MORE RAMBLES

AROUND BELIZE

2005-2006-2008

By LAN SLUDER

© Copyright 2005, 2006, 2008 by Lan Sluder

Rambles Around Belize

2008

Reports and Opinions

By LAN SLUDER

Banging Around Belize

I’m not an old Belize hand like many of you, but I’ve 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 Fodor’s Belize for 2009.  For this, I stayed at almost 20 different hotels and toured scores of other ones.  Most of these I’d seen or stayed at before; a few were new to me.  Fodor’s Belize 2009, published by Random House/Fodor’s Travel, will be out in late summer of this year.

I didn’t get everywhere I wanted to visit in Belize, but I did travel from the northern tip of the country  – Corozal Town, Copper Bank, Sarteneja – 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 – sometimes I think I know more people in Belize than in my home country of the USA – and I apologize for missing out on seeing other people and other places I should have seen.  Maybe next time.

I’d like to share with you a few of the things I saw and heard on my latest rambles around Belize.

What’s New?

Tourism is Up … 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 Robert’s Grove, were heavily booked and doing well.  In January, many other places were slow.  There’s 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. 

What’s we’ve 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 it’s 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 – 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, Ka’ana 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.  You’ll enjoy it, but you won’t get out of here cheap; for example, a regular breakfast in the hotel’s 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 D’Nest 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, they’re run by people who enjoy what they’re doing, which makes a big difference.

Impact of the U.S. Recession:  That the U.S. is now in recession is clear.  What’s 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 don’t think we’ll 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.  It’s a fantasy to think that a recession, plus the housing bust in Belize’s largest supplier of property buyers won’t 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.  They’re also building bigger projects.  For example, Grand Caribe on North Ambergris is doing 74 condo units, Las Terrazas (a project of the Journey’s 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 we’re 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 (www.blancaneaux.com) looks better than ever.  It has a gorgeous new pool, where the croquet lawn used to be.  There’s also a new, dinner-by-reservation only, Guatemalteca restaurant next to the pool. The “Enchanted Cottage” is a lovely tile-roofed stone house that will open soon, a bit away from the main lodge grounds.

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 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 Robert’s Grove, owners Robert and Risa Frackman traveled to Belize City to accept the Belize Tourism Industry Association’s top honor – 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.

D’Nest Inn (www.dnestinn.com) is the kind of place you wish Belize City, and indeed Belize, had more of.  It’s 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 it’s no wonder D’Nest Inn stays busy.

Brits Ian and Kate Morton opened Hickatee Cottages (www.hickatee.com), located about a mile from PG, in 2005. This little lodge is living proof that you don’t 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. There’s a small swimming pool – 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  (www.hiddenvalleyinn), guests in just 12 cottages have access to 7,200 private acres.  That’s 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 didn’t 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 (www.azulbelize.com) about 5 miles north of San Pedro is in that rarified category of small resorts for those guests for whom, as it’s said, money is no object.   For a price, your every expectation is met:  There’s 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, you’re 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 there’s a nice, down-to-earth touch at Azul.  Nobody’s putting on airs.  The owners’ sizable menagerie of dogs and cats seem to enjoy the place as much as the guests. 

At 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 (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 cabañas set among wild fig trees along the river's edge. You walk around the property on raised walkways. I’ve not been there in the summer rainy season, when the Moho floods, but it’s 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.

La Casa 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 (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.

Belize’s 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 isn’t open to the public, but if you want a great breakfast in Belize City, I know where you can get it – at D’Nest Inn.   Oty is a great cook.  In Corozal Town, I still love Patti’s Bistro and the Y Not Grill at Tony’s Inn (the fajitas are great, as is the bayside atmosphere), but the new RD’s (aka R’nD’s) near Patti’s 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. Coppola’s growing hotel operations.   In Placencia, the best meal I had was … 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 Laurent’s authentic Italian ices are alone worth a special trip to Placencia.  The Saturday poolside barbecue at Robert’s Grove was fantastic, as usual.  Maya Beach Hotel Bistro was bustling, and I like the expanded new menu at this charming spot, though I can’t recommend the Lobster Shooter – sorry, Ellen and John, but I don’t 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 time’s 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.  There’s also a lot of buzz about the new Blue Lotus, on what is being called the “bayside” of San Pedro.  The word is that it has Indian food, top-flight service and a stunning setting.

Up-and-Coming Sarteneja

We arrived by car in Sarteneja on a rainy, cold day.  A norther had swept in, causing heavy rains and chilled temps.  For a while, I put on a cotton sweater.  But when the sun came out, the little village of Sarteneja came to life.   Kids play on the dirt streets or swim off the docks.  Villagers hang out on the porches or yards of small, plain, but well-maintained houses, speaking Spanish, or stroll down for a cheap bite to eat at Robie’s.

This is Belize like it used to be.  Safe.  Friendly.  Inexpensive.  A picturesque setting on the water. 

There’s not much to see or do here, except for the Shipstern Reserve.  The crocodile crèche has closed, due to the death of its founder, and the baby crocs have been released.  Sarteneja is a place just to hang and maybe finish that novel you’ve been working on.

Sarteneja has only a few small guesthouses, a handful of restaurants.   We stayed this trip at Candalie’s Sunset Cabañas (email candaliescabanas@yahoo.com), next door to Krisami’s Guesthouse and owned by members of the same family.  For value and comfort, you can’t beat Candalie’s.  A roomy cottage, perched just a few feet from the sea, with cable TV and A/C, is only US$40 double.  The owner of Fernando’s Guesthouse, down the street also on the water, has done some upgrading of the rooms there.   Backpackers Paradise (www.cabansbelize.com) has funky little cabins for budget-minded travelers.  The double beds take up almost all the space, and the baths are outside and shared, but they’re a deal at US$10 double.  The owners are a Canadian-Swiss couple.

In my opinion, Sarteneja is Belize’s next Hopkins.  It’s already attracting attention from real estate buyers.  The only thing that’s holding it back is that it still takes a little effort to get there.  The route from Corozal Town is a little faster these days, now that there is a second hand-pulled ferry over Laguna Seca, but it’s still a long sloshy drive, especially after rains.  There are several buses a day from Orange Walk Town, and one from Chetumal and Corozal Town.  Tropic Air has a scheduled flight (if there’s demand) to Sarteneja’s airstrip, and the twice-daily Thunderbolt water taxi between San Pedro and Corozal Town stops, on request, at Sarteneja.  You can also take a skiff from Chetumal to Sarteneja, and have your passport stamped at the police station.

Tiny’s is the new Internet café in Sarteneja.

PG Is Peachy

Peaches may not grow in Toledo, but nonetheless Punta Gorda is peachy.  The town has such a lovely waterside setting, comparable to Corozal Town.  It’s small, it’s friendly, it’s safe, it’s pretty. There’s so much to do around Toledo – caving, hiking, visiting the many Maya sites – and offshore, where the permit and other fishing is world-class, and where the reefs and water are virtually pristine.  It’s a shame more visitors don’t come down and discover it.

Blue Belize Guest House (www.bluebelize.com) is a welcome new addition to the list of PG hotels.  It has views of the water, and rates are an affordable US$55 (plus 9% hotel tax) for a double.  There’s also a new small guesthouse on Front Street next to Beya Suites.  It’s called Tropics Inn B&B, but it was never open when I went by.  Another guesthouse is opening in town soon.  If you can believe it, it combines guest rooms and a pit bull kennel.  Yeah.

My favorite hotel in PG proper is Coral House Inn (www.coralhouseinn.net)  You’ll recognize it by the vintage VW van parked in front. Americans Rick and Darla Mallory renovated this 1938 British colonial-era house and turned it into one of the best small guesthouses in the country. It's near the sea at the end of Front Street.  The four guest rooms – rates US$82.50 to $100 -- have tile floors, excellent beds, A/C and Wi-Fi.  There's a small pool, recently upgraded. Breakfast is included in rates.  The owners also manage a nearby, newly renovated private rental home, available for US$100 to $125 nightly, depending on length of stay, plus tax. 

For those driving down, work on preparing the last 9 miles of the Southern Highway for paving has actually begun.

Don’t Cry for Me, Placencia

Those of us who have been going to Placencia for 15 or 20 years, who remember when the peninsula was a little bit of the South Pacific in Central America, the changes in Placencia are disconcerting.  Everybody and his brother have plans to build condos or sell building lots.  But, with the best beaches on the mainland, it had to happen.  I just hope that development occurs with sensible, long-range planning for reliable infrastructure, building codes and restrictions, tasteful signage rules and limitations on how the lagoon and sea beaches can be developed.

A model for this is Stewart Krohn’s Coco Plum development.  It’s a blueprint for what a well-conceived and well-executed development should be.   The paved roads are amazing.  There are only a few houses built there as of now.  Katie Valk (www.belize-trips.com) just moved into her stunning new beachfront house, and Krohn has a new house farther inland.

Unfortunately, on most of the peninsula I don’t see this kind of project being repeated. There is a hodge-podge of development.  There is no master plan.  It’s a free enterprise free-for-all.

As to the infamous Placencia road, every year the word is “we’ve got the money, we’re letting bids, work will start later this year.”  Yep, that’s the word again in 2008.  Maybe it will actually happen this year.  But don’t hold your breath.

San Pedro Sizzles

I’ve written a guidebook to San Pedro and have been reporting on Ambergris Caye for 15 years, but I can’t keep up with all the changes on the island.  New condos are going up everywhere you look.  Dear old Front Street and also Coconut Drive, down to Victoria House, is now paved with concrete cobblestones down.  There’s a brand new gas station south of town – a gas station, just like in the ‘burbs!  Driving past the airstrip and the high dark walls Ramon’s Village has put up to shield the resort from street noise and up the drive, the traffic is terrible, and I feel like I’m in the middle of a concrete canyon.

But there’s an energy in San Pedro that’s missing in most other tourist destinations in Belize.  Every block there’s a new shop or a new bar or a new restaurant.  Not everything works, but a lot of people are making money. 

Handicap Access

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m not as young as I used to be.  (I know it surprises me.)  Neither am I exactly a poster child for the South Beach Diet. 

On the positive side, this gives me a new insight into the issues of handicap access in Belize.  On this trip, touring hotels and moving from one hotel to another every day or so, it seems like I spent half my time climbing up and down stairs.  Steep stairs.  Stairs up four or five stories, in some cases.  Steps up the side of hills.  “Easy” hiking trails that rise and fall hundreds of feet in a mile or so.  Boats that dock three feet below the level of the pier.  Little airplanes that require you to bend double to get down the aisle.

The fact is, most of Belize simply isn’t accessible for people with limited mobility.  Or just for those of us who aren’t as spry as we used to be. 

Hotels almost invariably are built elevated from ground level.  Walkways at jungle lodges or even at regular hotels are cobblestone or rough boards or loose gravel.  Often the best rooms, those with the views, are on the top floors, up several flights of stairs. 

I can count the number of hotels in Belize with handicap-accessible rooms on the arthritic fingers of one hand – Calico Jack’s in Placencia, the original SunBreeze in San Pedro, Hok’ol K’in in Corozal Town, and maybe a couple of others.  Aside from elevators in the high-rise hotels in Belize City, the Radisson Fort George, Renaissance Tower and the Princess, and the little one at Corona del Mar in San Pedro, here are almost no elevators anywhere in the country. 

Even the new condo developments in Placencia and Ambergris Caye are going up two, three or four stories without elevators.  (Surely, developers will figure out the average buyer of a US$600,000 condo is not going to be a 20-something marathon runner, but more like a retired couple with a hip replacement or two?)

I understand the problems of building in a hurricane- and flood-prone environment, on sand, on remote hillsides.  I realize there are no laws requiring access for those with less than perfect mobility.

In today’s world of aging Baby Boomers with bum knees, though, there’s a market for hotels and condos with easy access.  Somebody is going to figure out that wide doors, access ramps and elevators sell.  (In one of the guidebooks I write, Fodor’s Belize, a standard requirement now is to state whether or a not a listed hotel has an elevator.)  Even if it’s not mandated by law, it can make good economic sense to make new construction in Belize accessible to everyone.

Election:  Fi U, Fi Me, Fi All o We

My rambles around Belize coincided with the run-up to the general election, and to the election itself on February 7, which saw the United Democratic Party sweep back into power, winning 25 of 31 House seats.  As I’m not a Belizean citizen, I stay out of Belizean politics, but I have to congratulate Belize and all Belizeans on the election.  It was peaceful, fair, well run and as full of political vim and vigor as any election I’ve ever seen.  This was an election run by and for Belizeans – no need for a bunch of outside political consultants.  It’s a sign that Belizean democracy has matured.  Almost three-fourths of registered voters participated, an involvement rate that Americans and many others should envy.

As I traveled around Belize before the election talking to both Belizeans and expats, I did hear a lot of nonsense – about how it was going to be a close race, about what the PUP would do or the UDP would do, about how violence would rip through the country after the election.  But one guy who had it all figured out was Stewart Krohn of Channel 5 TV.  Three weeks before the election, over dinner one night, he quietly explained what would happen in the election.  He said flatly that the PUP at most might win six or seven seats, and he was dead right.  Hey, Stewart has his own Wikipedia entry – I’m impressed!

I can only hope that the U.S. presidential election turns out half as well.  George W. Bush and his incompetent pals have done their pathetic best to destroy the economy, the military, the moral power and the great democratic traditions of America.  After near eight years of Bush-Cheney, the dollar is the world’s 98-pound weakling, the trade and budget deficits are at historical highs, the housing and credit markets are in tatters, the stock market is tanking, the economy has entered a scary recession, we’re in an energy crisis, we’re trapped in an endless three trillion dollar war, and most of the six billion people in the world are disgusted with the U.S.  Bush doubtless will rank with Buchanan and Harding as the worst president in U.S. history.

Trip Advisor:  Power and Problems

Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) has become a force in the hospitality industry.  A series of top reviews of a hotel can boost its occupancy considerably; several bad reviews can really hurt it.

While Trip Advisor is a great resource for travelers, there are problems with it.  It’s no secret that some, perhaps many, of the reviews are spiked.  Some glowing reviews are put by the hotel owner or by friends of the owner.  Hotel operators take pains to encourage happy guests to post reviews, which skews the statistics.  Owners of units in condotels juice their investment by posting anonymous glowing reviews.  On the other side of the coin, some negative reviews are posted by competitors.  Sometimes, a bad review is just the way a vindictive guest has of getting back at a hotel that didn’t live up to perhaps unrealistic expectations.

But aside from these issues, you have to take some of the reviews with a grain of salt.  Many are extremely detailed and helpful.  But others show a total lack of knowledge about the area.  If anything, many of the reviews are overly positive.  Guests ooh and aah over the view of the barrier reef, say, or the fact that the hotel puts decorative flowers on the bed.  The reviewer may not know that scores of hotels in Belize put fresh flowers out (it’s still a nice touch, of course), and that nearly all the resorts on the northern cayes have views of the reef.  But it’s the lack of comparative knowledge and lack of context that makes many of the reviews less valuable than they otherwise would be. 

Look at the hotel properties that are currently (the popularity index does change frequently) listed as the “most popular” on Ambergris Caye.  The top three in “specialty lodging” of 17 properties are, in this order, Pedro’s Inn, Belize Tradewinds Paradise Villas, and The Palms condotel.  Wow, what a group!  I don’t know what “specialty lodging” actually is, but I can’t imagine comparing Pedro’s and The Palms. 

In a different category, of Ambergris Caye’s 45 hotels reviewed, White Sands Cove and Xanadu both receive # 1 ratings for popularity.   Not sure how that’s possible, as they’re not shown as tied, just both # 1.  Not to be picky, but why wouldn’t Paradise Villas, The Palms, Xanadu and White Sands Cove all be in the same category?  They’re all properties that have individually owned condo units, managed by a management company.   Both White Sands Cove and Xanadu are excellent, well-run properties, but if you were betting on the “most popular” hotel on the entire island, would you say it was White Sands Cove?  In Trip Advisor’s Ambergris Caye B&B category, Salamander Hideaway, Caye Casa, Blue Tang Inn, Changes in Latitudes and Turtleman’s House are the five listed B&Bs.  Huh? 

Bottom line for me:  Trip Advisor is a powerful tool, but it is run by people who know almost nothing about hotels in Belize or how to group them.  The reviewing process is inherently skewed by competing commercial interests and by the self-selected nature of the reviewers.  As more and more people do reviews, Trip Advisor will become more valuable and reliable.  You can throw out the very negative and very positive reviews, along with the obviously naïve ones, and get a good feel for the sense of the majority of guests.  But judging hotels based on a handful of reviews (most Caye Caulker hotels, for example, have fewer than 10 reviews and three of 18 hotels listed have only one review each) is not necessarily a good idea.

Andy Palacio

I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at the outpouring of feeling of so many Belizeans at the untimely death of Andy Palacio.  Thousands came out to mourn him, and at his funeral the population of Barranco probably tripled.

Helicopters

Astrum Helicopters (www.astrumhelicopters.com), based at the Cisco Yard at Mile 3 ½ of the Western Highway, is run by a hard-working family from Guatemala.  They are making this business work, offering transfers to resorts like Cayo Espanto and Azul Resort (US$1,200 to $2,250 for four to six people), real estate tours, and sightseeing tours for cruise ship passengers and tourists.  They operate dependable Bell 206 equipment, including a new 7-place Bell 206 L Long Ranger.

Value Rant

Pardon me while I rant for a moment on the problem of value in Belize tourism.  Belize has a reputation, partly undeserved and partly deserved, for being an expensive destination.

Belize has many great tourism buys.  I’ve mentioned a few in this Ramble – places like Candalie’s Seaside Cabanas in Sarteneja, where a big cottage with A/C and cable TV is just US$40 for two. Or many of the budget hotels and B&Bs you’ll find in Caye Caulker, Placencia, Belize City, Corozal Town, Orange Walk Town or downtown San Ignacio.  Or little local restaurants, such as Patti’s Bistro in Corozal Town or Anijitos Santelmo on Ambergris Caye, where you can get a tasty full meal for a few bucks.

But to prospective visitors and to those who come to Belize, some costs stand out like an ugly sore thumb.  Examples:  US$200 for a one-way transfer from Belize City to Cayo.  Sure, it’s for up to four people, which on a per-person basis isn’t bad, but the fact is that most come to Belize as a couple, so they’re pay US$200 round-trip just to get to a lodge. 

Or the jungle lodge that charges US$35 to $40 for dinner, plus 10% service and maybe 10% tax.  The dinner might be great, or it might be mediocre.  The guest without a rental car really doesn’t have an option, and so feels ripped off.  The guest-focused lodge would provide an alternative, much as concessionaires at U.S. national parks do, with a snack bar or other less expensive option for those that don’t want to pay US$100 a couple for dinner and drinks.

Too many Belize hotel owners figure if they’re not making money, they’ve got to raise rates and prices.  Every year, I look at hotel prices, and rates at many spots go up 5, 10 or 15%.  The operators complain about the high cost of food, the high cost of gas, the burden of social security taxes.  So, start your own organic gardens and get a hybrid that gets 50 miles per gallon.  Belize labor costs are still dirt cheap compared with the developed world, so don’t complain about that.

For too long, when the question is value, the answer has been to raise prices instead of finding a way to cut costs and to become more competitive.  The result is Belize’s current reputation as the most expensive destination in the region.  Increasingly, even in comparison with the U.S. and Canada, Belize is seen as expensive.  Hotel rates, meals, gas, groceries and car rentals are viewed as MORE EXPENSIVE than in the average U.S. destination.  That, my friend, is not good!

On the other side of the coin, if a hotel operator can’t or won’t cut rates, at least he or she should try to offer a real differential advantage.  Too many Belize properties are “just good enough.”  They don’t offer something unique and special, in place, people, price or product that is totally superior to that the guest can get anywhere else.  Chan Chich, to use an obvious example, is expensive, yet due to its location, its setting, its unique style, its unmatched birding and animal spotting, guests feel they get value for the money.

Wild Creatures in Cages

I finally had a chance to see Croc-O-Dile Isle, which is a few miles off the Southern Highway, on a dirt road near Silk Grass village.  Although I had a pleasant meal at the Snap Jaws restaurant there, I was a little taken aback by the crocodile displays. The whole place reminded me a little of some roadside alligator zoo in 1950s Florida.  A few pathetic-looking small crocs lay in the sun in small ponds of muddy water.  I don’t recommend it.

In late January, I also stopped at Indian Creek Lodge and met Ken Karas, who runs this and the other Belize Lodge and Excursions’ three lodges in Toledo.  That’s another story, but Mr. Karas did show me Balaam Na, which means “House of the Jaguar” in K'etchi Maya.  It is about a 10-minute drive from Indian Creek.  Balaam Na has attractive, upscale suites in a lodge that is built over a fenced enclosure where, I was told, two jaguars would be placed. The idea is that guests can look down from their suites or the raised walkway and see the jaguars.   When I was there construction was still going on in at least one of the suites.  Supposedly, according to the web site, this place has been open for a while, but it obviously wasn't open when I visited. 

When we finished the Balaam Na tour Ken Karas asked if my daughter and I wanted to see the two jaguars.  We said yes.  The jaguars, beautiful young males, one black and one spotted, are being kept in a small cage at Indian Creek Lodge.  So far as I can see, they have no place to exercise, no way to be out in the open.   Now, I understand the idea is that at some point they will be put in the fenced enclosure at Balaam Na.  When I don't know.  But even to be kept in such a cage for a few weeks or few months -- I have no idea how long they've been in there, but it hasn't been just a few days -- is disturbing. 

Lan Sluder is the author of more than half a dozen books on Belize, including Fodor’s Belize, Living Abroad in Belize and San Pedro Cool.  He also has done other travel guides for Frommer’s and Fodor’s.  His travel articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including Caribbean Travel and Life, The New York Times, Where to Retire, Globe & Mail, and the Chicago Tribune.  He founded Belize First Magazine, now available as a free Internet magazine at www.belizefirst.com.   Sluder can be reached at lansluder@gmail.com.

 

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Times They Are A'Changing Here are some of the changes I’ve seen in 2005 and 2006:

Invasion of the Boomer Snatchers We've been talking about it for years:  How the wave of retiring Baby Boomers - the first of us hit 60 in 2006 - will flood the warmer climes with bazillions of young codgers waving cash and looking for a bit of tropical real estate.  I pooh-poohed that for years, but it's finally, actually happening.  In Belize, they've just about bought up the affordable seafront land, and now they're plopping down deposits in developments like Progresso Heights and Cerros Sands in Corozal, Sanctuary Bay near Hopkins, Coco Plum on the Placencia peninsula, and others.   Whether they'll end up staying and building or buying, or, faced with the frustrations of daily life in a developing country, head back to St. Petersburg with tails between their legs, it's probably too soon to tell. If the Belize Experience pattern were to hold true, the developers who are building all these fancy subdivisions, condos, and timeshares for the Boomer Snatchers will end up broke and out of business.  Yet, maybe this time things are different.  If the Boomers really end up coming to Belize en masse, enough of them will stick it out, and the developers will end up doing okay at last.

TOURISM FOLKS SINGING THE BLUES

“September and October are always bad, but it’s been a long time since it was this bad.”

 “We had a record June, but then things went south in July – it wasn’t this bad after the hurricanes.”

 “Everything looked great … until July and August.”

“August, September and October were really slow. November hasn’t picked up much.”

Those are just some of the comments I heard from hotel, lodge and resort owners around Cayo, Placencia, Corozal, Belize City and San Pedro.   Almost everyone I talked with said the same thing: The first half of the year was excellent, but in the early summer the bottom fell out.

Tourism operators have various explanations: 

The bandit incidents in Cayo of course had a major impact there, but they spilled over into other areas, including Placencia.  First-timers to Belize don’t really have a good grasp of Belize geography, so if they hear of crime in one area they may decide to cancel or postpone a trip to anywhere in the country.  One lodge owner said they lost US$150,000 in cancellations, so they were ready and willing to contribute to the fund to get the Guatemalans responsible out of Guate and into a Belizean jail.

The U.S. Department of State travel advisory that remains in effect clearly is hurting business.  You can see the advisory, posted July 18, 2006, at http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1055.html

I’m told that a meeting set up with the U.S. embassy in Belize to discuss this didn’t come off because representatives from the Belize Tourism Board didn’t show up.

Others thought that the election in the U.S. might have kept some Americans at home.  Some ascribed the problem to lack of European tourists -- Europeans hate to have to go through the U.S. to get to their final destination.  Still others think the residual fear of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and Britain has an impact on international travel.  Some think that rate increases at hotels and the general increase in prices in Belize, in part due to the GST, play a role.  A few said they thought the increase in the number of condos in Placencia and on Ambergris Caye was hurting hotel and restaurant business, as owners now stay in their condos and prepare meals there.

Probably it’s a combination of reasons, but personally I think the biggest cause is the perception of crime, and the cautionary advisory about the Cayo bandit incidents and other crime in Belize posted since July on the U.S. Department of State web site.

The good news:  Bookings for the Christmas season seem excellent everywhere.  Most hotels report good, though not record, bookings for the rest of the high season.

As always, some hotels are doing well even as others struggle.  When I was in Placencia in mid-November, Turtle Inn was 100% booked and the larger Robert’s Grove was about 75% full.  Victoria House in San Pedro was bustling with guests, especially in the gorgeous new villas section, and places like Banana Beach in San Pedro also were doing a good business.  At the more modest end of the scale, Martha’s Guesthouse in San Ignacio said its new annex was already 100% booked for January through April.

IS CONDO BUBBLE ABOUT TO BURST?

Anyone who returns to Placencia or San Pedro after being away for a year or so will be amazed by the number of condominiums going up.  More than 500 condo units are currently under construction on North Ambergris Caye alone.  Reef Village, Las Terrazas, The Phoenix. Pelican Reef, Grand Caribe, Mirador, Belize Legacy and Blue Reef are just a few among the many projects currently under way on the island.  The Placencia peninsula, as I reported in my last Rambles, has some 1,500 units either under construction or planned.  I don’t expect all of the Placencia condos to actually get built, but from the talk you hear San Pedro is going to get dozens of more projects in the next year or two.  Hopkins is also getting a wave of new condos.  Even Caye Caulker is getting a couple.

Developers are doing business plans and projections on the backs of envelopes, and the excavators and dump trucks are running full out.

To me, it looks like a classic bubble that’s about to burst.  Already, I’m hearing about condo projects that are hitting up their owners for extra bucks, special assessments and higher monthly maintenance fees just to keep things afloat.  I think many of the condos will sell, and some have been pre-sold, but not many owners plan to live in Belize full time.  Most will use the units just a few weeks a year.  The owners are buying on the expectations of getting cash from the management company for their share of rental fees from the rental pool.  But unless Belize gets a lot more tourist boots on the beach, these condos are going stay empty much of the time, and the owners can take the rental income projections with a grain of salt.

I’m also hearing about some serious softening in prices.  Units that were going to sell for six hundred grand are now available for $395K, and when you look at the listings in the windows of real estate offices you’ll see a lot of markdowns.  Yet, in my op, they’re still overpriced on any rational ROI basis, though in the long run the owners may get price appreciation, especially on beachfront property.

New condo buyers are hit with the 10% GST and 5% stamp duty upfront, so a buyer of a US$300,000 condo has to fork up US$45,000 in cash on top of that.  The real estate guys say that doesn’t have a big impact on sales.  Yeah, right -- the average middle class family has US$45K in cash laying around that they’re just going to hand over to the Belize government to give away to its pals and cronies.

Mark my words:  Look for a fire sale on condos in the next couple of years.  And if you’re buying a condo, don’t book on paying the mortgage with income from the rental pool for a while.

 

PRICE/VALUE ISSUES

Belize has a reputation as the most expensive destination in Central America, but you can still find some excellent values in Belize, both in travel and in real estate.  In fact, in many cases it is actually cheaper to travel or live in Belize – at a level of health, hygiene and amenities that are acceptable to most Americans or Canadians – than in some other countries in the region.  Sure, you can travel or live cheaper in Nicaragua or Guatemala than in Belize, but you’re living or traveling on a different level than in Belize. 

