Forget lazing by the beach in Belize - dive into an action-packed holiday swimming with the 'celebrities of the sea' before relaxing at a retreat that was once home to film director Francis Ford Coppola
By Tiffany Wright, Friday Magazine When in Belize, experiencing the "shark and ray alley", a reserve based at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, is a must.
At first glance, jumping into shark-infested waters might not seem like the most sensible thing to do. But in Belize, Shark Ray Alley is as compulsory as suntans and relaxation. Having been driven across the ocean in a tiny speed boat (complete with a small hole due to the rotting wood) I find myself seated on the edge of the boat, with my legs just a centimetre above the water. Below me are at least 40 sharks. I am not cage diving, neither am I just observing, I am about to be dropped, literally, into the middle of these predators, with only a snorkel.
This is not the scene of a horror movie, but is in fact my first step into a two week trip to Belize, Central America, and its neighbour Guatemala. Having landed just two hours earlier in the Belize capital of San Pedro I'd been convinced by a local fisherman to experience the delights of "shark and ray alley", a reserve based at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, a 20-minute boat-ride away. Which is why, right now, the 40-plus nurse sharks, nicknamed the ‘celebrities of the sea' due to the attention they attract from tourists, weave slowly between my legs and analyse me with their lifeless eyes.
Within seconds of falling into the crystal clear, almost iridescent waters of the Belizean sea, I am mesmerised by the sheer tranquillity and grace of shark life. Majestic, powerful, yet surprisingly gentle, these great beasts don't seem to care about the tourist who has suddenly entered their world. Instead they swim around me, curious at first, before slowly slipping away into the dark depths below. But as the sharks depart, I am treated to another type of underwater life. Huge stingrays which have a ‘wing-span' of up to 120 centimetres, swim directly towards me, allowing me to reach out and stroke them.
As I emerge from the depths, my guide points towards the horizon and tells me to follow him. Surrounded by the sharks, we snorkel 20 metres from the boat. Suddenly the ocean floor beneath me drops and I can no longer see the sand: We have reached the end of the reef and below is just an intimidating endless blackness. The guide points frantically in the distance and I squint as I see a huge shadow appear and then swim out into the ocean. It is only when we are safely back in the boat that the guide informs me I had just seen a bull shark - one of the most dangerous creatures in the ocean alongside tiger sharks and great whites. Sitting on the edge of the boat as we head back to shore, I convince my fellow snorkellers that the tremble in my voice is because I am cold. The truth is that my heart is still pounding.
When booking this trip, I did so with the idea of "celebrity" in mind. Not only did I want to swim with "the celebrities of the sea", but I also wanted to experience the way the Hollywood elite might holiday. My first stop, nestled deep in the mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve was Blancaneaux Lodge, formerly the home of Legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola. Having been visited by the likes of Cameron Diaz and Nicholas Cage you feel like one of the Hollywood elite from the moment you step through the doors.
Tucked into the Maya Mountains where waterfalls tumble into turquoise pools above the jungle canopy, Blancaneaux with its riverfront cabanas and wrap-around walk ways allow you to feel like you have just stepped onto a movie set.
I arrive to be told I am staying in Coppola's actual cabana, which he rents out when he is not in the area. Coppola's cabana is decorated with a number of his personal effects, including family photos and memorabilia, and Blancaneaux itself is studded with Coppola mementos.
The following couple of days are spent lounging in the cabana's private pool and having head to toe massages in the spa. On my final day, I am escorted to the Coppola stables and embark on a horseback ride to the Big Rock Falls - a waterfall famous for its breathtaking beauty and cooling natural pools, which, after the two-hour trek, is welcome.
Next on my journey into Coppola's world I am transported in an air-conditioned jeep across the border, to stay at La Lancha, the director's Guatemalan Resort which is a gateway to the Tikal pyramids. Perched on Guatemala's glassy Lake Petén Itzá, La Lancha resort beckons to intrepid travellers intent on conquering the nearby ruins. Latticing up the steep slope in pairs, each of the ten thatched-roof bungalows is abundant with carved teak furniture, Mayan rugs and panoramic views of the expansive lake. On my first morning I was woken by a chorus of howler monkeys, perched on the balcony directly outside my bungalow.
The obvious lure of La Lancha is its proximity to Tikal. Set in the Petén Basin, Tikal is dotted with hundreds of ancient stone structures dating back to 300 BC. One of the temples served as the exterior of the rebel base in Star Wars, reminding me once again that many a movie has been inspired by the delights of my trip.
Back to the deep
My final destination is across the border and back into Belize at Coppola's Turtle Inn. Once again I'll be throwing myself into deep cold waters and coming face to face with the terrors of the deep, this time, in the shape of whale sharks. Turtle Inn offers boho beach living, A-list-style.
Coppola's final hotel paradise is situated in the sleepy Placencia village, and is famed for its Balinese-style beach huts, and the sun-sparkled waters of the Caribbean. Like sister property Blancaneaux Lodge, Turtle Inn has been built in such a way as to minimise its impact on the environment, using local resources and creating imaginative alternatives to modern technologies - you won't find a TV or telephone here. Rather imaginatively, in order to ring through to room service you use a ‘shell phone,' a conch set on a wooden box concealing an intercom link.
Turtle Inn is boho beach living, A-list-style. Fling open the hand-carved double doors of your villa to stare out over the sea or, if you're feeling adventurous, head out into the ocean to see the whale sharks.
After an hour's journey through the rough seas, I finished my trip to Coppola's paradise by swimming alongside 18-metre whale sharks. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer fear and amazement when you first come face to face with these giants. Only a few dive destinations on the planet can boast about the return of the largest fish in the ocean year after year.
During the full-moon weeks of April, May and June, the whale shark will glide through the waters giving divers and snorkellers the unmatched opportunity to share the ocean with them in close quarters. When you slip into the ocean and swim next to a whale shark, it's the underwater equivalent of going on safari, then getting out of the Land Rover and running with elephants. All at once you feel fragile, tiny and insignificant yet empowered at having seen one of nature's most elusive yet impressive giants.
Francis Ford Coppola's hotels snare you into a world of pure luxury, excitement and grandeur - who else can say they have swum with sharks, hung out with the A list and chatted with howler monkeys in the space of a two-week trip?