From time to time I am going to be posting reviews of mainland hotels and jungle lodges for those who may not be familiar with all the options there. Here are some jungle lodges in the "Big Orange," Orange Walk District, which is between Corozal and Belize districts.

--Lan Sluder
Belize First, www.belizefirst.com

>>[FIVE STARS] Chan Chich Lodge, Gallon Jug (Mail: P.O. Box 37, Belize City); tel./fax 501-223-4419; or P.O. Box 1088, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, tel. 800-343-8009, fax 508-693-6311; e-mail info@chanchich.com ; www.chanchich.com . Very simply, this is one of the classic jungle lodges of the world. It’s owned by Barry Bowen, a fifth-generation Belizean who also has the Coca-Cola bottling franchise in Belize and who brews Belikin beer, among many other endeavors. The trip here by car from Orange Walk Town is an incredible experience, although if you want to get here more quickly, you can come by charter plane. The drive takes you through deep bush, including the 262,000 acres of Programme for Belize lands next door, and around every curve you might encounter anything but another vehicle — deer, a quash, a snake sliding across the road, one of Belize’s cats, a flock of oscellated turkeys, a dense shower of butterflies. Closer to the lodge, which is on a quarter million acres of private land, you’ll spy the neatly fenced fields of Bowen’s 2,500-acre Gallon Jug farm, which raises cattle, corn, soybeans, cacao, cardamon and coffee. Gallon Jug is the only place in Belize that produces coffee in any commercial amount. The lodge, across a suspension bridge at the end of a short paved road, enjoys an astounding setting. It was built literally on top of a Maya plaza. Around the lodge are tall, unexcavated mounds. There are 12 thatch-roof cabañas, comfortable rather than luxurious, each with two queen beds, 24-hour electricity (but not air-conditioning), bath with hot and cold water shower, and a wrap-around verandah. The cabins fartherest from the restaurant kitchen and on the edge of the lodge grounds, such as number 2 and 9, are most desirable. We have heard some complaints about units close to the kitchen — number 11 and 12. Americans Tom and Josie Harding supervised the construction of the lodge in the early 90s and stayed on as managers until 2001, when they moved on. New management appears to be doing a superb job. Meals are served in a large thatch cabaña, which also houses a gift shop, and the bar is next door — guests congregate there for a social hour before dinner. A beautiful swimming pool, located at the edge of the jungle and screened to keep out bugs, opened in 1998. Around the lodge grounds is a series of cut and raked trails, ideal for wildlife spotting and birding. You can enjoy the jungle setting without having to wrestle snakes and briars. Will you see a jaguar? There’s a better chance here than at most other places in Belize. The lodge has been averaging about one jaguar sighting a week. Even if you don’t see the elusive big cat, you’ll definitely see plenty of other wildlife including howler monkeys, whether you walk the trails on your own or go on one of the nature tours offered by the lodge. Guides at Chan Chich are extraordinarily knowledgeable, and you should take at least one guided nature tour while at the lodge (US$6 an hour per person). Birding is terrific here, with more than 350 species identified; often 40% or more of guests are birders. Canoeing, horseback riding, birdwatching and nature tours, and trips to Maya sites are available. Rates: Doubles, room only, are US$175 to $205 Nov. 1-Apr. 30, US$130 to $160 the rest of the year. Meal packages, which are necessary since there are no other dining choices nearby, are about US$43 adults, US$32 for children under 12. The lodge offers an all-inclusive package (room, meals, taxes, most tours and activities, Belikin beer and soft drinks) for US$385 to $420 double in-season and US$335 to $368 off-season. Rates are plus the usual 7% hotel tax but do not include a service charge. Chan Chich’s approach, which we like, is to tip what you feel is fair (tips are divided among all staff) and only once, at the end of your stay. If staying for more than a couple of days, you may want to go on the all-inclusive plan for the first few days, then switch to the room and meals only after that.