Corozal Town, for instance, remains a good value.  You can get a hotel room in a new or completely renovated hotel for 40 to 60 bucks, complete with a new bed, A/C and cable TV.  You can get a delicious dinner for under US$10.  Real estate is also still affordably priced.  You can rent a nice house for US$250 to $600 a month, and buy a building lot for around US$15,000 to $25,000 or an attractive, modern house for US$100,000 to $200,000.

Cayo, Toledo and Caye Caulker in many ways offer similar value for the money.

However, I’m seeing more hotels, resorts and lodges that are raising their rates by 20% or 30% or 40% or more.  Places that use to cost US$150 are now $300, and some are getting up into stratospheric rate territory, US$400 to $800 a night.  Simple breakfasts at hotels often are US$10 or $12, dinners $30 or more. The average tour is now approaching $100 or more per person, and many are twice that.  Hotels try to hit you up for US$10 to $15 for internet access, I was at a modest restaurant in San Pedro, the kind where you sit on stools, the other night and the dinner special was BZ$65.  In a grocery, a fifth of One Barrel was US$12 and Belikin was near US$10 for six bottles.  A car rental costs US$90 a day, plus 10% tax and various other charges, and gas is still near $5 a gallon.

Many visitors can pay those rates, but it’s also the case that the vast majority of Americans and Canadians, and presumably Europeans as well, don’t pay those kinds of prices back home.  When they travel, they stay at places like Fairfield Inn or Hampton Inn, where a big, recently refurbished room with king bed, cable, free broadband internet, free local calls, free included breakfast runs around US$100, and no service charge.  They eat at restaurants where they might pay US$10 to $14 for a full dinner, or at McDonald’s where you can get a double cheeseburger and fries for US$2 from the value menu.  Beer is under four bucks a six-pack.  A car rental is usually US$30 to $50 a day, and gas is US$2.10.

If Belize can offer a truly special experience, visitors may be willing to pay extra for it.  Frankly, though, I’m getting concerned that too many places are trying to increase revenues simply by raising rates without offering a better product.  If the experience isn’t there, and the value isn’t there, Belize is going to lose business.

Likewise, developers are asking the U.S. prices for condos and building lots.  They may get a few suckers to buy at these prices, but anybody who spends time in Belize doing due diligence will figure out that US$200 to $400 a square foot for a condo or house borders on the obscene. Taxopan? The U.S. may have its “tax-and-spend liberals,” but Belize seems to specialize in grab-and-tax politicos. New taxes are blooming in Belize like bougainvillea on a wall. Businesses that are suspected of making a little money are being audited right and left by the tax guys.  Maybe the name of Belize's capital should be changed to Taxopan City.  The Goods and Services Tax (GST) of 10% impacts just about everybody. The GST went into effect in mid-2006.  I happened to be in Canada when the GST was implemented there in the 1990s, and the impact on business was considerable, because consumers saw the price of restaurant meals, store merchandise and nearly every item they bought suddenly increased.  With the GST, the selling price of most items includes the tax, rather than being added on as a sales tax at the cash register, so buyers perceive it as a price increase.

More Motos Used to be, I rarely saw a motorcycle on the roads in Belize.  Now, they're fairly common, especially around Belize City and on the main, paved roads.  I guess the price of gas, which reached more than US$5 a gallon before it fell back a bit recently, is driving the interest in motorcycles.

Everybody's a Real Estate Agent Every time I look around, there are more real estate agents in Belize.  It's rare for a week to go by without somebody opening a new office.  Some of them are gringos trying to make a buck while waiting for a real job.  But a lot of the real estate agents are Belizeans.  Do they actually sell anything?  I don't know.  Some do, I assume.  There’s even a new Multiple Listing Service, of sorts, in Belize.  I take the mushrooming growth of real estate offices as a bad sign.  It's a leading indicator of a real estate bust.

Internet Everywhere Belize has been wired for a long time, but now the internet is ubiquitous in Belize.  Cybercafés seemingly are on every corner.  It's the rare hotel that doesn't offer internet access in some fashion, whether wireless or via a DSL Ethernet network or broadband satellite.  Even the smallest places offer connections.  For example, D'Nest Inn in Belize City with just three rooms and Coral House Inn in Punta Gorda, with four, both offer free and speedy wireless (and at D'Nest Inn you can also plug into their DSL Ethernet hub).  BTL is even promoting its WiFi Hot Spot at the international airport (there's a fee, of course).

Blowing Cold Air A few years ago, hotels started putting in swimming pools.  Now, everybody is putting in air conditioning.  Even the jungle lodges. Maruba and Jaguar Paw have had A/C for years.  Now, even fairly rustic lodges such as Lamanai Outpost Lodge offer cold air in at least some rooms.  Mopan River Resort has added A/C in all its units.  Air conditioning has long been a staple in the upmarket hotels in San Pedro, Belize City and Placencia.  But, now, even budget hotels routinely have A/C.

Anger Management It seems to me that Belize is becoming an angrier place than it used to be.  Belize has a reputation for being laid back, accepting, a no-shoes, no-shirt, no-problem kind of place.  In some ways, I fear, that's changing.  The guy robbing a store in Belize City gets the money and then blows away the shopkeeper, for no reason.  Drivers blow their horns to warn other drivers to get moving.  And have you seen the terrible blow offs and rants that go on over the internet?  Post a question on a Belize bulletin board and you risk that half a dozen irate, but anonymous, boarders jump on the poster, accusing you of every ecological, economic, and anti-Belizean crime on the books.

Things I Thought I'd Never See in Belize Bridge Over the River Channel to North Ambergris Caye Belize City Cleaned Up Broadband Internet in the Bush Traffic Jams in San Pedro Million Dollar (US dollars) Homes on Ambergris Caye Upmarket Restaurants and a Resort with a Swimming Pool on Caye Caulker Real Estate Subdivisions in Sarteneja A Night on the Town in San Pedro with Dinner and Drinks, US$200 for Two Four Cruise Ships Berthed Off Belize City at One Time

 

Mas Fino en Belice Here are some of my picks for the best in Belize, in a variety of categories.  Your mileage may vary:

Best Destinations to Stretch Your Dollars:  Caye Caulker; Tobacco Caye; Corozal Town; Placencia Village

Most-for-Your-Money Budget Lodging:  The Trek Stop, Cayo; Hotel de la Fuente, Orange Walk Town; Casa Blanca Guest House, San Ignacio;  Martha's Guest House, San Ignacio;  Hotel Aguada, Santa Elena, Cayo;  Lydia’s Guest House, Placencia

Top Jungle Lodges:  Chan Chich Lodge, Gallon Jug, Northern Belize; The Lodge at Chaa Creek, Cayo; Blancaneaux Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge; Hidden Valley Inn, Mountain Pine Ridge

Top Jungle Lodges for Not a Ton of Money:  Black Rock Lodge, Cayo; Pook's Hill Lodge, Belmopan;  The Lodge at Big Falls, Toledo;  Five Sisters, Mountain Pine Ridge;  duPlooy’s, Cayo

Greenest Eco-Lodges:  duPlooy's Lodge, Cayo; Mama Noots, near Dangriga;  Black Rock Lodge, Cayo

Most Romantic Hotels:  Turtle Inn, Placencia; Blancaneaux Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge; Victoria House, Ambergris Caye; Portofino, North Ambergris Caye

Most Romantic Restaurants:  Rojo Lounge, North Ambergris Caye; Capricorn, North Ambergris Caye; Harbour View, Belize City; Rendezvous, North Ambergris Caye

Most Upscale Condotels:  Chabil Mar Villas, Placencia; The Phoenix, Ambergris Caye;  Grand Colony, Ambergris Caye;  Bella Maya, Placencia;  Sueno del Mar, North Ambergris Caye

Most Atmospheric Bars: Sugar Reef, Placencia; I&I, Caye Caulker;  Palapa Bar, North Ambergris Caye;  Rojo Lounge, North Ambergris Caye;  Putt-Putt, Belize City

Most Charming Small Hotels:  Coral House Inn, Punta Gorda;  Casa Blanca by the Sea, Consejo, Northern Belize;  Iguana Reef Inn, Caye Caulker;  Seaside Cabanas, Caye Caulker

Best Restaurants:  The Bistro at Maya Beach Hotel, Placencia; Rendezvous, North Ambergris Caye;  Rojo Lounge, North Ambergris Caye;  Harbour View, Belize City;  Chon Saan Palace, Belize City

Most Deluxe Accommodations:  Azul Resort, North Ambergris Caye; Seascape Villas, North Ambergris Caye; Caye Chapel Island Resort (villas), Caye Chapel; Grand Colony, Ambergris Caye; Cayo Espanto, near Ambergris Caye

Best B&Bs:  D'Nest Inn, Belize City; Villa Boscardi, Belize City;  Lazy Iguana B&B, Caye Caulker

Best Snorkeling:  Glover's Atoll; Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris Caye;  Silk Cayes, Southern Belize

Best Diving:  Turneffe Atoll; Glover's Atoll; Lighthouse Reef Atoll

Worst Roads:  Peninsula Road to Placencia; parts of the Old Northern Highway;  golf cart path on North Ambergris

Best Beaches That Don't Take Forever to Reach:  South Water Caye; Placencia Peninsula; North Ambergris Caye

Postcard-Perfect Little Islands:  Silk Cayes, Southern Belize; South Water Caye, off Dangriga;  Half Moon Caye, Lighthouse Reef Atoll

Most Memorable Belize Experiences (not requiring extreme physical effort):  Caving at Actun Tunichil Muknal; snorkeling with nurse sharks and sting rays at Shark-Ray Alley; diving with whale sharks at Gladden Spit; seeing the barrier reef for the first time

Uniquely Belizean Experiences:  Belize Zoo; Belize Botanic Gardens, duPlooy's;  cave tubing, Caves Branch River

Best Gift Shops:  Caesar’s Place, Cayo;  National Handicraft Centre, Belize City; Maya Centre Women’s Co-op, Maya Centre

Greatest Adventures:  Hiking to the top of Victoria Peak, Cockscomb Preserve; skydiving into the Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef;  going on Lost World adventure trip with Caves Branch Adventure Co.;  exploring the Columbia River Forest on the Maya Divide trip

Most Knowledgeable Travel Agents:  Katie Valk, Belize TripsBarbara Kasak,  Barb’s Belize

Best-Run Hotels:  Banana Beach, Ambergris Caye; Lodge at Chaa Creek, Cayo;  Inn at Robert’s Grove, Placencia

Best Birding:  Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, Northern Belize; Chan Chich Lodge, Gallon Jug, Northern Belize; New River Lagoon, Northern Belize

Best Wildlife Spotting:  Belize Zoo;  Chan Chich Lodge, Gallon Jug, Northern Belize; Programme for Belize, Northern Belize;  (also, in the Petén, Tikal Park) 

Most Astounding Views: Views into Guatemala from El Castillo, Xunantunich; the Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef Atoll, seen from above; views around Baldy Beacon area, Mountain Pine Ridge; also, panoramic jungle views from Temple IV, Tikal

Best Fishing Lodges:  Machacha Lodge, Punta Gorda; El Pescador, North Ambergris Caye; Turneffe Flats, Turneffe Atoll Scenic Drives:  Hummingbird Highway; through the Mountain Pine Ridge to Caracol; through Programme for Belize and Gallon Jug lands

Most Colorful Local Markets:  San Ignacio (Saturday); Punta Gorda (Wednesday, Saturday);  Belmopan (the old market, daily except Sunday)

Don't-Miss Mayan Sites:  Caracol, Lamanai, Xunantunich (plus Tikal in Guatemala, of course)

Interesting Off-the-Beaten-Track Spots:  Sarteneja Village, Northern Belize; Blue Creek Village, Northern Belize; Blue Creek Village, Southern Belize

Friendliest Villages:  Hopkins; Sarteneja; Crooked Tree

Banging Around Belize:  What’s New and Different? Here are some of the highlights of my time in several areas of Belize in 2005 and 2006: Corozal Town

Corozal is still as sleepy as ever, but things are happening at the margins.  The Las Vegas Casino is open, joining the two other casinos at the border adjoining the Free Zone.  I understand it’s not doing as well as expected, but perhaps with the season starting things will perk up.  Las Vegas has broken ground on a new 300+-room hotel, which if it opens will be the largest hotel in Belize by far.  The casino’s market is almost entirely Mexican, as to visit the casino tourists in Belize have to go through the border exit process and pay US$18.75.  So a couple pays nearly 40 bucks just to go gamble – what sense does that make? 

While Corozal sleeps, Chetumal prospers.  A new Sam’s Club has just opened, and the city’s restaurants and hotels are doing boom business.

The new Mirador Hotel near the site of the old market in Corozal has amazing views of Corozal Bay from its fifth floor patio, but you better spend some time on your Stairmaster before you visit, as there’s no elevator, and the stairs are steep and narrow.  The rooms are comfortable and affordable (US$35 to $90), with A/C and cable TV, and new furniture from the owners’ furniture store.  Some have good views of the bay, though I can’t figure out why the stairs are on the bay side of the building, taking some of the best views.  Indeed, I can’t figure out why you’d spend this much on a five-story hotel and not put in an elevator. A Chinese restaurant will open at the hotel shortly.  Currently, there’s street parking only, but the hotel may get the use of a nearby vacant lot for parking.

I toured Las Palmas again, and it’s looking great.  Charlie, who was a chiropractor back in the States, and his beautiful espousa Marina, have done a fine job with this property.  Basically, the old Nestor’s hotel has been rebuilt from scratch, from the foundation up.  The rooms, as at Mirador, all have A/C and cable.  Priced at US$45 to $55 double, this is one of the best values in town.  The restaurant space is being totally renovated, and a new restaurant will also open here soon.

All my old favorite places to stay  – Smuggler’s, Corozal Bay Inn, Coco Banana and Tony’s – are still good and one-third the price of comparable lodging in San Pedro.  Casablanca in Consejo was closed when I went by, but it’ll reopen soon.  Casablanca has one of the most romantic and lovely locations in Belize – too bad it doesn’t get more business.

Patti’s Bistro is still the best restaurant in town, and the best value.  Cactus still has cheap, tasty Mexican food.  The fajitas and other dishes at the palapa bar at Tony’s Inn are as good as ever.  Tony’s is popular, and the setting can’t be beat.

Quite a bit is going on around Consejo.  Bill Wildman’s Consejo Shores is still my pick for the best residential development in Belize. What a quiet, beautiful area!   Bill says more houses have been built at Consejo Shores in the past couple of years than in the previous two decades.  Mayan Seaside and Wagner’s Landing both are seeing some activity and building, and a lot of other bayfront property in the area has been sold, though few homes have been built so far.

The golf course at Xaibe may actually be built one  day, I’m told, and the little 9-hole course at Consejo Shores is looking good.

Two of Corozal's best-known expats, Rick Zahniser (he started the www.belizenorth.com  web site) and Margaret Briggs, (www.localgringos.com) got the heck out of Dodge in 2005, Rick going to Arkansas and Margaret to New Mexico.  They indicated they were fed up with crime, anti-gringo sentiment, and just generally with Belize, although other factors may also have been behind the moves. Across the New River on the shores of Corozal Bay is the charming little village of Copper Bank, which now has a real hotel, the Copper Bank Inn.  The Last Resort, a locally well-known collection of simple cabanas and a popular restaurant on the bay, has been sold. A new restaurant has opened near Cerros, and the owners plan four new cabañas.  The former owners of The Last Resort are opening a new lodge near Cerros.  Near Progresso village, on the shores of the Progresso Lagoon, is another small resort, Fantasy Point, which is currently for sale.

Orange Walk The new bypass around Orange Walk Town saves a little time and avoids some of the sugar cane truck slowdowns, but it’s still worth driving through town once in a while.  Not too much has changed in Orange Walk, but here are a couple of notable additions: I enjoyed the newish El Establo Bar & Grill, a friendly, family-run eatery near the northern end of the Orange Walk bypass.  It’s run by Albino and Ada Vargas.  The escabeche was delicious!  Indian Hill, Northern Hwy; tel 501/322-0094. Orlando de la Fuente's and his wife have opened Hotel de la Fuente,  a nice addition to the very limited hotel scene in Orange Walk Town. The low rates (around US$25 to $40) put it among the best values in Northern Belize.  All 8 rooms have air-conditioning and DSL broadband, and there are also 2 suites with kitchenettes.  The lobby doubles as a pawn shop, handy if you need a little extra cash. 14 Main St., Orange Walk Town;  tel. 501/322-2290;  www.hoteldelafuente.com.

Out in the country, Lamanai Outpost Lodge, with its beautiful setting on the New River Lagoon, has switched to a near-all inclusive plan with all meals and activities, such as boat trips to catch and tag crocodiles, included, and rates are concomitantly higher.  One change that concerns me is the addition of airboats for trips on the lagoon -- they are insanely LOUD. 

Lamanai South Lodge is a new spot that is a less-expensive option for overnighting near the Lamanai ruins.  On 52 acres right at the edge of New River Lagoon, the lodge has four rooms in a coral-colored building.  Rooms are around US$150 double.  Indian Church Village, tel. 501/615-1892; www.lamanaisouth.com.

Ambergris Caye Ambergris Caye remains the most popular destination in Belize, and I guess the question is:  Is it getting too popular?  Every time I come back there are lots of new houses and condos and way too many cars.  Just look at all the development that’s going on, mostly condos and houses:  Sueno del Mar, the “fractional ownership” upscale membership development, The Phoenix condos where the old Paradise Resort used to be at the north end of town, Grand Colony south of town, Blue Reef Island Resort up north, Tranquility Bay, and others. There’s still plenty of room to spread out and develop, but, especially south of town, some of the development looks ill planned.   The island has the potential to become one of the great visitor destinations in the Caribbean, but it’s going to take local leadership to achieve that.  Organizations like the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce are doing a lot of good work, and some of the individual developments are first-rate, so perhaps the basis for strong economic leadership is already in place. With the new bridge open to the north, in my opinion now’s the time to implement logical, well-thought out land use planning systems for the miles of North Ambergris territory, to make this the best island it can be. I still miss the hard-packed sand streets downtown.  The paving stones I’m sure are a big improvement after rains, but a little of the unique charm of San Pedro has been lost for me.  With all the taxis and cars on the streets, it’s getting dangerous to walk or even drive a golf cart, especially on that stretch of Coconut Drive at the airstrip.   

I had a great dinner at Rendezvous, one of the very best restaurants on the island.  I also enjoyed El Divino at Banana Beach, especially the terrific Mexican-style ceviche, Papi’s, Casa Picasso, and many of my old favorites on the island, including Elvi’s, Caliente (with a new branch up north), JamBel Jerk (with a second location at the Coral Beach Hotel), Cocina Caramba,  and Blue Water Grill are still going strong.  I haven’t yet had a chance to eat at the new Wild Mango’s, where chef Amy Knox, who moved north from Victoria House, has taken over, but I hear great things about it--great food, big portions, fair prices. Sweet Basil has closed.

Capricorn has new owners.  Let’s hope they can bring it back to its former glory.

El Fogon opened with a bang, as did the San Pedro outpost of Chon Saan Palace, but locals say both seem to have failed to live up to their early promise. The same family that owns El Fogon also operates Hacal Kiik, a bakery that has great local breaks and buns.  I’m still mourning the closing of Jade Garden and Taste of Thailand, two of my fave eateries on the island.

The breakfasts are still marvelous at Estel’s, where I shared a table with Josh Berman, who is updating the excellent Moon Belize Handbook, and Marty Casado, of AmbergrisCaye.com and BelizeSearch.com fame.

Tim Jeffers of Banana Beach and Peter Lawrence of Pedro’s tried to lure me into a poker game at Pedro’s Sports Bar, but I didn’t bite.  I did enjoy a rum and tonic or two at Peter’s bar, which has become quite a spot to hang out.  More than one person told me that Pedro’s now has the best pizza in town.  Pedro also is adding some air-conditioned rooms to his hostel.

I understand Victoria House is getting a new chef, a young man from Japan.  The resort itself finally has the physical facilities to match the service and setting.  The new villas are among the most beautiful beach accommodations I’ve seen in Belize, and there’s a new infinity pool with black marble (so there are now two main pools at the resort, plus two private pools at individual villas.)   Even the old casitas have been redone, and they look lovely.  Brent and Janet have done a first-rate job with this property.

Some of the new developments on Ambergris Caye: Seascape Villas is a group of six luxury homes on four beachfront acres, built by Bob and Diane Campbell.  Each villa has around 3,000 square feet, with a sunken living room, slate floors, outdoor garden with hot tub, and unobstructed views of the sea.   There’s a gorgeous swimming pool.  To rent one of these babies you’ll pay around US$900 a day.  The villa colony has no restaurant, but you can have meals prepared and served in your beach house. North Ambergris, 4 miles north of San Pedro, tel. 501/226-5203; www.seascapebelizevillas.com.   Azul Resort is where I’d like to stay if I had the money -- about US$700 a day.  This new resort has only two beach villas, but, man, they are nice. The two-level villas have 20-foot ceilings with beams of mylady wood.  Custom kitchens feature Viking appliances, and the cabinets and most of the furniture are made of zericote wood. Each villa has a Mac computer, 50" plasma flat-screen TV, and Bose theater system. On the rooftop, you can relax in your own hot tub.  The two beach houses share a beautiful pool, 400 feet of beach, and about 10 acres of prime property.  Rojo Lounge, run by the same couple, Vivian and Jeff, is next door for drinks in a romantic beachside setting and some of the best food on the island.  Conch pizza is US$19 and grouper stuffed with cashew-crusted lobster is US$31. Killer mojitos are US$8.  Not cheap, but then this is probably the hippest restaurant on the island, if not in all of Belize.  North Ambergris, 4 miles north of San Pedro, tel. 501/226-4012; www.azulbelize.com Grand Colony Villas, built by the Paz dynasty that also did Villas at Banyan Bay and other projects, are among the most upscale condos on the island.  The 21 two-bedroom, two-bath apartments, ranging from 1,100 to 1,900 square feet, rent for US$500 to $900 a day.  The tony condos have 10-foot ceilings, marble and  hardwood floors, and mahogany doors and cabinets.   Coconut Dr., 1 1/2 miles south of San Pedro tel. 501/226-3739; www.grandcolonyvillas.com.   The little yellow cabins lined up in rows at the Royal Caribbean Resort remind a lot of people of army barracks, or DFC by the Sea, but inside the 45 rooms are fairly spacious, with tile floors, wicker furniture, and kitchenettes.  There's a pool and 400 feet of beach next door (south) to Victoria House.  The price, US$125 double, is attracting some guests. Coconut Dr., 2  1/4 miles mi south of town; tel. 501/226-4220;  www.ambergriscaye.com/royalcaribbean/

Caye Caulker With Ambergris Caye on steroids, ballooning to some 10,000 in population and new buildings going up right and left, for anyone yearning for the slower-paced, more traditional Caribbean, Caye Caulker is looking better and better.  Here you’ll still find sandy streets and almost no cars. Caye Caulker isn’t just for backpackers anymore.  It has new restaurants and some new and improved lodging.  Food and hotel prices here generally are one-third to one-half less than in San Pedro. The newly rebuilt Seaside Cabanas turned out beautifully, I think.  It’s nice to at last have a hotel with a swimming pool on the island, and the little private rooftop nookeries on four of the units are a great idea. You can own the hotel, as it’s now for sale for US$2.4 mil.  Here and at Iguana Reef you can get an upscale experience at a Filene’s Basement price, only a little over US$100 double.  And there are many other excellent lodging choices on the island. A few of my favorites in the low-moderate to midscale range: Caye Caulker Condos, Tree Tops, Da Real Macaw, Auxillou Beach Suites, Morning Star Guesthouse, Lazy Lizard B&B.  Plus vacation home rentals, of which there are an increasing number, are a real bargain.  And you can eat well on Caulker.  It’s hard to imagine a nicer over-the-water atmosphere than the Rainbow Grill & Bar, and the fish is excellent.  Habaneros, Don Corleone’s and Rasta Pasta are first-rate, and some of the old-time places like the Sandbox and Syd’s are well worth your time.

Cayo Cayo is an interesting situation now.  It still offers great natural beauty, fabulous caving, and wide open spaces.  It has some of the great treasures of Belize, including the biggest forest reserve in the country, the Mountain Pine Ridge, the fabulous Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, the Mopan and Macal rivers, Caracol, Xunantunich, and El Pilar Mayan sites, a collection of remarkable jungle lodges including the Lodge at Chaa Creek, duPlooy’s, Hidden Valley Inn, and Blancaneaux,  and several wonderful attractions including Green Hills Butterfly Farm, the Belize Botanic Gardens, and the quirky Poustinia Land Art Park.  The discovery of oil in Spanish Lookout adds a new twist, though the amount that actually will be pumped there is still not clear. I also worry what will happen to Spanish Lookout if avian flu ever hits Belize.  Belizeans are fools for chicken, and the Mennonites raise most of them. On the other hand, this inland area is not getting the tourism investment of the cayes and coast.  As beautiful as much of Cayo is, foreigners want to be on or near the water.  (Maybe one day the Chalillo Dam lake will actually prove to be a tourism asset.)  The perception that crime is spilling over from Guatemala into Cayo also works against the district. There hasn’t been a major new lodge or hotel built in Cayo since Mopan River Resort opened in 1999, and this highly successful all-inclusive is now for sale.  Several small lodges have opened, one hotel in Belmopan, the Chinese-owned Yim Saan, several budget places in San Ignacio Town, including an annex for Martha’s Guest House.  A few places, including Chaa Creek, Blancaneaux, Hidden Valley Inn,  and the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, have expanded or upgraded, but no big-time tourism investment has been made here for years. Among the tourism properties for sale in Cayo are: Mopan River Resort, Benque Viejo, US$2,850,000 Eva’s, San Ignacio, US$150,000 Parrot Nest, Bullet Tree Falls, Cayo, US$460,000 Roaring River Lodge, US$250,000 duPlooy’s Lodge, Cayo, US$1,300,000 Five Sisters Lodge, Mountain Pine Ridge, US$1,998,000 Casa Maya Eco-Lodge, San Ignacio, US$900,000 Los Cedros Lodge, Cayo, US$340,000 Touch of Class, Santa Elena, US$750,000

Tourism in Cayo is still feeling the impact of the bandit incidents.  Although the last incident was almost six months ago, and two of the ringleaders are in jail in Belize, occupancy is still way down at most hotels. 

San Ignacio town, which for a while was going through a restaurant and hotel boom, has lost some tourism businesses. You wouldn’t know it, though, by the number of cars and the trouble you’ll have finding a parking place.  The Royal Indian has closed.  Serendib has changed hands, but the food is still about the same as always. Bob Jones at Eva’s is still there, dispensing cold beer, hot food and good advice, and the buyer of the famed tourist info center and restaurant, the former owner of the Tikal Inn, will be around soon to learn the ropes. Jones says he looks forward to more time for fishing and seeing parts of Belize he hasn’t had time to see.   Hode’s and Sanny’s are still popular dining spots (Sanny’s is only open for dinner now.)  Well-run downtown hotels such as Casa Blanca Guest House and Martha’s seem to as busy as ever.

The Saturday market in San Ignacio is my pick for the best market in Belize.

Outside of town, lodges have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of business due to the U.S. State Department travel advisory and the perception that crime is a concern.  In fact, driving around Cayo I’ve never felt safer.  It’s a beautiful area, with little reason for tourists to worry. 

Congratulations to Lucy Fleming of Chaa Creek, outgoing president of the BTIA.  She had a rough year, to say the least.  Chaa Creek, by the way, has never looked better, and the lodge has upgraded several of its duplex cottages into gorgeous new suites.

I visited a spell with John and Judy at The Trek Stop, which has 10 popular budget cabins in San José Succotz.  They say they are restarting the shuttle between Belize City and San Ignacio and may even add another van, so they can meet more flights.  Advance booking is necessary.

