A mere 22 years old, Belize is hitting its stride, thanks to a group of laid-back beach and jungle resorts. Thatched roofs are the new luxury

By Richard Alleman
August 31, 2012
Zubin Shroff

A young man wearing a batik sarong and a white shirt with a mandarin collar greets me at Turtle Inn's entrance and leads me across a wooden footbridge that spans a koi-filled pond. Ornamental urns and sculptures of fish and stone turtles are hidden in a thicket of red ginger, oleander, and palm. My thatched villa on stilts is decorated with Asian artifacts and intricately carved settees. A gilded temple door leads to the bathroom, which has an outdoor shower in a pebbled garden. A screened veranda overlooks the impossibly blue sea. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was in Bali. Actually, I'm less than two hours from Miami, in the small Central American country of Belize.

For years, Belize—wedged between Guatemala and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula—was a favorite destination for adventure travelers. Here, they found an unspoiled land of lush mountains and jungles, pristine Caribbean beaches and islands, and the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. They also found a friendly, democratic country where an ethnically diverse population of Mayans, Mexicans, mestizos, Afro-Indians, even Mennonites, lived together harmoniously, speaking English as the common language (Belize was the former Crown Colony of British Honduras before gaining independence in 1981). Since the government carefully monitored development and had wisely designated more than 40 percent of the country as protected land, hotels in Belize tended to be low-key fishing camps, ecolodges, and scuba diving resorts. But in the past few years, this has started to change, as a number of hoteliers—seduced by the country's virgin beauty—have recognized its potential. As a result, Belize now has some of the region's most exciting places to stay, with designs inspired by indigenous Mayan thatched huts, the fabrics of Guatemala, and the exotic pavilions of Bali.

It was film director Francis Ford Coppola who got the ball rolling a decade ago, when he transformed his 70-acre family retreat in the country's western mountains into Blancaneaux Lodge, after deciding he couldn't afford the staff necessary to keep the place for himself. The fact that Coppola had no experience operating a hotel didn't stop the daring director, who is known as much for his failures (One from the Heart) as for his successes (The Godfather). Blancaneaux fell into the latter category, and Coppola discovered that the hospitality business suited him. "Running a resort is like making a film," he says. "It's wanting to please people through a dramatic presentation." Indeed, it was the desire to entertain that led to Coppola's latest project, Turtle Inn, 130 miles from Blancaneaux on the southern Caribbean coast. "Belize is famous for its beaches, but it didn't have a beach resort that I felt compared to Blancaneaux. So I said, 'Why not open a sister resort on the sea?' "

Initially, Turtle Inn was modest. Taking over an existing small hotel, Coppola hired Bali-based architect Made Wijaya to update the property. Few guests got to experience it, however; less than a year after the hotel opened, in December 2000, Turtle Inn was leveled by Hurricane Iris. Coppola decided to rebuild from scratch and brought back Wijaya, who engaged a team of Balinese stonecutters to work with their Mayan counterparts, sculpting walls, friezes, and pathways. "I made the hotel more elaborate, more luxurious than before—as I have a habit of doing," Coppola says. He also hired massage therapists from Thailand to administer treatments in authentic rice houses (which he had shipped over from Indonesia).

Turtle Inn reopened this February, and despite all the exotic trappings, it is not some Southeast Asian theme park. Rather, the hotel takes inspiration from around the globe, while still being true to its Belizean setting. In the kitchen, Italian chef Antonio Fecarotta (recently of San Francisco's Café Niebaum-Coppola) not only re-creates Coppola-family pizzas and pastas, but also makes his own distinctive dishes based on local cuisine. Caught-that-day mackerel is roasted with lime juice, olive oil, and white wine in a wood-burning oven; lettuces and vegetables are grown on Blancaneaux's organic farm.

Ultimately, Turtle Inn's most powerful draw is its location. There's some of the world's best diving and fishing right offshore. A half-hour boat ride away is the Monkey River, in a primeval jungle that's home to more than 50 species of birds, as well as colonies of howler monkeys, whose Jurassic Park-like roars belie their small size. Nearby Placencia gives a taste of the Caribbean circa 1968, with its hippie cafés and funky guesthouses. The ideal way to get to the village is on one of the resort's fleet of wildly painted retro bikes. It's those kinds of stylish details that are making Turtle Inn the talk of the region.

About 30 miles north of Turtle Inn, an unpaved road leads to another man's vision of paradise: Roberto Fabbri's 18-month-old Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort. A labor of love for the Italian businessman, who had spent most of his life selling yachts, Kanantik is a compound of 25 modern Mayan huts that are the last word in rustic chic: thatched roofs, plank floors, handcrafted log furniture. Nearby is a small pool, a tower for bird and game spotting, and pavilions for the bar, dining, and reception areas. The rest of the land has been left wild. "Kanantik means 'to take care of' in Mayan, and that's what we want to do for our guests," says the tanned 62-year-old Fabbri, who pads about in bare feet and khaki shorts, hair slicked back, making sure that his dream runs flawlessly.

