By Anisha Shah
If you were a Hollywood director with nearly infinite resources, where would you holiday? Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola chose Belize, the tiny Central American country wedged between Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and no wonder. Vast white-sand beaches host translucent azure waters bearing the largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia. Inland, dense rain forests and remote rivers shelter endangered species, many indigenous and unique to Belize, whilst concealing rich Mayan ruins. From the astonishing array of marine life to its dazzling display of jungle life, the Caribbean island is packed with allure.
Renowned for ultra-luxury eco-lodges and retreats, Belize has been praised for its eco-tourism policy, having designated large swathes of the land as ‘protected.’ Indeed, eco-conservation remains at the heart of hoteliers, who see value in retaining the Belizean soul.
And one of those hoteliers just happens to be Francis Ford Coppola. After falling in love with the country whilst on holiday, the award winning director now owns several eco-retreats, including the Blancaneaux Lodge and the Turtle Inn. Indeed, Coppola is the ‘Godfather’ of hoteliers in Belize, with ambitious vision and determination to match. Decades ago he converted his private 70-acre refuges in the rainforest into enchanted fairytale retreats, which have since won several accolades, by Hollywood celebs and experienced ‘travelistas’.
Arriving at Blancaneaux, it’s easy to see why. Nothing short of a film set, the dramatic hideaway is captivating, shrouded by the wonderland of the jungle-clad Cayo district. Every element of the wilderness somehow appears perfectly placed, achieving the delicate balance of luxury and natural beauty. Twenty striking natural casitas are woven into the surrounding Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve. Below, rainwater glides off granite boulders into swirling cascades of Privassion Creek, collecting in turquoise pools; swimming oases. Thunderous echoes of distant waterfalls and wild animals nibble at the senses.
High thatched ceilings, louvre windows and screened doors welcome the sounds of nature in whilst the design promotes a natural breeze. This, along with the sufficient ceiling fan, means air conditioning is never needed. For other energy-consuming devices, the self-sustaining sanctuary runs entirely off a hydroelectric station, harnessing sufficient energy to power the whole property.
Food is a thing of natural beauty here too, as Blancaneaux features a 3-acre organic garden growing most of its own fruit, vegetables and herbs. These ingredients transform into sumptuous meals at candlelight in the jungle under a canopy of twinkling stars and comprise divine organic breakfasts of freshly squeezed juices, tropical fruits and hot cooked foods like fresh eggs.
By nightfall, hand-winding flashlights are provided, as the low-energy light bulbs emit minimal lighting. This keeps the ambiance cosy, magical and makes the night sky studded with constellations of Swarovski stars brighter than I’ve ever seen.
As dawn breaks, we are awakened by the shrill of nature’s operatic alarm clock on reverb. An entire concerto of birdlife resounds; knocks, clicks, whoops and trills, as Green Jays, Red-Lored parrots and Melodious Blackbirds announce the day.
To start it off with a jump, horseback riding finds me in my element and Blancaneaux Lodge has its own stables complete with guide-trainers. Trotting down muddy slopes surrounded by dense wild bush, ducking for branches into a canter through flowing brooks and dusty pathways on horseback is pure exhilaration, magnified further knowing the final destination is a mountain ledge from which to watch the sun sink into the jungle.
By dusk, I head to my haven, the ‘Waterfall Spa.’ The most incredible setting of any spa I’ve seen, this open-faced natural light treatment room steps directly into a long semi-circular outdoor infinity pool, heated by hydroelectricity. Before my Balinese massage, I soak in the waters, peering over cascading waterfalls, enveloped by the dripping vegetation of the tropical jungle. Mist evaporates off the surface drifting downstream over natural sandy beaches on the banks of the gushing creek. The splendour for the senses achieved by all this eco-luxury is phenomenal.
After a few days in the rainforest, it’s time to uncover a contrasting image of Belize.
The Turtle Inn
One hundred and thirty miles away on the Caribbean Coast sits Placencia, a narrow, sleepy peninsula fringed with idyllic, rugged white sand beaches and crystal-clear azure seas. The town and all its buildings, including Coppola’s Turtle Inn, were ripped apart by a hurricane in 2001, but the director reopened his boutique hotel in 2003.
Understated yet plush, the Turtle Inn is clearly a labour of love. This beachside refuge attains luxury whilst embracing all that’s rustic about Belize. I discover a handful of spacious individual thatched cabanas mere steps from the beach, and I particularly delight in my airy private deck for the serene option of enjoying an in-cottage breakfast–again, from its own organic garden.
But with so much beauty outside, it’s difficult to find an excuse to stay indoors. So, I while away the hours on a hammock on the beach, tucking into fresh shrimp tacos on the chairs and wooden table in the shallows of the sea, before lulling myself to sleep on a twinkling tree-swing.
Later, dining on gourmet Red Snapper burger and sipping Roederer, whilst feeling the powdery sand between my toes and listening to the motion of the sea just a metre away, I am quite sure I’ve found my idea of heaven.
At the Turtle Inn, there’s plenty to do besides eating and chilling: there are nature tours, yoga classes, and snorkelling and diving are a must. Belize has world-famous spots for this: the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, both loaded with marine life such as shoals of nurse shark and squadrons of stingray. I’m delighted to discover that the sharks are playful and boisterous, not minding human interaction at all–they feel like a bit like sandpaper when brushing past, which they do often.
Watching the sun melt into the sea on my final evening, I’m still startled by Belize’s beauty. With its lush rain forests and sugary beaches, effortless luxury and Caribbean warmth, this dot on the map defines everyone’s dream holiday. It may not be well known yet, but I believe it is only a matter of time before Belize’s eco-tourist destinations make it on every discerning traveller’s bucket list.