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#71514 - 08/03/03 03:17 AM Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Lan Sluder/Belize First Offline
On my latest trip around Belize, I swam in Francis Ford Coppola’s private pool, slept in Tiger Wood’s bed (okay, I’ll explain that in a minute) and ate lobster til it came out my ears. I drove again to Caracol, which is a wonder, explored remote areas of the Mountain Pine Ridge which look like parts of Scotland, got to see several great new hotels and revisited many others. I renewed acquaintances with lots of folks and met a bunch of people. Belizeans, whether roots Belizean or new to the country, were as always almost invariably friendly and hospitable.

Despite it being the green season, the weather was terrific, with as much sun as we could take. At the beach, we enjoyed cooling breezes from the sea and, inland, the occasional crisp morning at the higher elevations. We saw a good deal of wildlife, from a baby croc beside the Macal River to a baby brockett deer in the Pine Ridge to otters and quash and a friendly snake, probably some kind of a green racer, who was on its way to check in at a hotel near PG. Birds, of course, everywhere: oscellated turkeys, raptors of all varieties, pelagic birds. And, as often the case in the summer, butterflies in profusion on back roads, especially en route to Caracol. Flowers? Never seen so many as this trip. I’m pleased to discover that more Belize hotels, even moderate and budget ones, are gathering local flowers and putting them in guest rooms. It’s such a nice touch.

BELIZE TRAVELIN’
Traveling around Belize continues to get easier and more comfortable. Time was, you needed to bring your own personal chiropractor, and it took twice as long as you thought it would to get from anywhere to nowhere.

This trip, we rented a nearly new diesel mini-SUV from Budget. I loved the diesel. The diesel version of the Suzuki Grand Vitari runs like a Rolex. It has plenty of pep and gets better mileage than its gas-fed brothers. A big plus is that diesel fuel in Belize is about one-third less than unleaded gas — around US$2.60 versus dangerously close to four bucks for premium. I understand Budget, and maybe some of the other renters in Belize City, are adding diesel vehicles to their fleets.

Althought we put a gazillion miles on the Vitari, we didn’t have a single flat tire. We also never got lost ... well, except once or twice around PG. That’s in part thanks to the new and improved signage. Most of the main roads a visitor is likely to take, and many of the secondary roads such as those in the Mountain Pine Ridge, now have clear directional signs. The road signs around Belize City, on the Western Highway and on the Southern Highway look just like the signs back in the USA.

Speaking of the Southern Highway, for those of you who remember the old highway, with its car-eating mud in the rainy season and huge clouds of dust in the dry, the new Southern Highway is nothing short of a miracle. It’s completely paved now, except for a nine-mile stretch just south of Golden Stream to near Big Falls, and that will be finished soon. So you can drive all the way from the Mexico border in Corozal on the Northern Highway to Belize City (if you don’t take the Boom short-cut, which now comes out at a spiffy new roundabout on the Western Highway) and then on the Western Highway to the Guatemala border at Benque, and then double back to Belmopan, down the beautiful Hummingbird Highway, and thence down the Southern Highway all the way to Punta Gorda without once leaving the pavement, except for that nine-mile bit between Golden Stream and Big Falls.

The cutoffs to Hopkins and to Sittee are now paved, too. At least, partly so. Only the cutoff to Placencia remains unsurfaced, except for the short sections through Seine Bight and Placencia villages. Even Belize’s more notorious unpaved roads, such as the Cristo Rey and Georgeville roads, are in as good a condition now as I’ve ever seen them. The Chial Road, once a tire-chomper (to Chaa Creek and environs) is almost like a limestone expressway these days. The roads through the Mountain Pine Ridge, and to Caracol, are in remarkable shape. And goodness gracious, even the golf cart path on North Ambergris is a pleasure to drive. I toured the North End by cart all the way to Mata Chica and Portofino, and my only mishap was that I ran out of juice, or current as Belizeans say, coming back. (But not to worry: I called Moncho’s on my cell phone and arranged to swap carts at Caye Mart at Essene Way.)

The cell phone came in handy a number of times. I rented it from Budget for US$5 a day (you can also get one from other car renters or from BTL, picked up a BZE$20 phone card from the BTL office at the international airport parking lot, and, presto, I was in business. BTL, the company Belizeans all love to hate, may not be cheap, but I like the new “digital roaming” DigiCell GSM cell service. People say the old cell service was better, at least in terms of access, but I found we had service even in pretty remote areas of the Ridge and in the far north Ambergris.

On the airline front, I’m impressed with what’s been happening at Maya Island Air. The new owners obviously have put some bucks into the local airline. The new Maya Island terminals at Belize City Municipal and at Placencia are really nice, and the Cessna 14-seaters I flew were newish and appeared to be in top condition.

BELIZEAN ZEITGEIST:
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING
I’ve been banging around Belize for more than dozen years. (“Hey,” I can hear some folks say, “Isn’t it time Lan Sluder moved on and started bugging somebody else?”) Over that those short years, so much in Belize has changed, especially in ways that impact visitors. Let me give a few examples:

• COFFEE. Time was, when a good cup of coffee in Belize meant instant Nescafe with condensed milk. And OJ was Tang. Now, better restaurants and hotels serve good, rich Guatemalan with real milk or cream, and the orange juice is fresh-squeezed. Gallon Jug puts out a decent bean, though elevations in Belize are too low to grow the wonderful coffees of Costa Rica and Guatemala. And some lodges, including Hidden Valley Inn, grow and roast their own coffee.

