Rambles Around Belize
Reports and Opinions
By LAN SLUDER
Graphical Version with Photos at Belize First www.belizefirst.comBanging Around Belize
Iím not an old Belize hand like many of you, but Iíve been banging around Belize for going on 18 years. On my latest visit, in January and February, I put nearly 1,500 miles on a rental car and many rough miles on a golf cart, along with flying. The rental car this trip was a Toyota Prado diesel from Avis. It proved to be a pleasure to drive, even on rough roads. For the first time, diesel fuel prices in Belize and the U.S. are about the same.
My daughter, Rose, in between stints in Bolivia and Argentina, came along for the entire trip, and my son, Brooks, flew in from Harvard Yard for a few days of R&R in Placencia and Toledo.
Much of this visit was devoted to updating, revising and expanding Fodorís Belize
for 2009. For this, I stayed at almost 20 different hotels and toured scores of other ones. Most of these Iíd seen or stayed at before; a few were new to me. Fodorís Belize 2009
, published by Random House/Fodorís Travel, will be out in late summer of this year.
I didnít get everywhere I wanted to visit in Belize, but I did travel from the northern tip of the country Ė Corozal Town, Copper Bank, Sarteneja Ė to Orange Walk Town, Indian Church, Blue Creek and Gallon Jug, over to Belmopan, San Ignacio and the Mountain Pine Ridge, with some time in Belize City, and then down to Dangriga, Hopkins, Placencia and on to Toledo before going out to the cayes. I appreciate the gracious hospitality and friendship of so many Ė sometimes I think I know more people in Belize than in my home country of the USA Ė and I apologize for missing out on seeing other people and other places I should have seen. Maybe next time.
Iíd like to share with you a few of the things I saw and heard on my latest rambles around Belize.Whatís New? Tourism is Up Ö and Down:
As always, the well-run places with something unique to offer, such as Victoria House, Chan Chich, Hidden Valley Inn, Blancaneaux, Turtle Inn, Hamanasi, Jaguar Reef and Inn at Robertís Grove, were heavily booked and doing well. In January, many other places were slow. Thereís always a dip in January, but even so this dip was a little deeper than usual, and besides, with the high season so short this year (Easter is early), nobody can afford a slow month. February and March are much better for most places, but two or three months of strong bookings is not enough.
Whatís weíve got here, as the fellow says, is a failure to communicate. In my opinion, Belize is just not marketing itself and its hotels as it should. Maybe the new Belize Tourism Board and Tourism Ministry folks will do a better job than in the past. Resorts are too small to do the job on their own; Belize needs a better cooperative promotional strategy. There are too many new hotel rooms, especially new condotels and lodges. The pie is the same size, but itís being sliced thinner. Belize is not getting the new airlift it needs, especially not from Canada, the U.K. or Europe, and so far as I can tell the promises of new foreign air service will simply not materialize anytime soon. Finally, and I hate to say it because one of the things I love about Belize is its many small, owner-run inns and lodges, but Belize needs some international hotel brands Ė major flags that are recognized worldwide, that can help bring in new tourists and even new air service.Bunch of New Lodges in Cayo:
Several new moderate-level lodges that have opened around San Ignacio. A couple of others are under construction. I stayed at a couple of these (Mariposa Jungle Lodge and La Casa del Caballo Blanco) and visited most of the rest. I'm not sure how they're all going to make it, given the locations and the fact that some don't offer a real differential advantage, something unique in price, setting, service, food, activities, etc. compared to existing lodges in the area. There are several new lodges on the Cristo Rey Road on the way to or just beyond San Antonio village. These include Table Rock Lodge, Macaw Bank, Mango Walk and Mariposa. Of these, Table Rock and Mariposa are the more upscale. Mariposa is asking US$155 a night for lodging in attractive thatch cabanas, but food (over BZ$60 for dinner) is pretty expensive. On the Chiquibul Road (Mountain Pine Ridge Road) from Georgeville, Gumbo Limbo Village Resort opened a few months ago. I would say it offers more for less - nice new rooms (not thatch) for US$120 a night in-season, US$85 off, a swimming pool and