Spanish Lookout gets more and more amazing. Where San Ignacio looks like a typically rundown Central American town, Spanish Lookout looks like a prosperous part of western Pennsylvania. Route 30, the road from near Georgeville to the Mennonite settlement, is a gorgeous paved highway, and many of the roads around Spanish Lookout are also paved.  The Mennonites do their own paving. The stores and small shopping centers are doing a land office business, and even gas is cheaper in Spanish Lookout than in San Ignacio.

Up in the Mountain Pine Ridge, Blancaneaux still looks lovely. Craig and Lisa are no more at Hidden Valley Inn; the new managers are a couple who ran the bookstore in San Pedro for a short time. Hidden Valley was on the track to become a top lodge, and I hope we’re not back to musical chairs again.  The convoy system is still in effect for trips to Caracol.  There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the system, which involves two or three convoys daily escorted by the BDF, because it’s not very flexible – for example, for birders who want to get to Caracol early it’s not ideal.  I drove on my own around the Pine Ridge and felt completely safe, though I only saw two other vehicles and no BDF.

One of the under-appreciated assets of Cayo is the town of Benque Viejo del Carmen.  The Benque House of Culture there is just one of the little places that deserve more attention, not to mention Che Chem Ha and Poustinia.  On the way to Benque, do stop and have lunch at Benny’s Kitchen, near Xunantunich.  This little open-air restaurant, not far from one of my favorite budget spots in Belize, The Trek Stop (which now has the first “disc golf course” in the country) serves hearty Mayan and Belizean dishes at low prices. Most items on the menu are US$4 or less, including chilimole (chicken with mole sauce), cow foot soup, escabeche, and stewed pork with rice and beans and plantains.  San José Succotz village, across Benque Rd.  from the ferry to Xunantunich. Turn south just west of the ferry and follow signs about 3 blocks;  tel. 501/823-2541.

Since I started coming to Belize almost 16 years ago, only San Pedro and Placencia have changed more than Belmopan.  Belmopan has turned into a bustling small city, with an increasing number of stores and restaurants.  The University of Belize campus and the growing government presence have helped transform the area. 

Have you seen the new United States embassy in Belmopan? The old embassy in Belize City was an old wooden building brought from New England in the 19th century.  The new embassy on Floral Park Road in Belmopan near the hospital is a huge fenced and gated compound, massive and brutalist (though, I grant you, not as ugly as some of the Belizean government buildings in Belmopan).  It cost US$50 million to construct. 

Placencia Peninsula The Placencia peninsula is hot, hot, hot ... at least in the real estate end.  Lots sales are booming, and people are actually starting to build houses and condos. If all the plans announced for condo developments in Placencia are actually built, the peninsula will have more than 1,500 condo units at The Placencia, Bella Maya, Chabil Mar, Coco Plum, Ara Macao, Laru Beya and others.  Chabil Mar, The Placencia and Laru Beya are already operating, and Bella Maya is working on the first phases of its plans.  I doubt some other projects will go forward in their present form, however. Bella Maya is being developed by a company in London that specializes in "emerging market" real estate, with other projects in Latvia, Bulgaria, and Brazil.  Bella Maya is expected to eventually have a total of 60 condominium apartments, most available for nightly rental. The 1100 sq. ft. apartments go for US$270,000 to $450,000, with one-quarter fractional ownership available for around US$86,000.   Opening has been delayed until sometime in 2007. Ara Macao, ironically named for the endangered Scarlet Macaw, says it is a 582-acre master planned community on part of The Plantation lands at the north end of the peninsula.  If the project comes to fruition – it is still awaiting final Belize government approval -- it will have 456 upscale beachfront condos, 296 villas, 260 seaview condos, and 59 golf course home sites.  The master plan calls for a marina, casino, an 18-hole golf course, multiple swimming pools, several restaurants, a spa, and retail and commercial space.  The developer is ioVest Development LLC, a low-profile Chicago company with some ties to EKRK, a Czech real estate organization.  The president is Paul Goguen. Many local people and expats have opposed the mega-development on environmental grounds, and also that such a massive project is out of character with the rest of the peninsula.

I will say that Coco Plum II is one project that has put its money where its mouth is.  Stewart Krohn (who also owns Channel 5 TV in Belize City) has paved the project’s peninsula road frontage, and this road and the internal roads are absolutely fantastic.  Krohn himself has a house on the peninsula, has been visiting there for over 30 years, long before there was a road or airstrip, and I think is going to build another house there.  This long-term connection to the peninsula makes a difference, I think, and I wish more developers (hey, like Ara Macao and Bella Maya) had closer connections to the peninsula than just dollar signs.

While real estate is hot, oddly the tourism business on the peninsula is still struggling.  The business is still more seasonal in Placencia than in San Pedro, and off-season, except at a few well-marketed and well-run properties such as Turtle Inn and Inn at Robert’s Grove, occupancy levels are low.  More than a dozen hotels on the peninsula and nearby are actively for sale, including the following: Manatee Inn, Placencia Village, US$375,000 Serenity Resort, Placencia, US$2,000,000 Maya Breeze, Maya Beach Miller’s Landing, Placencia, US$1,500,000 Singing Sands, Maya Beach, US$890,000 Luba Hati, Seine Bight, US$2,500,000 Macovy Blues Hotel & Restaurant, US$475,000 Soulshine Resort, Placencia, US$600,000 Mariposa Beach Suites, Placencia Paradise Vacation Hotel, Placencia Village   Rum Point Inn has recently sold.  Reportedly also Lost Reef has been sold, and possibly Calico Jack’s. Laru Beya is a nice addition to the lodging options.  It’s a condo colony on seven beachfront acres just south of Robert’s Grove.  The larger villa units, with up to three bedrooms, have full kitchens, and some have rooftop Jacuzzis and verandahs with sea views.   Rates start at US$100 for a garden view room, but you can pay as much as US$475 for a seaside penthouse.  Seine Bight, tel. 501/523-3476 or 800/813-7762 in the U.S. and Canada; www.larubeya.com. Chabil Mar Villas, a gated condo development just north of Placencia Village that opened in June 2005, has some of the most upscale and beautifully decorated condos I’ve seen in Belize.  The property was developed by Dianne Bulman, a Canadian. Chabil Mar means "beautiful sea" in Kekchí, and the beach here is one of the best on the peninsula.  Each unit is different, but they're all very upscale, with features like marble floors, original art, and four-poster king beds.  Each unit comes with broadband wireless, DVD, satellite TV, dishwasher, and washer and dryer.  Rates are US$260 to $550 in-season, a little less in summer. There's no restaurant, but you can have meals prepared and brought to your condo.   Just north of Placencia Village, tel. 501/523-3606; www.chabilmarvillas.com.

Anybody who is not brain dead would have to worry about the future of the peninsula.  The McMansions being built on filled swamp land at the north end of the peninsula don’t look like sustainable development to me, any more than does a 1,000-unit project on a peninsula with a current population of only a couple of thousand.  New, high-density condo projects are planned for several areas.  That’s in the face of the fact that, with a few exceptions, most of the existing condo developments and hotels stay empty much of the time, especially in the summer and fall.  Even if they can sell out these projects, who is going to stay there?  The owners aren’t going to live there full-time, and unless the BTB gets its act together and Belize gets more air service from Canada and direct service from Europe, there will be a lot more empty properties like The Placencia.  I have stayed there and visited there many times and rarely see more than a handful of guests rattling around this big property.  I asked the guy on the front desk why that is the case.  He said, “It takes eight or ten years to build an image for a new hotel and get people to try it.”  Tell that to the investors.  We will build them, and they will come?  Maybe not.

There’s little infrastructure in place on the peninsula, and yet here are all these foreign developers ready to put up multi-million dollar projects.  The peninsula road is pretty bad, but not as bad as it was a few weeks ago in the rainy season, when at times it literally was impassable, even for four-wheel drives.   Some of the larger hotels with guests coming by road are bringing them into Independence and boating them over the lagoon.  There is talk again of paving the road, with a loan from the Caribbean Development Bank.  Maybe it will happen this time, but we’ve all heard that many times before.

So what else is happening on the peninsula besides real estate?  There’s a new French restaurant in the village, French Connection.  Long-time visitors to Placencia will remember another French restaurant, La Petite Maison, which was in its day the best restaurant on the peninsula.  I had dinner at the French Connection with Bob and Risa Frackman of Robert’s Grove and with a young American who is attending cooking school.  For Belize, the FC serves remarkably sophisticated food such as lobster and crab bouillabaisse (BZ$35) and a chorizo and baby octopus starter (BZ$16).  I enjoyed dinner at FC, but my favorite restaurant on the peninsula remains the Bistro at Maya Beach Hotel.  I stayed one night at Maya Beach Hotel and loved being at the hotel and at the restaurant.  It just has a nice, laid-back atmosphere and excellent food. Owners John and Ellen Lee (he’s Australian, she’s American) traveled the world and worked in over 20 countries.  They obviously figured out what travelers love.  The Bistro menu changes occasionally, but among the standards are fresh ceviche, snapper stack, five-onion cioppino and cocoa-dusted pork chop on a risotto cake. You’ll pay around US$12 to $25 for entrees here.  The hotel, with six rooms, is small but charming.  Rooms are bargains at around US$65 to $100 double. There are some minimum-stay requirements.  Maya Beach Hotel also rents several apartments and houses nearby. Maya Beach, tel. 501/520-8040 or 800/503-5124 in the U.S.; www.mayabeachhotel.com.

Wendy’s in the village has expanded again and is still a wonderful place for local food at a good price.  Yoli’s, on a pier Bakader near Harry’s Cozy Cabañas, is the hot new nightspot.  Food is prepared at Merlene’s nearby and brought out the pier to Yoli’s, which is a terrific place to enjoy a Belikin and the sea breeze.  Afterwards, stop by Tutti Fruiti for a real gelato.  This is still the best ice cream in all of Belize.

There weren’t many tourists on the peninsula while I was there, but Turtle Inn and the Inn at Robert’s Grove were both bustling.  Robert’s Grove was hosting a group of travel writers (a tour set up by the BTB), and the grounds and suites look fantastic, as always.  Turtle Inn is completing a new group of cottages plus a new swimming pool and restaurant.  When completed shortly, Turtle Inn will have 25 units, with three pools and three restaurants.

Jenny Wildman is opening a new art and crafts gallery in Maya Beach.  It will be called Spectarte (www.spectarte.com, 501-523-8019).  I’m happy to see more galleries opening in Belize – this is the kind of business the country needs, instead of more souvenir shops.

Punta Gorda and Toledo Every time I visit PG I think tourism here is finally going to take off.  There’s so much to see here, it’s so beautiful, the town of PG is so friendly and pleasant, with a gorgeous setting on the Bay of Honduras, and the Southern Highway, once a hellish road, is now the best highway in Belize, beautifully paved for all but 9 miles near Big Falls.  Prices are also far lower than in more popular resort areas of Belize. Things may be picking up a little in tourism, and there are several new lodging choices, but it’s a slow row to hoe. For some reason, PG is just not on the radar of most visitors to Belize. I guess it’s the lack of beaches and the perception that it’s remote. One thing that may help a little is that a group of tour operators and hotel owners have banded together to offer a regular series of fixed tours around Toledo, with specific tours and trips always running on specific days of the week, as long as there is a minimum of two persons (three or four persons for a few trips).   This way, visitors to Toledo are assured there will be tours every day.  Hotels and tour operators involved in this program include TIDE Tours, TASTEE Tours, Sun Creek Lodge, Sea Front Inn, the Lodge at Big Falls, and others.  Contact any of these for details or to book.  The full-day trips usually involve a mix of activities, such as snorkeling and fishing.  The specific tours are as follows, although the days, rates and tour descriptions may change: Monday:  Port Honduras Marine Reserve, with manatee and dolphin spotting, snorkeling, swimming, and fishing; US$93 per person Tuesday: Blue Creek, with cave swimming and hiking; US$76 per person Wednesday: Same as Monday Thursday:  Pueblo Viejo Mayan village, hiking, visiting a waterfall and Dem Dat's Doin' botanical gardens; US$84 per person Friday:  Canoe trip on Moho River, with visit to the Garifuna village of Barranco; US$80 per person Saturday:  Visit to Lubaantun Mayan site and Rio Blanco Park; US$84 per person Sunday: Sapodilla Cayes, with snorkeling, fishing, and beach swimming; US$97 per person. Two new lodging places I love in PG are Coral House Inn and Hickatee Cottages. Americans Rick and Darla Mallory bought and renovated a 1938 colonial-era house and turned it into one of the coolest guesthouses in Belize.  You'll recognize the Coral House Inn it by the coral-color and the vintage red and white VW van parked in front.  There are Confederate graves in the cemetery next door, a legacy of the Confederate immigration to Toledo after the U.S. Civil War. The four guest rooms, US$75 to $95, have tile floors, good beds, air-conditioning and wireless high speed internet. There's a small swimming pool. 151 Front St., Punta Gorda; tel. 501/722-2878; www.coralhouseinn.com.   A British couple, Ian and Kate Morton, built Hickatee Cottages lodge, a little over a mile south of PG.  It opened in late 2005.  The three Caribbean-style cottages, with zinc roofs and private porches, are nestled in lush foliage.  Rates are an affordable US$60 double.  Meals are available (dinner is US$15, and full AP is US$25 per person), with fruits and vegetables from the owners' organic nursery next door.  A hickatee, by the way, is a river turtle, Dermatemys mawii.  Ex-Servicemen Rd., Punta Gorda; tel. 501/662-4475; www.hickatee.com Another addition to the hotel scene in PG is Beya Suites.  You can’t miss it -- it’s painted a bright pink.  It’s Belizean-owned and very nice, with six rooms with air-conditioning and TVs.   Rates are around US$75 to $90 double.  Front St., #6 Hopeville, Punta Gorda; tel. 501/722-2188; www.beyasuites.com. El Pescador PG has changed hands and its name.  The fishing lodge near Punta Gorda, is now being operated by a U.S. company, Outpost International.  The name has been changed to Machaca Hill Lodge.  Manager Jim Scott has moved on to the Radisson in Belize City. The original El Pescador on Ambergris Caye remains with Ali Gentry Flota and her family. Outpost International says it plans to add more activities beyond permit fishing, including sea kayaking, biking and diving, and also will make the lodge more attractive to families and couples.  The company says it also has acquired Nicholas Caye in the Sapodilla Marine Reserve and plans to develop it as a "safari-style" lodge.  Emery Restaurant and Grace’s are still good places to eat. I stopped by Sun Creek Lodge, which I had not seen before.  I missed Bruno Kuppinger but met his beautiful Belizean wife, Melissa.   Bruno, from Germany, runs tours, including a new high-adventure tour to the remote Columbia River Forest Reserve, called Maya Divide.   Melissa focuses on the lodge and does the cooking, and I’m told she’s an excellent chef.  The thatch cabanas at this budget-level lodge are simple but look comfortable, with outdoor showers surrounded by plants.  The grounds are nicely landscaped. Car rentals available.  14 miles from Punta Gorda, off Mile 86, Southern Hwy.; tel. 501/604-2124; www.belizenet.de. Farther north, The Lodge at Big Falls has added a swimming pool.  This is a wonderful little lodge, with six thatch cabanas, a great spot for birding and wildlife spotting.  Owners Marta and Rob Hirons are working hard to make this lodge successful.  In-season rates are US$155 double, plus US$44 per person for three meals.  Off Mile 79, Southern Hwy.; tel. 888/865-3369 in U.S. and Canada; www.thelodgeatbigfalls.com. Belize City Belize City still has a bad rep among tourists, and even among some Belizeans.  True, crime continues to be a problem in some areas of the city, but, surprisingly, visitors actually have a lower risk of crime in Belize City than in some popular tourist areas of Belize.  With hundreds of thousands of cruise ship daytrippers, plus many overnight visitors on their way to somewhere else, the tourist and regular police have done a good job making the Fort George and surrounding sections a safer place.  The city is also looking better these days, with new paint, cleaner streets, and lots of directional signs.  There are plenty of great dining options, from the upscale places like the Smokey Mermaid at The Great House and the romantic Harbour Inn to budget eateries like Big Daddy’s Diner and Nerie’s to touristy but good spots like the Wet Lizard. 

Katie Valk of Belize Trips took me to the Riverside Tavern, on Mapp Street just off Freetown Road, the restaurant and bar owned by Barry Bowen.  This new spot, opened in mid-2006, is a big success.  One reason is that it has plenty of safe parking – the lot is fenced and guarded.  Another is that it has the best hamburgers in town. Since the restaurant expanded its kitchen, it will be upscaling its menu a bit, with more steaks and prime rib from Bowen’s farm. There are also plans to add more outdoor seating on the river.  Where’s the beef?  At the Riverside.

It’s not Disney World, but Belize City is worth exploring, and it’s the kind of place where Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, or Joseph Conrad might have felt at home. There’s a lot going on in Belize City, and also along the Western and Northern highways near the city, notably Old Belize, Gran’s Farm, and Orchid Garden west of the city, but let me tell you about two nice and fairly new lodging options in the northern “suburbs.” D’Nest Inn is a B&B run by Gaby and Oty Ake. Gaby is a retired Belize banker, and Oty is originally from Chetumal. The two-story, Caribbean-style house is on a canal 50 feet from the Belize River. It’s in an area called Belama Phase 2, a safe, middle-class section between the international airport and downtown. Oty’s gardens around the house are filled with hibiscus, roses, and other blossoming plants. The three guest rooms are furnished with antiques such as a hand-carved, four-poster bed, but they also have modcons like wireless internet, air-conditioning, and cable TV. With a private entrance and your own key, you come and go as you like.  Rates are US$60 to $70 double and include a delicious full breakfast. 475 Cedar St. (from the Northern Hwy., turn west on Chetumal St., turn right at the police station, go 1 block and turn left, then turn right on Cedar St. ); tel. 501/223-5416; www.dnestinn.com.

If you have an early morning flight out or you’re overnighting en route somewhere else, the Global Village Hotel (actually it’s more of a motel than a hotel) is a good new choice near the international airport.  The 40 rooms are sparkling clean and modern and are only US$50 double.  This Chinese-owned place is located just south of the turnoff to the international airport, and the hotel has a free shuttle to and from the airport.  You can also arrange to leave your car in the hotel’s fenced parking lot with 24-hour security.  Mile 8 1/2, Northern Hwy.; tel. 501/225-2555; www.globalhotel-bz.com. Not too far away, on the way to Bermudian Landing via the Boom Road, Belize ‘R Us is an attractive, Belizean-owned restaurant and hotel on the Belize River.

LAN SLUDER is the author of several books on Belize, including Living Abroad in Belize,  Fodor’s Belize 2007, Adapter Kit Belize, San Pedro Cool, and Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize.  He also has written other guidebooks for Frommer’s and Fodor’s and has contributed to many magazines and newspapers around the world, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Caribbean Travel & Life, Where to Retire, St. Petersburg Times, Globe and Mail, and Bangkok Post.  He founded Belize First Magazine and runs the www.belizefirst.com web site.

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Rambling the Coast
and Cayes of Belize: 2004


By LAN SLUDER

On this visit to Belize, in July and August 2004, I spent most of my time rambling the coast and cayes. I was in Hopkins, Placencia, Belize City and Corozal on the mainland, and in San Pedro, Caye Chapel and a couple of small islands off Stann Creek. I also revisited San Ignacio and Belmopan, Spanish Lookout and Orange Walk Town.

My family and I stayed at 11 different hotels. Over the last 15 years, I’ve probably stayed in about 100 different hotels, resorts, lodges, and guesthouses in Belize, maybe more, and I’ve visited and toured another 150 or 200.

THE BEST AND BADDEST BELIZE HOTELS
One of these days, I’ll get around to updating my Belize Book of Lists, which listed the top 10 everything in Belize. In the meantime, here’s my take on the best and baddest of Belize hotels, in several categories.

MOST LUXE My vote has to go to the villas at Caye Chapel Island Resort. These 3,800 sq. ft. villas have marble floors, incredible wide screen views of the Caribbean just steps away, furnishings out of Architectural Digest, ice-cold A/C and of course all the golf you can stand at Belize’s only 18-hole golf course. The Caye Chapel villas soon will have some serious competition from the new villas Nadia and Philippe of Mata Chica are building just north of their present resort. La Perla del Caribe will probably open around March 2005. Among other top luxury digs: the private villas at Cayo Espanto, where I stayed last summer, the two-bedroom villas at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn, the deluxe condos at Robert’s Grove, and the suites at Hamanasi.  The two-bedroom condos at Villas at Banyan Bay and the villas at Victoria House, both south of San Pedro town, are also in the running.

TOP VALUES Belize gets a bum rap for being an expensive place to visit. Fact is, you can sleep and eat well in Belize for not much money. True, Belize doesn’t have the dirt-cheap spots that Nicaragua has, but it has plenty of clean, affordable guesthouses and hotels. Some of my picks for top value: Hotel Aguada in San Ignacio, or rather, in its sister town, Santa Elena. When you can get a clean, modern room with A/C, a pool to swim in and a good restaurant, all for around US$30 double, go for it. No wonder it is often full. Also in and around San Ignacio, The Trek Stop (US$10 a person) has tiny but nice cabins, and Martha’s and Casa Blanca Guesthouse offer excellent rooms in San Ignacio town at highly affordable prices. In Bullet Tree, not far away, there’s the Parrot’s Nest and several other good-value country lodges. Even in pricey San Pedro, you can stay for a song, or US$12.50 a person (and not much more for a couple, off season) at Pedro’s Backpacker Inn. And, for the money you can’t go wrong at Ruby’s or the newly renovated rooms at Coral Beach. My son and daughter recently stayed in the standard rooms in the new section of Banana Beach, and I thought they were great, with attractive furnishings, cold A/C, cable TV and phones, considering the rate was only US$81 double in low season. Another top value in San Pedro is Corona del Mar, with regular rooms in the summer from just US$55 double and seafront rooms at US$95 (plus tax and 10% service).  On Caye Caulker you've got a whole bunch of great values.  Tree Tops is at the top of my list.

JUNGLE LODGES FOR THOSE WHO LIKE THEIR COMFORTS The great thing about jungle lodges in Belize is that, after a hard day in the bush, you can get a cold beer and even a Cuban cigar. My picks for top comfort in the jungle include the Lodge at Chaa Creek, the queen of jungle lodges with its new honeymoon suites and Orchid Villa, and Blancaneaux Lodge in the Mountain Pine Ridge, when you can drink Coppola-Niebaum wine and enjoy handmade pasta. You’ll lack no creature comforts, either, at Hidden Valley Inn in the Pine Ridge, now with refurbished cottages and a dashing new pool. If you must have air-conditioning, Jaguar Paw does the trick, and though it’s not a luxury lodge, some of the units at Banana Bank Lodge now are air-conditioned, too. Barry Bowen’s Chan Chich, though not as luxe as some, is extremely comfortable, with an incredible setting and unmatched opportunities for birding and wildlife spotting.

HOTELS I STILL MISS Hotels come and go. Of those in Belize that have gone, I still miss Four Fort Street Guesthouse in Belize City, with its Colonial-era ambiance and good food. It closed in 2001. I have to bemoan the conversion, earlier this year, of Colton House in Belize City to a private residence. People still ask me about Bill Wildman’s old Adventure Inn in Consejo, closed now for over 10 years. In July, I looked at one of the original Adventure Inn cabañas, with about 66 feet of beachfront on the bay, which was for sale for US$66,000. It sold a few days after I visited it.

HOTELS THAT HAVE NEVER LIVED UP TO THEIR POTENTIAL At the top of my list is the Princess Hotel & Casino. The public areas and the casino are pretty nice, but the rooms are third-rate with leftover furnishings from its previous two hotel incarnations.

NEW HOTELS The burst of new hotel construction of the late 1990s has slowed a bit, but new places are opening here and there. One of the most impressive is La Perla del Caribe on North Ambergris, by the folks who brought you Mata Chica. It should open in Spring 2005. Zeboz on the Placencia peninsula, a modern condo-style property that opened in late 2003, has plans to eventually grow to 144 units. The Inn at Robert’s Grove has just opened its “Bora Bora” style cabanas at Robert’s Caye, a little dab of sand 10 miles off the coast of Placencia. Then there’s Royal Caribbean Resort south of San Pedro, which is a story in itself.

ALL-INCLUSIVES I’m not a big fan of all-inclusives, but I’ve got to say that with rates for meals and tours and such going up, up and up, some of the all-inclusives are looking pretty good. Mopan River Resort remains for me the best value of the bunch. For a rate that works out to about US$350 double per night, you get everything included, from a lovely room and good food to tours (even to Tikal), transport, taxes and tips. Kanantik between Hopkins and Placencia is a gorgeous all-inclusive on the beach.

BEACH RESORTS Belize has too many to begin to list, but among my top 10 are Caye Chapel Island Resort, Turtle Inn, Inn at Robert’s Grove, Hamanasi, Victoria House, Villas at Banyan Bay, Banana Beach, Portofino, Kitty’s Place, Kanantik, Jaguar Reef. Hey, that’s already more than 10, so I’ll stop there.


COROZAL
There are two ways of looking at Corozal Town and environs: Either it’s still a sleepy small town, where very little has changed in the past 15 or 20 years, or else it’s a place about ready to take off, at the edge of the booming Yucatán, with big-time gaming on the way and a bunch of new retirees moving in. You can argue either side, and in Corozal you do get both views, and sometimes from the same fellow.

On the surface at least, not a lot has changed. True, a couple of new hotels have opened (see below), but some of the other hotels in town are either for sale or barely have their doors open. One of the biggest changes, in 2003, was that the new Gabriel Hoare Market replaced the old vegetable market. I sorta liked the old one, myself. On the other hand, some things are definitely moving in Corozal. The Free Zone is still rolling along. It consists of more than 200 acres, with another 200 acres available for development. There are over 250 businesses in the Zone, including five gas stations, employing over a thousand people. One small casino is open, and the new Las Vegas Hotel & Casino (architects Lee & Sakahara, contractor El Dorado Investments, Ltd.) adjoining the Zone is supposed to eventually have 300 hotel rooms. How much all this has benefited local residents is hard to say. It has generated jobs, but as one Corozaleño put it, “Pumping gas in the Free Zone is not a career.”

One reason Corozal may rock ‘n roll, if it does, is its next-door neighbor, Chetumal. The Mexican government and private investors have poured billions into development along the Cancun-Tulum corridor, and now they’re moving farther south. Cruise ships now dock several times a week at Majahual.

Chetumal, a city with a population nearly equal to that of the entire country of Belize, may at long last get an international airport. Already, it has a U.S.-style shopping mall, La Plaza de las Americas, which sports ultra-chilled air and a 10-screen cineplex (most movies are in English with Spanish subtitles.) The mall is anchored by a large Chedraui store and by Liverpool department store.

Supposedly, Wal-Mart will also open in Chetumal. You can get a Big Mac at one of the McDonald’s in Chet and buy your office supplies at Office Depot. If you need to see a doc, you can get first-rate medical care. Dental, too. All at very reasonable prices. Of course, for non-citizens and nonresidents of Belize, the Belize government’s US$18.75 exit fee is a deterrent to crossing the border. Which I guess is the idea.

One expat couple who retired to Corozal, Roger and Deema Kay Thompson, make this point, however: “We used to do a lot more shopping outside of Corozal—Belize City and Orange Walk along with Chetumal and even vacations to Cancun to pick up some items. But Corozal now boasts three new fully stocked, locally owned grocery stores. Also, back in Corozal after an absence of one year is A&R Variety Store. With these stores close at hand there is no need to go out of Corozal for more than a couple of items.” They note that as residents they don’t have to pay the exit fee.

On another front, the area is also generating more interest from would-be retirees. The authors (under pseudonyms) of Belize Retirement Guide still live in Corozal. In my own guides to living and retiring in Belize — Adapter Kit: Belize and my new eBook, Easy Belize — I’ve always touted the Corozal area as the best place in Belize for affordable, safe and comfortable living. Despite what you may have heard, there’s plenty of real estate still available, at relatively inexpensive prices, compared both to the rest of Belize and certainly to the U.S. and Costa Rica, though Nicaragua and parts of Honduras and Panama are far cheaper. The road to Consejo is still lined with undeveloped land. Granted, though, a few places have actually been selling lots. Smuggler’s Den reportedly has only one seafront lot left (contact Ray Wagner at wagnerslanding@belizeweb.com or call + 501-614-8146). Art Higgins’ Mayan Seaside next door has sold quite a few lots. Lots (not on the water) there have been offered for as little at US$9,000 to $10,000, with financing. There are a couple of little houses already built. Higgins was in Houston when I there, so I didn’t get a chance to talk with him. You can probably reach him at arhigs@attglobal.net.