• AWARENESS. “Where the Hell is Belize?” used to be Belize’s semiofficial slogan. Now just about everybody has heard of Belize, and Old Navy sells Belize tee shirts. A lot of it has to do with the Web. These days, Belize is wired, nearly every hotel has e-mail and visionary Web pioneers like Marty Casado and Tony Rath have done more to raise awareness for Belize than all the ad campaigns ever run by the BTB. Still, Belize lags behind some of its neighbors in awareness and visitation. Costa Rica gets three times as many international visitors, and the hotel zone of smarmy Cancun gets nearly as many tourists in an in-season month than all of Belize gets in a year. Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad thing. I’m not one of those neo tree huggers who think that the only good destination is a destination with no tourists. A lot of areas of Belize would really benefit from doubling the number of visitors. At the same time, I’m concerned that the wrong kind of tourism is at best a short-term band-aid. Cruise tourism is booming in Belize, but it seems to benefit very few Belizeans, mostly those with good political connections.

• COMFORT. Used to be, you’d check into the typical hotel in Belize, and you’d find linoleum on the floor and furnishings that looked like they came from a Good Will store. The bed mattress was foam rubber, and air conditioning and swimming pools were as rare as toucan teeth. If you were at a jungle lodge, the light was from kerosene lamps and the current came from a generator. Then, starting in the early and mid-1990s, there was an explosion of hotel construction. Most of it was at the middle or upper end.

Today, hotels and resorts in Belize take a back seat to nobody in the comfort zone. Beach hotels and condotels like Banyan Bay, Inn at Robert’s Grove, Banana Beach, Mata Chica, Hamanasi, Jaguar Reef, Kanatik, Cayo Espanto, Caye Chapel Golf Resort, Luba Hati, Ramon’s, Victoria House, Turtle Inn, Portofino and others are the equals or betters of even the tonier resorts of the Caribbean, Mexico and Costa Rica. Lodges and other mainland hotels also offer most of the creature comforts: Lodge at Chaa Creek, Chan Chich, Blancaneaux, Jaguar Paw, Ek’Tun, duPlooy’s, Radisson Fort George, The Great House, Hidden Valley Inn, El Pescador PG, Mopan River and others. Nearly all of the hotels on Ambergris Caye now have air-conditioning and about half have swimming pools, and even remote jungle lodges are putting in pools. While many lodges still use generators, more are on the grid and a handful, such as Jaguar Paw, have air conditioning.

My kids, Brooks and Rose, have swim-tested most of the swimming pools in Belize. They tell me their top picks include the pools at Ek’Tun (the gorgeous natural pool), Turtle Inn, Hamanasi and Chan Chich.

The biggest comfort improvement for me has been in bedding. Most of Belize’s upscale hotels import high-quality mattresses. The older I get, the more important I consider a thick, firm mattress. Traveler’s wisdom used to be “Sleep hard, eat well.” Now I’ll leave the hard sleeping to the youngsters and backpackers. Some of my favorite beds in Belize: Mopan River Resort, Hamanasi, Inn at Robert’s Grove, Cayo Espanto, Lodge at Chaa Creek, Turtle Inn, Radisson Fort George and Blancaneaux.

• VARIETY. At one time, Belize was known for its diving and little else. Now, there’s so much to do in Belize. No matter what your interests, regardless of whether you’re pretty much a couch potato like me or into triathlons and extreme sports, you’ll easily find something to occupy your days and nights in Belize: For the outdoors-oriented, there’s caving, sea kayaking, canoeing, cave tubing, fishing (deep sea, reef, flats and river), mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking of course. Don’t forget birding and wildlife spotting, some of the best in the hemisphere. You’ll never forget a boat ride up the New River or a guided night walk around a jungle lodge — watch out for those Red-rumped Tarantulas! For culture freaks, in Belize you’ve got thousands of years of Maya history and a surprising number of small but interesting museums and education centres. Don’t miss the Museum of Belize in Belize City.

• SAFETY. “Is Belize safe?” That’s a question that I still get asked many times a week. The issue is driven by the unsavory reputation of Belize City, a reputation that — while in some ways justified — is in fact much worse than the reality. My answer is still, “Sure, Belize is safe, and in some ways it’s safer than ever, but like any place in the world these days Belize has crack and crime and a few bad people, and the usual traveler’s precautions are in order.” In all my travels around Belize over the years, I’ve not once experienced a single incident of violent crime and only one time have I had a problem with theft. That was a bungled attempt to break into my rental car in Cayo, and the only thing I lost was fifty bucks to pay for the broken lock on the car. But I do hear from visitors occasionally who had a problem, a mugging on a dark street in San Ignacio or an unlit beach somewhere, or a theft in San Pedro or Placencia. Remember, even a backpacker traveler may look like wealthy to a guy who is looking to score some quick cash, so don’t leave your common sense back home.

HOTELS, GRAND AND OTHERWISE
The Sluder Theory of Travel Writing states that hotel reviews are the most important part of a guidebook. You can ask locals after you arrive about the best places to eat and generally figger out tours and shopping on your own, but in many cases you have to make a decision about hotels before you arrive. Often you have to pay in advance.