decent prices at the restaurant. Up near Mountain Equestrian Trails is Moonracer Farm, which will have a unit or two, and near Macaw Bank will be a new lodge with a projected 20 cabanas. On the newly paved Bullet Tree Road, about 1 1/3 miles west of San Ignacio, is La Casa del Caballo Blanco (House of the White Horse, named after a horse belonging to the previous owner, which remains on the property). Though close to the road, the setting on a hill offers great views of San Ignacio, and the Unique Selling Proposition here is that it has a bird rehab center on-site. Though not a lodge, Kaíana Boutique Resort and Spa on the Benque Road just west of San Ignacio is an interesting experiment in upscale accommodations. The new owners, associated with Belize Natural Energy, have turned a failed roadside hotel into a charming top end property. Youíll enjoy it, but you wonít get out of here cheap; for example, a regular breakfast in the hotelís restaurant is US$20. The owners here are also planning to open a large new resort in Placencia, on the site of the old Luba Hati and some adjoining properties.Upscaling the Upscale:
As has been the case for years, Belize tourism is continuing to move upscale. Everybody is adding a swimming pool, or a second or third pool. For example, Blancaneaux just added a new infinity pool, to supplement their heated pool and several private splash pools. The Lodge at Chaa Creek is closing for a month in September to build a pool near the conference center. There are new spas everywhere, even if in name only. More places have fancy designer toiletries in the baths. Happily, there are still places that just offer good accommodations at a fair price. For example, Hickatee Cottages near Punta Gorda. Or Coral House Inn on the waterfront in PG. Or DíNest Inn in Belize City. Maxhapan Cabanas on Caulker. All of these have attractive rooms at prices in the US$65 to $85 range, or less. And, theyíre run by people who enjoy what theyíre doing, which makes a big difference.Impact of the U.S. Recession:
That the U.S. is now in recession is clear. Whatís not clear yet is what impact that will have on Belize. The link between the U.S. dollar and the Belize dollar is a plus, because for American tourists the weak U.S. dollar means little when they visit Belize. Americans will continue to visit Belize, though I donít think weíll see any growth in tourism in 2008 or 2009, and likely there will be some contraction in U.S. visits. Possibly this will be offset by increased tourism from Canada, Europe and Latin America, though without additional air service from these areas a significant increase is unlikely. The U.S. slowdown, however, certainly will impact real estate sales in Belize. Itís a fantasy to think that a recession, plus the housing bust in Belizeís largest supplier of property buyers wonít have a considerable impact on sales. Condomania Continues:
In the face of the U.S., Canadian and U.K. housing problems, developers in Belize continue to pour concrete for new condo developments, especially on Ambergris Caye and in Placencia. Theyíre also building bigger projects. For example, Grand Caribe on North Ambergris is doing 74 condo units, Las Terrazas (a project of the Journeyís End owners) is building 78 units in two phases, Placencia Resort has asked for approval to do 152 units just north of the Inn at Roberts Grove, and Bella Maya in Placencia with 60 units has finally opened (though 30 of the units are incomplete). The controversial Ara Macao in Placencia is going to build 50,000 units (or something ridiculous like that.) And the list goes on and on. Real estate agents and developers tell me that sales were pretty good until a few months ago, when they started slowing down, in some cases significantly. This obviously is the impact of the U.S. economic problems. My gut is that Belize is going to see a glut of condos over the next couple of years. Expect some bargains, much like what weíre seeing in Florida now, with discounts of 20% to 30% off the original asking prices. Hotel Highlights
Without exception, the places where I stayed this trip were delightful. If I had to single out a few spots, it would be these:
Blancaneaux Lodge ( Blancaneaux Lodge www.blancaneaux.com
) looks better than ever. It has a gorgeous new pool, where the croquet lawn used to be. Thereís also a new, dinner-by-reservation only, Guatemalteca restaurant next to the pool. The ďEnchanted CottageĒ is a lovely tile-roofed stone house that will open soon, a bit away from the main lodge grounds.