I did get to see Bill Wildman, Belize’s best surveyor, real estate guy extraordinaire and overall fine fellow who developed Consejo Shores many years ago. Bill, by the way, is recuperating from some serious surgery, which was done in Belize City at the Universal Medical Services hospital. He raves about the people and medical care there. Jenny Wildman is in Placencia handling real estate sales on the peninsula. They have a new address in Placencia: Bayshore Limited, 100 Embarcadero Rd., Maya Beach, Stann Creek District, tel. 501-523-8019; www.bayshorebelize.com, e-mail jwildman@lincsat.com. There are three or four houses under construction there now at Consejo Shores, to go with the several hands full of homes that are already there. There’s even a new little 9-hole golf course under construction at Consejo Shores. The only beachfront lots remaining are a couple of re-sales up near Consejo village, but there are some lovely big lots with water views in the US$20,000 range. I think of all the places I’ve seen in Belize over the years, I still like Consejo Shores the best. I don’t know why I’ve never bought a lot there. Maybe I will, one of these days.

Next to Consejo Shores, at the site of the old Don Quixote Hotel, a new fertility and genetics clinic, Reproductive Genetics Institute, is being built. It’s one of some 20 clinics in the U.S. (Chicago, Boston, Denver and elsewhere) and around the world (Russia, Cyprus, Belarus and elsewhere). RGI performs in vitro fertilization and embryo transfers, preimplantation and preconception genetics diagnosis for families at high risk for producing children with genetic disorders and other testing for genetic disorders. A principal of RGI is Uri Velinsky, based in Chicago.

Charming Charlotte Zahniser at Charlotte’s Web cybercafé and used book exchange on Fifth Ave. (which is for sale, by the way, if you’ve ever wanted to own an Internet café in Belize) runs a little side business locating rental houses for expats. She says the cheapies, US$200 to $300 a month, are the most in demand, and that such places are still available, at least off-season. And there are plenty of more upmarket houses in the US$400-$700 range.


COROZAL DINING
The food scene in Coro hasn’t changed much. Café Kelá on First Ave. across the street from the bay is still the best in town, although this summer, due to an addition to the owner’s household, hubby Stefan is holding down the fort and the restaurant is open only by advance reservation. You can eat well there for under US$10. Tony’s is still pretty good (fajitas are the way to go here), and the seaside setting is pleasant. We are saddened to hear of the death in August of longtime owner Tony Castillo. Next door, Corozal Bay Inn’s outdoor restaurant gets a good bit of business for drinks and meals, and there’s a new waterfall backdrop for the restaurant. One of my favorite joints, Cactus Plaza, on 6th St. South is renovating and adding another floor and appears, unfortunately, to be moving more towards being a bar and nightclub than a restaurant. TJ’s restaurant wasn’t open when I stopped by, but I’m told it serves breakfast and lunch six days a week and attracts a good number of foreign retirees for morning coffee. The guesthouse and restaurant are for sale.

My family and I had a huge, filling dinner with multiple appetizers, drinks and main dishes for almost nothing at Patti’s Bistro, next to the undertakers. But don’t worry — the food is good and a real bargain. Out in Consejo, Smugger’s Den still gets some activity on weekend nights.

COROZAL LODGING
Yes, you’ll find a few changes in the lodging end in Corozal Town: Central Guesthouse has closed. Hok’ol K’in Guesthouse, TJ’s and the Hotel Maya are up for sale, most at what I consider somewhat unrealistic prices. TJ’s is asking US$650,000 (on a cash flow basis, probably worth one-third to one-half of that), and Hok’ol K’in has been reduced to US$760,000. With the death of Tony Castillo, I don’t know exactly what will happen with the estate, but Tony’s Inn has been at least informally on the market for several millions. Rosita May of Maya’s also has a campground now. Nestor’s has changed hands again, and the rooms are undergoing a major renovation. I’m told a nice young couple now owns it, and we wish them well, but frankly, I don’t quite get it. You’re not going to be able to ask much more for rooms at that location in the middle of town, away from the water. But the renovations will be an improvement. I also don’t get the upscale B&B at the South End, Villa Americas, with rates of US$315 a night in-season — who in the world would pay prices like that in Corozal?!

Also in the same South End area as Tony’s, (sometimes called Gringo Trail), there are several welcome additions to the lodging inventory in Corozal:

Corozal Bay Inn, Almond Dr., P.O. Box 1, Corozal Town; tel. 501-422-2691, fax 800-836-9188 in the U.S. and Canada; e-mail relax@corozalbayinn.com; www.corozalbayinn.com. Rates: US$80 double (with possible discounts off-season) plus 7% tax. V and MC accepted. Corozal Bay Inn has been around for several years, but owners Doug and Marie Podzun sold their original funky units (now renovated, called Hotel Paradise, and offered up by the new owner, locally known as “Herman the German,” as mostly weekly or longer-term accommodations, at affordable rates) and have created a charming new cabaña colony by the bay. Doug and Maria — she’s originally from Mexico, and he’s a Canadian by birth of German heritage who moved to Belize with his family when he was a youngster — have built 10 attractive cabañas on the water. The cabañas, painted in colorful tropical pastels, are surprisingly spacious and have bay thatch roofs. While most of them are situated to catch the breeze from the bay, they do have air-conditioning (though on a hot day the A/C units may struggle to cool all that open space under the thatch), tile baths, two comfortable beds in each cabaña, and 27” TVs with cable. Two units at the back connect, making them ideal for families. Doug had several hundred dump truck loads of sand brought in and created a tropical beach on the bay. There is a seawall, but you’ll love the water view and the concrete pier. You can sit by the pool, sip something cold in the redone outdoor restaurant and bar and, if you have a wireless laptop, check your e-mail, as Corozal Bay Inn boasts one of the only hot spots in Belize. All in all, the Podzuns have turned their place into one of the nicest spots to stay in northern Belize.

Copa Banana Guesthouse by the Bay, 409 Corozal Bay Rd., P.O. Box 226, Corozal Town, tel. 501-422-0284, fax 422-2710; e-mail relax@copabanana.bz; www.copabanana.bz. Rates: US$55 double/US$350 week, plus 7% tax. V and MC accepted. If you’re in town shopping for property around Corozal, or staying awhile en route farther south, you couldn’t do much better than this guesthouse, new in early 2004. The rates are affordable, you can cook meals in the common kitchen, complete with dishware, stove, coffee maker, microwave and fridge, and the owners even run a real estate business, Belize North Real Estate Ltd. Connie and her partner, Gregg, have done up two banana-yellow one-story, ranch-style concrete houses, with a total of five guest rooms (some with queen beds, some with two twins) across the street from their expansive home on the water. The house where my family and I stayed had three bedrooms, each with en suite bath and cable TV, plus a modern kitchen, dining area and living room, so guests have private bedrooms but share the common space. As it happened, there were no other guests when we stayed there, so in effect we had our own private house. It would be a little different if there were other guests. It would be a little like spending the night at your cousin Joe’s house, sharing a hallway and living area with other folks who happen to be in town. They also have a car or two for rent for US$70 a day, and scooters for US$8 an hour. There’s no pool, and you’re not directly on the water, but there is a view of the bay, and the owners are bringing in sand from the bay for a beach area. Water toys such as boogie boards, rafts and inner tubes are available for guests.


HOPKINS
It always makes me feel good to be back in Hopkins. Folks are so friendly, and there’s always something quirky or funny or engaging in the village to make you smile. The two big (well, big by Belize standards) resorts here, Jaguar Reef and Hamanasi, are both looking great. Hamanasi’s grounds are now nicely filled out with tropical plantings, and I like the way the new entrance is set up.

I’ve stayed at Jaguar Reef several times, but this trip we spent the night at Cocoplum Caye, (tel. 501-520-7040 or in the U.S. and Canada 800-289-5756, fax 501-520-7091;
www.cocoplumcay.com) a 16-acre island which Bruce Foerster, head honcho at Jaguar Reef, leases from a prominent Belizean businessman. Cocoplum is about 35 or 40 minutes by boat from Jaguar Reef. Rates are US$346 per night, double, off-season and US$397 in-season on an all-inclusive basis (all meals, tours, boat transfers, taxes, tips and beer, liquor and soft drinks included). Dive packages are only a little more. There’s a three-day minimum. We enjoyed our brief stay. Meals are served in a thatch cabana at water’s edge — a delicious lobster was the entree the night we were there. Snorkeling around the island is better than from the mainland shore, but for the best snorkeling and diving you still need to take a boat to the reef. We didn’t see it, but I’m told there’s a sea cow (a manatee) that visits the island most afternoons. The pastel-colored wood cottages, built before Jaguar Reef took over management of the island, are comfortable, and they have air-conditioning. When the wind dies down, sand flies can be a nuisance. The A/C went off in the cottage where the kids were staying and, not thinking clearly, I suggested they open the windows. Bad idea. They woke up covered in bites, as the pesky critters are small enough to get in through screens, even though the cottages are up on pilings. My wife and I slept like babies though, with the A/C blowing out some of the coldest air in southern Belize.

Next door to Jaguar Reef is Belizean Dreams Villas. These are three-bedroom, three-bath condos, which sold out at US$300,000 to $440,000, according to Ron Forrester at Belize Development Company, which is selling lots in Sittee Point and elsewhere. You can rent units in these condos for US$150 to $340 a night; for information, call 800-456-7150. It’s hard for me to imagine what Hopkins residents think about all this. The village didn’t even get telephone service until the mid-1990s.

Speaking of lots, Ron Forrester must be a good salesman. Most of the beachfront lots marketed by Belize Development Company have been sold. The few remaining beach lots in section 4 start at around US$85,000 for 75 feet of beachfront, with a few in section 2 for around US$55,000. That works out to a little over US$1,100 a front foot. Sittee river front lots start at around US$25,000. Lots with beach and canal frontage are around US$100,000. Some houses have been built, but it’s not yet what you’d call a heavily built-up area.

PLACENCIA
Placencia, like the rest of Belize, has grown up. Back when Ted Williams (no, not that Ted Williams) had the first real hotel on the peninsula, or when Rum Point Inn first opened, Placencia truly was a “little bit of the South Pacific in Central America,” as one pioneering travel writer put it. Now you have sophisticated resorts like the Inn at Robert’s Grove and Turtle Inn and another 65 hotels and guesthouses dotting the peninsula. You can get good fresh-made pasta (at Trattoria Placencia) and delicious Italian gelati (at Tutti Frutti). The internet is seemingly everywhere. Scotia Bank has built a fancy new office in Placencia village. Both TMM and The Moorings now do sailboat charters out of Placencia. Homes on the peninsula formerly all were little wood cottages and shacks. Now we’re seeing big new reinforced concrete houses. The actual number of new vacation and second homes built is still fairly small, especially compared with Ambergris Caye, but every month sees new homes going up, from little Mennonite prefabs to 5,000 sq. ft. beauties.

I understand that there’s a new coffee house opening soon in Placencia. The fact that Belize now has specialty coffee houses (in San Pedro, Belize City, and elsewhere, too) got me thinking about how Belize has changed. When I first started visiting Belize about all you could get was instant coffee. Even the best restaurants in Belize City served instant coffee.

Even though Belize formerly was a British colony, there’s really no excuse for serving bad coffee in Belize, given that Guatemala next door has some of the best high-grown coffees in the world. As the best strictly hard bean Arabica coffees are grown at high altitude, generally over 3,500 ft. and as high as 8,000 or 9,000 ft. in North Africa where coffee first developed, you can’t grow truly great coffee in Belize. Barry Bowen’s Gallon Jug brand is the only commercial coffee operation in Belize, and it’s not bad at all. Some of the lodges in the Mountain Pine Ridge, including Hidden Valley Inn and Blancaneaux, grow coffee for guests at the lodges.

Hotels are getting bigger. One of the owners of Zeboz, the new condotel north of Maya Beach, says he plans eventually to have 144 units. According to some reports, another large resort at the north end of the peninsula is in the works for a tract of The Plantation land. I did stay the night at Zeboz. One of the most impressive things about Zeboz is the size of the swimming pool. It’s like a lake. Without question, this is the biggest pool in Belize. I only ate breakfast at the restaurant, so I can’t report firsthand on the food, but the dining room is large and pleasantly proportioned. It is lined all around with big windows, so you enjoy a wonderful view of the Caribbean. The beach is a very good one. If you like a condo-style place with ice-cold A/C, jacuzzis, kitchenettes and that jumbo pool, you’ll probably like Zeboz, though you may not like all the development that's going on up here, with land being cleared for all kinds of new places.   Zeboz Caribbean Resort, Placencia, Stann Creek District; tel. 501-520-4110, fax 520-4112; e-mail info@zeboz.com, www.zeboz.com. Rates: US$175-$225 year-round, with some packages available. Meal plan is US$65 per day per person.

I have stayed at the Inn at Robert’s Grove three or four times since it opened in 1997, and like a good cabernet it just seems to improve over the years. This time, in the so-called off-season in July, the hotel was almost completely booked, and I think it was 100% full one night. Robert and Risa Frackman truly have their fingers on the pulse of their market. They understand what upscale travelers want, and they deliver the entire package: beach, sports (water toys are free, and there’s a fitness room and tennis courts, plus fly fishing center and dive shop), spa, tours (they’ve added horseback riding through Little Hill Bill Ranch in San Roman village) and good food. They’ve had the same chef for years, Frank daSilva. Indeed, each time I return I see many of the same hotel staff, always a good sign. A highlight of the week is the Saturday evening poolside barbecue, with all you-can-eat lobster, fish, chicken and shrimp. My son, in his last year at Harvard (and thank the tuition gods for that) would travel to Belize just for this one meal. For 2005, Robert’s Grove is adding room service.

This trip, my family and I had one of the deluxe two-bedroom condo units, and it was a delight. The Frackmans have purchased the property just south of the resort, adding another 200 ft. of beachfront. Under construction on this land are two new “haciendas,” each of which will have two ground-floor two-bedroom condos and on the second floor a three-bedroom unit, which as I understand it will be a flex unit which can be rented in various configurations. Bob and Risa also are building a third swimming pool for these new units. Several hotels in Belize have two pools, including the Radisson Fort George, Turtle Inn and Banana Beach, but this will be the first with three. Robert’s Grove is shooting for completion of the new haciendas and pool late this year. Robert’s Grove has also upgraded its regular rooms, with a new paint scheme and other improvements. They look 100% better, and I can now say that even if you don’t choose a suite you’ll be happy with Robert’s Grove.

After a stay in Placencia, we headed out to the resort’s new private island option, Robert’s Caye, about 10 miles off Placencia. We were one of the first to try it out, and I’m happy to say we enjoyed it. Perched around on the island “Bora Bora style” are four newly built thatch cabañas. They’re situated partly over the water, so you can actually enter the sea from your cabañas for swimming or snorkeling. If you swim out a little ways there’s a good bit of patch coral, and you can expect to see a variety of fish, lobsters, starfish and other sea life. Yes, the island is small, hardly more than a spit of sand, and the cabins aren’t air-conditioned, but there’s hot and cold running water and most of the units enjoy a stiff sea breeze to cool them down. Packages include all meals, boat transfers, use of kayaks and snorkel equipment, and drinks and beer, so all you have to worry about is not getting sunburned. The Frackmans own Robert’s Caye, and they still lease another island, Ranguana, which has three cabins (with newly installed bathrooms). Ranguana is larger and has a fabulous setting on the reef, about 18 miles out from Placencia.

Inn at Robert’s Grove, Placencia, Stann Creek District; tel. 501-523-3565
or 800-565-9757, fax 501-523-3567; e-mail info@robertsgrove.com, www.robertsgrove.com. Rates at the main resort: US$179-$500 double in-season, US$130 to $300 off-season. Meal plan is another US$55 per person per day. At Robert’s Caye, all-inclusive rates (all meals, drinks, transportation) are US$347 per person for one night, with discounts for longer stays; at Ranguana the rate is US$323 per person all-inclusive.

Even with all the changes on the peninsula, most of which I applaud, I still like some of the old style places. Wendy’s restaurant, for example, in the village. While it hasn’t been in Placencia too long, Wendy’s reminds me of the old Belize dining rooms. Atmosphere it has none, and on a hot night it can be stuffy despite the air-conditioning. But the service is friendly as pie. I do believe I had the best meal of the entire trip there. It was just a simple grilled fish, but oh so tasty, and even with some beer well under US$10.

Up north in Maya Beach, there is new management at Mango's and a bunch of changes going on.



PLACENCIA ODDS AND ENDS
To pave or not to pave — that is the question. Until recently, it was a “firm thing” that the road from the Southern Highway to Placencia would be paved in Spring 2005. Now, with the budget crisis, apparently it’s not so firm after all. The paving has been postponed. Currently, only short sections of the road at Seine Bight and Placencia villages are surfaced. • The new “owners” of Luba Hati took off unexpectedly. Franco is back. The hotel is temporarily closed. • Septic tanks are out; sewers are in. Word is that no more septic tanks will be allowed for new commercial or multi-lot building projects on the peninsula. • The troubled Serenity resort has been closed by order of the government. • Ellen Lee and her husband bought the Maya Beach Hotel in April and are upgrading it. In October the hotel has plans to open the Maya Beach Hotel Bistro, serving meals to guests and the public. Double rooms goes for US$65-$85 in low season and US$ 85 to $105 in high. • Lost Reef at Riversdale is open under new management. Rooms and grounds have been upgraded, a swimming pool has been added, and there’s a pleasant bar and restaurant. Each of the five cabins goes for US$89 double. • Nautical Inn has a new operator. • Rum Point Inn is for sale for US$3.5 million. Among other hotels and resorts reportedly for sale on the peninsula are Kitty’s Place, Manatee Inn, Maya Breeze Inn and Green Parrot.Kitty’s, by the way, looks incredibly good these days. What a beautiful pool Kitty has added, and the beach remains in my opinion one of the two or three best on the entire peninsula. Next door, Mariposa is also looking great. It’s a charming little place.• For up-to-date info on Placencia, your best bet by far is Mary Toy's Web site -- www.destinationsbelize.com. What a great site!


CAYO
I didn’t get to spend as much time in Cayo as I wanted to. Cayo District, and specifically the area around San Ignacio Town, is nearly everybody’s favorite part of mainland Belize. As well it should be.

It’s the land of M&Ms, with a delightful mix of Mestizos, Mayas and Mennonites and the beautiful Macal and Mopan rivers. The Mountain Pine Ridge is cool and green. The Maya sites of Caracol, Cahal Pech, Xunantunich and El Pilar are wonderful, and you’re only a hop, skip and a bus ride to Tikal. The caving isn’t an M, except for Actun Tunichil Muknal, but it’s amazing, too.

We spent one night at Banana Bank Lodge. John and Carolyn Carr are engaging hosts, as always, and the air conditioning in the new chateau units is welcome after a hot day of traveling. The Carrs told me adding A/C has expanded their base of guests, so that visitors who wouldn’t normally stay in a jungle lodge stop off for a few nights of cool relaxation on the banks of the Belize River. By the way, the new bridge over the river is complete and should be open soon. So now you can easily drive to Banana Bank without either waiting for the hand-pulled ferry or crossing the river by boat.


I spent part of an enjoyable morning in Carolyn’s atelier. Her paintings (available on-line and in galleries and shops in Belize as lithographs, giclees or enhanced giclees) offer a remarkable window into Belize, especially the old Belize of open markets, turtle shell bands and Zebra brand “fish.” Much of this Belize is quickly disappearing. Carolyn now is working on a large painting of the horse races at Burrell Boom. I’m reminded that at one time (but no longer) horse races were held regularly at Banana Bank.

The atmosphere at Banana Bank is homey rather than tony. You dine on simple but filling home cooking, family-style. Dinner might be lasagna and a simple salad. Many guests come here for the riding — more than 50 horses, mostly quarter horses, are available for riding trips on the ranch’s 4,000 acres.

At Banana Bank, you will also see Tika, a jaguar from Guatemala the Carrs have kept since 1982, along with various exotic birds, a spider monkey and, while we were there, a brockett deer fawn.

Banana Bank guests now have access to a swimming pool, at the Belize Jungle Dome guesthouse (info at www.greendragonbelize.com) built by a young European couple who bought a piece of land from the Carrs. They also offer rooms.

Banana Bank Lodge & Jungle Equestrian Adventure: Box 48, Belmopan, tel. 501-820-2020, fax 820-2026; www.bananabank.com, e-mail bbl@starband.net. Rates US$100 to $135 double, breakfast included. Lunch is US$10 and dinner, US$15.

We also overnighted at one of my favorite lodges in Belize — Ek’Tun Lodge, on the Macal River 12 miles upstream from San Ignacio. Owner Phyllis Lane is the feisty, opinionated lady who has created a most interesting place to stay, though it isn’t for everyone. To get to the lodge, you have to cross the Macal by boat. There are only two cabañas, rustic but nicely done with traditional thatch roofs. Lighting (except in the main lodge) is by kerosene lamps. Guests need be able to walk actively, as you’ll be trekking up and down hills and rough trails. Since I was last at Ek’Tun, an orphaned howler monkey has come aboard. The monkey — it has no name as Phyllis thinks naming it would be inappropriate — has the run of the lodge now. At times it seems that it runs the lodge. The lodge has a beautiful setting, and a refreshing dip in the swimming pool, carved out of a native limestone, is one of the great treats in western Belize.

Ek’Tun Lodge: Tel. 501-820-3002; www.ektunbelize.com, e-mail info@ektunbelize.com. (E-mailing is the preferred way to reach Phyllis.) Rates: US$226 double, including breakfast and dinner.

A special treat for me in Cayo was getting to meet Ray Auxillou in person. Previously, I had only known him via the Internet. Ray is one of the great characters of Belize. The author of several novels and books on Belize, with a colorful history as a tourism pioneer on Caye Caulker and a host of enthusiasms from finance to ultralight flying, Ray has a strong opinion on everything and everybody. How an irascible old codger like Ray ended up a beautiful family and a lovely wife is hard to understand. He now has a place in Hillview, near Santa Elena, which he plans to run as hostel beginning in early 2005. The hostel is called Falconview, with rates tentatively set at just US$7 a person.

On a more touristy note, I revisited the gift shop at Caesar’s Place, at Mile 60 on the Western Highway before you get to San Ignacio. I have to say that this is by far the best gift shop in Belize. Julian Sherrard has the widest selection — really a huge inventory — and the lowest prices of anywhere in Belize. If you want handicrafts, from zericote woodcarvings to handmade hardwood boxes to Belizean junque and Guatemalan stuff, this is the place to load up. One of the better ideas I’ve seen recently in souvenirs from Belize are the cutting boards made from a selection of tropical hardwoods. They’re unusual, practical and beautiful. They come in several sizes. I think I paid around US$25 for ones I brought back.

I also spent a little time in the Spanish Lookout area. Most of my family hadn’t been there before and were interested to see all the “American-style” cornfields, chicken farms, feed stores and other businesses. I did some comparison shopping for Mennonite prefab houses at Linda Vista, Plett’s, Midwest and other lumberyards and builders. In general I thought the quality of construction was decent, given the relatively low price (US$10 to $25 a square foot, depending on the size and degree of finish, which if you like can include wiring, plumbing, sinks and other fixtures.) Framing and floors are of Santa Maria and other hardwoods. You can buy “off the shelf” or have the house built to your custom specs, usually with your choice of roofing materials (zinc, asphalt shingles or metal) and wood or glass louvered windows. They’ll deliver to your lot and set it up on posts. The work is done quickly, and you can usually have a house built and set up on your lot in six weeks or so. The Mennonite builders in Little Belize also do prefab houses. Of course, concrete is the preferred building material if you have the time and money.

ODDS AND ENDS IN CAYO: • With the completion of the new, improved road, Caracol (admission is now US$7.50, and admission rates to most of the other Maya sites have been increased to US$5) soon will be a lot easier to reach, even on day trips from Belize City. • Blancaneaux Lodge has a new pool and spa, and the Coppola stable of hotels (Blancaneaux, La Lancha near Tikal and Turtle Inn in Placencia) have a new Web site. Very hip stuff. • Look for a major expansion of tours to Aktun Tunichil Muknal cave. About 50 guides recently completed training to offer tours of the fabulous cave. • Black Rock Lodge has staged a real comeback. After an unfortunate incident a few years ago, I didn’t know what would become of the lodge. But with new on-site management, and its stunning location above the Macal River, Black Rock is getting excellent reviews from guests who like its easy-going style and its prices.


BELIZE CITY
Much of what is happening in and around Belize City now is somehow connected with the cruise industry. Belize will get about 900,000 cruise day trippers this year. Over 450,000 arrived in the first six months of the year, a 72% increase from the same period in 2003. Belize has limited cruise ships to no more than 8,000 visitors a day, but that’s a huge number given that on the average day fewer than 1,000 overnight visitors arrive by air. When (and if) the new US$50 million Carnival cruise ship dock and pier opens in early 2006, we’ll see an even bigger impact on Belize. Carnival reportedly is now backing and filling on its plan to build the cruise dock, probably to try to wring more concessions out of Belize government and to get a freer hand to bring in more passengers for less money.

Numbers like these can mean big bucks, but only for a handful of operators. Hotels, restaurants and the average small tourist operators get very little from the cruise ship business. In fact, as we’ve already seen, popular cruise excursion destinations like Goff’s Caye soon get trashed by hordes of palefaces from the ships.

Several new places are opening around Belize City to capitalize on the cruise tours. Among them: Gran’s Farm, at about Mile 14 of the Western Highway, tel. 501-227-0406, offers swimming in a swimming pool, a restaurant and bar, picnic area, hiking on trails, and canoeing in Hector’s Creek. The “package price” is US$25 for the day. I was there on a weekday and saw nobody taking advantage of this package. Orchid Gardens, at Mile 14 1/2 of the Western Highway, tel. 501-225-6991, has a restaurant, a gallery showing some of Carolyn Carr’s work, gift shop, and a small museum where part of Emory King’s wonderful antique bottle collection is on display. Most significantly, the Old Belize Cultural and Historical Centre at Cucumber Beach, at Mile 5 of the Western Highway, opened in August. it is housed in an 18,000 sq. ft. building on a 14-acre site where 40 years ago farmers used to load their cucumbers to ship to the U.S. The Woods family, of Cisco Construction fame, has reconstructed part of Belize City’s North Front Street, a Maya village, and Garifuna kitchen and other displays about different periods in Belize history. Admission is a fairly steep US$15. Don’t confuse this with the Museum of Belize in the Central Bank Building downtown. Also at Cucumber Beach is a much-needed new marina. In this area of the Western Highway is another new attraction, airboat rides similar to the airboats in the Florida Everglades.

A few other notes: Our favorite guesthouse, Colton House, is no longer a hotel. It’s a private residence. Alan and Ondina Colton are retired to Consejo Shores. Our favorite B&B, Villa Boscardi, is on the market. I met the real estate agent and a prospect.


DIESEL DRIVING
Again this trip I rented a diesel. For most of the mainland portion I had a Land Rover Defender — the classic Land Rover that to my knowledge is not sold in the U.S. I rented this one from Budget. JMA Motors, which is operated by the same folks as Budget is the Land Rover dealer in Belize. I had previously rented a Suzuki Vitara diesel from Budget. As always, Budget provided helpful and highly professional service.

I think diesels are the way to go in Belize. Too bad more of them aren’t offered for rent. Diesel fuel is available at almost all stations and costs about one-third less than gas, and diesels typical get better mileage than gas vehicles. With gas at over US$4 a gallon, the mileage you get definitely is a factor. I’m not that much of a Land Rover fan, except for the old Series II Land Rovers from the 1960s, but I have to admit the Defender was a strong horse. As they say, nothing stops a Defender. And it got me a lot of extra respect from parking lot attendants.