I’ve stayed at, or at least toured, close to 300 hotels, lodges and inns in Belize. This trip, I tried to revisit as many as I could and I saw several great new places. Here’s my take on some of the highlight properties. Remember, your mileage may vary. For more of the same, see my new Best Belize Hotels, coming soon to a bookstore near you.
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Lan Sluder/Belize First
http://www.belizefirst.com

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#71515 - 08/03/03 03:18 AM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Lan Sluder/Belize First Offline
Part 2 of 3

CAYO
Our first stop was Hidden Valley Inn in the Mountain Pine Ridge. I had visited several times before and stayed there a few years ago, having a nice dinner with the owner, Bull Headley, who, sadly, recently passed away. With its thousands of acres of surrounding property, private waterfalls and great birding, Hidden Valley Inn always has had the potential to be one of the best lodges in Belize. But, lacking attention, Hidden Valley had been in a decline for years. Now, with new ownership (the Roe family, who also are involved in the SunBreeze in San Pedro, the Biltmore in Belize City and who have many other interests in Belize) and new management, Hidden Valley is quickly moving back to top form. Managers Craig and Lisa Milner, originally from South Africa, are doing a fine job.

The 12 private cottages, each with a bedroom (queens or two doubles), living room and tiled bath, are not your traditional thatch but marl daub with zinc roofs. They’ve been spruced up a bit. All have salt tile floors and comfortable furnishings, and the fireplaces come in handy in the winter. There’s a beautiful new swimming pool and a hot tub, in a grand setting beside the main lodge building. We had several delicious meals, prepared by the new chef brought in by Craig and Lisa. At dinner, you select from a couple of entrees, with appetizers, soup or salad and dessert. I especially enjoyed the beef tenderloin, from Running W ranch in San Ignacio. It’s wonderful to wake up early in the invigorating air of the Pine Ridge and walk some of the trails around the lodge. I’m told there are 90 miles of trails, several leading to waterfalls that are open only to Hidden Valley guests. Honeymooners or even old married folks can reserve Butterfly Falls or other falls for your own private day at a waterfall, complete with champagne. You can also walk through a small coffee finca — the lodge grows and roasts its own coffee. Yes, many of the Mountain Pines in this area have succumbed to the pine beetle infestation, but the pines are quickly regenerating. We saw many that are already eight or ten feet tall. The birding is actually better than ever here, as it’s now much easier to spot the little feathered friends. A sizable percentage of Hidden Valley Inn guests are birders, who want to add to their life lists rare birds such as the Orange-breasted Falcon, King Vulture and Keel-billed Motmot. Rates at Hidden Valley: US$247 for a double in-season, US$229 off, including breakfast and dinner, taxes and service charge. Packages are available, and the hotel offers many tours and trips. Check out www.hiddenvalleyinn.com or tel. 501-822-3320, fax 822-3334. Or get in touch with my friend, Katie Valk, with Maya Travel Services in Belize City (www.mayatravelservices.com or telephone 501-223-1623, fax 223-0585). Katie can also help you with most any kind of travel arrangements in Belize, and she’s there to give you a hand should you need it.

Back around San Ignacio, I got a peek at the new treetop suites at Chaa Creek. When I was there, co-owner Mick Fleming was in England recuperating from hip surgery, and Lucy was in Belize City, but as usual the lodge was purring like a Bentley. The new suites, at the far edge of the cabaña compound, are spacious multilevel units with a nice deck. I hear they’re popular with honeymooners, but frankly, I still love the garden suites. Chaa Creek has bought the Rainforest Medicine Trail from Rosita Arvigo and is reopening that to the public.

My family and I had lunch at Clarissa Falls, and lunch there beside the Mopan was a treat as always. And cheap. The four of us ate tacos and other delicious down-home food for about US$5. I ran into Phyllis Dart, who owns the small but glorious Ek’ Tun Lodge, at the grocery in San Ignacio. She said she’d had a busy season. The delightful French couple that owned Green Heaven Lodge have sold it, I’m told. Aguada remains my pick for value if you don’t need to be out in the country — at around US$30 double for a newish room with air-conditioning, and a pool, it’s a money-stretcher. Martha’s is another great in-town choice. If you want some country air, Parrot’s Nest (same owners, new management) is a good budget option.

Back a bit toward Belmopan, I stopped in at Roaring River Lodge, off the Western Highway at Mile 50 1/4 near Camalote Village. It’s been open for a good while, but I hadn’t had a chance to see it until now. This lodge isn’t yet well known and isn’t in most guidebooks. The grounds are lovely, with lots of flowers and a symphony of birds. There’s a pool (being repaired while I was there), and you’re just steps from Roaring Creek (or River), for a cool relaxing dip. For value, this place is hard to beat: The three comfy, spic ‘n span cabañas go for US$40 double off-season, US$50 in-season. And there’s an even cheaper lodge accommodation for backpackers, with shared bath, at US$20 double in-season. Rates include breakfast. The managers, Wim and Chantal Decoster, from Belgium, seem to be doing a great job. The Web site is <a href="http://http://www.roaringriverbelize.com " target="_blank">www.roaringriverbelize.com</a>[/URL] or e-mail rorivlodge@btl.net or call 501-820-2037.

Not too far away is Roaring River Golf Course, Belize’s first public golf course. After you turn south off the Western Highway at Camalote, a right turn on the dirt road takes you to Roaring River Lodge, left to the golf course. This nine-hole, 1,959-yard, par-32 jungle course (watch out for the crocs in the water trap) is the one of the eccentric delights of Belize. I say eccentric because where else but Belize would you find a golf course out in the bush? It’s the pet project of an expat Brit, Paul Martin, who found himself with some extra time and a lot of heavy earth moving equipment on his hands. Before long, he’d carved out the greens and fairways. It’s not Pebble Beach, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Affordable, too. Rates start at around US$15, and less if you live in Belize. After a round of golf, you can sip a Belikin at the “club house” and then jump in the Roaring River for a refreshing swim.

PLACENCIA
This trip, I got to test drive the new Turtle Inn. The original Turtle Inn was a fixture for many years in Placencia, when the late Skip White ran it. A couple of years ago, it was bought by Francis Ford Coppola and soon reopened as Blancaneaux’s Turtle Inn. Then, in October 2001, a nasty lady named Iris paid a visit to Placencia, and Turtle Inn was virtually blown away. After a complete rebuild, Turtle Inn reopened around the turn of the year. The first few months of operation weren’t exactly smooth, and I heard quite a few complaints about ongoing construction and reservation foul-ups, though others raved about the Balinese design.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can tell you the new Turtle Inn knocked me out. My family and I had a two-bedroom sea front villa, and you couldn’t ask for anything nicer or more stylish. The villas and many of the single cabañas sit just feet from the sea, so the gentle lap-lap of the Caribbean soothes you, and the prevailing offshore breeze keeps you cool. (There is at present no air-conditioning, so on a calm summer day I do fear it can get pretty warm.)

Our villa was a pure delight. In some ways, the villas at Turtle Inn remind me of those at Blancaneaux Lodge: The bay-thatch ceiling soars high, there’s a wide screened porch across the front, and the main living area has comfy seating and a fridge. The two bathrooms are in the Japanese-style, with both showers and tiled square tubs (there also are outdoor garden showers, which are more fun than you’d think.) But, unlike Blancaneaux, the villas and cabanas at Turtle Inn are Balinese in inspiration, with wonderful art and furnishing, and even the doors, picked out personally, I’m told, in Indonesia by Mr. Coppola and his wife, and imported in 14 container loads.

We also got a tour of Mr. Coppola’s personal villa, the Pavilion, which is available for hotel guests when the director isn’t there. It has several extra touches, such as saunas in the bathrooms, not in the regular villas. Pavilion also comes with its own private pool. We sneaked a swim in the Coppola pool, though normally it is reserved for use by the party in the Pavilion Villa. But even if you don’t stay in the Pavilion Villa, you’ll be very happy with the main pool. The large turtle-shaped, zero-effect pool, between the restaurant and the beach, is one of the best in Belize. The beach itself is one of the better ones on the peninsula. There’s no pier, but Turtle Inn has plans for a marina on the lagoon side.

I found the food, service, amenities and staff responsiveness all very accommodating. A new manager, Ian Lizarraga, came on board about the same time we arrived. Ian is Belizean, young but with a lot of experience in hotel management at Chaa Creek and Cayo Espanto. The upscale made-in-Belize bath soaps, shampoos and lotions delighted my wife and daughter, who also were given Balinese sarongs. We had a walk-talkie to hail our “houseman” should we need anything. The open-air restaurant with a sunken sand floor is as tropical as you could want. The restaurant features seafood and Italian specialties. Like Blancaneaux, Turtle Inn has a wood-burning pizza oven and serves excellent wines from the Niebaum-Coppla winery. Every meal I had at Turtle Inn was excellent, though not cheap. A continental breakfast of fresh-baked breads and fruits is included in the room rate.

Off-season (May 1 to December 19), Turtle Inn cabañas are US$175 to $200 double, and villas US$300 to $400 (the Pavilion Villa is US$600.) Winter rates are US$275 to $300 for cabañas, US$400 to $575 for villas (US$1,000 for Pavilion.) Christmas rates slightly higher. Rates are plus 7% hotel tax and 10% service. For info, go to www.blancaneauxlodge.com or call 1-800-PINE-RIDGE (1-800-746-3743) or 501-824-4914 or fax 501-824-4913.

If you want something more intimate and personal than a hotel, let me tell you about Mariposa. This is the private home of Marcia and Peter Fox, a charming couple who moved to Placencia several years ago from Marin County, California. They offer two ground-floor suites, each with a bedroom, bath and full kitchen. Although several good restaurants are within walking distance, if you prefer to cook in, the Foxes can arrange to stock groceries and fresh fruits and vegetables ready for when you arrive. The suites have folding doors that open for a great view. Each suite has its own little thatch palapa on the private beach. The suites are nicely decorated, too; check out the Maya glyphs, hand-painted by the artist who did the murals at Jaguar Paw, along the top of the walls. The grounds are beautiful, and the location is convenient, next door to Kitty’s. There’s also a small casita around back, though it doesn’t enjoy the cooling breezes from the water. Rates: US$110 double off-season and US$125 in winter, plus 7% tax and 10% service. Check out www.mariposabelize.com e-mail foxbuddy@btl.net, call 501-523-4069, fax 523-4076.

Speaking of eating — one of my favorite subjects — Robert Frackman invited us to the Saturday night barbecue at the Inn at Robert’s Grove. All I can say is: Fantastic!! There was a big crowd gathered around the pool, and Bob said the hotel was full. We stuffed ourselves with delicious lobster, shrimp and fish. Robert’s Grove looks as wonderful as ever, and it remains one of the best and most popular beach resorts in the western Caribbean. If you stay here, I highly recommend you spend the extra bucks for a deluxe suite (one or two-bedrooms). They’re huge, beautifully furnished, with phones and cable TV, and the air-conditioning really works.

I also did quick visits to a number of other hotels on the peninsula: Rum Point, where there’s a new manager, Sheila Knox. Corol Bevier is still in residence (George Bevier, one of the pioneers of Belize tourism, sadly passed away last year); Green Parrot, Barnacle Bill’s, Nautical Inn and several other of my favorite places.

There’s a lot going on in Placencia these days. We hear talk of a new international airport across the lagoon — maybe, possibly, some day — and more immediate plans to extend the present Placencia airstrip out into the Caribbean. The new Maya Island terminal makes the airstrip look like a real airport. Now, if they could just get that damn road paved.

A lot of the activity is at the north end of the peninsula: The Plantation keeps expanding and making big plans. We hear there are one, or perhaps two, 18-hole golf courses planned or at least proposed. Calico Jack’s has a new manager, Robert Marlin, son-in-law of the developer. I’ll reserve comment (for now) on the Zeboz condo/timeshare development next door. It’s supposed to open later this year, with condo suites, tennis courts and a 10,000 square foot seafood restaurant. In-season rates have been set for US$185.

Seems like there’s a for-sale sign every few yards in Placencia these days. Building lots are for sale all up and down the peninsula, though many have already sold to foreigners who want a piece of the Caribbean. Luba Hati has sold, I’m told, though owners Franco and Mariucci are said to be staying on in Placencia. Kitty’s is still on the market (believe it’s nearly sold twice, but things didn’t work out.) This resort looks better than ever. Among other hotels for sale: Soulshine, Nautical Inn, Maya Breeze Inn, Singing Sands and Placencia Lagoon Resort. Mango’s, the restaurant in Maya Beach, is also for sale. The former Seine Bight Hotel/Bahai Laguna is rotting away.

Someone asked me recently why so many places are for sale in Placencia. I’m not sure myself. Part of it has to do with the seasonal nature of business in Placencia. Summer can be pretty dead, and it’s tough to make a resort pay when you have to get most of your income in the winter. Iris, of course, had an impact. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that many resort operators come to Placencia with a dream but not much practical experience in the hotel business.

If you want to catch up on all the news of Placencia, the best place (besides Wallen’s store) is Mary Toy’s Destinations Belize Web site -- www.destinationsbelize.com . This trip, I ran into Mary at Lobster Fest, where she womanning the Humane Society Booth.

TOLEDO
On our drive south to Punta Gorda, we stopped at a couple of new lodges. One is disappointing; the other is exciting. The disappointment was Belize Lodge & Excursions, part of a complex of southern Belize accommodations and tours that have been in the planning and construction process for years. Eventually, besides the lodge at Indian Creek, about 23 miles north of PG, there’s supposed to be a camp at Golden Stream and a lodge on Moho Caye. It took me awhile to talk my way into the fortress-like grounds of Indian Creek Lodge. The security guards didn’t seem keen on having anyone come in and look around, but finally they allowed as how it would be okay. I was told that a few guests had come to the lodge, but that it wasn’t open right now. It took another half hour for someone to come up with a key to one of the 12 cabins. They are small but have nice views from a hilltop. Near the entrance are the reception area, restaurant and bar. There’s a man-made lake and airstrip under construction. I hope this outfit will finally get its act together, and maybe it will. The lodge’s Web site claims that it will open in November for the 2003-2004 season. For info: www.belizelodge.com or get in touch with the lodge’s Belize City office, tel./fax 501-223-6324.

I was more impressed by the Lodge at Big Falls. This new lodge, on about 30 acres on the banks of the Rio Grande River near the village of Big Falls, opened in March. The owners, Americans who lived for years in England, are Rob and Marta Hirons. They’ve done a good job developing the lodge property. The accommodations are what most visitors are looking for in a lodge — thatch cabañas, but nice ones, with tile floors and private baths. The main lodge building has a restaurant, library and computer with satellite Internet access. Kerosene lamps provide the light. There are plans to add a swimming pool. The Hironses did what many new hotel operators in Belize don’t do: They hired a marketing consultant with local knowledge and invested in a business and marketing plan. Whether Toledo has the tourism base for a jungle lodge in this area is another matter, one that only time will decide. Fallen Stones Lodge nearby, for example, has closed, although the butterfly farm is still open. Blue Creek Lodge has reopened after rebuilding from Iris, but the jungle canopy walk isn’t back up. For info, visit www.thelodgeatbigfalls.com Current rates: May to October, US$110 double; rest of year, US$135. Breakfast and lunch are US$8 each, dinner US$24. Tours of Lubaantun and Nim Il Punit each cost US$45 for two, and other tours are available. Transfer from the PG airport is US$40 for up to four people.

One new lodge in Toledo that seems to be doing well, exceeding its projections for the first year, is El Pescador PG. Of course El Pescador is a niche property, a fishing lodge, and it was able to build on its base of guests from El Pescador on North Ambergris. El Pescador was closed when I was in PG, but the co-manager, Jim Scott (Jim’s wife, Debbie, also is manager), was kind enough to let us stay overnight anyway. The lodge is set on a steep hill, called Big Hill for the farm that was originally here, on 470 acres above the Rio Grande. A small tram takes guests down to the boats docked on the river at the base of the hill. Up top, on a clear day, you have views of the Gulf of Honduras, with Guatemala and Honduras in the distance. I didn’t see or hear any, but I’m told troops of howler monkeys come by frequently. Accommodations are in 12 identical cottages, nicely outfitted with tile floors, private baths, and air-conditioning. The focus here is on permit fishing, with one of the best permit fisheries in the world, although the lodge guides can also take you out for tarpon, bonefish or snook. The lodge restaurant serves vegetables, fruit and herbs from the lodge’s farm. There’s a nice pool, too. Packages here reflect the angling orientation and include room, three meals a day, transfers, taxes and fishing. Per-person rates start at US$1,520 for three nights with two days of fishing (two people per room, two in a boat) and go up to $8,695 for 14 nights (one person per room and per boat.) Non-fishing rates start at US$990 double for three nights. Logan Gentry who with his sister, Ali, ran El Pescador on Ambergris and helped start El Pescador PG, died in a San Pedro boating accident last year. For information on El Pescador PG, see www.elpescadorpg.com phone 501-722-0050 or 800-242-2017, or fax 501-722-0051.