Fabbri came to Belize eight years ago and wound up spending six years building Kanantik. "I didn't even know what a nail was," he says. "But I learned everything, from plumbing to how to fix the telephone lines." Fabbri spared no expense, assembling an impressive collection of "toys," including a 42-foot high-tech Newton dive boat and a 32-foot Newton fishing boat.

With so many aquatic possibilities to choose from, travelers might easily miss one of Belize's greatest natural wonders: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, just 10 miles from Kanantik's front gate. This 128,000-acre preserve is known for its resident population of some 80 jaguars. Most Kanantik guests are escorted there by Florencio Shal, a Belizean of Mayan descent. Like many staff members, Shal has been with Kanantik since the beginning, helping first to clear the land and then to build the resort. "Many people in Belize hire foreigners," Fabbri laments. "I want Belizeans to do the job." Fabbri is always looking for ways to incorporate native culture into the operation of the resort. Though the dinner menu is Mediterranean, lunch features regional specialties such as coconut soup and mashed plantains. And at least once a week, the bar's lounge music gives way to the drumming of a local Garifuna group. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves and indigenous Carib Indians, and their distinctive music has evolved into something called punta-rock; Belizean groups like the Punta Rebels have achieved success on the world-music scene.

When Roberto Fabbri and his business partner came to Belize in 1995, they had millions of dollars to create Kanantik. When Mick and Lucy Fleming arrived in 1977, they had about $300. The young couple had heard that a parcel of land was available for homesteading in western Belize's mountainous Cayo District, near the Guatemalan border, and wound up leasing it for vegetable farming. At the time, neither had any idea that their back-to-the-land adventure would become one of Belize's most prestigious eco-resorts: the Lodge at Chaa Creek.

"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.THE FACTS

There are frequent nonstop flights to Belize from Miami, Houston, and Dallas, with flying times of slightly over two hours from each city. To reach Ambergris Cay, change planes at the Belize City airport for a 15-minute trip to San Pedro, the island's main town. Flying is also the easiest way to reach the country's southern coast, home to Turtle Inn and Kanantik. Blancaneaux Lodge and Chaa Creek Lodge, in the mountainous Cayo District of western Belize, are a two-hour drive from Belize City. Advisory: Hurricane season lasts from June through October; opening dates for each hotel are noted below.

Blancaneaux Lodge REOPENS OCTOBER 1; DOUBLES FROM $210, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. MOUNTAIN PINE RIDGE RESERVE, CENTRAL FARM, CAYO DISTRICT; 800/746-3743 OR 011-501/824-4914; www.blancaneaux.com
Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort REOPENS NOVEMBER 1; DOUBLES FROM $630, INCLUDING ALL MEALS, MOST DRINKS, AND TOURS. MILE 18, SOUTHERN HWY. STANN CREEK; 800/965-9689 OR 011-501/520-8048; www.kanantik.com
Lodge at Chaa Creek REOPENS OCTOBER 1; DOUBLES FROM $150. MACAL RIVER, CAYO DISTRICT; 011-501/824-2037; www.chaacreek.com
Victoria House CLOSED OCTOBER 7-26; DOUBLES FROM $155. SAN PEDRO, AMBERGRIS CAY; 800/247-5159 OR 011-501/226-2067; www.victoria-house.com
Mata Chica Beach Resort REOPENS OCTOBER; DOUBLES FROM $190, INCLUDING BREAKFAST. SAN PEDRO, AMBERGRIS CAY; 011-501/220-5010; www.matachica.com

Hummingbird Highway Take a drive along this central Belize road, lined with citrus groves and surrounded by the lush Maya Mountains.
Xunantunich These hillside Mayan ruins in western Belize are reached via a funky two-car, hand-cranked ferry. ADMISSION FOR TWO $10. www.travelbelize.org/maya/xunantunich

Although most of its hotels are considered models of ecotourism, Belize is not immune to careless development. The ecology faces a threat from the proposed Chalillo Dam, which will flood some 2,000 acres of the Macal River Basin. For information, see www.stopfortis.org and www.savebiogems.com/macal.

More resorts in Belize on T+L: Hotels in Belize.

