Posts tagged ‘Belize’

Belize, where have you been all my life?

In Belize, I fell down a cliff into Tiger Creek, 20 yards from an 800-foot waterfall, ruined my new camera, nearly lost my lucky hat and endured pounding rain and roads as bumpy as political budget talks. Yet, I can’t wait to go back.

Romantic Waterfall Lunch

I’ve had a long and enduring love affair with Latin America. To each new country, I give my whole heart. But there have been problems. I can’t understand a single word anyone says.

I have tried to learn Spanish, have even mastered a few questions that, to my ear, sound pretty authentic. But the minute someone answers back, I panic and end up looking like the idiot gringo I am.

In Belize, because the official language is English, I could actually converse with locals. Instead of just exchanging smiles, I could share jokes, learn about their families and move the relationship beyond my normal ceiling of “Hola! Como Estas! Muy bien. Y tu?” It was magical, leading me to wonder, “Why in the heck haven’t I been to Belize before?”

This little country wedged between Mexico and Guatemala has everything a tourist destination could ever need: miles and miles of beaches, the second largest barrier reef in the world, 450 islands and Mayan ruins that are still being discovered.

Caracol, where I had intended to bring in the end of the Mayan calendar (long story, don’t ask), covers more than 30 square miles, much of which is still being excavated. At one time, this now jungle-covered city had more people than Belize City has today.

Majestic Caana (Sky Palace), one of 35,000 structures at Caracol, is still the largest building in the country, although the only residents today are a few security guards, some itinerant archaeologists and two troops of howler monkeys whose hoots are the spitting image of the soundtrack to Jurassic Park. Only a few feet from one of the troops, I captured their ongoing argument on video and would have added it to the bottom of this story except, as I said, the camera ended up submerged in Tiger Creek.

For years, no one even knew Caracol existed. Many of Belize’s Mayan ruins had been discovered by 1937 when a logger looking for mahogany stumbled upon this city, one of the largest in Maya civilization. It’s just that this mighty city was covered with vines and trees and other flora of the rainforests that make up nearly 60 percent of this Central American country.

When not monitoring feuds with howler monkeys, I stayed in one of 12 cottages at Hidden Valley Inn, a 7,290-acre private nature reserve, not far from Caracol. This intimate lodge in Mountain Pine Ridge has 90 miles of hiking trails, 12 waterfalls, 81 species of wild orchids, four species of jungle cats (although they’re nearly as hard to spot as Caracol was for so many years) and rare raptors. One night at dinner, I had the privilege of dining with a volunteer studying a rare nest of solitary eagles, one of many (Hidden Valley also supports the Peregrine Fund) on-site research projects. Another perk is Hidden Valley’s small coffee plantation. Not only was my morning java Fair Trade, but also locally-grown.

And it’s not just diversity of flora and fauna that makes Belize so enchanting. It’s a veritable fondue pot of cultures from Kriol, Maya and Mestizo to Amish and Mennonite, all of whom work amiably together to keep this little country humming. I saw giant truckloads of oranges, most of which would end up in Florida to make juice. I saw a barefoot Mennonite girl run, two steps at a time, to the top of the 140-foot Sky Palace. I saw lemon sharks, barracuda and a monstrous school of blue tang. I swam three-feet above a three-foot loggerhead turtle.

But, most importantly, I met dozens of friendly, warm, English-speaking Belizeans. One night, in fact, the owner of my Placencia hotel invited me to a party with his friends, opening the curtain to a precious part of Belizean culture most travelers miss. That Friday night, underdog Belize had miraculously made it to the semifinals of the Copa Centroamericana soccer tournament against Honduras, the first time the tiny nation qualified to play for the CONCACAF gold cup.

Evan Hall, the owner of Nirvana Inn, invited me to cheer on the home team by the light of a TV hooked up outside under a coconut tree. Whenever I needed another drink, he and his buddies reached up, plucked a coconut off the tree and mixed a little coconut water with Jack Daniels. The grill was piled high with fresh shrimp and lobster they’d caught earlier that morning.

So, yeah, Belize claimed my camera and my pride (luckily, no one saw my plummet down the cliff after the rain-soaked railing gave way), but it’s biggest claim is undoubtedly my completely-smitten heart.

In a smackdown of Belize inns, the top 6 reasons Belizean Nirvana outshines Coppola’s Turtle Inn

Francis Ford Coppola makes insanely brilliant movies. He’s done wonders for the economy of his adopted country of Belize, building two five-star resorts that are every bit as wonderful as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. But here’s why, when traveling to Placencia, the 16-mile strip of beautiful off the southern coast, the Belizean Nirvana (the envelope, please) deserves the Oscar:

