MORE RAMBLES IN BELIZE
Hummingbird, Hopkins and Southern Highway
By Lan Sluder
The drive down the Hummingbird Highway was as beautiful as ever. This is without a doubt the most scenic drive in Belize, on one of Central America’s best roads. While the scenery can’t compare with that in the high mountains of Costa Rica or Guatemala, the Hummingbird has its own charm, with citrus groves and small milpas set against a backdrop of high rolling hills of multi-hued green. Belize’s history comes alive on the Hummingbird, with old banana railway bridges, dating from the early part of the 20th century, still standing beside the highway. You can make good time on this road, though you have to keep alert for topes, but it’s a shame to drive too fast. There’s a lot to see, and stops at the Blue Hole and Five Blues national parks are well worth the time.
Dangriga, at the terminus of the Stann Creek Valley Highway (as the Hummingbird is called as it approaches the lowlands) remains a mystery. Why is this Garifuna town on the sea of so little interest to visitors? One reason, in my opinion, is the lack of good hotels and restaurants. Most of Dangriga’s hotels, even the best of them, are throwbacks to an earlier Belize where hotels had linoleum floors and cheap mismatched furniture, and everything cost twice as much as it should. If Dangriga ever gets a truly first-rate resort hotel, with value pricing, my guess is it will start to attract a sizable number of visitors. It’s the natural stopping off point for trips south, and the predominantly Garifuna culture is of considerable interest, but at present it is only a jumping off point for visits to the middle and southern cayes.
Heading south on the Southern Highway, the first 12 or so miles to past the turn-off to Hopkins, are now paved and in terrific shape. One only has to recall how terrible this road use to be to become giddy with excitement at how wonderful it is to drive it now. I was tempted to stop, get out and pat the road to assure myself it really exists. The engineers and workers who built this road have done an amazingly good job. Congratulations! South of Hopkins to near Independence the road is still being graded and prepared for paving, and driving this section, as I did, late at night in the rain, is nothing short of a nightmare. With heavy equipment and trucks shining their lights at eye level, you can barely see the one-way sections or even where the road is supposed to go. Even though I’m familiar with the road, I missed the turn-off to Placencia and had to backtrack a few miles. The sharp rocks exposed by the grading are hell on tires. We had a flat near Independence, as a sharp stone punctured the tire. (Repairing it with a plug cost US$3.50.) The paved section resumes north of the road to Independence and continues both to Independence and, following the right turn south, a few miles toward PG. However, about 35 miles or so of the Southern Highway from south of Independence to Big Falls is the same as always -- unpaved and muddy in wet weather, dusty in dry.
But, back a moment to Hopkins, one of our favorite places in southern Belize. This poor little Garifuna village is looking extremely prosperous these days. The village residents are obviously taking advantage of the opportunities offered by rich gringos who are flocking to this area, seeking seafront land. We just hope the friendly, laid-back atmosphere of Hopkins doesn’t completely disappear.
This trip, my family and I stayed at * * * * + Hamanasi (Hopkins Village, P.O. Box 265, Dangriga, Stann Creek District, tel. 501-5-12073, fax 5-12090, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hamanasi.com).
Driving up from the back, this resort looks unprepossessing, but once on the grounds, the wow factor is high. The restaurant and lobby are attractive, the grounds well kept, and the pool, with a “zero effect” is one of the nicest I’ve seen in Belize. There are three types of accommodations -- regular rooms in the main building (US$100 to $170 depending on the time of year), suites in a separate set of buildings (US$150 to $225) and “tree houses” on the back side (US$100 to $170 ). Rates include continental breakfast. All are really nice, though personally I like the suites best. They remind me a good deal of the units at Inn at Robert’s Grove, and indeed the same Mennonite builder constructed Hamanasi as built Robert’s Grove (and a number of other top resorts in Belize.) The accommodations at Hamanasi (Garifuna for almond tree) are much nicer than I expected they would be, and it’s always a plus to have a hotel exceed your expectations. The owners, Dana and David Krauskopf, who look like they just stepped out of a Travel & Leisure magazine spread, seem to know what they are doing. While they haven’t run a hotel before, they have experience in the travel agency biz and in marketing. Certainly their cats, furry grey émigrés from Russia, know exactly what they’re up to. The operation is still getting its sea legs, and not everything works perfectly -- for example the air conditioning in our suite didn’t -- but I have a feeling that before long things will get smoothed out. As many as 75% of the guests here presently are divers, albeit in many cases recreational divers. Barrier reef dives (two tanks) are US$65, and Turneffe Atoll dives (three tanks) are US$120. I suspect it is smart marketing to focus on diving now, but as the resort matures I would think a larger percentage of guests will come just for the seaside ambiance and nature tours.
Next door, * * * * Jaguar Reef is looking better than ever. The landscaping around the duplex cabanas is starting to pay off. Owner Bruce Foerster tells us the deal to sell the resort has fallen through, and Bruce is going to be giving more attention to the property. He is buying out his partners and is upgrading the rooms this fall. We’re told that the hotel plans to go ahead with its 9-hole golf course, a “dunes course” using synthetic turf. We’re no experts, but we wonder if this kind of golf course makes sense in Belize. There definitely are advantages to synthetic turf , both in holding down maintenance costs and in reducing environmental problems associated with runoff from greens. However, we can just imagine the guidebooks and travel writers savaging the idea of an “Astroturf golf course” in Belize. Even if duffers love it, critics are going to be out in force satirizing the idea of “Sittee Point putt-putt.” Guess time will tell.
We had dinner at * * * Beaches and Dreams, and the food was delicious. We ate well without breaking the bank. Sad to hear that co-owner Dave Hegelsen developed respiratory problems in the Belize climate and can only stay in Belize a few weeks at a time.
Pleasure Cove bills itself as “ADULTS ONLY RESORT with European sophistication that blends beautifully into the relaxed, tropical landscape.” In a brief visit, this spot didn’t strike us quite that way, but we’re willing to be convinced. Lots of lots have been sold at the British-American Cattle Co. properties in this area, and a few very nice homes are going up.
Alas, we ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to see Kanantik, the upscale all-inclusive that’s abuilding north of Hopkins. We hope to get back around the time of the grand opening in the late fall.
Speaking of north of Hopkins, we finally got the opportunity to visit with Kevin and Nanette Denny, -- Nanette is Belizean and Kevin is an American -- who run * * * Mama Noot’s Backabush Resort (email@example.com, www.mamanoots.com)
near the Mayflower Maya site. It’s about 4 miles west of the Southern Highway, at the end of a pretty good dirt road. I was impressed by this newish lodge. The grounds are being kept well-chopped and open, though the backdrop is the rugged Maya Mountains. Power here is from a combination of solar, hydro and wind sources, and some of the food for the restaurant is organically grown. You have a choice of a thatch cabana (US$118 double) or modern rooms (US$75). The rack rates seem a tad high for this type of facility, but what do we know? We didn’t eat a meal here, but Nanette says she tries to make the food interesting, not just rice and beans. Dinner costs US$18. Kevin says the unpleasantness about the the unlicensed guns is behind them. All it took to resolve the matter was a lot of money.