"We had a lot of help," Lucy says of their early days. "Backpackers worked on the farm. Eventually we built some cabanas and started charging four dollars a night." Today, Chaa Creek—with its landscaped gardens and liveried staff —looks more like some grand colonial estate than a model of environmental correctness. "We've evolved with our clientele," Lucy points out. "Many of them are baby boomers who are still adventure travelers at heart but who now want grown-up comforts." Those comforts include a lavish European-style spa and Chaa Creek's cushiest accommodations to date: two new treetop apartments. Built amid fig and quamwood trees, these minimalist tri-level spaces each have a hot tub with a view of the Macal River.
Not that the resort has forgotten its humble beginnings. A vital part of the operation is the Macal River Camp, a compound of 10 wood-and-canvas cottages with no electricity; solar-heated showers are in a separate building. The camp gives guests a chance to rough it the old-fashioned way, at $50 a night per person. "A lot of our guests do a few days at Macal and then treat themselves at the lodge," Mick says.
Always fine-tuning their 23-year-old "work in progress," the Flemings are currently redesigning Macal's tent-cottage interiors and Chaa Creek's newly created farm. Tended by a couple from southern Belize, the 33-acre farm grows organic produce and fruit for the hotel; Chaa Creek guests are urged to visit and see the farming techniques pioneered by the Mayan culture thousands of years ago. The Flemings also encourage the people of Belize to check out Chaa Creek. The place is often crowded with schoolchildren on field trips,taking nature hikes and bird walks and visiting the resort's Blue Morpho butterfly farm. Chaa Creek has a powerful effect on everyone, with its simple pace and its natural setting, which allow visitors to stop and savor the sounds of the jungle, the gardens and their endless varieties of flowers and scents, and the night sky, loaded with stars.
Probably the best-known and most developed area in Belize, Ambergris Cay is the largest of the country's 200-plus islands. In San Pedro, the only town on Ambergris, a white picket fence separates the tiny airport from sand streets lined with pastel clapboard houses. Golf carts and bicycles make up most of the traffic. The beach is a hodgepodge of dive huts, barefoot bars, and cafés on stilts over the water. The 1998 opening of Cayo Espanto, a private island to the west with just five villas, has done much to change Ambergris Cay's image. At the super-luxe resort,eight minutes by boat from San Pedro, a pith-helmeted houseman orchestrates every detail of your stay: meals cooked to order, spa treatments, diving and fishing excursions. Despite being the area's most expensive resort, Cayo Espanto has become a big hit. Indeed, its success seems to have provided the impetus for some of Ambergris Cay's other resorts to upgrade their properties—and hike their prices.
Three years ago, Victoria House, barely two miles south of San Pedro, was an unpretentious beach hideaway. Today, its 35 casitas and suites have been redone in a tropical plantation style—louvered windows, netted canopy beds —by Houston-based Lancaster Hotels & Resorts. There's also a new beachfront pool and, nearby, a glamorous dining room with slipcovered chairs and columns with palm-frond frescoes. Chef Amy Knox—recently imported from the Colony in Sarasota, Florida—is already making a name for herself in Belize with her chunky bouillabaisse and seared snapper "towers."
Mata Chica, the creation of French fashion photographer Philippe Berthomé and his Italian makeup-artist wife, Nadia Taricco, is also expanding. The couple lived and worked in Los Angeles for a decade, then sailed the Caribbean for two years before settling on Belize as the ideal place to begin a new life—and create a boutique resort. Mata Chica is five miles from San Pedro and accessible only by boat. When Berthomé and Taricco opened the 14-room property in 1996, they started off small, concentrating on the restaurant, Mambo. Housed in a huge palapa, where log columns support a spectacular cathedral ceiling with a dozen spinning fans, Mambo quickly became the top restaurant on Ambergris Cay, thanks to Taricco's Italian dishes and Berthomé's selection of Euro house and lounge music.
But Mambo was almost too popular. "We became known as a restaurant—and we didn't want that," Berthomé says. So he and Taricco paid more attention to the hotel, using their Hollywood and fashion-industry contacts to spread the word about the hip compound of pastel bungalows. The celebs began coming—Bryan Ferry, Cameron Diaz, Derek Jeter. Two years ago, Berthomé added three posh villas at the rear of the property. These have proved so popular that he is now building 12 more, in a separate compound, La Perla del Caribe, a half-mile up the beach from the original hotel.
Berthomé insists that the addition of La Perla del Caribe will not affect the low-key character of Mata Chica. "I go to work in my bare feet," he says. "I take my daughter to school by boat. Sometimes dolphins follow along. When my daughter is late, we say the dolphins held us up. I don't want that to change."
RICHARD ALLEMAN is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.