1.Location, location, location. Both Turtle Inn and Nirvana are “pan da beach,” as they say in Belize, a gorgeous beach with white sand, diving pelicans and gentle lapping waves. But Nirvana, that just opened September 2011, is also within strolling distance of the quaint and colorful fishing village where Evan and Barbara Hall, the Belizean owners, personally introduce their guests to Tiziana and Lorenzo, the Italian transplants who own Tutti Frutti and serve gelato some rave is better than its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, and to John and Pamela Solomon, Americans who honeymooned there five years ago and never left, instead opening the amazing Rumfish..y vino that serves my nomination for the world’s best cerviche.
2. Hand’s on owners. Sure, it’s fun to think you’re sleeping near Hollywood greatness, but your chances of hobnobbing with Coppola are about as good as your chances of spotting one of the 200 jaguars in the nearby Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve which is to say “it ain’t likely to happen.” The Halls and their friend, Carolyn, greet each of their guests upon arrival, drink coffee with them each morning (one morning, Evan even cracked open a bottle of champagne for delightful breakfast mimosas) on the rooftop deck and treat them like one of the family.
3. It’s who you know. Coppola may knows DeNiro, Pacino and Reese Witherspoon who honeymooned at Turtle Inn in 2011 with her new hubby and kids. But Hall knows Tuca and Karen, Steve and Sherel and other locals and he’ll gladly introduce you, opening the curtain to a precious part of Belizean culture that most travelers miss. Belizeans are warm, friendly and throw parties that put Martha Stewart to shame. Hall’s mother was the first nurse in the Belizean Health Service and even though he spent much of his life in New Jersey, he summered in Belize and knows everybody in town.
4. Improptu fun. The Friday night I was there, underdog Belize miraculously made it to the semifinals of the Copa Centroamericana soccer tournament against Honduras, the first time the tiny nation qualified to play for the CONCACAF gold cup. Hall invited me to watch the game with the above forementioned locals who were cheering the home team by the light of a TV hooked up outside under a coconut tree. Whenever I needed another drink, they’d reach up, pluck a coconut off the tree and mix a little coconut water with Jack Daniels (American bartenders, take heed). The grill was piled high with fresh shrimp and lobster that Tuca had caught earlier that morning. Suffice it to say, the food made by that outdoor cheering squad far surpassed anything listed on the menu at Turtle Inn’s three restaurants.
5. Classy appointments. Like the Coppolas who built their 25 thatched cottages on reclaimed land from Hurricane Iris, the Halls built their five-suite B&B from scratch. It has beautiful wood floors, spacious verandas, gorgeous furnishings, local artwork (again, Evan might even introduce you to some of the artists), comfy beds and unlike Coppola’s place, air-conditioning that comes in mighty handy in the humid climate and free phone calls to the U.S. and Canada.
6.The real deal. Far be it from me to dis Turtle Inn. I’m sure it’s spectacular in every way. But for travelers who want an authentic Belizean experience and new friends to add to the Christmas card list, book one of the beautiful suites at Belizean Nirvana Inn.

Reese Witherspoon honeymoons in Belize at Francis Ford Coppola’s tiny luxury resorts

Reese Witherspoon and new hubby, Jim Toth, had to hurry back from their honeymoon in Belize so Reese could promote Water for Elephants. But they certainly didn’t skimp when choosing accommodations.

In fact, they wisely stayed at a couple resorts lovingly created by fellow thespian Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn (his resort portfolio also includes La Lancha in nearby Guatemala) are movie set perfect, created first by the iconic movie director for his own family and later opened to the public. They’re both small (around 20 rooms each) so the newlyweds didn’t have to worry about crowds of gawkers.

The Godfather director visited Belize in the early 1980’s soon after it gained independence. He was so smitten with the country that reminded him of his Apocalypse Now that he decided to buy Blancaneaux Lodge, an abandoned resort tucked into the jungle canopy of the Maya Mountains. He proceeded to pour the same love and care into this jungle paradise as he does into his movies. Near sacred Mayan sites and deep caves, Blancaneaux Lodge is filled with dark hardwoods, hand-carved masks and other artisan crafts that Eleanor, Coppola’s wife, personally gathered. For ten years, it was the family’s private retreat, but in 1993, when friends and family flew down for the esteemed director’s 54th birthday, the secret was out.

In honor of Coppola’s heritage, Blancaneaux’s Montagna Ristorante has a wood-burning pizza oven (the only acceptable kind, he says), serves old family recipes and offers an extensive selection of wines, many grown at Coppola’s own Napa Valley winery. The pizza is so good that the British Army regularly helicopters in for lunch. More than 80 percent of Blancaneaux’s food is grown right on site at its four-acre organic herb and vegetable garden, one of lodge’s many sustainable commitments. Its soaring thatched-ceiling cabanas, many on stilts, are completely powered, for example, by the resort’s own hydroelectric plant.

Turtle Inn, where Reese’s kids enjoyed a gelato bar, is perched on the country’s south coast on the Placencia Peninsula. Coppola also rescued this beachside refuge, in 2001 after Hurricane Iris washed it out to sea. From the resort, guests can scuba dive, take canoe trips up Monkey River or bike into a traditional Belizean village. Not surprisingly, it, too, has an authentic Neapolitan brick pizza oven.

Witherspoon and Toth were married March 26 at her Ojai ranch. They flew to Belize on April 4 with Ava and Deacon.

Click here for more on these Belizean resorts that regularly pull down “best of” awards from Travel+Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler.