LA ISLA BONITA
Tropical the island breeze, all of nature wild and free, this is where I long to be… oh, you know the song.unloads her baggage – all of it – and heads to Belize for a little communing with a long-lost friend: Mother Nature
AFTER EIGHT HOURS of travel, two excruciatingly boring layovers and one pounding migraine, I rattled into Ambergris Caye on a pocket-sized prop-engine plane that barely stowed my duffle. Despite my initial panic over boarding what looked like a minivan with wings, I summoned the courage to take a peek out the window. My heart raced, my chest constricted and I could barely feel my feet – no, I wasn’t enduring my second anxiety attack of the day, I had officially arrived in Belize. A mere thousand metres below me lay a collage of Caribbean colours: a crystal sea so blue it induced vertigo, vibrant jungle greens and almond-coloured beaches. Heaven at last.
The tiny Central American nation of Belize is orbited by uncountable constellations of islands, islets and atolls, not to mention a rainbow of cultures running the gamut from ancient Mayan to “modern” Mennonite. Once called British Honduras, Belize is officially English-speaking, though on more than a few occasions I stood doe-eyed and uncomprehending in the face of a friendly local whose rapid-fire Creole lilt left me wondering if we consulted the same dictionary.
Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island, has become one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, thanks in part to its burgeoning luxury-resort community and its proximity to both the legendary Great Blue Hole and a massive barrier reef that’s second only to Australia’s. Notwithstanding its growing stable of five-star hotels, upon touching down in La Isla Bonita (as it’s known), it became abundantly clear that “quaint” was the order of the day. If you’re seeking the pre-packaged, predictable comfort of a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton – or even an opportunity to strap on stilettos – head elsewhere. Formal simply doesn’t exist in Ambergris Caye, but then again, that’s sort of the point.
Belize is in the throes of an existential crisis, and the country has reached a critical crossroads in its quest to slice a bigger piece of the lucrative leisure-travel pie. Tourism represents the country’s lifeblood, particularly in island areas such as Ambergris Caye, which is sought out for its stone’s-throw access to a great wide world of aquatic wonder. But it’s a delicate balance.
Belize is learning to expand this thriving industry without eroding or eradicating the fragile ecosystem that entices travellers in the first place. In 2009, the Belize government committed to a four-year, US$13.5-million plan that outlines sustainable tourism initiatives bent on long-term preservation of the country’s spectacular natural resources. And many of Belize’s most prominent resorts have been quick to act on this call to arms.
Off Ambergris Caye, Cayo Espanto (aprivateisland.com) has become the place to stay for well-heeled jetsetters seeking a little face time with Lady Nature. While I’ve had the distinct pleasure of travelling to more than a few exotic locales, experience has left me somewhat jaded. When I’m promised “exclusive,” I expect crowds; when I’m assured a property is “five-star,” I expect three; and when I’m told I’ll be enjoying the comforts of a fully staffed stilted cabana on a privately owned island right off the coast of Ambergris Caye, I expect a lean-to, a sandpit and an uncomfortably attentive local dog.
Miraculously, I was wrong; Cayo Espanto exceeded all of its PR-perpetuated hype. After I sweated it out on Tropic Air’s version of a flying clown car, the resort’s seafaring chauffeur seized my baggage, took my drink order and whisked me away in a speedboat. A mere seven minutes later, I was greeted by an ice-cold drink and a veritable army of staffers who led me to Casa Ventanas, one of just six villas on the 1.2-hectare island and the only overwater bungalow.
Owned by Jeff Gram from Atlanta, Georgia, Cayo Espanto proffers a level of service that simply cannot be found elsewhere on Ambergris Caye. Guests are assigned a private chef and a dedicated “houseman,” who tends to everything from arranging an in-suite massage or an off-island excursion to lovingly refilling your rum punch.
The understated-but-infinitely-comfy villas are all outfitted with Frette robes, Egyptian cotton linens, down pillows and comforters, a Bose stereo system, satellite TV, Wi-Fi and a personal pool, with the exception of Casa Ventanas, since it’s hoisted directly over the lolling Caribbean waters. Bear in mind that high season in Belize spans January to June, so to snag a plot on paradise, book well in advance. Peak rates at Cayo Espanto start at US$1,195 a night.
Conservation is also key to the Cayo experience. The private island resort sources its water from a reverse-osmosis filtration system that transforms the surrounding Caribbean Sea into fresh, serviceable aqua pura. Cayo Espanto also contributes to several preservation programmes to protect the neighbouring reef, since without it, travellers might not make the trek at all. In my meagre attempt to contribute to the cause, I eschewed using air-conditioning during my sojourn – with the persistent coastal winds, who needs recycled air anyway?