Chan Chich Lodge ( Chan Chich Lodge www.chanchich.com
). It had been several years since I was last at Chan Chich. All I can say is that the lodge has only gotten better under the management of Ben and Amanda Dodge, who before taking this assignment were teachers at a nearby village school. The new two-bedroom villa (complete with air-conditioning) is a nice addition for families or a two couples traveling together. Meals at the lodge are superb. The setting, as ever, is wonderful.
Inn at Robertís Grove ( Inn at Robert's Grove www.robertsgrove.com
) thrives by understanding what their guests want and by delivering it flawlessly. While I was enjoying luxurious beachside digs at Robertís Grove, owners Robert and Risa Frackman traveled to Belize City to accept the Belize Tourism Industry Associationís top honor Ė being named Hotel of the Year for 2008. Much deserved! This is truly one of the most enjoyable and best-run beach resorts in the region.
DíNest Inn ( D'Nest Inn www.dnestinn.com
) is the kind of place you wish Belize City, and indeed Belize, had more of. Itís well run, safe, fairly priced and very comfortable. You get little extras like a full breakfast, cable TV and free wireless. Gaby and Oty make their guests feel welcome, and itís no wonder DíNest Inn stays busy.
Brits Ian and Kate Morton opened Hickatee Cottages ( Hickatee Cottages www.hickatee.com
), located about a mile from PG, in 2005. This little lodge is living proof that you donít need to stay in a big, fancy resort at high prices to have a great vacation experience. Rates for the three cottage rooms, set in lush foliage, are an affordable US$70 to $85, plus hotel tax, and include airport transfer and continental breakfast. Thereís a small swimming pool Ė actually, more of a splash pool. Delicious meals made with fruits and vegetables from the owners' organic nurseries next door are available (dinner is around US$15). A special treat: On Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can go with Ian to visit the nearby Fallen Stones butterfly farm, which he manages. Fallen Stones is one of the largest commercial butterfly operations in Central America, and closed to the public, except for guests of Hickatee.
At Hidden Valley Inn ( Hidden Valley Inn www.hiddenvalleyinn
), guests in just 12 cottages have access to 7,200 private acres. Thatís perhaps 300 private acres per person, with miles of trails to explore and hidden waterfalls to discover. How cool is that? I first stayed at Hidden Valley years ago, when Mr. Bull Headley owned it. I didnít know him well but did break bread with him a time or two, and he was quite a colorful character. (His son still lives near the lodge.) The prominent Roe family of Belize City bought the lodge in 2001 and made many small but important improvements, including adding a gorgeous swimming pool. New in 2007 is an airstrip. The new GM, Flavien Daguise, appears to be doing an excellent job.
Azul Resort ( Azul Resort www.azulbelize.com
) about 5 miles north of San Pedro is in that rarified category of small resorts for those guests for whom, as itís said, money is no object. For a price, your every expectation is met: Thereís a gorgeous stretch of beach, a circular pool shared by just two beach villas. And what beach villas these are, with 3,000 sq. ft. of luxury and good design. They have flat-screen plasma TV, a projection TV to turn your villa into your own movie theater, and a Bose sound system. Beyond the electronics they have two luscious bedrooms with king beds with Egyptian cotton linens. They also have a private hot tub, day bed and dining area on the roof, with amazing views of the water. Of course, youíre just steps from perhaps the best restaurant in Belize, Rojo Lounge. You could wake up here and think you were in St. Barths, playground of multimillionaires and billionaires. Yet, I have to say that thereís a nice, down-to-earth touch at Azul. Nobodyís putting on airs. The ownersí sizable menagerie of dogs and cats seem to enjoy the place as much as the guests.
At Victoria House ( Victoria House www.victoria-house.com
) south of San Pedro, we stayed in one of the new condo villas, which are gorgeous. Victoria House is peaceful, serene, beautiful, everything that an island resort should be.