[FOUR STARS] Lamanai Outpost Lodge, Indian Church Village; tel. 501-223-3578, fax 220-9061; e-mail mail@lamanai.com ; www.lamanai.com ; or contact Ellen Howells in the U.S., tel. 888-733-7864, fax 727-864-4062. Lamanai Outpost is another extraordinary jungle lodge. One of the reasons it’s so special is the setting. Built by the late Colin Howells, a legend in hospitality circles in Belize, Lamanai Outpost perches on a low hillside with a view of the beautiful New River Lagoon. The lodge has 17 rooms, recently refurbished, in thatch cabañas set among hillside gardens. The lodge is closely involved with archeological and nature study programs through the Lamanai Field Research Center. The center has resident naturalists, archeologists, ornithologists and biologists. On one visit here, my children enjoyed meeting grad students from the University of Texas who were doing crocodile research in the New River Lagoon. We went along on a night trip to catch crocs (fortunately, that night they didn’t catch any.) A regular night spotlight tour, well worth doing, is US$43 per person. Managers Mark and Monique Howells, Colin Howells’ son and daughter-in-law, do a terrific job with the lodge, in everything from supervising the housekeeping to providing security. Many guests here are from Elderhostel programs, but kids love Lamanai, as there always seem to be monkeys, parrots and other creatures around. For adults, next to the open-air dining room, in what was the former restaurant, there’s now a bar and lounge, The Digger’s Roost, with archaeological memorabilia and a full-size reproduction of a Lamanai stela showing Lord Smoking Shell. A dock extends 130 feet into the lagoon and is good place for star gazing and swimming — just keep an eye out for Ol’ Mister Croc. Birding is superb in this area, with at least 375 species identified nearby Winners of a recent one-day “bird-a-thon” at Lamamai spotted 172 species in 24 hours. The Lamanai ruins and archeological reserve are within walking distance, as is a small community butterfly education center, Xochil Ku. Indian Church village is also within walking distance, and near the village are the ruins of two Spanish churches. Don’t miss taking a night-spotting tour (US$36 per person) — the New River Lagoon and New River are fascinating at night. Rates: US$145 double Nov. 1-Apr. 30, US$115 the rest of the year, except September, when the lodge is closed. Meals are a little pricey, costing US$9 for breakfast, US$15 lunch and US$25 dinner. Several packages with transfers, tours and meals are available as well, with three-night packages starting at US$595 per person. Rates do not include tax or service charge.

[TWO STARS PLUS] Programme for Belize’s La Milpa and Hill Bank Lodges at Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, Programme for Belize, Two South Park Street, P.O. Box 749, Belize City; tel. 501-227-5616, fax 227-5635; e-mail pfbel@btl.net ; www.pfbelize.org . Programme for Belize is a private, Belize-based, non-profit conservation organization responsible for the management of about 260,000 acres in Orange Walk District. It grew out of a plan by Coca-Cola in the 1980s to create a frost-free source of citrus juice, in the process clearing the forest. After environmentalists expressed their outrage, Coca-Cola reconsidered its plan and eventually donated two parcels totaling 92,000 acres. Another 110,000 acres were purchased from Barry Bowen, the Coca-Cola bottler in Belize. The Rio Bravo lands are part of the largest remaining forest area in Central America, comprising besides the land in Belize large tracts in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. PFB Lands alone are home to an 392 species of birds, 200 species of trees and 70 species of mammals. In an effort to become self-sustaining, Programme for Belize offers several programs for visitors including ecology courses and ecotourism stays at two field stations. Both stations enjoy remote and beautiful settings. La Milpa Field Station has individual cabañas and a 30-bed dormitory. About 60 Maya known sites are on Programme for Belize lands, including the third-largest Maya site in Belize, La Milpa, about 3 miles from the field station. The Hill Bank Field Station, on the New River Lagoon at the site of an old logging camp and railroad line, draws mainly educational groups. A dormitory has solar electricity, composting toilets and a gray-water recycling system. Meals at the field stations are simple but satisfying, with an emphasis on traditional Belizean cooking. Don’t come expecting luxury or even a smoothly efficient private lodge, but the remote settings are fabulous and that, along with the enthusiasm of the staff and guests, make up for any short-comings. Rates: Dormitories at La Milpa and Hillbank are US$75 and cabañas at La Milpa are US$90, per person, year-round. Rates include all meals and two guided tours. Children 6-11 are half-price, and those 1 to 5 are free.
_________________________
Lan Sluder/Belize First
http://www.belizefirst.com