The news all over Belize while I was there was about the tragic death June 23 of Cheney Roberts, co-owner of Tranquility Lodge in Jacintoville near PG. Cheney designed and built the lodge and restaurant. A number of people have asked about the future of Tranquility Lodge. Peter Eltringham, a special friend of Cheney’s and author of the wonderful Rough Guide to Belize (which he is now updating) and updater of Insight Belize guide, writes to say that, yes, Tranquility will remain open. Penney Leonard, Cheney’s business partner, will be managing the lodge. Peter continues:

“We’re in a peaceful, secluded setting on 20 acres of former farmland and pasture, with over half the area in secondary growth rainforest. There’s a large, safe parking area. A short trail from the gardens leads to beautiful, rock-lined Jacinto Creek, with a simply gorgeous and safe swimming hole. No one lives upstream so the water is utterly pristine! Accommodation is on the ground floor, in four very spacious, tiled rooms with ceiling fans and remote control a/c. All have a private bathroom with hot shower and there’s a tiled sitting area to enjoy the gardens. Upstairs is a large screened, dining room, thatched with 9,000 bay palm leaves, and a comfortable lounge area with all round views. Our guests enjoy relaxing up here, reading books on Belize, watching birds and simply making themselves at home. The bird watching here is wonderful, with a total list of over 200 species seen on the property – 111 were recorded in just one week around last Christmas. At the western edge of the lodge there’s more forest, with another small creek. Just up the road just up the road lie the Maya villages and Maya ruins of Toledo, framed by the magnificent Maya Mountains. Also, we’re only seven miles from the sea, with the Port Honduras and Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserves offshore. There’s a lot to offer in this “forgotten corner” of Belize! Rates are US$50 for a double room, including a full breakfast (plus 7% hotel tax). Healthy meals, served family style, are prepared to satisfy individual preferences. Dinner is US$12.50 per person, and includes dessert and beverage. For more information or to make a booking, please e-mail Penny Leonard, mspennyl@yahoo.com or me, peter.eltringham@ukonline.co.uk. The web site is www.tranquility-lodge.com "

Despite the near-completion of the Southern Highway surfacing, Punta Gorda Town seems as sleepy as ever. Several of the better restaurants in town, including the one that most people say is the best, Earth Running, were closed for the summer, and some, including Punta Caliente, appear closed permanently. Someday, maybe, Toledo will be a major tourist destination, but in my opinion that time is still a long way off. Still, for those who want to get off the beaten path a bit and explore a truly untouristy part of the world, PG and all of Toledo are green and wonderful.

Toledo has been plagued of late by vampires -- not the undead kind but the bat kind. They’ve sucked the blood of a lot of cattle and a few humans.

On the way back north from PG we stopped off briefly in Hopkins and Sittee River. Love those paved roads! I did a quick re-tour of Jaguar Reef. You couldn’t tell there had been a fire there a few months ago — everything is rebuilt and looks almost exactly like it did before the fire. Hamanasi is also looking great.

COROZAL
Due to time constraints, I didn’t get to Northern Belize this trip, but I hear Corozal Town, one of my favorite places in all of Belize, is changing quite a bit. Some of it is not to good, such as the recent crime wave, but a good bit of new development is under way. I understand the two-bedroom apartments at Corozal Bay Inn are in new hands. I hope they’ll get some much-needed fixing up. For all the latest information and advice on Corozal, your best source is www.belizenorth.com run by Rick & Charlotte Zahniser, transplants from Colorado who have been in Corozal Town for over four years. They run Charlotte’s Web, a cyber café (with some of Belize’s lowest rates, US$1 for the first 10 minutes, a nickel a minute after that) and book exchange on Fifth Avenue.
_________________________
Lan Sluder/Belize First
http://www.belizefirst.com

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#71516 - 08/03/03 03:19 AM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Lan Sluder/Belize First Offline
Part 3 of 3

AMBERGRIS CAYE
Cayo Espanto. You’ve heard about it. You’ve seen photos of it in the glossy travel mags — most recently on the cover of Travel & Leisure. You’ve looked at the prices, and perhaps gasped. Cayo Espanto is definitely not for everyone, and it’s definitely not the Belize most of us know, but having now stayed there a few gloriously slothful and relaxing days, I can better appreciate its raison d’être and why honeymooners or a stressed-out exec would stay here.

The thing that strikes me most about Cayo Espanto is the level of service. It’s truly unmatched in Belize, and possibly anywhere in the region. A few small examples: When you leave the island, say for a visit to San Pedro or for a snorkel trip, when you get ready to come back, the boat captain bringing you back radios to the hotel your exact time of arrival, down to the minute. Awaiting you at the dock is your houseman (or butler) and a few other staff. They have your favorite drink waiting for you at the dock and offer you a face cloth to refresh yourself. And not just a face cloth, but your choice of a hot or a cold face cloth. Or both. And, of course, on the boat trip out and back you don’t have to sit on the hot plastic seat. There’s a folded towel on the seat to protect your sensitive fanny.