At Cotton Tree Lodge ( Cottontree Lodge www.cottontreelodge.com
) near Punta Gorda, you can play Tarzan and swing into the Moho River on a rope swing. Opened in late 2006, Cotton Tree is right beside the river about 15 miles from PG. Guests are usually brought in by boat, though you also come by road, and stay in one of 10 thatch cabaŮas set among wild fig trees along the river's edge. You walk around the property on raised walkways. Iíve not been there in the summer rainy season, when the Moho floods, but itís got to be an interesting experience, with the lodge grounds becoming a large lake, water lapping at the walkways. There are still some rough edges here, but I suspect it will make it, thanks to the dramatic riverside location.
Lots of improvements and changes have been going on at Portofino ( Portofino www.portofinobelize.com
) on North Ambergris, including the opening of a new circular swimming pool, with a footprint patterned after the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
La Casa del Caballo Blanco ( La Case del Caballo Blanco www.casacaballoblanco.com
) in San Ignacio, with its bird rehab and birding focus, may find its niche. The owners were away when I was there, but the friendly staff did a good job. And, as I say, the setting on a hill overlooking San Ignacio and nearby hills offers lovely views.
Mariposa Jungle Lodge ( Mariposa Jungle Lodge www.mariposajunglelodge.com
), near San Antonio village on the way to the Mountain Pine Ridge, was built by two attorneys who retired to the adventure of running a lodge. The cabanas are very attractive, and the owners provide personal attention and customized activities.Belizeís Best Eating
Restaurants in Belize keep getting better and better. Here are some of my most memorable meals from this visit. Riverside Tavern in Belize City has the best burgers in Belize. Period. The dining room isnít open to the public, but if you want a great breakfast in Belize City, I know where you can get it Ė at DíNest Inn. Oty is a great cook. In Corozal Town, I still love Pattiís Bistro and the Y Not Grill at Tonyís Inn (the fajitas are great, as is the bayside atmosphere), but the new RDís (aka RínDís) near Pattiís is also excellent. At the half dozen or so lodges where I stayed this trip, the best meal I had was at Chan Chich Lodge, and a close runner-up for best lodge meal was at Blancaneaux Lodge, where we had a wonderful dinner with the beautiful Anne Wood, who heads up Mr. Coppolaís growing hotel operations. In Placencia, the best meal I had was Ö at Tutti-Frutti. Start with a cup of banana gelato, then a double scoop cone of mango and coconut, and for dessert a scoop of tiramisu. Tutti-Frutti has moved up a few doors to the new center across from the Purple Space Monkey (where breakfast was excellent) and just in front of the new BTIA office. Tiziana and Laurentís authentic Italian ices are alone worth a special trip to Placencia. The Saturday poolside barbecue at Robertís Grove was fantastic, as usual. Maya Beach Hotel Bistro was bustling, and I like the expanded new menu at this charming spot, though I canít recommend the Lobster Shooter Ė sorry, Ellen and John, but I donít get off drinking lobster-flavored tequila! In Punta Gorda, I was happy to find out that an old favorite, Mangrove Inn, had reopened after an absence of several years, but this time on the second floor of Casa Bonita, up at Cattle Landing. Iconie Williams is still the culinary force behind it. The best meals of the entire trip were at Rojo Lounge, 5 miles north of San Pedro on North Ambergris. Oh, those crab cakes, those guava-glazed baby back ribs, that rich, thick hummus. Owners Jeff Speigel, a former punk rock record producer and self-taught chef, runs the back of the house, and Vivian Yu runs the front. The one place I wished I would never have to leave was breakfast next to the pool at Victoria House. With a view of the sea and the barrier reef, with a gentle breeze form the water, it was idyllic. The third timeís the charm for Capricorn. On its third set of owners, the restaurant has regained its sea legs and is again one of the top restaurants on the island. Reservations are essential. By chance, I was at Capricorn the day its original owners, Clarence and Annabel, held their grand opening party. Thereís also a lot of buzz about the new Blue Lotus, on what is being called the ďbaysideĒ of San Pedro. The word is that it has Indian food, top-flight service and a stunning setting.