exhilarating ride, slicing through the inky black sea as the lights on land flash past.
Watching the sun fall into the sea on my final evening, I think of the rainforests and beaches, the helicopters and luxury hotels, and especially the Caribbean warmth. This dot on the map encompasses everyone’s idea of dream holiday, so it’s surely only a matter of time before this destination of a lifetime gets the reputation it deserves.
BEST OF BELIZE
Four further rest stops for the pampered adventurer
THE LODGE AT CHAA CREEK
Long before the establishment of eco-tourism, as well as Belize’s appearance on the world travel map, The Lodge at Chaa Creek has offered an authentic taste of life in the rainforest. Combining comfort with natural beauty, it sits beside the Macal River, close to the Maya Mountains.
CHAN CHICH LODGE
Occupying more than 50,000 hectares of private nature reserve, Chan Chich Lodge comprises a dozen thatched cabanas, plus a larger villa, in the heart of the Belizean rainforest. Wildlife — including jaguars — abounds in these natural surrounds, yet all guests’ whims are catered for.
JAGUAR REEF LODGE & SPA
A location just 20 minutes from both Belize’s Cockcomb Basin Jaguar Preserve and the cayes brings a variety of oceanic and earthbound activities within easy range of guests. The resort itself comprises comfortable cabanas and suites, with two pools overlooking the Caribbean.
ROBERT’S GROVE BEACH RESORT
With about nine hectares edging the white-sand Palcencia Beach, Robert’s Grove Beach Resort offers a wide variety of accommodation — from spacious rooms to villas and even a pair of private islands — all in glorious ocean-front settings.