Cayo Espanto sends you a detailed guest survey before you arrive, to determine your preferences in food, drink and such. And, at the resort, the staff does pay close attention to what you like and don’t like. One day we used the paddle boats (complimentary, as are sea kayaks), and we discovered each boat was furnished with a cooler, which had been stocked only with the drinks that the houseman noticed we had favored - red Fanta, Diet Coke and Belikin.

As at Turtle Inn, upon arrival you’re given a walkie-talkie, and you can call your houseman who stands ready about anytime night or day to bring you whatever your heart desires — your favorite cocktail, a snack, fruit, ice. Not, to my knowledge, dancing girls, but, short of that, most anything.

Meals are mostly served at your villa, overlooking the water. Before dinner the chef comes by to inquire about your preferences for the evening. There are usually a couple of entree suggestions, but if you’d rather have something else, the chef can whip it up for you. Your own personal menu is printed, and you’re welcome to take it with you as a memento. One evening the menu was thus: an appetizer of seared scallops with rice-stuffed cabbage rolls, and a choice of Belizean lobster tail smothered in mango butter with a green papaya salad, or charred strip loin with shoestring potatoes and tequila mango salsa (I had both, of course), and for dessert coconut cake with pineapple chutney and mango coulisse.

Though the private island is quite small, and there are five villas on the island, privacy really is the watchword. Most of the time we were there the island was near its capacity of around 14 people, but we rarely saw another guest, except from a distance on an adjoining villa’s private pier.

We stayed in Casa Estrella. The star house. Ahh!

The villas are airy, with cleverly designed doors that fold back almost completely to provide panoramic views of the water. These are very pleasant spaces, but the villas furnishings are not extraordinary, nor are the finishings remarkably luxurious. The floor first floor of our villa, for example, was a kind of finished concrete, which is understandable given how close the houses are to the sea — literally only a few feet. Our villa was more like a comfortable, well-designed beach house, rather than a designer home. I did love the upstairs bedroom, with iits king bed, Egyptian cotton sheets and lovely down comforter. With the folding doors pulled back, the view was glorious.

And, yes, this is the bed that Tiger Wood slept in when he was at Cayo Espanto. Or so I was told. As I understand it, Wood was at Cayo Espanto only one night, spending the rest of his Belize trip time on his private yacht anchored off Lighthouse atoll.

At night, if you like, the staff will go around and close all the folding doors, shut the windows and turn on the air-conditioning. Air-conditioning is available only at night, as A/C tends to trip the island’s smaller daytime generator. Although Cayo Espanto is on the back side of Ambergris, in the lagoon rather than in the main Caribbean, there was a good breeze all the time we were there, and it was cool enough without air-conditioning.

Each villa, except one, has its own zero-effect plunge pool. These are indeed splash or plunge pools, more the size of a hot tub than a swimming pool. But they’re fun, and private.

All this privacy, service and personal attention comes at a price: US$895 to $1,750 per day year-round in 2003, except Christmas when rates are a little higher. Rates are going up $100 a day for each villa in 2004. Usually there’s a five-night minimum stay. These rates are plus 21.5% service and tax. Lodge, meals and most drinks are included, but not champagne, wines and cognacs. Fishing, diving, snorkeling and most other trips and activities are extra. For information, see www.aprivateisland.com or telephone toll-free 888-666-4282.

Now, back to reality:

San Pedro and Ambergris Caye were, as they have been on my last few visits, bustling with visitors. Tourism to Belize is up, and Ambergris Caye, as the most popular destination in Belize seems to be getting much of the benefit from that increase. I talked with several hotel managers who said that their occupancy rates had been 70 and 80% and higher almost all year, except for June which traditionally sees a fall off. The island seems more prosperous than ever, with new condos, new buildings on Front Street and other new construction going on everywhere. I never thought I’d see the day when there was a tennis and fitness club on the island, but there it is. If you’re in tourism and can’t make money in San Pedro, you need to rethink your business plan.

I did a whirlwind tour of many of my favorite digs on the island. Banana Beach looks fantastic these days. I love what Tim Jeffers has done there. It’s still a great value for what you get. The staff is so friendly and helpful, and the new restaurant is wonderful. I saw Wil and Susan Lala at Caribbean Villas. They’re delightful people and have done so much for tourism and for San Pedro and Sanpedranos. Villas at Banyan Bay, always my first recommendation if you want spacious, upscale condo-type two-bedroom accommodations, looks as beautiful as ever, and I’m told the new condos next door by Señor Paz have sold well, at prices around a cool half million U.S. I hear the Hideaway has sold, with new condos planned for that space. The grounds of Victoria House are amazingly beautiful now, and I understand VH has added some more suites in a villa a bit south of the resort. Caribe Island is looking as pink and pretty as always. Butch was on the same Maya Island flight as I was, but I didn’t get to say hello to him. It looks like construction is still going on at Xanadu. The spruced-up Coconuts costs a good bit more than it used to but is still a pretty good buy in the moderate category. For about the last ten years every time I’m in this area I’m told about the barge dock finally moving — is that really going to happen?!?. In the value department, Corona del Mar is hard to beat.

In town, Front Street is looking more like a sandy Fifth Avenue these days, with all the new shops and bank buildings. Wish I’d had time this trip to stay at Mayan Princess, my pick for in-town space and value. I’m a pretty tough critic of hotels, but it’s really hard to go wrong with almost any hotel in any price range on Ambergris Caye, and having written about travel to many different parts of the world, I can tell you there aren’t many places about which you can say that. The few bad ones have either sold or aren’t hotels any more.