CAYE CHAPEL
Caye Chapel Island Resort, Caye Chapel (Mailing address: P.O. Box 5059, Ashland, KY 41105 USA); tel. 800-901-8938 or 501-226-8250, fax 501-226-8201; e-mail golf@cayechapel.com, www.belizegolf.cc

Rates: Villas: In-season, US$399 per person, per day, based on four people to the villa, (US$100 more at Christmas), US$329 off-season. Casitas: US$279 per person in-season and US$229 off-season, based on two people per casita. Rates include all meals, unlimited golf and the use of golf carts and clubs but do not include a total of 20% service and tax, drinks (a regular Belikin is US$2, piña colada US$7), snorkeling, fishing or other tours, or transport to the island from Belize City. (The resort arranges transport by air for US$100 per person, or you can go by water taxi — water taxis to Caulker and Ambergris stop at Chapel on request). All major credit cards. Some package plans may be available.

To paraphrase a famous comment from Mae West, “I’ve stayed in dumps, and I’ve stayed in luxury, and believe me luxury is better.” In Belize, the villas at Caye Chapel Island Resort are about as luxe as they come. The villas at Blancaneaux, Turtle Inn and Victoria House are fantastic, the private villas at Cayo Espanto, with their foldaway walls, are incredible, and the deluxe suites at Robert’s Grove and Hamanasi are terrific, but the seaside villas at Caye Chapel are the choicest digs in Belize. Or just about anywhere, for that matter. They’re almost 4,000 sq. ft. of upscale living right out of the pages of fancy shelter magazine. Marble floors, soaring ceilings, bedrooms big enough to play soccer in, supersized bathrooms, walk-in closets, industrial-grade air-conditioning that really gets the job done, expensive furnishings and bedding, and even your own laundry room with washer and dryer. It’s all here, with broad expanses of glass to better enjoy the sea, and a private rooftop patio, just steps from your own stretch of beach and a short putt from the only 18-hole golf course in Belize.

All of this comes at a price, of course: In-season, the villas are priced US$399 per person per day, based on four people. So a week’s stay for a family of four would come to almost US$13,500, not including drinks, tours, or transportation to Belize or from Belize City to the island. But that does include all meals, unlimited golf, and the use of golf carts. Our family had three carts full-time, handy to run back and forth to the clubhouse for meals, or to the swimming pool, and even for a little golf. Our stay on the island coincided with a full moon, and each night we’d go out for a beautiful moonlight ride around the island.

If you like golf, you’ll be in hog heaven here. I’m not a duffer, but my son enjoyed the 7,000-yard course. With the sea on both sides of the 2 1/2-mile long island and all the water traps, he went through a bag of a balls a day. It is strongly recommended that you not jump in the lagoons to retrieve balls, as sizable crocs make their homes there. In fact, when you register, each member of the party has to sign a statement acknowledging he or she has been informed of the risk. Otherwise, though, the island seems as carefree and safe as any place you’ll find in Belize. You don’t even lock the doors to your villa when you go out.

If you aren’t staying on the island, you can come over and play golf, again for a pretty penny. The daily package, including unlimited golf from 9 until 4, lunch, use of the island’s swimming pool and beach, cart and club rental, is US$200 per person, plus transport by air or water taxi.

The marina-view casitas, at 700 sq. ft., are quite nice, and at US$279 per person a bit cheaper, and are based on double occupancy rather than requiring four persons, but they don’t even begin to compare with the villas. It’s no wonder that the villas are far more popular than the casitas.

You take meals in what I’d describe as a country-club setting, in the expansive second-floor dining room of the clubhouse. I thought the meals were excellent, though not quite up to the cuisine of Cayo Espanto, where a chef prepares meals to your order and you dine at your villa. The resort GM, Cynthia Ringgold, and her staff provide guest services that are friendly and competent, but not obsequious, a service style that I think most guests prefer.

The entire island of Caye Chapel, except for one home owned by a lady from Belize City, is the fiefdom of Larry Addington, chairman and CEO of AEI Resources, based in Ashland, KY. AEI is one of the largest coal companies in the U.S. In the 90s, Addington, a big player in Republican Party circles, developed the island into a golf resort. The resort initially focused on the corporate retreat market, but now it also welcomes private guests. It would be an astoundingly great place for a wedding. When I first started coming to Belize, Caye Chapel was home to a modest resort that was favored as weekend getaway for British Army squaddies. Lordy, they ought to see it now.

Nobody asked me, but if I were a consultant to Caye Chapel, my recommendation would be to tear down the casitas, put up a dozen more villas, cut the rates, add more non-golf activities, make most everything a la carte and promote the heck out of the place. You’d have a waiting list to get on the island, because Caye Chapel has the potential to be one of the most remarkable resorts in the world.

If Caye Chapel sounds like your kind of place, and you happen to have an extra US$50 million or so, you can own it. It was put on the market last year for US$55 million. Last time it was for sale, before the golf course and other development, the asking price was US$11 million, if I recall correctly.


SAN PEDRO
Over the years I have been visiting Ambergris Caye, the face of San Pedro has changed dramatically, and the psychological tenor of the island has changed, too. Until the mid-1990s, Ambergris was still a sleepy island, with the flavor of both Mexico and Belize. Even then its fishing village days were past, but the style and pace of the old times remained in evidence.

Most anyone who came in the 90s and has revisited San Pedro recently well knows the physical changes. San Pedro town proper, if we ignore the new bank buildings and other developments along Front Street and don’t look too closely, still resembles its former self. The big changes have come south of town, where Coconut Drive has lost much of its open space and, with the condos and fences abutting the roadway, is beginning to look closed in. And on North Ambergris, where the number of new homes on the beach amazes me. I can’t imagine what North Ambergris will be like when a bridge is finally built across the river channel.

To me, however, what has changed more is atmosphere of the island. The pace of daily life is faster. People walk faster. Drivers of golf carts and the ever-multiplying cars seem more intent on getting to where they’re going. I’ve even seen a few mild instances of road rage.

How many people are on the island? The population was 4,499, according to the 2000 Belize census. But surely the number is much larger, especially if you include construction workers, folks from the mainland living with relatives, and part-time expats. Closer to 7,500, I’d say, and growing every day.

A lot of Sanpedranos are making money. Most hotel owners and tourism operators are doing well. Annual occupancy at some popular resorts is 80%, an unheard-of rate in Belize, where 40% used to be considered great. Business people are flying in and out. They’re e-mailing right and left. San Pedro has always been one of the most prosperous places in Belize. Now the money that’s starting to pour into the island is showing up in tangible ways. In new boats and cars. In US$400,000 and US$500,000 condos and houses.

Real estate prices like these aren’t even remarkable any more. They’re just accepted, as they are in Atlanta or San Diego. Tourists shop for real estate, and there’s an edge to their looking. “Are we coming in too late? Are there still some deals on beachfront?”

And the visitors to San Pedro are changing. Most of the tourists I see remind me of the ones I used to see in Sint Maarten and Anguilla in the 1970s and 80s. They expect to pay a couple of hundred bucks a night, or more, for a hotel room. They expect to dine well, and they don’t mind paying twenty or thirty bucks for dinner. They drink tequila, even though it costs several times what a local rum costs. Most of them are snorkelers, not divers. They’ve been to St. Thomas. They’ve been to Cozumel. They’ve been to Key West. Now they’re trying San Pedro.

You can probably get a sense of the types of folks attracted to San Pedro now by visiting the forums on www.ambergriscaye.com. By and large, it’s a different crowd than those who come to Belize for birding, ecotouring or adventuring, though of course there is some overlap and many who visit San Pedro also spend time on the mainland. The questions on the Ambergris Caye forum are often about panty rippers (the drink made from coconut rum), where to go to dinner and which condotel is the best deal. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s exactly the same kind of chitchat you hear in conversations about Honolulu or Playa del Carmen.

San Pedro has not one but two wine stores — Wine Devine, in a new location at Vilma Linda Plaza on Tarpon Street and the new Premium Wine & Spirits at AquaMarina Suites shops. Plus, Rendezvous restaurant makes and sells wines. A bottle of Beaujolais-Villages from Georges du Boeuf goes for around US$11, just two or three bucks more than in North Carolina. Groceries are well stocked, too. You can buy almost anything you can back home, but on the other hand very few items on the shelves are unique to Belize or anywhere in the region.

I’m not saying all these changes are bad. The booming tourist economy has provided a lot of decent jobs. Not a few Sanpedranos have become wealthy from real estate, contracting or running a business. For visitors, the island offers a lot more of everything — more and better restaurants, a much wider choice of accommodations, and plenty to do, whether partying or touring. Ambergris Caye remains a very special place, and comparison with so much of the world, it is still relatively uncommercialized and undeveloped. The beauty of the reef and the sea will never fail to amaze me.

What I do think, though, is that San Pedro has already reached the threshold of major change. There’s no turning back. Barring an economic slowdown in the U.S., we’re going to see an acceleration of growth on Ambergris Caye. While we’ll continue to see some new resort development, and perhaps a casino or three, the driver will be real estate, with hundreds of new condos, vacation homes and retirement homes going up over the next few years. The key is whether local government and local business leaders can manage that growth and provide for infrastructure, or whether the island will turn into a smaller, sprawling version of parts of Mexico’s Costa Maya.

DINING
Most visitors are probably pleasantly surprised to find so many good restaurants on one little island. Belize doesn’t have a rep as a great eating destination, but I can easily gain 10 pounds per visit to San Pedro. Most of my old favorites are still well worth revisiting. Elvi’s is as busy as ever. Many probably miss Clarence and Annabelle (who returned to Africa, I’m told, and bought 20 acres on the ocean), but the food at Capricorn seems to be as good as ever. Jam-Bel still serves hot and tasty jerk in that incomparably funky rooftop setting. Blue Water Grill still draws big crowds.

Some of the new places are packed, too. We had to wait 20 minutes on a weeknight for a table at Caramba! Restaurant. No wonder Rene Reye’s place is popular — the food is well prepared and well priced, and the service is fast and friendly. A whole grilled snapper with rice and beans and salad is US$7.50, fried chicken is US$5 and a rum and tonic is US$2. Wow!

The list of good places to eat at fair prices goes on and on: Casa Picasso, Caliente, Papi’s, Tastes of Thailand. And there are still plenty of cheap places where you can fill up for very little — Antojito’s Santelmo, Ruby’s (for breakfast), the vendors at Central Park (now there’s a little row of takeout places.) You’d need at least two weeks on the island just to sample them all. Even the hotel restaurants on Ambergris are usually pretty good. Cases in point: the restaurants at Victoria House, Mata Chica, Banana Beach and Caribe Island, among others.

LODGING
This trip I stayed at two hotels on Ambergris Caye, Banana Beach and Mata Chica, and revisited a number of others. I’ve had the pleasure of staying at Tim Jeffers’ Banana Beach a number of times, and I’m glad to report that it is as good as ever. The staff is still pleasant, perky and professional. My wife and I stayed in a seafront one-bedroom suite in the older section, but my kids tried out the regular rooms in the newer addition. I’m impressed by the value you get with these rooms. Double rates off-season are US$81 and US$114 in high season, and that includes breakfast. The rooms are new and bright, with quality furnishings, either a king or two twin beds, cable TV, phone, safe and of course A/C and en suite bath. The breakfast deal works with way: You get a voucher good for the Banana Beach breakfast (usually scrambled eggs, fresh cinnamon rolls, fruit and coffee, plenty for most people) or if you want extras the voucher is good for US$5 toward anything on the menu. It’s served in the new El Divino restaurant. I didn’t get a chance to eat dinner there, but I can attest to the fact that it has killer martinis. Banana Beach, Coconut Drive (Box 94), San Pedro; tel. 501-226-3890, fax 226-3891; www.bananabeach.com, e-mail info@bananabeach.com.

Mata Chica is a place I’ve visited many times but never as an overnight guest. My family stayed in a two-bedroom villa. Like everything at Mata Chica, the villas have style and, although they are back a ways from the water, a nicely tropical view of the grounds and sea. Staying at Mata Chica was very nice, but what has my motor running is the new La Perla del Caribe, the new villa colony Mata Chica’s owners are building a little ways north of their existing resort. These are truly mansions by the sea. They’re expected to open around March 2005. Mata Chica, (North Ambergris Caye), San Pedro; tel. 501-220-5010, fax 220-5012; www.matachica.com, e-mail matachica@btl.net.

At the other extreme is what apparently will be called Royal Caribbean Resort, a little south of Victoria House. This is a collection of little thatch huts, all jammed up together in a totally unappealing way. I call it DFC South. Who knows what plans Bob Witte has for this place? It supposedly will have 50 units. A casino, maybe?

ODDS AND ENDS
The Belize Social Security Board, already swamped in red ink and bad loans, reportedly is looking at 2,000 acres on North Ambergris. • Barges are still coming in at municipal pier. The new marina, which was expected to handle barge traffic, apparently has some problems — it’s not deep or wide enough • San Pedro is trying to clean up its beaches. You’re no longer supposed to take golf carts on the beach, and boat owners are supposed to remove their skiffs. But walking up North Ambergris I came across enough old shoes, cans, bottles and other garbage on the beaches to fill a city dump. • The first elevator on the island is now in operation at Corona del Mar. It takes guests up to the third floor rooms. • San Pedro now has a tourism information center — it’s located on Front Street at the Town Hall.



Lan Sluder is the author or co-author of a number of books on Belize, including Adapter Kit: Belize, Fodor’s Belize & Guatemala, San Pedro Cool and Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize. He also wrote the e-Book Easy Belize and is editor and publisher of Belize First Magazine at www.belizefirst.com.

TIGER WOODS SLEPT HERE:
MORE RAMBLES AROUND BELIZE

By LAN SLUDER

On my latest trip around Belize, I swam in the private pool of Francis Ford Coppola, slept in Tiger Woods' 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 ( www.budget-belize.com ). 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.

Despite putting 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 roamingÓ 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.Ó 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.

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, 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 caba–a 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 Ōn span caba–as 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 www.roaringriverbelize.com or e-mail rorivlodge@btl.net or call 501-820-2037. [Note: In early August 2003, we learned that Roaring River Lodge has, at least temporarily, closed.]

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 South African, 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 houseÓ 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 caba–as 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 "housemanÓ 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 caba–as 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 caba–as, 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 information, see www.blancaneaux.com or call 1-800-746-3743 or 501-824-4914, 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 or 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 caba–as, 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 or 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 Š 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 cornerÓ of Belize! Rates are US$50 for a double room, including a full breakfast (plus 7% hotel tax). There's also a US$20 "backpacker" option for those arriving by bus. 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.

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 being upgraded. For all the latest information and advice on Corozal, your best source is www.belizenorth.com . It's 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 cafˇ (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.

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'?tre 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 its 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 Woods slept in when he was at Cayo Espanto. Or so I was told. As I understand it, Woods 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. The swimming in the lagoon here, however, is not so good. The water is shallow and there are often sea leeches.

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 Se–or 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 cafˇ 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. For information on Pedro's Backpackers Inn, visit www.backpackersbelize.com or e-mail pedroback2000@yahoo.com or call 501-226-3825.

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.


By SHARON BONIEK

Holly, Michigan, May 2002

"When you say 'We need a vacation', We BELIZE you! You'd better BELIZE IT!"

When Ruth called me in North Dakota while I was there with my Dad after his stroke and said we needed to take a trip to Belize during her time off the after Mother's Day, it seemed to good to be true! But she said, "Consider it a Mother's Day/Birthday gift!"

I had been getting BELIZE FIRST Magazine (more like a book!) since 1998 about Belize written by a "foremost authority on the country" and had dreamed of going there! It sounded perfect since I love anything tropical!

After my return to Michigan from 2 weeks in N.D., I talked to Elmer and he was agreeable, so we packed to go! We flew to Texas on Mother's Day after church after a late start (and having to wait for the next plane) and was greeted at the DFW airport by #1 grandson Alex! We spent the night with Ruth and family, and on Monday, the unbelizable dream came true!!

It was a bit of a surprise to see so many other people also flying to Belize. Ruth sat in a seat in front of us next to a young black-skinned woman with a tiny, 5-week-old baby, and we sat next to a Belizean woman who was VERY talkative and FUll of good advice. She seemed so eager to tell us all about the country and what we should see and do! It was very helpful. She was retired, a former teacher, and was expecting her children to visit her for a family reunion, just a "coconut's throw" from the Belize international airport!

It was exciting looking out the plane's window and seeing the country below - the Carribbean coastline, the palm trees.......

At the airport, a couple gentlemen talked to us while we were in line at customs. One had a "cure for malaria" which sounded interesting. We exchanged names and phone numbers. The two were there for the first time like us checking out the country, and visiting a doctor who used the malaria cure.

There was a whole row of car rental establishments, each one vying for our business, so we checked several for the best price and vehicle. We settled on the Crystal Agency (highly recommended by the books) and got a red Suzuki Sidekick 4x4. We packed our things into the back and headed out, taking the vendor with us back to his office in Belize City so we could have a second key. (When the last plane comes in, which was ours, the airport sort of just closes down!)

We decided to drive to the far west coast as Ruth had talked to a couple from there and it was highly recommended and we wanted to see as much of the country as we could. We left Belize City and drove the Western Highway westward. We discovered there are many "Belizibumps" near every city and little (and I mean "little"!) village to slow down the traffic!

It was interesting countryside but it was hard to believe people actually lived in those little tiny "shacks" which were their homes, wide open, with sometimes no glass in the windows, but with curtains blowing out and the doors wide open.

There were horses everywhere tied with a rope around there neck by the roadside desperately searching for a blade of grass! They were thin, but looked healthy. This was the very driest part of the year - just before the rainy season, so hopefully they would again have good eating once the rains started in June!

We didn't get into Belize airport until 2:35 p.m. Belize time (they are on Central time but do not observe daylight savings time, - thank goodness! This was for real!)
So by the time we got near San Ignacio, our first destination, it was already getting dusk. We needed a place to stay. I had done my homework, so had some places in mind, and when we saw the sign "AGUADA" we made a quick right turn, found the hotel and got a room!

As we got out of our car we were greeted by a couple gentlemen. They were most friendly and I surmised they might be the owners! Not so. A couple "pastors", they said, who just came from the Lumanai area up north and the first Promise Keepers event ever in Belize.

The Aguada was nice, modern enough, but very simple. Our room had a double bed and a single bed, a decent bathroom with hot and cold water (which isn't available everywhere), and a ceiling fan (important in this 92º temps.)

We needed dinner next. There was a restaurant on the premise and one could eat indoors or out by the pool. Of course we opted for the outdoors by the pool! It was a lovely comfortable evening! We sat under a couple Royal Palms, the most elegant breed of palm, and ordered red snapper fish dinners. Ruth ordered a plate of Nachos to take the edge off our appetitie while our dinner was prepared.

A gentleman strolled by, (everyone says hello!!) We struck up a converstation and invited him to have a chair. He talked the rest of the evening!!! Very interesting to hear his perspective on Belize. He is the owner of 14,000+ acres of land in the hills outside San Ignacio and is building a house there. He showed us photos of his "palapala" (thatched roof building) which was just constructed. He is a field engineer and raising rice to export to France.

The evening was pleasant and several hours passed over dinner. He (Oscar) ordered a cheese cake he said we had to taste. Then we said goodnight to get some sleep and be ready for a day of adventure.

The day started early. The sun rises around 5:15 a.m. here. I heard a car horn honking determinedly out our window down the road apiece, so got up to check it out. It seemed it was the mailman, because he honked at several homes and I saw a man come out and receive a letter! We saw NO mailboxes anywhere, except in an open-air post office in San Ignacio town, with the private boxes out on the sidewalk!

For breakfast we had a flour tortilla and scrambled eggs with a wedge of watermelon. While eating, it rained hard! but it was of short duration.

We drove into town and decided to get out and look around, AND to buy some fruit! We were eager for the fruit which we had heard was so plentiful! We got some of the brightest orange and most delicious-ever-tasted Papaya, cut up and ready to eat, and bananas, mango, melon and pineapple. We put it in our cooler that our car agent had given us to use! We needed a knife (since one cannot carry a knife on board a plane anymore!) to cut our fruit, so we had to go to several open-to-the-outdoors-stores before we found one to use.

We also stopped in a little gift shop and got some shot glasses for souvenirs.

Then we drove to the CAHAL PECH ruins and climbed it. This is the way the ancient Maya Indians once lived. It rained, hard again, but briefly, while we were touring the ruins. There were "hoards" of the cutest little school children, all in their neat school uniforms, also visiting. They seemed to want attention! If you said, "hi" to one, the others all wanted you to say "hi" to them, too! They were very smiley, all dark-skinned, but English-speaking.

The next stop was XUNANTUNICH (shoo-NAN- too-neech) ruins, the highest place in Belize where one could see into Guatamala from the top and a good view around the San Ignacio area. Elmer and Ruth climbed to the very top - 130 feet up! I opted not to climb this one. It was very hot by now - we'd had some fruit, some of Amber's good bread, and cheese in a shelter before we went up to the ruins, but it seemed we never got enough water to drink, even though we carried water with us at all times.

The next plan was to drive the HUMMINGBIRD HIGHWAY, said to be the most beautiful drive in all of Belize. We were not disappointed. It truly was! I have never seen so many palm trees in all my life. Forests of them! The Maya Mts. in the background, including the 3,675' VICTORIA PEAK, made it quite spectacular! There were things to see and do along the way, including the BLUE HOLE NATIONAL PARK and the BLUE HOLE swimming area, but we opted not to take the time to do either in our short visit - "Next time!!" we said!

On our way from the Western Hwy. to the Hummingbird Hwy., we decided to get some gas. We stopped at the junction near Belmopan, the capital city, and were waited on by a young male attendant who seemingly didn't speak English. He said we could use a credit card, but that was not so when paying inside. When the question was asked, "Do you have a rest room", one was pointed to the back. There it was, up 2 large concrete steps with a curtain in front of a single stool! One does not flush toilet tissue down the stool in many places here in Belize. There is a waste basket for that. This toilet didn't even flush! but there was a water spigot near by and a pail.
At least it was indoors!

At the covered-from-the-sun roadside stand where people wait for the many buses that traverse the Belizean highways, there was a young man with his thumb out needing a ride, so we stopped to pick him up. His buddy came, too, when he saw there was a ride! They were from Southampton, England, and very appreciative of a ride to the point of the Southern Highway where they would catch a bus to go down to the Toledo District. They were here to help clean up and rebuild after the hurricane that came through destroyed so much of the southern area. We had interesting conversation with Chris and Enrique as we drove the several miles to their drop off point.

We continued on to DANGRIGA and HOPKINS, little seaside villages, and Garifuna (Gah-RIF-una) settlements. The Garifuna people are Black Caribs of mixed African and Carib Indian heritage. Other nationalities of Belize include the Mestizos, persons of mixed European and Maya heritage, typically Spanish speaking; the Creoles, mostly of African heritage who speak both Creole and English; some Maya of either Yucatec, Mopan or Kekchi descent; there are many Mennonites from Canada and Mexico who farm large acreages of Belize and who speak German; as well as Lebanese, Palestinians, East Indians, Chinese and some Anglos, mostly expats from the U.S., U.K, and Canada. With considerable inter-marriage, one might see a dark-skinned Belizean with blue eyes, or Asian-looking Belizeans who speak Spanish or Creole. Race is not an issue here!

It is said of the area on this east coast, "Until you've actually been there, you haven't really been anywhere." Hugging the shoreline of the beautiful turquoise Carribbean Sea are pristine, sugary beaches of white sand. We didn't see much in Dangriga, but decided to get out and walk the beach. We were disappointed to see so much litter on such a beautiful sandy beach.

DANGRIGA is reminiscent of a seaside village along an African coast. We didn't spend any time there, but there is a lot to see and do. The villagers are descendants of the original Garifuna settlers who arrived here in the early 1800's. Dangriga means "standing water." These people excel in arts and crafts, particularly in the making of drums and musical instruments, some of which are said to have "healing powers." They have an annual Garifuna Settlement Day every Nov. 19 to which Garifuna people from all over Central America come! There is a Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve here we need to see, the world's only jaguar preserve with lots of exotic birds - a real walk on the wild side, but..... " Next time!"

We back-tracked just a bit and then took a dirt road to HOPKINS village to the south.

Picture a 12-mile expanse of sugary beach bathed in golden sunlight! With cozy resorts along the shoreline under swaying coconut palms. This was Hopkins! It is a tranquil settlement on the Carribbean shores. It seemed a sleepy little Garifuna fishing village, but it is a "happening place" with lots of development starting. I could see why! I absolutely fell in LOVE with this area!!!!

One can have a choice of up-scale resort living or simple accommodations. We stopped at the TIPPLE TREE BEYA INN (beya = beach) Our dwelling was described in my book as a "beach cabin with private bathroom with hot shower, fridge, (stocked with Belize's famous BELIKIN beer!), coffee pot (and coffee!) and a microwave." There was a double bed and a futon (which the owner said she made herself!) to be made into another bed. There was a table near the kitchenette area, two chairs one could put out on the little landing at the head of the stairs which took us up to our cabin. It was her home before she built her lodge for visitors with rooms to rent on the lower level and her home up above. Anything built "up above" is definitely cooler, because it catches the sea breezes! We were glad to be up, but her main building blocked some of the breeze. While in her porch, when I paid the bill, it was definitely cooler with the sea breezes!

The owner "Trish" is from England. She lived here a year until she found what she wanted to buy. She had the Mennonites (many such communities in Belize) build the on-pillars-cabin we were using, Elmer says out of ship-lap! One could see daylight between the slats! But it was sturdy. She lived here a year and then had the main lodge built.

Her entire yard was white sand! But it was adorable!! She had conch shells and other shells sitting around everywhere, lining pathways, filled with little plants, an orchid plant was near her thatched roof garage next to our building, and other blooming plants dotted the yard. It was CLEAN as was her beach! This was a plus!
There seem to be hibiscus everywhere in Belize. I love hibiscus!!! They were in every color!

At our front door/steps was a large Cashew tree! Ripe fruit was all over the ground. Trish told us the people pick them up and make juice out of the fruit. The little cashew nut, still very green, hangs at the very tip of the yellow fruit! Next morning at 5:30 a.m. little Garifuna girls were out there with little plastic pails picking up the fruit! Ruth picked a bag full and squeezed out 3+ cupfuls of juice for us which she put in little O.J. bottles we'd saved from the day before! That would be our breakfast drink the next morning!! And it was good!! The nuts are poisonous as is, so one needs to roast them over an open fire until the oil bursts into flame, then the nut is roasted and may be eaten.

Again it was late. We'd come from the far western coast that morning to this far eastern coast! We needed to eat. Trish said "IRIS's" was good. We walked the sandy road to her little establishment. Again "little" is the operative word! It was a very small wooden building with one room with 5 small square tables and 17 chairs. A kitchen was in the back. There were only a few others dining there.

We ordered chicken and rice and beans and cole slaw - the most "typical" Belizean dinner-fare! And it was good! And only $7.00 Belize, or $3.50US!! We decided to try the BELIKIN beer. It was o.k., but we are NOT beer connoisseurs! Again, a tourist - a lady from Sweden - said hello and we invited her to sit with us. She also talked the whole time! But we learn things about the country that way!

By the time we walked back to our room, about 8 p.m., it was pitch black outside! It was also getting "buggy"!! It was either "lights out" in our cabin, or get eaten alive!
We opted for "lights out". To bed by 8 was great!

At about 4 a.m. the local roosters were crowing loudly! The hens cackled later, and by 5 I could hear activity outside our cabin. All the louvered windows had been open all night. We heard some rain during the very early morning hours, but no need to close any windows. It was wonderful!!! I saw one cockroach and one little green lizard-like fellow on a rafter, but other than the "no-see-ums" and some red-fly-like biting creature! it was okay.