After unpacking my bikini and popping into Casa Ventanas’ divine outdoor rain shower, I mustered up the gusto for a trip to the main island. San Pedro, Ambergris Caye’s ground zero for shopping, dining and nightlife, is a rustic village ruled by kamikaze golf carts, jewel-coloured casitas and a balmy breeze that does wonders for restoring faith in a cynical city dweller.
While San Pedro is far from plush – stray dogs and stray children roam the streets in hybrid herds – the residents tend to be friendly and affable, more than willing to let you know what’s on tap in town, or point you in the right direction. Apart from golf carts, the primary mode of transportation on Ambergris Caye is via boat. But be warned, these maritime shuttles operate on unpredictable “island time.” After waiting more than 30 minutes for my vessel at the public docks, I paid my US$10 and was charioted away without so much as an explanation.
Three kilometres and 10 minutes later, I arrived at the Palmilla restaurant in Victoria House (victoria-house.com), the only other hotel on Ambergris Caye that approaches Cayo Espanto’s lofty stratosphere. This 42-room, plantation-style resort is about a kilometre from the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef; scuba-philes will find a Fantasea dive shop right on the hotel’s private pier.
Like Cayo Espanto, Victoria House practices a more discreet chic, which stands in stark contrast to the in-your-face – albeit delicious – pretension of more traditional five-star behemoths. In general, the resorts of Ambergris Caye exhibit a sort of “hideaway” mentality where service and privacy – not snobbery – are placed at a premium. At Victoria House, they call their breezy aesthetic “barefoot elegance,” and the island’s ambient, laid-back rhythm is a far cry from the bravado of a St Bart’s-style beach holiday. Doing its part to protect its moneymaker – namely the reef – Victoria House joined the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development, which fights the uncontrolled mega-complexes that threaten the surrounding marine environment. Victoria House also encourages guests to reuse towels and has switched its housekeeping products to Ecolab, which develops environmentally responsible products. It’s a start, anyway.
Victoria House’s accommodations circle the property’s swimming pools and encompass a mix of deluxe guest rooms, suites, thatched-roof casitas and private villas. Amenities include down pillows, tropical-weight duvets, bicycles and high-class toiletries. And although there’s no spa on-site, the concierge can drum up an in-room massage. Room rates during the January-June high season range from $185 for a State Room to $1,775 for the five-bedroom, beachfront Casa Azul.
While Cayo Espanto offers the privilege of private dining, Victoria House boasts Palmilla, which was my primary reason for stopping by the resort. Headed by Chef Jose Luis Ortega, Palmilla conjures up a unique fusion of native and European flavours for a meal that will satisfy even the most finicky foodie. Far and away the ritziest eatery on the island – tablecloths, candles and ambience! – Palmilla is Ambergris’ specialoccasion dining destination. Even if you stay elsewhere, it’s worth a visit.
If you’ve set your sights on Ambergris Caye, chances are you plan on taking advantage of the area’s myriad water sports – diving, sailing, kayaking, snorkelling and fishing – but landlubbers take heart; there’s plenty more to do than just bask on the white-sand beaches. History buffs shouldn’t miss a trip to one of Belize’s many Mayan ruins, including Lamanai, Altun Ha and Xunantunich. Perhaps the most surprising part of the “ruin” experience is that you can touch, fondle and crawl all over the Classic Period pyramids and plazas. In fact, at Xunantunich, I strolled right to the top of the soaring, 37-metre-high El Castillo, taking in the same giddy view as royal Mayans from 300AD.
To drink in the best of both land and sea, I suggest booking a few days at Blancaneaux Lodge (coppolaresorts.com), in a mountain reserve in western Belize. This leafy rainforest refuge offers more direct access to Belize’s landlocked marvels, including the Xunantunich and Caracol ruins, lush jungles, waterfalls and majestic stalactite-encrusted wet caves. But be advised, if Cayo Espanto and Victoria House are low-key, Blancaneaux Lodge is practically catatonic – in a good way.
A pet project and a former family retreat of Oscar-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, Blancaneaux Lodge features 20 guestrooms that blend in with and complement the beauty of the Maya Mountains. But rest assured, these thatched-roof huts are far from primitive.
Like Cayo Espanto’s seaside bungalows and Victoria House’s colonial villas, Blancaneaux’s eclectic cottages are designed to breed intimacy. Creature comforts include down pillows, an iPod docking station and organic, locally sourced toiletries. Several of the cottages also boast Japanese soaking baths, screened porches, a private plunge pool and, if you’re staying in the Enchanted Cottage or the Coppola Villa, a full-time assistant. Peakseason rates are $300-$1,760 a night.
