Some notes from my current rambles around Belize:
• Picked up a rental car from my favorite car renter in Belize – a Suzuki Grand Vitara from Budget Belize. Excellent vehicle, almost new (just a few thousand kilometers), in tip-top condition.
• Had a nice stay at Almond Tree hotel in Corozal Town, and a delicious and inexpensive dinner of conch soup, conch ceviche and fajitas at Patti's Bistro. Looks like the new Corozal Art Gallery is going to be an asset to Corozal Town – grand opening is this Saturday.
• Spent a pleasant two days in Chetumal. The city is really growing. Generally clean, safe and lots of shopping at the mall, the new Walmart, Sam's Club and so on, plus the hundreds of local shops. Walked around the bayfront near the municipal pier where the boats leave for San Pedro (US$30) -- people out cleaning, sweeping and picking up trash, nobody hitting on you for money or selling drugs. What a contrast with Corozal Town or Belize City for that matter. By the way, if you can't take your car into Mexico I highly recommend Menzies for a no-hassle transfer between Corozal and Chetumal -- US$30 for up to four people. Takes about an hour depending on how busy the border is. Saves worrying with buses and/or taxis, smooths things through customs and immigration. Well worth it. You can park your car at Menzies’ place – he is starting to rent cars (but they can’t be taken into Mexico.)
• It was also great being back in Sarteneja. It's one of the truly unspoiled places in Belize. Sarteneja is the largest fishing village in Belize. The lobster boats were tied up off the bayfront., and I’m told that local shipbuilders do about five or six boats a year. We had whole fresh snapper for dinner (BZ$15) at Richie's and breakfast of chicken tacos, salbutes, garnaches and panadas from Liz Fast Food -- BZ$5 total for three people. Candelie's Seaside Cabanas are just as good as ever -- right on the water, ice cold A/C, sat TV, US$60 double. The Verdes (Jorge, Elvi, Carolie, Cande and the others) are fine people.
• Interesting to see that fruit and vegetable prices at the Belmopan market are mostly higher than those at the market in Corozal Town. Banana prices are the same, but prices for mango, papaya and quite a few other items seem to be higher than in Corozal. Would have though prices would be lower in Belmopan, except maybe for papaya, since a lot of them are grown in Corozal District.
• Had a great dinner at Maya Beach Hotel Bistro on the Placencia peninsula last night. Shrimp-stuffed squid, coconut shrimp, potato-encrusted snapper, rum & tonic. Today, very tasty conch fritters at Mango's of Maya Beach. Frank DaSilva (formerly of Robert's Grove) has the touch! Pretty good shrimp curry at Omar, top-flight smoothies at The Shak.
• Quite a few changes in Placencia since my last visit: some new McMansions at The Placencia (or as Barnacle Bill Taylor, the wit of Maya Beach, says, “modest single-family residences” … several new restaurants and shops in Placencia village … lots of small real estate developments (though not always a lot of sales) … Bella Maya still closed and a real mess in more ways than one. Very slow here at the hotels right now. Hopefully this will pick up soon. Boy, the new road is terrific!
• Quick and incomplete update on changes in Placencia:
-- Not much change yet at Robert’s Grove under the new management. Thatch on pier replaced, and pier repainted, some new lighting and some changes to the original pool next to the office, but otherwise any changes will come later. Many of the old staff have gone, especially at the top end. The hotel was very quiet when I was there, but then so were nearly all the hotels on the peninsula.
-- Most people that I talked with at hotels and restaurants say they had an excellent season, but that it really slowed down starting in May.
-- Placencia did very well in the BTB/BTIA awards just held at the Biltmore Plaza in Belize City (where I understand several hundred very well dressed tourism stakeholders were in attendance.) Maya Beach Hotel Bistro won Best Restaurant, Avedon Divers won Best Tour Operator, and Althea at Chabil Mar won Best Hotel Front Line Person.
-- Among restaurants, Maya Beach Hotel Bistro is still as good as ever – they richly deserved the BTB award. Frank Da Silva is doing a nice job at Mango’s. Rumfish y Vino, Danube and Dolce Vita are worth trying. French Connection is closed, and the owners back in Europe. There is a new casual restaurant/bar on the beach, Deviners, where La Trattoria used to be, run by Brits. At the cheaper end (though Placencia is pretty expensive) The Shak and Omar’s aren’t bad. Tutti Fruiti gelato is still fantastico!
-- There's not much going on at the new "international airport." A security guard is about all you see. The terminal buildings are about half complete, and there are huge piles of dirt. I guess there's some question about paving the runoff. Hard to say, but apparently this will be a "private" airport for The Placencia development, not a true public airport. Others say it will indeed be a public airport but able to handle only smallish jets. Who knows?
Likewise, some construction at the Copal Beach project, but nothing is anywhere near completion after over three years. The Placencia Residences continue to go up, though, and I understand all are sold.
• Hopkins is tooling right along. Quite a few new houses and other buildings going up in the village. Iris’ restaurant has been leased to I believe a South African couple – unclear yet what changes will be made. Taste of India has a sign up “Closed for two months” and no sign of life. Chef Rob’s, Innie’s and of course Barracuda Bar & Grill still among the top places to eat. However, Barracuda is closed in June (at least) for a major rebuild, and several other restaurants were closed temporarily due to the water being out in the village. Thongs is open but on a limited schedule. Among resorts Hamanasi is still doing its superb job, and at the mid-range you have the delightful All Seasons, Hopkins Inn and Jungle Jeanie’s.