At 5 I was wide awake! This was 7 a.m. body time. Time to get up and see what was going on outside!! The little girls picking the Cashew fruit, ladies outside their tiny homes with their little ones close by and the men going off to work made for a busy scene outside. We were in a little "residential area" with homes that most in the states would consider shacks. But these were people's home, where they ate and slept, babies cried and children played. One little baby last night "needed a grandma" as I always say! They need no A/C or heat! Many cook outdoors. Rainwater is often collected in barrels for cooking, drinking, bathing. Most homes are built on stilts, either low to the ground or high up.

I sat by the screen door and wrote in my journal trying not to disturb the other two still sleeping. I am NOT a morning person, but here I WAS! It was SO good to wake up early, go to bed early, and have what seemed like boundless energy all day! The air, so pure and clean, the water fresh and clear, and all the Vitamin D from the sun and enzymes from the fresh fruit - it was HEAVENLY! I SO wanted to stay!!!!

When Elmer woke up we went for a walk along the beach. One could walk for miles!
Some fishermen were pushing their boat out into the water to get the day's catch. Elmer helped them. The boat was on logs and it was rolled out into the sea. The sea seemed quite boistrous to me, but they didn't wear life jackets.

We walked 2 directions. This beach was much cleaner than Dangriga. There is a lot of seaweed that washes up, though. One Garifuna man was raking it and the litter back into the sea. Trish keeps her beach clean. I think she hires help. The Garifuna work for almost nothing $-wise! A young lady was raking her yard and doing the room cleaning.

One does NOT have a hairdo here!!!! The wind is always blowing and with my still- thick winter blood in this heat, I sweat a lot, so forget a hairdo!! I looked pretty wild the whole trip!

By 8 a.m. (the time I usually just get going at home!) we had already walked the shoreline beach 2-ways, watched fishermen push out, met an old Garifuna man on the beach who said "Hello, hello" "Walking? Walking?" I said, "Yes, walking." Then he said, "Goodbye. Goodbye." That was worth a smile!

Ruth was up and had our pineapple cut and melons ready to eat on a plate for us! A nice treat!! We sat in the chairs on the porch. Trish came out. She had rescued a baby bird which fell out of a palm tree and was looking for the red flies to feed it! We had crushed a few the night before!!!

She said she saw a Manatee in the waters from her windows. There are many Manatee in these waters! We looked for some as we walked but saw none. However, they are in those waters!!

When Ruth returned from her run on the beach, she brought me a conch shell! and some coral. I also found a piece of coral. We saw a "stash" of conch shells, but did not take one, though I was tempted! She found one washed up - this isn't usual. One usually has to get them from the fisherman. I doubt the locals think of a conch shell as do I!! I was happy to have it!

We walked back to Iris's for breakfast. We were the only ones there this time. We ordered scrambled eggs and ham for me, an omelet with bacon for the other two. And we had to have the Belizean "fry jacks!" Fried dough puffs, 3 yummy pieces! with delicious pineapple jam to put inside the pocket! Yum! A good breakfast for again about $3.50 US.

On our walk back to our cabin, we stopped at a "Super Store" - :o) An open-to-the- outside wooden building with a FEW shelves inside lined with a FEW items!! And a little girl as the clerk!! Ruth fell in love with the special hot sauce which is only made in Belize! Maria Sharp's own special recipe! It is made from Maria's farm-grown Habenero peppers near Dangriga. Maria, her husband and 3 sons and daughters work the family farm and have a family business producing this hot sauce and fruit jams, chutneys and steak sauce. The hot sauce graces EVERY table in Belize!!! Ruth had to take some home, so bought some in this little store, and some of the pineapple jam (which I bought also, along with some Pineapple Squash - a fruit-drink concentrate!)

Back at our cabin, a couple Garifuna ladies asked us to buy their hand-embroidered tablecloths and other linens, but we were conserving on cash, so declined, although they were beautifully done! I paid Trish with a credit card which adds a 4% fee to the bills. We felt it a real deal here, though, at $110 Belize/$55 US for the 3 of us for one night! Doubles run $90 Belize and Quads $120 Belize. The Belize dollar is 2 to 1 US. A good economy!

We noticed in the early morning that it was getting quite warm in our cabin. Part of that was because the power was off! Trish said she didn't know why - the village was to blame for that. We also didn't have shower water - the people use it up then it has to fill up again in the village, then there is more! We did get a shower before leaving and the power did come back on - just as we were about to leave! Ah, the joys of travel!

There are only five main highways in Belize: the Northern, the Southern, the Western, the Hummingbird, and the Coastal. The Northern, Western and Hummingbird highways are paved and very good roads. The Southern isn't complete and sometimes impassable in the rainy season. The COASTAL HIGHWAY, also, which we now drove, was not paved and very rocky and rough in our 4x4! Ruth did all the driving and did a magnificent job. There were people walking or riding bikes in the cities and towns and along other roads, with no sidewalks in places, so one had to be careful not to hit a pedestrian or a bicyclist!

Driving the Coastal Highway, we came upon a sign that said GALE'S POINT to the right. Let's go see! We had no idea what we were going to come upon. It was a tiny little Creole fishing village on a point (peninsula) where only about 300 people live. The "main street" was a narrow dirt track with little wooden homes and "businesses" of sorts on either side. But at the end of the road was this huge, colonial lodge! with the nicest, manicured grounds around it just oozing with tropical flowers and palm trees. We got out to take a look at the MANATEE LODGE.

It seemed there was no one there. Then a young man came out of the building to the side and asked if we were looking for a room. He, like all the others, was very friendly and offered to show one to us. It was up a stairs, with the most gorgeous, actual wood carving on the door, probably of mahogany for which Belize was once famous. The floors were polished hardwood. There was A/C and fine furnishings.

There was a long deck along the front of the rooms which led to a veranda at the end with a view of the bay that took one's breath away! It is said that you can sit here and enjoy the sea breeze while watching more Manatees than one sees people in this village! A long dock snuck out into the bay with a view of the mountains and land on the opposite side. This would be a place where one would want to come and just stay a good while!!! It was definitely a destination where you could unwind and relax and destress! Meals were served in a screened dining building. They even offered to go call the cook to make us a lunch!

Another young man came to talk, too. He was 29 years old, but looked much younger. It seemed he'd barely been off the peninsula, but he was a wind surfer and had won some awards doing that. He'd never been in an airplane and it seemed he longed for some adventure. He followed us back to the car - also gave Ruth a coconut to start her own tree in Texas (which she wasn't allowed to take home through customs).

He told us about the wines that are made from the fruits that grow on the different trees there, and said we could buy them at a store "in town". On our way out, we did stop to see if we could purchase a bottle of one of the fruits he mentioned, but they were sold out of that (out of season), but the old gentleman did have some blackberry wine and some cassava wine which we did buy. The "store" was simply their home! Ruth said it was very neat and clean and beautifully furnished and appointed inside, albeit very tiny. It is said that one can ask and even find a room to overnight in in these little friendly villages!

Everywhere we went, we met so many nice people. They always waved as we drove by! Or they said hello if we met in person.

We continued up the Coastal Highway. Definitely not a scenic road although there were mounds covered with trees that looked as if one might find Maya ruins underneath.

We arrived at the BELIZE ZOO c. 2 p.m. and spent a couple hours there seeing the wildlife of Belize in natural habitat. The exotic animals of Belize include the Jaguar, both spotted and black. They range from 5-6 feet long and weigh 150-250 lbs. They roam free in some areas of Belize. The puma, known in Belize as the red tiger, rarely spotted by humans in Belize but one might see its large tracks with foot and toe pads; the Baird's tapir, sometimes called the mountain cow, a really
weird looking mammal! The howler monkeys, known locally as the baboon, makes a roar more than a howl, which can be heard for miles. Coatamundi, or quash, is a member of the racoon family. We did see some of these outside the zoo elsewhere. There was also the common white-tail deer, spider monkeys, otter, crocodile, fox and many exotic birds, including my favorite, the Macaws. The national bird is the Keel-billed toucan and a very attractive bird, seen on a lot of literature and signs.

It was very warm - not a very good day to be in the zoo - and we all got a bit sun-burned, but it was enjoyable. At first we didn't see some of the animals because they were hiding, and Elmer told the keeper that we would ask for a refund for each animal we didn't get to see! Before we left, he made SURE that we saw each and every one, personally taking us to their pen/cage, so he wouldn't have to give a refund. He rather enjoyed the threat-in-jest!

From the zoo we decided to "go for it!" We'd seen a lot and covered a lot of Belize in the 3 days already, but hadn't been to the northern area yet. So we went back through Belize City and onto the NORTHERN HIGHWAY and headed for the tip of Belize near the Mexican border, or COROZAL TOWN. It might be dark by the time we get there, but we just needed a room for the night and a dinner and we could see the area in the morning before we needed to head south again to the airport! Whew!

Ruth did a splendid job of driving all this! It was over 90 miles from Belize City and we had come from the west/zoo area already! But it was a good, paved 2-lane road. There were sugarcane trucks everywhere. This was harvest time. There were also fires everywhere in spite of this being the very driest time of year here.! The whole atmosphere seemed smoky!! Sugarcane fields need to be burned down before the cane is harvested.

There were a few little villages on the way, and one larger town called ORANGE WALK, originally a refuge for Mestizos (Spanish-Maya) fleeing the Yucatan. The Mexican influence is prevalent today, with both English and Spanish widely spoken. There are also Chinese and East Indians, and we noted several Oriental eat places. There is a lot to do around here if one has time to get off the main road, a real "walk on the wild side". Again..."next time!"

The flavor of the countryside definitely changed as we headed north. Fertile land and unspoiled forests in the northwest against the Guatamalan border. Deep inland are many Mennonite camps. Corozal town is only about 9 miles from the Mexican border and many people live up here in order to go to Mexico for shopping because it is much less expensive. There is a multinational blend of Mestizo, Maya, Creole, Garifuna, Coolie, Mennonite, Asian, Mexican, and expats in Corozal. It is an ideal spot to spend a few days away from the tourist hustle and bustle. Many visitors come back to make it their home-away-from-home. They like the healthy climate of this safe, clean, English-speaking little town in the heart of the Central American tropics!! Many come here to retire and build that perfect little garden or to just relax and enjoy the sea breezes.

By the time we reached Corozal it was almost dark. We did find a nice place to stay at HOK'L K'IN GUESTHOUSE (a Yucatec Maya phrase for "coming of the rising sun") just across the street from Corozal Bay. It is run by a former Peace Corps worker/teacher and her Belizean partner. Speaking to her, she has a son in Kalamazoo, Mi. and knew about Holly! She built this motel. After working in Belize in the early 90's, she decided this is where she wanted to live.

There was a restaurant as well and Ruth sort of collapsed at a table while Elmer and I got our luggage into our room. Nice, clean white sheets on 2 queen beds, a fan overhead, a patio at one end with louvered windows to open for the sea breeze and a patio door. It was a very warm night! We needed that breeze.

We ordered our dinner before unpacking the car. The man and woman cook/team were preparing for a group of Rotarians to feed so would make ours first then work on that. We ordered a broiled red snapper/fries/salad dinner (seems to be a staple!)
and Ruth had a Belikin and ordered a plate of Nachos to share. The food was always tasty, but we were tiring of fries/fried foods and not enough greens and vegies!

The cooks were also the waiters. Their kitchen was very small! They were friendly and spent time talking with us.

We were glad to retire for the night. All the beds in Belize seem to be hard! and I missed my feather pillow! But we got a good night's sleep albeit rather a warm night. I was again awake early, which is unusual for me. I wanted to walk by the bay. Everyone else was soon up, so we dressed and took a walk.

This is a much cleaner and neater town than others we have seen. One could sense the different culture here. There were many, many fruit and vegetable stands and people were putting out there produce. It was good to see vegetables!! Was wondering if there were any in Belize!! But we were told much of that comes from Mexico. We purchased some more fruit, pineapple, mangos and bananas to have for our breakfast after our walk. WOW! We were getting wonderful enzymes here!

We walked along the bay/break-water wall and noticed nice park/playground areas as well as neat homes and yards. Not the little shacks we saw elsewhere.

We had Ruth's fresh-squeezed cashew juice from yesterday from our cooler and some fruit, packed up and drove on to a development area called CONSEJO SHORES at the very tip of Belize. We spoke to a lady in the office and got some maps and info and started to look at lots when her husband, Omar, came to show us around. We saw some really nice half-acre lots with mature trees and palms and every one on the water! Each had a break wall of sorts, some better than others. Most pieces were re-sell for someone who had purchased it some time ago. But I could see why people bought these and moved here!

A perfect, quiet place to retire! To enjoy the water, just to sit and relax or go boating, to have a garden, to have shopping nearby (Mexico) and all the fresh fruit and vegetables one would want to eat from the little markets in town! The homes were nice, the yards nice, the grass was a good variety. It seemed quite perfect.
Water and electricity were already in and the streets/roads were good, not paved but a hard, durable and non-dusty surface. On one piece, we saw a large iguana! He decided his home in a hole was the safest place to be.

We needed to get back to the airport. Our plane was scheduled to leave at 3:45 p.m.
We again encountered sugar cane trucks, caravans of them! Ruth drove around them, even taking the shoulder, or we'd still be crawling behind them! Some full wagons were being pulled by slow tractors. There were sugar cane stalks all over the streets in town - but a man was cleaning up one area - near another Belizibump!!

Near Ladyville where the airport is, we saw an eat place called the LOBSTER POT, which sounded good, so went in for dinner. No food is served on any planes anymore unless it is really cross country, and we wouldn't be home til 8, so we needed a meal. It was a simple place but with a friendly host, originally from Peoria, IL. A large menu board hung on the wall. The sign outside said "Special: Cow foot soup!" We asked about that! It is a "true delicacy" we're told. A hearty broth made with carrots, onions, garlic, cassava and other vegetables slow-cooked with a cow's foot!" We declined, and ordered a shrimp/salad/ and fries (more fries!) for Ruth and me and Elmer ordered a steak & fries. His steak was a huge T-bone! Perfectly done, and all these dinners were just $4-$4.50 US! Our waitress basically had only us to tend to and probably a good thing! She wore NON-waitress shoes that clomped on the wooden floors and had 3 inch-long bright red fingernails!! But she was nice and gave us good service.

It was HOT at the airport! We returned the car and cooler and discovered we had driven almost 500 miles around Belize!!

We had to change into travel dresses but the ladies room was SO HOT it was difficult. We found out we were in the Continental area instead of American and when we went to the other part of the terminal, we learned American's area was SO much cooler. Oh, well.

We had to walk out on the tarmac and up the steps outside the plane to board. As we left and flew over the country below, I felt a real tinge of sadness. To visit this beautiful tropical country was such a privilege and memorable experience. I had truly fallen in love with it and a dream had come true. I hope to return. There is so much still to see and do. This is truly Mother Nature's Best Kept Secret!!

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If you have read this far, thanks. I hope you enjoyed our trip vicariously. It was too wonderful not to share. We have lots of great photos!

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RAMBLES IN BELIZE: 2002

By Lan Sluder


On a quick ramble around the country in mid-June, I found hotel and tourism operators cautiously optimistic about the balance of the year and next year's high season. Since Easter, however, business at many resorts has been slower than expected. Operators see a pickup starting in late June. Resort development has slowed in Belize, with only a few places opening or expanding. Many hotels remain up for sale.

Around the country, business owners are complaining about BTL and the new seven-digit telephone dialing system. Some businesses claim the new BTL 2002 telephone directory contains a lot of errors. "The new directory is a fiasco," says Bill Wildman, a real estate developer and surveyor based in Corozal. "Every telephone and fax number of ours is incorrect both white and yellow, no e-mails even. Other people have also got similar problems. BTL does it again and nothing we can do about it but suffer the year." Other businesses are giving up on BTL's Internet access and going with Starband or another high-speed satellite Internet system, which provides DSL-speed downloads even in remote areas. Technically, these systems are still not permitted in Belize, and a U.S.-address must be given for billing.

Until the torrential rains in late June, which caused severe flooding in several areas, temporarily closing parts of the Western, Southern and Coast highways, the rainy season had been off to slow start in Belize, with only sporadic rains in most areas. Due to rains earlier in the year, however, mosquitoes were worse than usual in a number of regions.

Belize City: Despite its serious crime problems, Belize City continues to grow and to become a more livable small city. Several new restaurants have opened in the Fort George area, including the Village Steakhouse in the Fort Point Tourist Village, the Wet Lizard and Harbor Light. Jam-Bel Jerk, which has a location in San Pedro, reportedly is opening in the old Three Amigos spot. Hotels remain fairly busy, thanks to regional business and meeting business and overnight stopovers by tourists. The owners of Colton House are thinking of selling their beautiful guesthouse across from the Radisson, with the price around US$400,000, we're told. The attractive and modern department store, Mirab, remains an asset for the city centre. The Feinstein-developed Fort Point Tourist Village (see above) is a well-executed project, but its long-term viability may depend on its ability to attract local residents as well as tourists, while keeping a damper on crime, observers say. The new Museum of Belize, on the grounds of the Belize Central Bank building in what was the former national prison, is a jewel. Currently on the first level is a historical exhibition on Belize City. The exhibition was organized by Yasser Musa, son of the Prime Minister. Upstairs on permanent exhibit are Maya artifacts from the Belize National Collection. Among the items displayed are stunning jade pieces and pottery in amazingly perfect condition. If you're in the city, the Museum is a must-see (admission US$5).

Corozal Town: Corozal remains as laid-back as ever. More expats are discovering the area as a retirement or relocation destination, thanks to its low real estate prices and proximity to Mexico, but real estate prices in expat areas such as Consejo have had little appreciation over the past decade. A real estate/retirement tour planned by Bill and Claire Gray for mid-year was canceled. Thanks to medical mission business and other group business, established hotels in Corozal Town (but not in outlying areas) are enjoying healthy occupancies this summer. On the night we came through, Tony's Inn was full except for one non-A/C room. Overall, however, Corozal isn't even on the radar screen of most tourists visiting Belize. Sadly also, crime is increasing in Corozal, though it remains one of the friendliest and safest places in Belize. Even the Hok'ol K'in Guesthouse was held up at gunpoint earlier this year. The blue sky plans for a casino, hotel and shopping area near the Corozal Free Zone have been deconstructed and now only a casino may get built, sources say. Reportedly the old Don Quixote hotel site in Consejo is under contract and may become a fertility center. Top restaurants in town include the French-Caribbean Cafˇ Kela, which is supposed to get a liquor license in August, and which has some of the best pizza in Central America, and Cactus Plaza, home of tasty bargain-priced Mexican food.

Placencia: Visitors to Placencia these days are split into two camps: those who rave about the good time they had there and urge everyone to visit despite the lingering impact of Hurricane Iris, and those, mainly budget travelers, who are put off by the state of Placencia and Seine Bight villages and, while sympathizing with the plight of the villagers, aren't pleased with the lower peninsula as a vacation destination and, in some cases, actually leave early for other budget areas such as Tobacco Caye or Caye Caulker. Has the peninsula recovered from last October? Yes and no. In Maya Beach and other areas north of around Seine Bight village, things are about back to normal. All the major resorts are fully operational, and some are doing good business. But dozens of wood homes in Seine Bight village were destroyed and have still not been rebuilt. Parts of Placencia village look quite different from pre-hurricane days, and there is still debris which has not been removed. With a few exceptions, such as Inn at Robert's Grove, where occupancies have held up reasonably well and the hotel continues to expand with a new restaurant, dive shop and small marina on the lagoon side, hotel and tourism business is down sharply for many. Luba Hati, for example, closed in late May for the summer, and except for Tradewinds and a few other places in Placencia village, there is only limited budget-level tourist activity this summer. Another exception is The Moorings, a yacht charter business in Placencia Harbor which opened right after the hurricane and by all accounts is doing a booming business. It is expanding part of its operation to Robert's Grove marina, where it will base six captained boats. Real estate continues to be a driving force of the local economy, and several large upscale homes are being built at The Plantation and in other developments. Robert's Grove has sold four condos in what is the mainland's first "condominium zone." Owners Robert and Risa Frackman plan to build other condos on the lagoon side, but only when sold and not on spec. The Southern Highway is now paved past the cut-off to Placencia, but the 25-mile road to Placencia village remains a potential hazard after heavy rains. We're happy to see, however, that one of southern Belize's prime watering holes, Sugar Reef (formerly Lagoon Saloon), stays busy, especially during happy hour. In other miscellaneous Placencia news, beginning June 1 non-Belizeans visiting Laughing Bird Caye must pay a US$4 fee. A terminal building at the airstrip is nearing completion. Despite indications that lobsters will be in less than abundant supply this year, the Placencia Lobsterfest in late June attracts visitors from all over the country. Construction and rebuilding of Turtle Inn, which will be the name of Francis Ford Coppola's beach place (instead of Blancaneaux's Turtle Inn) is well underway. Grand opening is tentatively set for mid-December. Quite a few of the lodges and hotels on the peninsula reportedly are for sale, including Soulshine, Kitty's, Nautical Inn, Luba Hati, Barracuda and Jaguar Inn, and others.

Hopkins Area: The Hopkins area has benefitted somewhat from post-Iris troubles farther south. There are now more than two dozen hotels, guesthouses and resorts in the Hopkins/Sittee Point area. A few, such as Jaguar Reef, Pleasure Cove and Hamanasi are larger properties owned by Americans or Canadians, but most are small guest houses, in many cases operated by local families. Most visitors have nothing but good things to say about the friendliness of Hopkins residents. There are now not one but two Web sites focused on Hopkins: www.hopkinsbelize.com and www.hopkinsvillage.com. Between Placencia and Hopkins is Belize's newest all-inclusive, Kanantik, built and operated by Roberto Fabbri, a former yacht salesman who was born in Italy but lived for many years in San Francisco, and his partner. Kanantik opened a couple of months ago, after seven years of planning and construction. It has 25 thatch cabanas with air-conditioning, a 1,200-ft. stretch of beach and a beautiful pool. Everything is included for one price here -- food, prepared by a chef from Guatemala, deluxe lodging, air transfers from Belize City, tours, local drinks, diving and, for the time being at least, fishing. The one price isn't cheap, US$300 per person double occupancy, and we feel it's still too early to say whether this business model will work in Belize, but we wish Roberto well.

Ambergris Caye: The hyper-development of Ambergris Caye has slowed a bit, although two large new bank buildings, one for Belize Bank and the other for Alliance Bank, are under construction on Front Street and numerous other commercial and residential buildings are going up. Seferino Paz is building some beautiful and pricey (like US$450,000) condos south of Banyan Bay. Tim Jeffers has added 31 units to his popular Banana Beach resort. The units range from regular hotel rooms to four-bedroom suites; a few may be rented on a monthly basis, starting at US$900 a month for a one-bedroom suite with the tenant paying utilities. A second pool is open here, and a new air-conditioned restaurant and gift shop are on the way. The island real estate market remains active, though the apartment rental market has softened significantly with the departure of many of the nearly 200 students at St. Matthews offshore med school, which moved in late spring to Grand Cayman. Two other schools, Medical School of the Americas, now in temporary space at the Belize Yacht Club, and St. Luke's downtown, may take up some of the slack as they add students. More hotels are for sale on the island than we've seen in a while. Among them: Hotel Del Rio, for US$580,000; Hideaway Sports Lodge, asking just under a million US; Coconuts, US$850,000 with some owner financing now possible, we understand (if we had the money, this is the place we'd probably buy); Mayas Katut, $275,000; and Caribbean Villas, US$1,875,000. A new owner may soon be in place at the Belize Yacht Club. The rumor mill has it that several other resort properties south of town are in play, with the potential buyer being a group associated with a well-connected island businessman.

El Cayo and Mountain Pine Ridge: In the Mountain Pine Ridge, there are plans to set out millions of Mountain Pines to replace those killed by the Southern Pine Beetle. A nursery near Blancaneaux is growing the seedlings. Speaking of Blancaneaux, this lodge looks better than ever despite the death of many pines on the grounds. An American crew was brought in to remove the dead trees, and landscaping highlights the remaining trees and shrubs. Although there's no denying the impact of the blighted pines, near the four lodges in the Pine Ridge are large areas of broadleaf forest unaffected by the beetles. Hidden Valley Inn has been purchased by the family that operates Belize Biltmore Plaza in Belize City and SunBreeze in San Pedro. The lodge will reopen soon, with a new pool and other improvements. Eventually, a dozen more cottages may be added. Some of the lodges and hotels in San Ignacio have suffered from the slowdown in tourism, and several are for sale. The nearly new Mayaland Villas near San Ignacio is being sold at public auction.


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RAMBLES IN BELIZE: 2001

By Lan Sluder

Being the highly opinionated, highly personal report of a lengthy trip by car, boat and plane all around Belize.

My family and I spent part of the summer of 2001 rambling around Belize, covering almost 1,500 miles by car, boat and small plane, from Consejo to PG, Cayo to the cayes. The fam consists of wife Sheila Lambert, who in real life is an attorney, son Brooks Lambert-Sluder, soon to head off to Harvard, and daughter Rose Lambert-Sluder, a ‘tween. This was my family’s third or fourth extensive ramble around Belize, and my 237th, or something like that. Least, it feels that way.

As always, things in Belize were the same as ever, and very different.

Regardless of what the newspapers say or the statistics may show, Belize simply looks more prosperous than ever. New homes and commercial buildings are going up, people have money to buy things, from sodas to new cars, many of the resorts and restaurants are crawling with tourists, and a lot of dreams are being dreamed. Roads are being paved and improved, road signs are being installed, and even gas prices have declined a bit, down to US$2.80 or so a gallon in some areas. Americans are buying land in Belize hand over fist, especially on Ambergris Caye, around Hopkins, in Placencia and south around Punta Negra. Perhaps the bubble is due to burst, but for now things are still pretty good in Belize.

Belize hotels, too, are finally getting their act together. Some of the better ones are doing a great job meeting guest expectations. The days of overpriced hotels with linoleum on the floors, three inches of foam on the bed, and Tang and white bread on the breakfast table are about over. Even in the off-season some hotels were full, and several hotel owners said they had just had the best July in history. Summer in Placencia, though, remains pretty slow, except at a handful of well-marketed resorts such as Robert’s Grove. Despite improvements to the Southern Highway, Punta Gorda is still dead for tourism, and Corozal Town isn’t much better off.

Tourism has been on a roll in Belize ever since Keith, with nearly two years of record occupancy levels. However, even before the terrorist attacks, hotel owners were seeing a bit of a slowdown for the 2002 season. Now, with the world-wide travel slowdown and the recession in the U.S. and perhaps around the globe, nobody knows what may happen. When the U.S. economy sneezes, Belize catches cold. Belize hotel owners, in a survey by BELIZE FIRST in the first week of October, are predicting that tourism in 2002 will be flat. If it’s flat or only down a bit, I think that will be an amazing performance.

Though the Belize newspapers are full of crime reports, and more hotels are hiring security guards, we had not a single concern about safety. The only small problem we had was that someone busted a door handle on our Suzuki Grand Vitara, trying unsuccessfully to break in. It apparently happened in a remote bush area near the Macal River, when we left the car parked overnight.

The weather for our ramble was excellent, with only a day or two of real rain the entire trip. A few nights on the coast and cayes we had storm squalls. It was seasonably hot and humid, with a few becalmed days on the coast bringing out the bugs in force. We had just one flat tire, nobody got sick despite eating and drinking in the best places and worst dives we could find (except toward the end of the trip I came down with what was either a mild case of dengue or a nasty case of flu), and we spent only a small part of our children’s inheritance.

AMBERGRIS CAYE
It’s always a pleasure to be back in Key West ... er, I mean, San Pedro. These days, it’s getting harder to tell the difference. What with all the new houses and taxis and condos and timeshares. And all. But, seriously, folks ... when you’re sipping a Lighthouse, in the soft warm Caribbean evening, with a full moon hanging large over the sea, there’s no better place to be than San Pedro.