Given the remoteness of Blancaneaux, in all likelihood you’ll eat only on-site. Fortunately, both the lodge’s Italian-inspired Montagna Ristorante and the more indigenous Guatemaltecqua Restaurant know what they’re doing. Other facilities include an infinity pool (as well as naturally carved-out swimming holes), horse stables, the Balinese-style Waterfall Spa and an organic garden that provides 80 percent of the restaurants’ produce, since conservation is the name of the game in the reserve.
In the spirit of promoting eco-tourism, Blancaneaux Lodge is perhaps doing the most in terms of preserving its immediate environs. The property’s buildings incorporate sustainable and locally produced materials; toiletries and en suite amenities are organic and Earth-friendly wherever possible; and, perhaps most impressively, Blancaneaux is self-sustaining in terms of energy use, thanks to its hydro-electric plan that harnesses the power of the neighbouring Privassion Creek.
While I’d never turn down a night at the Four Seasons, there’s something to be said for a one-of-a-kind, home-grown resort that’s truly invested in its surroundings. Small-scale boutique hotels aren’t a new phenomenon, but what feels new in Belize is a genuine concern, a general love for the environment. Life feels less complicated here because it’s less complicated. There’s no preoccupation with bigger, flashier or fancier: in Belize, Mother Nature does all the peacocking.
WHERE TO PLAY
GOLF AT CAYE CHAPEL
Take a 30-minute water taxi from San Pedro to this private island golf course. The golf club, which has hosted Tiger Woods, offers day passes from US $150 that include rentals, carts and amenities such as tennis, volleyball and basketball courts.
Ambergris Caye is beloved for its bountiful bonefish. These rough-and-tumble fish put up a mean fight when they’re on your hook. While there are many charters on the island, expect to pay upwards of US $175 per couple for a half day.
SNORKELLING AT HOL CHAN MARINE RESERVE
The quintessential outing in Ambergris Caye, Hol Chan is a protected marine park adjacent to the barrier reef. Snorkellers play peek-a-boo with everything from moray eels and nurse sharks to puffer fish, barracuda, stingrays and grazing sea turtles. Three-hour trips ring in at about $40 per person.
THE GREAT BLUE HOLE
Visible from space, this is a perfectly circular sinkhole that measures 300 metres across and 135 metres deep. Jacques Cousteau explored it, and divers can ogle the bizarre stalactite formations and a plethora of colourful fish, sharks and coral systems. This is a full-day, three-tank dive; prices start at $325 per person.
CAVING AND CANOEING
Mainland Belize is replete with jaw-dropping wet caves with exquisite crystal formations. Several, including Barton Creek Cave near Blancaneaux Lodge, house ancient Mayan relics. The three-hour canoe tour can be arranged through the hotel and costs $200 for two.
WHERE TO EAT
An unassuming, sand-floor resto on Pescador Drive in San Pedro, Elvi’s Kitchen has become a village hotspot thanks to its outstanding selection of local seafood and the preternatural warmth of its founder, Dona Elvia. Try the coconut curry shrimp and the succulent conch fingers.
Tel: (501) 226 2404
Another Dona Elvia creation – she’s practically the mayor – Hidden Treasure is about five minutes south of San Pedro and offers patrons a chance to soak in the Caribbean surrounds in its alfresco dining area. Dig into traditional Belizean dishes such as Mayan-spiced red snapper.
Tel: (501) 226 4111
PALAPA BAR AND GRILL
This thongs-and-sarongs spot serves fresh fish tacos and savoury barbecue in a stilted hut high above the water. Palapa is unfussy and unpretentious, so pop in post-snorkelling for a dreamy mojito and an even dreamier sunset.
Tel: (501) 226 3111
Nestled alongside electric-coloured, Gauguinesque cabanas, Mambo at the Matachica Beach Resort lives up to its reputation as one of Belize’s best restaurants. Must-tries include the mango-and-ginger-glazed pork chops and scallops in Jamaican jerk sauce.
Tel: (501) 220 5010
Intimate and romantic, the award-winning Capricorn restaurant is a favourite of honeymooners – or anyone looking to stoke those starry-eyed fires. As in many of the island’s restaurants, seafood is the best option, particularly the stone-crab claws. And if you’re thinking about skipping dessert, don’t: everything is homemade and outrageous.
Tel: (501) 226 2809
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