• It’s a delight to be back at Hickatee Cottages in PG. Hickatee is such a wonderful small hotel or lodge. I can’t believe they have never won Small Hotel of the Year from the BTB. Nor for that matter can I understand why Marty has never won for his promotion of Belize. He's done more to promote Belize than the BTB! I’m sitting on the veranda now listening to the howler monkeys and sipping a rum and tonic. The Southern Highway of course is now completely paved, and prep work has started on the San Antonio Road to Guatemala.
• The rainy season is a bit tardy this year. Toledo had one 6” rain and a bit more, but not the heavy rains you normally see at the start of the seasonal rains. Hopkins and Placencia also have had a little wet but not much. The Kendal bridge is still open. Some work has been done on the access points to the new bridge but not to the bridge itself.
• It has been hot, hot, hot. In Corozal, Chetumal, Sarteneja, Hopkins, Placencia and elsewhere on the coast, the water has been calm with little or no breeze at times. PG has been stifling, though it does cool down a little at night and in the early morning, especially with rain.
• The seasonal rains have started in earnest in Toledo. Saturday night it must have rained 5 or 6 inches in PG, with 3 ½ inches in the first hour alone. I woke up to the heaviest rain I’ve heard in a long time, along with thunder and lightning. But the rain was lovely, cooling things down and promising that everything would soon be green.
• There is quite a bit of local controversy about the new road from the Dump to the Guatemala border. Preparation of the roadway has begun, and a huge quarry is operating near the junction with the road to San Pedro Columbia. Some local people are glad to see the new infrastructure, which will open up southern Belize to tourists and entrepreneurs from Guatemala. Others worry about “bad elements” from Guatemala coming in (as if they didn’t already). A few budget hotel owners and the water taxi owners fear that the backpacker traffic from Belize to Guatemala via the water taxis will stop, and it probably will. But overall I think tourism in Toledo, and also general commerce, will benefit greatly from a legal southern border crossing between Guatemala and Belize.
• The restaurant situation in PG is about the same as usual – not a lot of choices and several of the restaurants tend to have limited hours, especially in the summer. Mangrove Inn (most dishes around BZ$15-18, and it’s BYOB now) is probably the best all-around choice, along with Marian’s Bayside. Earth Runnin’s has pretty good food, though service can be slow and “quirky.” Gomier’s is often not open. Emery’s of course has been closed for a while. Grace’s and El Café are still an option for breakfast. Olympic Grill has spruced up a bit. The Bamboo Chicken is a new and very popular bar on the bayfront on Front Street – nice sea breeze, cold beer and light bar snacks.
• Hotels Smotels in PG! Same old same old, except for one interesting new choice – Sirmoor Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast, off New Road. It’s a 100+ year-old colonial house, beautifully restored, with a guest suite of two bedrooms and a bath. The owners have a large farm (Brahman cattle, teak and more), and the setting of the home, on a knoll that catches the breezes, is absolutely stunning. More later on this new jewel. Machacha Hill has another new manager, and another new plan to make this project work. Thank goodness the absentee owner has lots of money. The rooms have been upgraded, but the old blue zinc roofs and cabin exteriors are the same as when the hotel was built as a fishing lodge for rich old white guys. You’re paying many hundreds of dollars a night, and the first thing you see is the beat-up old exteriors. Of the 12 cottages, 10 still "air condition" the jungle due to the layout of the verandas. Hickatee Cottages and Coral House Inn are as good as ever. Hickatee now has six cabins (or soon will), and Coral House is looking fantastic. In the budget end, Tate’s is the way to go.
• Driving up from PG to San Ignacio on Sunday, I stopped at Sanctuary Belize (formerly Sanctuary Bay). The entrance road had been scraped though it was muddy and sloppy in places after rain overnight. Got to the office, and it was locked tight. I didn’t see much new since my last visit two or three years ago, but there were six or eight pickups parked at the office and a new entrance bridge and guard box are being built at the entrance to the marina road. Didn't drive down the marina road to where the construction is going on, due to barricades at the gate.
• Stopped at the new Corker’s restaurant in San Belmopan and had an excellent cheeseburger – along with Riverside Inn in Belize City and Legends in San Pedro, this is one of Belize’s best burgers. I was also happy to see drink prices were reasonable – a Jack Daniels, for example, is BZ$6 and it’s two-for-one at happy hour 3 to 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Two Jack Blacks for US$3 is an unbeatable deal.
• I didn’t have reservations for my first night in San Ignacio, so I figured I would get a room at Cahal Pech Village. I was shocked to be told that there was only one room available tonight (and that one didn’t fit our needs) and that tomorrow and for the next several days all 30 rooms at the hotel were sold out. Nothing special going on, I was told, just having a good month. At least some hotels in Belize get it that moderate rates and attractive accommodations bring in guests. I did get a room at San Ignacio Resort Hotel, at twice the Cahal Pech rate. Other hotels also had availabilities, but my daughter wasn’t feeling up to par, so I grabbed one of the upgraded rooms at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, which are very pleasant but not a bargain, even with a little off-season discount.
• It did rain some Sunday night in San Ignacio, and also Monday morning.
Note: These are just rough notes, not final copy.