What’s new? Better ask, what isn’t? Every trip the island changes, especially south of town and on the north end. Beautiful downtown San Pedro hasn’t changed much since I started coming here a decade ago, but south of town, wowser! Wall to wall buildings in places, where once there only was sand. We’re told there are some 700 construction workers on the island now, including a couple of hundred at those new (and controversial) prefab units on the back side of San Pablo. Apartment buildings, with prices higher than Clearwater, Fla., are popping up like weeds after a rain. I hate to echo what everybody else is saying, guys, but here’s hoping San Pedro doesn’t kill the golden goose. Tourists don’t come to San Pedro to go mano a mano with a pickup truck.

Some things stay the same, though. Elvi’s is still packed every night. Fido’s is still a hub. Joe Tourist still gets off the Tropic Air flight with 170/95 blood pressure, hanging on to his wallet for dear life; he leaves a week later sun burned, laid back and turned down 50 degrees. And San Pedranos are still among the friendliest folks in the Caribbean.

So, let’s take a tour ‘round the island. Down south, the oft underrated but really attractive Sunset Beach is building new three-bedroom units for the family market. Victoria House is looking spiffier than ever, and the new pool is a beaut. Tim Jeffers is still running a good ship at Banana Beach and Coconuts. Nobody in Belize has friendlier staff, or offers better value. The new reception area and office at Banana Beach looks great, and I especially like the banana trees in the breezeway. Coconuts has added a room or two, much needed given the high occupancy these two well-run places deservedly enjoy. Tim says Banana Beach is moving ahead with its expansion. It’s adding a restaurant/bar, four one-bedroom apartments for the long-term traveler or monthly renter, 24 hotel-style rooms and three deluxe two-bedroom, two-bath oceanfront suites with full kitchens. Extra facilities may include an additional swimming pool and a day spa or dive shop.

I’m told there was a coup d’etat at St. Matthews, the little offshore med school. Some old guys out, some new guys in. The old guys are trying to start up their own med school, affiliated with the Medical University of the Americas, another offshore med school which has operations on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and Saba. Incoming students probably aren’t too happy when they hear about the sudden changes or the eviction notice the school was slapped with at one point. I guess there’s a reason why these offshore schools aren’t exactly in the same league with Duke University Medical School. I mean, would you like your family phys to have learned her skills from a school in temporary quarters with the faculty squabbling over who’s really in charge? Gimme a break, Doc. With the school just graduating its first class, this wasn’t the kind of publicity anybody needed. Let’s hope things get straightened and the new campus south of town gets built real soon, with a little more professionalism.

I stopped by Xanadu (tel. Phone: 501-2-62814, fax 2-63409, e-mail xanadu@btl.net, www.xanaduresort-belize.com) and got the cook’s tour from owner, who hails from South Africa by way of Canada, and his son. Xanadu, as you probably know, is that collection of odd-looking concrete domes with thatch coverings, as if Buckminister Fuller married a Maya girl. It’s billed as the “first monolithic dome resort in the world” which may be true but it doesn’t sound like good marketing to us! Building these babies involves inflating a a kind of balloon, then spraying on a special concrete mixture. The foam insulation core cuts energy costs substantially. Construction costs for these structures run 30% or more higher than regular concrete, but they’re said to be able to withstand winds of 300 miles an hour (how they’ll hold up to a 15 foot sea surge, I don’t know?) Inside, they’re upscale and very attractive. Xanadu is building two new three-unit domes, for a total of 10 units. Some of the units are owner-occupied, and some are rented to tourists.

Rock’s II, not that long ago the island’s premier grocery, is out of business, and the space is occupied by an Internet cafˇ. El Patio next door is still a good place to eat, though I heard complaints about the s . . l . . . o . . . w service and smaller portions. Despite its prices, guess Island Supermarket is where most everybody south now shops, and at the Island Super you can even buy a Mabe fridge with your Red Fanta. I see Barefoot Iguana now has a coin laundry, for the suds and duds set, I guess. Carmen’s, across from Woody’s Wharf, is a great, low-cost place for a tasty breakfast or lunch. What an asset for the south end!

We stopped in to revisit Caribbean Villas (tel. 501-2-62715, fax 2-62885, e-mail c-v-hotel@btl.net) This has always been one of our favorite hotels on the island, but of late we have had a complaint or two about the upkeep and furbishings. Susan Lala showed us around, and everything looked pretty good to us. The Lalas are redoing the double rooms and plan an annual “fall cleaning and spruce up.” To be candid, though, some of the newer places on the island, with freshly minted rooms, swimming pools, hot tubs, cable TV and other spiffy amenities, may appeal more to today’s generation of San Pedro travelers. Older properties like Caribbean Villas, even with their lovely and quiet settings, may need to make some investments to keep up with the Joneses.

Closer to town, it was super to see SunBreeze and GM Julia Edwards looking so nice. SunBreeze remains one of my family’s favorites, for location, down-to-earth service and the lovely pool.

Caliente (in the old Little Italy location in the Spindrift) appears to attract a lot of locals. Our meal was very good, though with the closed in design of the restaurant space we missed the cool breezes some of the other restaurants enjoy. Mango’s, down at the bottom of Front Street near the library, is another local fave -- interesting sandwiches and refreshing smoothies. Papi’s, a bit north of the main part of town, got rave reviews from everyone we talked with who ate there -- it’s nothing but modestly priced, honest Belizean food. Try the fried chicken at just US$3.75, or the grilled fish for around eight bucks. Who could ask for more? (But come early, as table space is limited.)

Dinner up on the roof at Jam-Bel Jerk also was delicious, and a bargain. You gotta love them hot wings. It wasn’t until the other day that I figured out that Jam-Bel stands for Jamaica-Belize. Duh.

The new Fountain Blue Hotel (P.O. Box 107, Barrier Reef Drive, San Pedro, tel. 501-2-63700, fax 2-63650, e-mail fountainblue@btl.net, www.fountainbluebelize.com/index.html) at the north end of Front Street, though somewhat controversial when it was being built, has turned out to be a nice addition to the “Uptown” hotel inventory. The 21 suites, all with small balconies with sea views, and fully equipped kitchens, are not overly large, but they are attractively finished out. There’s a small pool. Low-season rates are affordable at US$100 to $125. High-season rates are, well, a bit higher than we’d expect, at US$200 to $225. I think we’ll see some drop-back on rates (and not just at Fountain Blue), what with the U.S. and global recession.

These days, there’s so much to do on the island -- windsurfing, parasailing, jet skiing, clubbing, restaurant hopping. Who can remember when the only activities were avoiding the bends and bending an elbow. My son, brave at 17, did the parasailing thing. He thought it was fun to do once, but not too exciting . However, Marty Casado of AmbergrisCaye.com tells me one of his two recent trips was a rip-roarer. Guess a lot depends on the wind conditions.

We broke Moncho’s rules and went as far north (cart and two people, five bucks US round trip on the hand ferry) as we easily could in our golf cart, to around Belizean Shores. Captain Morgan’s is still abuilding as is Belizean Shores. Is there really a market for all these condos?! Next door, the Essene Way is just sitting and fading away. You know the story, don’t you? Orlando nutrition supplement magnate spends US$7 million on buying and fixing up the old Belizean property, keen on making it a Millennium hideaway, religious retreat cum upmarket resort. But 2000 comes and goes, and nothing much happens. And nothing much happens. And nothing much happens. We’re told the place is for sale. That’s Belize for you.

Another day we chartered a boat (“Oh, Danny Boy”) and toured around the island. Up north, the chic Mata Chica is still perking, with an enviable occupancy rate, we’re told. Portofino (tel. 501-2-12096, fax 501-2-12096, e-mail portofino@btl.net) nearby is following in the footsteps of Mata Chica, with plans to be even more tony. If all the plans come to fruition, it will be quite a spot. It has an international-style restaurant, an “ocean swimming pool” (a spot beside the pier that has been scooped out and set up as a swimming area) and 11 units including beach caba–as, tree house suites and a deluxe suite. But as with any new resort, the proof is in the pudding. Folks who pay US$300 or $400 a night for a room have high expectations, and only management with a rare combination of true concern about guests, a sense of style and great detail orientation can make it work. We hope it does. After a series of delays and partner and money problems, Portofino was set to open October 10.

Avalon Resort, nee Casa Caribe (the troubled property formerly owned by some of the current Portofino team), is another question mark. Can the timeshare company that bought this make this remote property work? Will they actually build out to the 242 units they say they will, making this by far the largest resort in Belize? Are Americans really going to buy 12,000 timeshare weeks in Belize? Will they really cut a channel through North Ambergris? As to the last, years ago, we would have said no way, but with the new money-opens-doors attitude in Belmopan and San Pedro, who knows?

Timeshares, sad to say, seem to be sprouting up everywhere on the island these days. It doesn’t yet remind us of Cancun or Coz, where every street corner holds a timeshare tout, and let’s hope it never to gets to that stage. A high-profile if problematic new timeshare is Basil Jones Resort & Club, next to the Nova shrimp farm about 13 miles north of San Pedro. This “Tiki” style timeshare was originally scheduled to open this past spring, but various problems -- money and partner problems, ‘natch -- held up construction. Most of the sales to date have come from auctions on e-Bay. (The Web site calls for “occupancy starting January 1” at US$3,495 for a “red week” in “phase II” ... whatever that means in timesharespeak.) We do applaud the effort by GM de jour Gary Carlson, who was kind enough to show us around the property, to take care of buyers who showed up with no place to stay. Gary, who arrived on the island in May, has a lot on his plate. We also like the natural beauty of this part of North Ambergris. Rare in Belize, there’s snorkeling around coral heads close to shore, though the current can be pretty strong. Still, we wonder if naive buyers who arrive without ever having been to the property or even to Belize realize how remote Basil Jones is. As the Web site accurately states, a stay here will definitely be a “relaxing vacation.” We also wonder how long the beachfront cabanas will last, come the next hurricane or even heavy tropical storm. And, finally, we wonder if the money problems at this timeshare are truly over. By the way, there’s a similarly named, unopened Basil Jones resort just a few hundred yards up the island -- no relation.

This trip, my family and I stayed in one of the two-bedroom, two-bath condos at Villas at Banyan Bay (P.O. Box 91, San Pedro, tel. 501-26-3739, fax 501-26-2766, e-mail: banyanbay@btl.net, www.banyanbay.com), and what a terrific family place this is! This time of year at least, the majority of the guests here do appear to be families. The kids seem to love the big, two-section pool, and dad and mom go for the fully equipped kitchen and the jacuzzi off the master bedroom. The beach here, about a mile and a half south of town, is one of the best on the island, and there’s a dive and gift shop on the pier. The new Rico’s restaurant didn’t knock us out, but service was good, and it has a beautiful setting on the water for drinks or dinner; breakfast is handy and workmanlike. We were impressed by the space at Banyan -- these units are twice as big as many of the so-called “two bedroom condos” on the island -- and by the high degree of maintenance. The apartments we saw look just as good now as when they were built several years ago. The woodwork and cabinets are mahogany, and the cathedral ceilings in the main living area sport a stunning array of tropical hardwoods. But I like this place for a simple reason: The air conditioning works. I get a bit tired of hotels in Belize where the air conditioning just barely sputters along, where it only gets cool in the middle of the night. At Banyan Bay, the units get cool and, with the help of ceiling fans, stay comfortable. At this 42-unit condotel, there’s 24-hour security, cable TV and all the pleasures of home ... if your home happens to be just steps from the Caribbean. Yes, we know this is an RCI-affiliated “TS” but that’s just a minor part of the operation. A new office/lobby and fitness center are under construction, and plans are for expansion to the temporary St. Matthews site, with more units and another pool. You don’t get this quality for peanuts. Rates start at US$200 off season for two people (though there are packages and some discounts available) and range way up to US$375 for four people in high season, plus 7% hotel tax. All in all, highly recommended if you and yours want space to spread out and enjoy island life.

CAYE CAULKER
I never get to spend as much time as I’d like on Caye Caulker. The charms of Caulker grow greater each time I visit. I’ve been to a couple of dozen Caribbean islands, from St. Thomas to St. Maarten to Saba to St. Croix to Antigua to St. Barts to Statia, I hope locals know what they’ve got. Caye Caulker has the kind of laid-back, sandy street, tropical color, Caribbean charm that travelers pay thousands to experience, but here they can do it for peanuts. Because the island is much smaller than Ambergris Caye, and not so rich, it hasn’t succumbed to the temptations of the internal combustion engine. On Caulker, you don’t feel like you’ve stumbled on a Saturday night cruising strip, where everybody who owns a car or truck drives around and around the town, as unfortunately is increasingly the case in San Pedro.

A few goings on: The island’s best-known eatery, the Sand Box, has changed hands. Let’s hope it keeps serving the great food it was famous for. Tropical Star has been closed by the government (and no wonder, with all the complaints about this joint). The gov’mint, in the form of the Belize Tourist Board, is also considering closing down Tina’s Bak-Pak Hostel, saying it’s not up to snuff. This hostel may not be the fanciest place on the island, but it seems to be popular with the European, back-pack crowd. I say let the marketplace make these decisions, unless there are legitimate complaints from tourists. Cindy has a new coffee place beside Trends on Front Street, and there is a new Internet cafe next door to Lucy’s, with discounted rates of just US$5 an hour. I’ll save the other changes on Caye Caulker for the new edition of Fodor’s Belize & Guatemala Guide, which I’m updating again. But let me put in a plug for one of the really good places to stay on Caulker -- Tree Tops (P.O. Box 29, Caye Caulker, tel. 501-2-2008, fax 2-22115, e-mail treetops@btl.net, www.treetopsbelize.com). Tree Tops, close to the water a bit south of the public dock, is run by Terry and Doris Creasy and their flock of little terriers. Each of the rooms has a sort of theme. One, for example, is the “East African” room, and it’s complete with African spears and a shield on the wall. All have color cable TV and a fridge. Two have private baths (one has a composting toilet) and the others have shared baths. One room has A/C. The garden plantings around Tree Tops were blown away by the last ‘cane, but the Creaseys are getting it back in order. Belize needs more places like this one -- the guest rooms are clean as a pin, the entire place is meticulously maintained, the owners are helpful, and rooms cost just US$32.50 to $42 double. I agree with my travel writing colleague Peter Eltringham (The Rough Guide to Belize) that for the money this is one of the best little hotels in all of Belize.

COROZAL
Corozal Town and indeed all of Corozal District remains one of my favorite places in all of Belize. It’s friendly, safe, cheap and comfortable. I could spend weeks here, just knocking around Corozal Town or exploring the Sarteneja peninsula. Besides, who wouldn’t like a place that has a store named after him? Nex time you’re in Corozal, stop in at Lan’s Store.

While the Corozal area is becoming recognized for as one of the best places in Belize for retirement or relocation, it still has a long way to go in tourism. Off-season, hotels remain mostly empty, with only visiting mission groups and enrouters from Mexico keeping the cash registers ringing. This may all change, though, if the Galeria Maya casino complex actually gets off the ground ... but somehow we doubt it. Here’s a bit of what we found new or different:

New Ferry Between Corozal Town and San Pedro. The Lady Lowe ferry service began in June 2001 and is already proving popular with both locals and tourists, with as many as 40 passengers. Currently it runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday but likely will be expanded to daily. Departure from Corozal is at 6 a.m. sharp, from the Corozal Bay Inn/Tony’s pier, arriving at the Texaco dock on the back side of Ambergris Caye. The Lady Lowe, owned by an American who lives in Copper Bank, returns from San Pedro at 4 p.m. Fare is US$32.50 round trip, or US$17.50 one-way. The open boat, with two 200-horse outboard motors, makes the trip in about one and a half hours. Hotels in Corozal and San Pedro sell tickets, or you can purchase them at the departure piers. Word is that another ferry service may soon begin operation between Corozal and San Pedro.

Galeria Maya. The hoopla surrounding the announced six-story hotel, casino, marina and shopping center, Galeria Maya, announced in mid-2001 for a site just south of the Corozal Free Zone, reminds some in Corozal as a grand example of smoke and mirrors. Some locals, reluctant to be quoted by name, are saying that they believe the complex, on 55 acres on the Four Mile Lagoon about a mile south of the Mexico-Belize border, will never actually get off the ground. It is, they say, a way for some people to rack up fees and enjoy expense-paid trips. Others think the heavy hitters involved with the project, including Glenn Godfrey, will make it work. Many are taking a wait-and-see attitude. “I’m neutral,” says Marti Conway, who with her daughter and Francisco Puck operates the Hok’ol K’in Guesthouse in Corozal Town. She says she is waiting to see if it will in fact be built as scheduled and if so how if at all it will benefit the tourism industry in Corozal. There does seem to be some dredging going on now in the Four Mile Lagoon, though nothing actually has been built on the site. The idea apparently is to bring in cruise ships through the Bay of Chetumal, and to draw tourists and Mexican gamblers in from the Yucatan. Does that strike anybody else as blue sky dreaming? High rollers are going to come down to a little casino on a small lagoon in the middle of nowhere? Guess that’s how Las Vegas got started, but I’m like the guy from Missouri -- you’re gonna have to show me before I’ll believe it. Belize is no stranger to blue skies projects. Numerous plans for major hotels developments have been announced with great fanfare for Ambergris Caye. Most of these plans are now defunct or in limbo, having faded away without even a trace of public relations. Galeria Maya has a bit of that same feel. Only time will tell.

International Cozy Corners Guesthouse (2nd Street North, P.O. Box 283, Corozal Town; e-mail and telephone should be available soon and in the meantime call TJ’s, 501-4-20150, e-mail blperse@btl.net). This new guesthouse in Corozal Town looks like a winner. When renovation of the first level of a large yellow concrete house at the north edge of the main part of town is completed later this year, the hotel will have three good-sized guest rooms, each with private bath, air conditioning and tile floors. There is a small swimming pool in front and attractively landscaped gardens in back, adjoining a small restaurant and bar. The guest floor also has a large commons area. This place reminds me of the Aguada Hotel near San Ignacio, a popular place with similar amenities and similar value pricing. If this new guesthouse sticks to its planned pricing, it will be the clear value leader in Corozal Town, just as Aguada is in Cayo. Daily rates are expected to be US$25 plus for two of the rooms, and US$32.50 for the master room. Weekly rates starting at US$157.50 and monthly rates starting at US$525 also are available. It is owned by Darlene Bartlett, an American who has lived in Corozal for three years, and her husband, Mario Bovio, a Mexican.

Corozal Bay Inn, Corozal Bay Road, South End (next to Tony’s), Corozal Town, tel. 501-4-22691, www.corozalbayinn.com. I was disappointed in the accommodations here when I finally got to stay overnight in them in late July 2001, though I was impressed by the bar and restaurant. The four two-bedroom suites, in a pink building across the road from the bay but within view of it, are spacious and have a lot of potential, but they need serious upgrading and a thorough makeover. The kitchenettes were particularly unappealing, with sinks that had stained tiles and rusty fixtures; the gas stoves had obviously been around a long time. The beds (one double in each of the two bedrooms) have inexpensive mattresses, and mine creaked loudly every time I turned over. Even with a good sea breeze and several fans, in July the rooms were extremely warm. In winter they would be more pleasant. All the suites do have color cable TV and are fully furnished down to the tableware. The helpful owners, Doug and Maria Podzun, say they are planning to air condition at least two of the suites, which would help. On the positive side, the new pool, just steps from the hotel’s pier, is a nice addition. Someplace Else Restaurant & Poolside Lounge, the bay front thatch bar, cooled by the bay breezes, has become a popular meeting place, and the restaurant downstairs below the owners’ living quarters is attractive, with tasteful furnishings from Mexico, and, thankfully, it’s air conditioned. Local residents seem to like the food here, especially items like the shrimp basket (USS$10 for one-half pound of fried shrimp with fries and salad) and fish and chips basket (US$8). A grilled T-bone steak is just US$7.50. There’s live music by the Mahogany Chips every Sunday. The lounge and restaurant are closed Mondays. We are sorry that we can’t been more positive about the accommodations here, as the large housekeeping units are much needed for weekly or other longer-term rental by retirees and others making the move to Corozal.

Marvirton Guest House & Lounge (# 16, 2nd Street South, Corozal Town, tel. 501-4-23365, e-mail marvirton@btl.net). This new budget guest house in downtown Corozal has eight rooms, four with private bath. There’s no A/C but rooms have ceiling fans and cable TV. The 1960s vintage house has been charmingly renovated by the Belizean couple who own it, Anthony and Virginia Bradley. They provide what they note is a family atmosphere. A new pool, tiny but doubtless big enough to do the job on a hot day, is in a garden area behind the house, next to the restaurant and lounge. Rates are reasonable -- US$25 single or double in rooms with shared bath, and US$27.50 with private bath.

Casablanca by the Sea (Consejo Village, Corozal District, tel. 501-4-12018, e-mail info@casablanca-bythesea.com). If you usually end up needing a vacation from your vacation, consider this little inn at end of the road in Consejo Village, about 7 miles north of Corozal Town on the bay. Corozal Town is a delightful place with not that much to do, and Consejo Village (Consejo is Spanish for advice) is Corozal in slow motion. At Casablanca, there’s almost nothing to do, which at a certain time in one’s life is just the thing. There’s no pool, so you don’t need to feel guilty about not getting in your laps. There’s no beach (though local residents swim in the bay), so you don’t have to worry about getting the perfect tan. There are no phones in your room, and the TV, when I was there, got only a few fuzzy Spanish language channels from Mexico (though Casablanca does promise satellite TV and HBO.) You can just sit under a little palapa on the bay all day long and read, or retire to your room, air conditioned or not, as you please, and relax on a comfortable bed. At night, watch the twinkling lights of bustling Chetumal, capital of Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, across the bay. The staff, headed by manager Irvin Wade, who recently was voted head of the Corozal chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, Belize’s top hospitality industry group, is friendly but not at all pushy. The prices are equally unprepossessing, at US$55 double off-season for a cozy, stylish room with and air conditioning, or US$10 less for a room with fan and bay breezes through the windows. All the rooms feature saltillo tile floors, custom-made furnishings of mahogany and other tropical woods, and stunning hand carved mahogany doors featuring Mayan themes. If you get bored, you can drive into Corozal Town for shopping (bananas, 16 or more for a buck) or for dinner (tacos, two for US 75 cents at Cactus Plaza) or a surprisingly fine French dinner for under US$10 at Cafˇ Kela. Or take a hike around Consejo Village, which takes 10 minutes. We don’t particularly encourage this sort of thing, but Type As can take a boat across the bay to the ruins of Cerros, or a shopping trip into Chetumal. A multimillion dollar six-story hotel, casino and shopping center, Galeria Maya, has been announced for a site on the Four Mile Lagoon near the Mexican border, about 16 miles from Casablanca by road, and another casino has been rumored for the Consejo area, but locals are taking bets the complexes never open. Owners, John and Beverly Tempe, the American couple who own this inn, might disagree, but the saving grace of this inn at the end of nowhere is its ability to put you to sleep, and to put the cares of the world behind you.

Dining in Corozal: We really enjoyed Cactus Plaza (# 6 6th Street South, tel. 501-4-22004), a couple of blocks from the bay. Service was friendly, the tacos, salbutes, tostadas and other Mexican dishes were absolutely delicious, and the prices were right -- from US 25 cents for a salbute. Most menu items are under a dollar. Four of us ate a big meal, with beers and soft drinks for under US$15. The seating is at the counter and at outdoor tables (protected by canvas). This was one of our best meals in all of Belize, and the cheapest. Cafˇ Kela remains the top nice place to eat in town. The seafood is fresh and cheap (most dishes under US$5) and the pizza is the best in Corozal. Prices are extraordinarily low for what you -- we had five entrees and sides plus lime juices and the total with tip came to US$22. Tony’s is still good, though Corozal Bay Inn’s lounge and restaurant may have taken some of Tony’s regular business. Most meals except breakfast are now served in the lovely palapa on the water (it replaced the old palapa which had seen so many enjoyable nights.) We especially recommend the fajitas. Dinner for four with a few drinks here came to a little over US$45, pricey for Corozal but affordable for most visitors. The market is a good place to pick up inexpensive fruit and vegetables (bananas eight for US 50 cents, star fruit US 50 cents a pound) and Reyes grocery has, as claimed, the best selection and lowest prices in town, including “strong rum 55 Belize dollars a gallon.”

COPPER BANK AREA
The Last Resort (Copper Bank Village, Corozal District, tel. 501-4-12009). Donna Noland and Enrique Flores run this little budget lodge in Copper Bank Village, at the mouth of Laguna Secca and the Bay of Chetumal. Nothing is fancy here, but the nine little cabanas are clean, cheap and cheerful. Prices start at US$12.50, or the best deal you can negotiate for a longer stay. The lodge now has electricity and some units have private baths. The setting on the water is peaceful, Enrique keeps the grounds well chopped, and you’ll really like Copper Bank, a friendly and prosperous mostly Mestizo village. There’s a library with a large collection of paperbacks (we promised Donna we’d send her some back issues of BELIZE FIRST, which she knew about from travelers bringing it with them but she doesn’t have any copies in library). You can get inexpensive food (including rare root beer Fantas) in the lodge’s palapa. The Cerros ruins are about three miles away by road and trail, or a short ride by boat.

Mayan Sands. We had a look-see at this real estate development near Cerros ruins. It’s about three miles from Copper Bank Village on a road that is best described as a seasonal trail. Once there, a road has been cut parallel to the water, allowing access to the lots, of which reportedly about eight or ten have been sold. The road and some partially cleared lots are all you’ll find here right now. George Russell, a dry cleaner from the U.S., is aggressively marketing these lots on the Internet. He claims they are on the “best beach in Belize” and promises a golf course and other amenities. Right now, these lots are just limestone, scrub trees and mangrove. There is no real beach and won’t be any unless you remove the mangroves (generally illegal in Belize) and any golf course is years if not decades or centuries away. The water is nice though in places the bottom is icky. We actually kinda like this remote area, but then we don’t mind being in the middle of nowhere, which is where these lots are. Caveat emptor, baby.

Cerros, on the shores of Corozal (or Chetumal) Bay, is easily reached by boat -- on a good day just 20 minutes and US$20. Of course, we went the hard way, by road and foot. From Corozal, it’s about 9 miles to Copper Bank village, and then almost 3 miles on a seasonal road, at which point you need to walk on a cut trail about 25 minutes to the ruins, which occupy a stunning sites on the water. Begin by driving to the hand-pulled ferry over the New River. Look for the ferry symbol just south of Tony’s on the road to Orange Walk Town. Drive several miles on this well-maintained limestone road. The hand-cranked free ferry will hold three or four cars. It runs continuously during daylight hours. At most, you’ll have to wait 15 or 20 minutes. Any passengers must “alight” before the drive puts the vehicle on the ferry, which can occasionally be a bit tricky. Once aboard, sign the book, giving your name and license plate number (watch out, grease from the cable used to pull the boat can get on your clothes). The river crossing takes a few minutes. Then continue driving until you reach a T intersection with the Copper Bank-Progresso Road. To the right takes you to Progresso, Chunox and, some 30 miles away, to Sarteneja. To the left takes you to Copper Bank. In Copper Bank, it’s best to ask for directions -- Enrique Flores at The Last Resort can provide good directions -- as otherwise it is unlikely you will be able to find the ruins on your own. After driving on a rough trail, impassable after heavy rains, you’ll end up in a cane field. From there, walk a cut trail through rough bush about 25 minutes to Cerros. Bring plenty of water and bug juice (the mozzies are fierce). Also, consider bringing a picnic, as there are many lovely places to sit and eat lunch overlooking the water. As long as the usual breezes blow, the mosquitoes won’t bother you when you are near the water. The excavated area of Cerros is to your right as you exit from the trail. There are three notable mounds, with some excavation, but don’t expect Tikal. Also here is a small visitors center, which wasn’t open when we were there. Cerros’ position at the mouth of the New River allowed it to control trade in the area, and beginning about 2000 years ago it had a period of explosive growth and power. Today, relatively little has been excavated. The highlight of the visit is climbing the 70-foot high temple, with views of the water. In theory admission is US$5 per person, but there was no caretaker around when we were there. In fact, we were the only people at Cerros, and probably the only people within a mile or two. Yet we never felt concerned about safety, as Copper Bank and environs is a friendly, safe area.