I only saw it from the outside, but San Pedro’s first hostel-type guesthouse, Pedro’s Backpackers Inn, is brought to you by the inimitable Peter. His new place, a short hike south of town, is designed to appeal to Euro-style travelers. Rates start at US$12.50 for a dorm bed. Peter, who also runs Coconet Internet café and is involved in publishing the Green Guide to Ambergris Caye, is British. Moi, I think it’s great that San Pedro can have a big variety of places, from glitzy Cayo Espanto to spots for travelers on a budget. Diversity is in, guys.

North Ambergris is growing, too. There are lots of new houses under construction, and the North resorts seem to be sharing in the island’s prosperity. I got the cook’s tour of Portofino, and it’s a jewel. Jan Van Noord and his lovely bride are doing a fantastic job here. Don’t miss the gorgeous view and the frozen lime pie at Portofino’s restaurant. I’ve visited Mata Chica on several occasions, but I’d never before seen inside two-bedroom villas, and they are special. They would be my choice if I were staying at Mata Chica. I’m told that Philippe and Nadia are building several new houses nearby, which will be sold and then managed as vacation rentals when the owners aren’t in residence. Belizean Shores is still looking fine and dandy, and I like the casual, barefoot ambiance of SunDiver. I hear that, at last, maybe some good things are going to be happening at the former Avalon/Casa Caribe. Let’s hope that it works out. I got another tour of Journey’s End. Sad to say, it just doesn’t have the sparkle of some of the other resorts on the island.

I’m biased, but I believe San Pedro is unique, one of the truly original resort destinations in the region. I hear all these people talking about going to Cancun or Playa del Carmen, and I think, God, what do they see in those places? They’re packed with cruise ship daytrippers and jammed with American franchises. Is that what tourists want, to be somewhere that looks like a little Orlando with beaches? Why don’t they take a chance and try a place with a real personality? Like Ambergris Caye.

Lan Sluder has been banging around Belize for a dozen years. He’s the founder, editor and publisher of Belize First -- Web edition at www.belizefirst.com Sluder has written or co-written many books on the country, including Adapter Kit: Belize, San Pedro Cool, Fodor’s Belize & Guatemala Guide and Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize. Best Belize Hotels will be out soon.
_________________________
Lan Sluder/Belize First
http://www.belizefirst.com

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#71517 - 08/03/03 03:52 AM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Belize Honeymooner Offline
The Portofino was a beautiful resort, we stayed there last month for our honeymoon. Our only complaint is that the bed was the most uncomfortable thing we have ever slept upon. We were expecting more comfort for the price....but hey you can't have it all right. Other than that we had a wonderful honeymoon and fell in love with Belize. Shaggy and Malcom at Fido's were one of the first to welcome us to Belize and made us feel at home right away. The boat driver at Portofino, Moe was such a nice guy and helped us out alot while we were there. Our hearts are still there and we can not wait to go back. We were thinking of planning another trip back and staying in San Pedro, but we don't know if it will be just as amazing the second time or not....any advice on that? We don't want to distort the memory that we have of our wonderful amzing honeymoon....I hope that makes sense. The only thing I regret is not bringing back some Belikin beer. I wish that it could be purchased in the U.S. I am trying to figure out how to get some to surprise my husband......

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#71518 - 08/03/03 03:58 AM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
zeecube Offline
Thanks for the travelog. We chose Banyan Bay as our home base for our family's first trip to Belize (we leave in 3 days laugh ), and hope it is as beautiful as I have heard. One of the reasons (there are many) we're coming to Belize is because it is Not Cancun. (Nothing against Cancun, just not my thing).

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#71519 - 08/03/03 04:18 AM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Chloe Offline
Lan, once again I must say, love reading your tours in Belize, with all the good insight and information. Nah, never go to other parts of the world, stay on your Belize tours, where we all feel at home.
_________________________
Dare To Deviate

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#71520 - 08/03/03 12:57 PM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Denny Shane Offline
Excellent reports Lan... enjoyed reading them. You hit the nail on the head regarding many of the resorts and areas.
_________________________
http://notsonormalnews.blogspot.com/



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#71521 - 08/04/03 04:39 PM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Lan Sluder/Belize First Offline
A couple of corrections, from Peter Eltringham (Rough Guide to Belize):

* Paul Martin at Roaring River Golf Course is orgininally from South Africa, not Britain.

* Roaring River Lodge sadly is at least temporarily closed -- it closed a few days after I was there (no connection, I hope).

--Lan Sluder
_________________________
Lan Sluder/Belize First
http://www.belizefirst.com

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#71522 - 08/04/03 06:45 PM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Barbara K Offline
Excellent report, Lan. Thanks! I have PG on my list for my next trip down. Hope to meet you down there one of these trips!
_________________________
www.barbsbelize.com

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#71523 - 08/04/03 10:24 PM Re: Rambles Around Belize, Part 1
Everglades Offline
Hi Lan, a more detailed and informative overview of your trip could not be asked for. This is an excellent supplement to your Belize First-Guide To Mainland Belize. (with your permission I'd like to print this report out and keep it with my copy of the above mentioned book.)
I would like to point out one bit of information that is not correct however. You wrote the following:
"I understand the two-bedroom apartments at Corozal Bay Inn are in new hands".

Actually, the Corozal Bay Inn (suites) has not changed hands but is still owned and operated by the hard working couple, Doug and Maria Podzun. In fact they are in the process of building ten additional water front cabanas, complete with air conditioning. Additionally, they have recently installed an in ground pool. (not sure this is in operation just yet.) Thought you would like to know. George Forrest
_________________________
gforrest.imageculture.com

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