Blancaneaux Lodge

It was film director Francis Ford Coppola who put Belize on the jet-setter’s map almost two decades ago, when he transformed his 70-acre family retreat in the country’s western mountains into Blancaneaux Lodge. And although the family has opened a handful of lodges since then, this property—a collection of 10 cabanas, six villas, and a cottage set in the jungle of the Maya Mountains—remains the ne plus ultra of Belizean hospitality. Deep in the jungle, it’s the setting and the service that draw travelers from around the globe. The staff will prepare picnic lunches for day hikes to the waterfalls, and an at-the-ready crew of Thailand-trained spa staffers awaits back at the hotel. Though the restaurant’s wine selection isn’t vast, it’s surely elegant—the bottles are imported from Coppola’s California winery—while the straightforward menu does the trick after a day of adventure (order the grilled chicken with red beans and rice). Even now, Coppola’s first hideaway is still the place discerning adventure types are searching for.

Matachica Beach Resort

Laid-back Ambergris Cay is just a 20-minute flight from gritty Belize City, but a world apart. The beaches are powdery white, shopping barefoot is encouraged, and the pace is languorous, thanks to the island’s car-free roads (locals walk, use electric golf carts, or ride bikes). The newly renovated Matachica Beach Resort, on the private northern side of the island, makes an ideal base: it’s sufficiently secluded, but only a short water-taxi ride from lively downtown San Pedro. Not that you’ll feel like leaving—the resort has film screenings in its martini lounge and banana-and-brown-sugar facials at the spa. The 14 bungalows are painted in bright Gauguin hues, such as mango and watermelon pink. All offer sea views, air-conditioning, and glass-walled showers surrounded by bamboo plants. The best deals are the four Sea Breeze bungalows—they’re a 30-second walk from the water’s edge, but cost $120 less than the beachfront casitas.

Victoria House

“Barefoot elegance” is the self-described vibe of this plantation-style 42-room hotel, set on an island one mile from the world's second-largest barrier reef. Sleeping quarters—which include thatch-roof casitas, suites, and villas—are chic, with cream-on-white palettes accented with blonde Belizian-wood dressers, bamboo four-poster beds, rich mahogany trim, and framed prints of tropical plants. Sea views abound, and even the thatch-roof casitas, which are set further back in the gardens, come with a semi-covered deck from which the sea can be seen. Because the 20-odd buildings fan out around a central lawn, with two pools on opposite ends of the grounds, Victoria House never feels full, even when it’s at capacity; there’s always an empty poolside lounge chair, plenty of room on the powder-white beach, and an unharried, always-smiling staff. There’s also an on-site dive shop if the urge to scuba or snorkel strikes.

Cayo Espanto

Just three miles from San Pedro, the secluded Cayo Espanto private island resort has seven villas, each with private beach access and a personal houseman. Each villa is outfitted with luxury amenities, such as Egyptian cotton sheets, and spa treatments such as aromatherapy massage are performed in-room. Master chefs prepare fresh meals daily that are tailed to fit each guest's preferences. Cayo Espanto also offers activities like diving, exotic jungle tours, and private cruises. The entire island can be rented for up to eighteen guests.

Lodge at Chaa Creek

At the fothills of the Maya Mountains, this 365-acre jungle “eco-resort” sits on banks of the Macal River. Mick and Lucy Fleming opened the location in 1981 with an emphasis on providing a comfortable experience while cooperating with nature. Community causes benefit from the donation of 10 percent of their revenue (the “Chaa Creek Cares” program.) A staff of 135 maintains the 23 rooms, which are thatched with palm and filled with locally-influenced decorations and brightly-colored accents. Adventure tours include horseback riding, mountain biking, and trips to nearby historic sites. Avoid the Belizean rainy season by booking February through May.

Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort

Popular with honeymooners, this adults-only resort spans 300 acres of tropical jungle, bordered by 1,300 feet of private, palm-lined beach. In honor of Belizean history, the resort's 25 thatched-roof cabanas include Mayan-inspired artwork, canopy beds handcrafted by local artisans, walls painted with natural dyes, and large decks with views of the beach. In the open-air dining room, meals consist of freshly caught seafood, as well as wood-fired pizzas that reflect the owner’s Italian heritage. Activities include scuba diving, bird-watching, traditional dance performances, and daytrips to the ruins of Xunantunich and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a nearby jaguar preserve.

Turtle Inn

What makes Turtle Inn, a collection of 17 cottages, eight villas, and six restaurants and bars stand out among Francis Ford Coppola’s small collection of Latin American properties? Its location right on the Caribbean Sea, which means that after travelers unpack in one of the hotel’s thatched cottages, they’ll have plenty of time to explore some of the world’s best diving and fishing spots. For even more wildlife spotting, a half-hour boat ride away is the Monkey River, in a primeval jungle that’s home to more than 50 species of birds and colonies of howler monkeys, while nearby Placencia gives a taste of the Caribbean circa 1968, with its hippie cafés and funky guesthouses. (The ideal way to get to the village is on one of the resort’s fleet of wildly painted retro bikes.) Add in a handful of massage therapists from Thailand, and you see why Coppola’s thoughtful details lure travelers to this sandy strip of Belizean beach.