CAYO
It’s always a pleasure to return to the rolling green hills of Cayo. Belize’s best collection of jungle lodges and cottage country cabanas is here, along with lots of hardworking friendly folks and almost no bugs. These days, the towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena are bustling. San Ignacio’s narrow streets are dotted with tourists, in town to grab a quick meal at Fast Food (good, but not as good as places like Cactus Plaza in Corozal Town) or to check e-mail at Eva’s or one of its recently opened Internet competitors. Bob Jones at Eva’s flattered me by giving by son free Internet access. Belizean students go on-line free at Eva’s, and Bob says I’m in Belize enough to qualify as an honorary Belizeans (hah, tell that to the Belize Tourist Board!)

Not a great deal is new in Cayo. The biggest addition is the Princess Casino at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel. It’s mostly slots and video poker, but there’s live action for blackjack and roulette. One of our favorite budget lodges, Clarissa Falls, has a new palapa. Mopan River Resort (Benque Viejo del Carmen, Cayo; tel. 501-9-32047, fax 9-33272, e-mail mopanriver@btl.net, www.mopanriverresort.com) in old Benque has a new swimming pool. Manager and co-owner Pam Picon told us this pioneering all-inclusive had an excellent year -- value works, I’d say. Mopan River is closed for the summer, and we didn’t get to stop by this trip, but we did see Jay Picon boating up the river.

Hotel Aguada (Aguada St., P.O. Box 133, San Ignacio, tel. 501-9-23609, e-mail aguada@btl.net, www.belizeex.com/aguada.htm) remains Cayo’s best value. This popular spot has added attractive new rooms in back on the second floor, with prices still at a remarkable US$25 double, including air conditioning and the use of the swimming pool. The hotel bought Larry and Carol Smith’s -- they run the Seafront Inn in PG -- old black London taxi, and Aguada is using it for runs around town. Aguada also has two Mercedes vans for airport shuttle runs. We’re happy to note that the Orchid House at duPlooy’s is farther along. It’ll be a great addition to the Belize Botanical Gardens there when completed. On a sad note, after our return we heard of the death of Ken duPlooy, who had suffered from congestive heart failure for many years. At Green Heaven Lodge, the beautiful Anne-Karine (my son was smitten with her French accent), husband Dominique and new baby are holding down the fort. Anne-Karine says the hotel has had a pretty good year, although she suffered through a bout of dengue fever a couple of months ago.

The newly established Elijio Panti National Park is a wonderful addition to the already extensive Belize national park system. It comprises 100,000 acres of land around the villages of San Antonio, Cristo Rey and El Progresso. Let’s hope that the elimination of hunting in this park will contribute to the return of more wildlife in western Belize. Administration of the park is in the hands of the Park Committee, headed by a local lady, Maria Garcia of San Antonio village.

Publicly at least, folks in Cayo don’t seem worried about the recent spate of violent crime in the Petˇn, which has spilled over here and there into Cayo. Not long ago, a Chaa Creek van returning to the lodge from a day of rivering was held up by a gang of masked Guatemalan bandits. The bandits robbed the driver and guests, then fled in the van. The vehicle was recovered, and one bandit arrested. Chaa Creek paid for the victimized guests to have a quiet vacation in San Pedro.

Up in the Mountain Pine Ridge, things are not so copacetic. The Southern Pine Beetle has literally devastated the landscape, virtually wiping out much of the vast forests of Mountain Pines. Nature will find a way to recover, but in the short term it’s a mess. The four lodges in the region clearly will be hurt by the beetle, which is the same little bugger that hit pines in the Southern United States. The formerly lovely trees around the Pine Ridge Lodge now are just stumps, and even Blancaneaux Lodge, with its stunningly landscaped grounds, has not escaped. However, Blancaneaux closed for September to remove the dead trees, and we’re told that in some ways the grounds actually look better now that ever, with better views.

We know it’s not in Cayo, but over the hills in Gallon Jug, we understand Tom and Josie Harding are leaving Chan Chich. They’re moving to San Pedro. The Hardings planned and built Chan Chich and have run it for more than decade. The Geggs of Discovery Expeditions reportedly will be taking over at Chan Chich.

A highlight of this visit was our time, all to brief, at Ek’Tun Lodge (12 miles upriver from San Ignacio on the Macal River, e-mail info@ektunbelize.com, www.ektunbelize.com). Pool, glorious pool. The pool’s the thing. My kingdom for a pool like this. Even the Bard would run shy of words to paint the swimming pool at Ek ‘Tun. Imagine water as blue as a sapphire, like the waters of the Blue Hole on the Hummingbird Highway. Imagine the water coming clean and pure and cool from a natural spring. Imagine a pool constructed not of concrete but of limestone and other natural materials of Belize. Then imagine the pool set in a profusion of tropical flowers and palms. And imagine that most of the time you can enjoy the pool alone, with only the sound of howler monkeys for company. That just begins to describe the glory of the pool Ken and Phyllis Dart have built at Ek’Tun. My daughter, Rose, proclaims this the best pool in Belize, and she has swum in many of them. This pool is in many ways a symbol of what’s best about Ek’Tun. Not to put to much of a New Age edge on it, but Ek ‘Tun is a private, quiet oasis of peace in a setting of wild beauty. There are only two cabanas, set well apart, each of good size, and each with a loft. One has cohune thatch, and the other bay palm. Maya mounds are all around the grounds, which the Darts (Phyllis was formerly in landscaping) have planted with a remarkable array of trees and flowers. The cabanas have hot and cold water, perfectly drinkable from the tap, delivered by a ecologically friendly system involving a “ram” pump that runs, in virtually perpetual motion, without any source of power other than that of the water itself. By choice, Phyllis and Ken light the candles by kerosene lanterns, though other parts of the lodge have electricity supplied mostly through a solar system. Meals are wholesome and delicious, usually prepared by Phyllis herself, and served family style. Unlike many lodges, Ek ‘Tun does not have a large staff. Ken and Phyllis, who have been in Belize since 1988 and are now Belize citizens, do most everything themselves, like the owners of a small, albeit remote, bed and breakfast. The lodge sits on 200 acres on the “far side” of the Macal River (the Darts are buying another 800 acres or so on the road side of the Macal, to protect against encroachment.) Ken meets guests in a small skiff, putt-putting them upriver a few hundred yards to the lodge landing. A variety of activities are available (many for an extra fee), including horseback riding, canoeing and trips to various Cayo sites and also to Tikal. As wonderful as it is, Ek ‘Tun is not for everyone. The B&B atmosphere wouldn’t suit those who yearn for privacy or a convivial crowd, and the grounds, while beautiful, have steep climbs and sometimes muddy walks, not suitable for those who like to stroll on flat sidewalks. Rates are a reasonable value, at US$217 double including breakfast and dinner, but extras for lunch, activities, trips and drinks can quickly add up.

We also stayed at The Lodge at Chaa Creek (tel. 501-9-22037, fax 9-22501, e-mail chaacreek@btl.net, www.chaacreek.com). The “Queen of Jungle Lodges” -- in Martha Gellhorn’s phrase -- is still as royal as ever. Mick Fleming, who just returned from Cambodia, Singapore and Sarawak, and Lucy Fleming, and their staff of more than 70, keep Chaa Creek purring like a finely tuned classic Jaguar motorcar. Everything works smoothly, and the grounds and facilities, including the new Conference Centre, look great. Chaa Creek’s Natural History Centre and Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm (admission US$5, free to Chaa Creek guests) continues to improve. Hundreds of Blue Morphos were flying in the butterfly cage, and the country’s “first natural history museum” has added several new exhibits. Mick’s new thing is a Maya farm and village which he is creating, with help from Maya families from Toledo, on about 30 acres near the main lodge property. This is still a work in progress, but the idea is to showcase traditional Maya cultures in an accessible location. Already, a Maya family from San Josˇ in Toledo has started a milpa, and a small cacao plantation has been established on the site where wild cacao trees grow. Not surprisingly, there has been some local criticism of this new project. Some say it amounts to creating a “Maya zoo” for tourists, and others wonder why Maya from Toledo have been brought in, when there are large populations of Maya already in Cayo. My own opinion is that I’m glad to see a new effort to expose the wonders of Maya culture to a wider audience. Since the early 1980s, Mick and Lucy Fleming have done perhaps more than anyone else to bring a variety of high-quality tourist attractions and facilities to western Belize, creating millions of dollars in annual economic benefit to the region, and I see this as another example of innovative development. I doubt if even one in 50 visitors to Belize now gets a chance to see contemporary Maya life up close. If Chaa Creek’s efforts educates more visitors about Maya life, I think it will be a positive thing. This visit, my family and I were lucky enough to have the honeymoon luxury jacuzzi suite, actually a double suite with the garden suite (US$295 now, US$365 in the coming high season, plus 7% tax and 10% service.) We’re not used to this level of accommodation, and our mouths dropped open at the acres of space and beautiful furnishings in the suite. It rivals Blancaneaux’s villas for luxury in the bush. We’re pleased to note, by the way, that Chaa Creek has abandoned its swishy nom de plume,“Chaa Creek Resort and Spa,” and is now calling itself The Lodge at Chaa Creek. If the Lodge at Chaa Creek targets baby boomers looking for a little creature comforts with their jungle adventure, Chaa Creek’s Macal River Jungle Camp attracts a fitter, hipper , more budget minded crowd. The Spa at Chaa Creek is still alive and well, easily the most professional and comprehensive spa in Belize.


HUMMINGBIRD, HOPKINS AND THE SOUTHERN HIGHWAY
The drive down the Hummingbird Highway was as beautiful as ever. This is without a doubt the most scenic drive in Belize, on one of Central America’s best roads. While the scenery can’t compare with that in the high mountains of Costa Rica or Guatemala, the Hummingbird has its own charm, with citrus groves and small milpas set against a backdrop of high rolling hills of multihued green. Belize’s history comes alive on the Hummingbird, with old banana railway bridges, dating from the early part of the 20th century, still standing beside the highway. You can make good time on this road, though you have to keep alert for topes, but it’s a shame to drive too fast. There’s a lot to see, and stops at the Blue Hole and Five Blues national parks are well worth the time.

Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Lodge (P.O. Box 356, Belmopan; tel./fax 501-8-22800, e-mail caves@pobox.com, www.cavesbranch.com) was busy with happy campers (and more upscale travelers, too.) But most of the crowd at the bar and restaurant looked irritatingly young and fit, and except for yrs truly, no couch potatoes were in sight. Ian himself looks like he spends his mornings rappelling down ravines and slurping through caves. The lodge offers something for most everyone, from camp sites for backpackers to cabanas with private baths for the more financially able. Two more “deluxe cabanas” are being constructed across the road from the main lodge area.

Dangriga, at the terminus of the Stann Creek Valley Highway (as the Hummingbird is called as it approaches the lowlands) remains a mystery. Why is this Garifuna town on the sea of so little interest to visitors? One reason, in my opinion, is the lack of good hotels and restaurants. Most of Dangriga’s hotels, even the best of them such as Pelican Beach, are throwbacks to an earlier Belize where hotels had linoleum floors and cheap mismatched furniture, and everything cost twice as much as it should. If Dangriga ever gets a truly first-rate resort hotel, with value pricing, my guess is it will start to attract a sizable number of visitors. It’s the natural stopping off point for trips south, and the predominantly Garifuna culture is of considerable interest, but at present it is only a jumping off point for visits to the middle and southern cayes.

Heading south on the Southern Highway, the first 12 or so miles to past the turnoff to Hopkins, are now paved and in terrific shape. One only has to recall how terrible this road use to be to become giddy with excitement at how wonderful it is to drive it now. I was tempted to stop, get out and pat the road to assure myself it really exists. The engineers and workers who built this road have done an amazingly good job. Congratulations! South of Hopkins to near Independence the road is still being graded and prepared for paving, and driving this section, as I did, late at night in the rain, is nothing short of a nightmare. With heavy equipment and trucks shining their lights at eye level, you can barely see the one-way sections or even where the road is supposed to go. Even though I’m familiar with the road, I missed the turnoff to Placencia and had to backtrack a few miles. The sharp rocks exposed by the grading are hell on tires. We had a flat near Independence, as a sharp stone punctured the tire. (Repairing it with a plug cost US$3.50.) The paved section resumes north of the road to Independence and continues both to Independence and, following the right turn south, a few miles toward PG. However, about 35 miles or so of the Southern Highway from south of Independence to Big Falls is the same as always -- unpaved and muddy in wet weather, dusty in dry.

But, back a moment to Hopkins, one of our favorite places in southern Belize. This poor little Garifuna village is looking extremely prosperous these days. The village residents are obviously taking advantage of the opportunities offered by rich gringos who are flocking to this area, seeking seafront land. We just hope the friendly, laid-back atmosphere of Hopkins doesn’t completely disappear.

This trip, my family and I stayed at Hamanasi (Hopkins Village, P.O. Box 265, Dangriga, Stann Creek District, tel. 501-5-12073, fax 5-12090, e-mail info@hamanasi.com, www.hamanasi.com). Driving up from the back, this resort looks unprepossessing, but once on the grounds, the wow factor is high. The restaurant and lobby are attractive, the grounds well kept, and the pool, with a “zero effect” is one of the nicest I’ve seen in Belize. There are three types of accommodations -- regular rooms in the main building (US$100 to $170 depending on the time of year), suites in a separate set of buildings (US$150 to $225) and “tree houses” on the back side (US$100 to $170). Rates include continental breakfast. All the rooms are gorgeous, though personally I like the suites best. They remind me a good deal of the units at Inn at Robert’s Grove, and indeed the same Mennonite builder constructed Hamanasi as built Robert’s Grove (and a number of other top resorts in Belize.) The accommodations at Hamanasi -- Garifuna for almond tree -- are much nicer than I expected they would be, and it’s always a plus to have a hotel exceed your expectations. The owners, Dana and David Krauskopf, who look like they just stepped out of a Travel & Leisure magazine spread, seem to know what they are doing. While they haven’t run a hotel before, they have experience in the travel agency biz and in marketing. Certainly their cats, furry grey ˇmigrˇs from Russia, know exactly what they’re up to. The operation is still getting its sea legs, and not everything works perfectly -- for example the air conditioning in our suite didn’t -- but I have a feeling that before long things will get smoothed out. As many as 75% of the guests here presently are divers, albeit in many cases recreational divers. Barrier reef dives (two tanks) are US$65, and Turneffe Atoll dives (three tanks) are US$120. I suspect it is smart marketing to focus on diving now, but as the resort matures I would think a larger percentage of guests will come just for the seaside ambiance and nature tours.

Next door, Jaguar Reef (tel./fax 501-2-12041, e-mail jaguarreef@btl.net, www.jaguarreef.com) is looking better than ever. The landscaping around the duplex cabanas is starting to pay off. Owner Bruce Foerster tells us the deal to sell the resort has fallen through, and he is going to be giving more personal attention to the property. He is buying out his partners and is upgrading the rooms this fall. The lodge has added four more two-bedroom units, and Bruce says he is giving thought to an even larger expansion. We’re told that the hotel also plans to go ahead with its 9-hole golf course, a “dunes course” using synthetic turf on about 20 acres. It could open the middle of next year. We’re no experts, but we wonder if this kind of golf course is the best idea for Belize. There definitely are advantages to synthetic turf , both in holding down maintenance costs and in reducing environmental problems associated with runoff from greens. However, we can just imagine the guidebooks savaging the idea of an “Astroturf golf course” in Belize. Guess time will tell.

We had dinner at Beaches and Dreams (tel./fax 501-5-37078, e-mail dreams@btl.net, www.beachesanddreams.com) and the food was delicious. We ate well without breaking the bank. Little beachside inns like the four-unit Beaches and Dreams contribute so much to the appeal of Belize. Run by the owners, these inns offer an up-close-and-personal lodging experience. We hear nothing but good feedback from guests who stay at Beaches and Dreams. We’re told that a pool may be in the offing. And here’s something that may have escaped your notice: Beaches and Dreams is the only hotel in Belize to be listed on the ITMB Belize Traveller’s Map. In the new 2001 edition, the hotel is right there just north of False Sittee Pt.

Pleasure Cove bills itself as “ADULTS ONLY RESORT with European sophistication that blends beautifully into the relaxed, tropical landscape.” In a brief visit, this spot didn’t strike us quite that way, but we’re willing to be convinced.

On the real estate side of things, lots of lots have been sold at the British-American Cattle Co. properties in this area, and a few very nice homes are going up.

Alas, we ran out of time and didn’t get a chance to see Kanantik, the upscale all-inclusive that’s abuilding north of Hopkins. We hope to get back around the time of the grand opening in late 2001.

Speaking of north of Hopkins, we finally got the opportunity to visit with Kevin and Nanette Denny, -- Nanette is Belizean and Kevin is an American -- who run Mama Noot’s Backabush Resort (mamanoots@btl.net, www.mamanoots.com) near the Mayflower Maya site. It’s about 4 miles west of the Southern Highway, at the end of a pretty good dirt road. I was impressed by this newish lodge. The grounds are being kept well-chopped and open, though the backdrop is the rugged Maya Mountains. Power here is from a combination of solar, hydro and wind sources, and some of the food for the restaurant is organically grown. You have a choice of a thatch cabana (US$118 double) or modern rooms (US$75). The rack rates seem a tad high for this type of facility, but what do we know? We didn’t eat a meal here, but Nanette says she tries to make the food interesting, not just rice and beans. Dinner costs US$18. Kevin says the unpleasantness about the the unlicensed guns is behind them. All it took to resolve the matter was a lot of money.

PLACENCIA
Those who haven’t been to Placencia for awhile may be surprised by what’s on the road -- pavement instead of dirt. At least, from Seine Bight village through Placencia village, except for a short stretch that’s still unpaved between the two villages. Elsewhere on the peninsula, however, the road is as before -- muddy and sometimes treacherous after rains, dusty otherwise.

The hot button in Placencia remains real estate. Americans yearning for their piece of the Caribbean are still snapping up seafront lots, at prices that sometimes exceed US$1000 a front foot. Seems high, until you look at oceanfront prices in the U.S. I’ve seen building lots with ocean frontage in South Carolina going for more than $5 million.

What’s new in Placencia? Condos, for one thing. Can you believe that this little piece of the South Pacific in Central America now has condos? There’s a “condo zone” being established by the Belize legislature. As we understand it, the zone will run from just south of Seine Bight to the airstrip. Inn at Robert’s Grove have built and are selling condos, and we’re told others are planned. Speaking of condos, we had a delightful cocktail hour with Mary Toy, of Kevin Modera Guide Services, on the verandah of the condo suite where we stayed at Robert’s Grove. It was nice to put a face to a longtime computer friend.

There also are several new resorts in Placencia. Whether the new properties will do sufficient business is hard to say. Placencia is busy enough during the high season, but in the summer things really slack off. It’s always an eye-opener to visit Ambergris Caye and Placencia in the summer -- San Pedro hops with visitors even in the slowest weeks, but Placencia still dozes. Calico Jack’s Resort, at the north end of Maya Beach, is a new thatch cabana colony. The six cabanas and restaurant were still under construction when we were by, but the resort should be opening soon. For information, call 1-800-500-5212, e-mail per@postmodernmedia.com or visit the Web site at www.calicojacksresort.com. Ocean’s Edge Beachfront Resort (http://www.oceansedge-belize.com/) -- not to be confused with the similarly named hotel on Tobacco Caye -- is expected to open later this year. It will have Mennonite-built cottages for rent on a weekly basis. Maya Breeze Inn (tel. 501-6-37012, e-mail info@mayabreezeinn.com, www.mayabreezeinn.com), operated by Tressa and Buddy Olson, is expanding. They are adding apartment units on the beachside and are building a small hotel on the lagoon side. The one and two-bedroom “cabins” on the beach look like good choices for families wanting housekeeping units. (Don’t confuse Maya Breeze Inn with Maya Beach Hotel or Inn at Maya Beach or Maya Playa.) We’re happy to see the increase in housekeeping units on the peninsula. Barnacle Bill’s (23 Maya Beach Way, tel. 501-6-37010, e-mail taylors@btl.net. www.gotobelize.com/barnacle/) one of the first self-catering options at Maya Beach, is looking great. Run by Bill and Adriane Taylor, Barnacle Bill’s now accepts credit cards.

Down at the other end of the peninsula, at the north end of Placencia village, we were delighted to find a wonderful new option for budget/low moderate accommodations -- the Manatee Inn (tel./fax 501-6-24083, e-mail manateeinn@btl.net, www.manateeinn.com). Run by a friendly young couple, Slavek and Lenka Machacka, from the Czech Republic by way of Canada, the Manatee Inn (tel./fax 501-6-24083, e-mail manateeinn@btl.net, www.manateeinn.com) offers top value for the money. New rooms on the second floor, with fans and private baths, are US$30 double off-season, and US$40 in high season. The hotel isn’t on the beach, but it does have a freshwater above-ground pool. The Machackas are finishing apartment units on the first floor. Of course, Tradewinds (tel. 501-6-23122, e-mail tradewinds@btl.net) remains just about everyone’s favorite beachfront budget spot. The little pastel cabins at the south end of Placencia village are cute as bugs’ ears.

Other changes, good and bad: We’re told that the sale of Kitty’s Place is near at hand. Kitty’s has long been one of our favorite places in Belize, and we look forward to revisiting it under the new ownership. Changes at Serenity are perhaps less happy. Of course we were stunned and saddened to hear of former owner Tom Giblin’s murder in Puerto Cortes, Honduras. Tom was well liked in Belize, and even though he had been away from his home in Connecticut for 12 years, we understand more than 500 people attended his funeral there, and 750 came to the wake. The resort, however, seems to be slip-sliding under its present management. We hope that things will turn around here soon. The former Hotel Seine Bight/Bahia Laguna is still sitting empty, fading under the sub-tropical sun. We’re told the American owner of this troubled property has run into a bit of trouble himself back in the States. Francis Ford Coppola certainly has upgraded the old Turtle Inn, and we’re told the restaurant here is very good. But, frankly, we expected to see more of a major change under the new regime at Blancaneaux Turtle Inn. Guess things just take a while, and a number of changes and additions are expected to be ready for the high season. We’re also saddened to learn of former owner Skip White’s death from cancer. Rumors are that Luba Hati, at least the main hotel portion, may not reopen this season. It’s such a beautiful and stylish hotel, but in my opinion owner Franco Gentile never had his pulse on the North American market the way that, say, the Inn at Robert’s Grove has always had. A lot of affluent American still love their steak and potatoes -- look at the success of Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s -- and they like a big swimming pool, cold air conditioning and all the comforts of home, in a setting that’s a little bit but not too exotic. There’s certainly a niche market for boutique hotels and chic restaurants, but affluent middle America goes for something, well, a little more middle American. Speaking of something that we can really go for, we had a quick peak at Mariposa. This is a private home, north of Kitty’s, with just two beachside suites, which go for US$125 single or double. Everything is low key here. There’s no sign, but you know you’re in the right place when you see all the butterflies. For info, contact Peter & Marcia Fox, P.O. Box 1080, Belize City, tel. 501-6-24069, fax 6-24076, e-mail: foxbuddy@btl.net, www.mariposabelize.com).

In other news, it’s official -- the Lagoon Saloon has been sold. New owners are expected to take over soon. The Internet cafˇ Purple Space Monkey rocks, says my son Brooks. Cyber cafˇs are everywhere in Belize these days, including in San Ignacio, San Pedro, Punta Gorda and Caye Caulker.

We had a delightful stay at Inn at Robert’s Grove (tel. 700-565-9757 or 501-6-23565 , fax 6-23567, e-mail info@robertsgrovebelize.com, www.robertsgrovebelize.com). The typical guest at Robert’s Grove may not realize what a tremendous feat Bob and Risa Frackman have accomplished with their beachside resort in Seine Bight, which opened in late 1997. To create a smoothly functioning five-star property on what is still a somewhat remote peninsula, where most in the local labor pool may never have worked at any job except in the home or fishing, where fresh fruits, vegetables and meats and other supplies have to be brought in from Dangriga or Belize City or even farther afield, and where the basic infrastructures of resort life, from electricity to transportation, are not always reliable, is nothing short of amazing. But the newly expanded resort, now with 32 units, is definitely five star. The staff is remarkably well trained, with everything working with few glitches even in Bob and Risa’s absence (they were back in New York when I was there). The air conditioning is cold (though the unit in my children’s room required a little tweaking.) The meals in the restaurant, under Chef Frank DaSilva’s guiding hand, were dependably well prepared and nicely presented. My wife and I stayed in one of the new “deluxe suites.” These are condo units built to be sold, starting at around US$185,000, and then managed by the hotel when the owners aren’t in residence. Whether this idea will fly in Placencia we don’t know (though we’re told two units have been sold so far), our unit was a delight, with a large, strikingly decorated living room -- a happy melange of Mexican tile, Guatemalan fabrics and African art -- with cable TV, verandah with a sea view, a bedroom with king-size bed with a luxuriously firm new U.S.-made mattress and a jumbo bathroom with a big, tiled combination bath and shower. The resort has facilities still missing at many other Belize resorts -- not one but two swimming pools, roof-top, tennis courts and complimentary use of small sailboats, kayaks, bikes and other equipment. There’s a tour desk, PADI dive center and a sandy beach where you can actually swim. Rates, while not cheap, do not leave you with the impression that you are being held up at Amex-point. Indeed, by Caribbean standards for a top resort, these rates are remarkably low: This summer, standard rooms start at US$100 double, junior suites $150 and deluxe condo second-floor suites a steal at US$175. A meal plan is US$39 per adult. In the high season starting in November rates increase to US$175 for a room, US$225 for a junior suite and US$275 for deluxe second-floor suite. We think the deluxe suites are well worth the extra money.


PUNTA GORDA AND TOLEDO
Punta Gorda’s seafront is, to me, one of the two most enjoyable seaside settings in mainland Belize. The other is Corozal Town’s. By enjoyable I mean it has no grand pretensions. It has no airs. There are no beaches here, no classically beautiful tropical vistas with lines of coco palms waving in the breeze, but, golly, Wally, it’s peaceful and cool and, yes, comfortable and comforting. I just like to walk along the seawall and look out over the bay. The main drag along the water, Front Street, is looking fine and dandy these days, too, what with the new paving and several new houses and businesses.

My family had never been to PG, and I was eager to see their reaction to it. It didn’t start out all that well. At the Seafront Inn, the striking, even startling, looking four-story hotel that overlooks the water and looks like it would be more at home in Switzerland than in Belize, the room we had reserved turned out to be up, up, up on the fourth floor. An attic-like nook, it was too hot and too cramped for the four of us, so we had to rent two rooms on the second floor, the Blue Morpho and Manatee rooms. These were more to our liking, even though the total cost came to a rather surprising US$140 a night. The A/C worked in one of them but mainly gurgled in the other, and the cable TV came and went. No matter, it was the cocktail hour, and my wife asked at the front desk for some ice so we could strike a blow for liberty. The desk clerk looked as if we had just asked for ten pounds of caviar and a magnum of rare French champagne. Ice? In a hotel? What an idea! Seafront co-owner Larry Smith was out of the country, and wife Carol was laid up with a bum leg, I believe, and even the best hotel in town can have an off day. We finally found some ice at an ice factory in town, had drinks, and then repaired to Punta Caliente restaurant for dinner.

When I think of local color in Belize, Punta Caliente always comes to mind. For those who don’t know it,the restaurant is downstairs at the little Punta Caliente hotel, a ramshackle wooden affair near the bus terminal. The menu, mostly Creole items like stew chicken and fried chicken, with some seafood and a few Garifuna items, is on the wall. The professorial-looking owner, Alex Arzu, an expert on Garifuna history, has turned the walls of the restaurant into a mini-museum of Garifuna culture. With the dim yellow lighting, ceiling fans slowly turning the tropical air, people of every age, color, shape and size coming in to pick up chicken or have a cold drink, the Garifuna artifacts on the walls behind, and the friendly bustle of the kitchen in the background, you feel like the next guy who walks in might be the ghost of Graham Greene. Graham didn’t make it, but my fried chicken was delicious.

On a clear, sunny day, we spent a morning walking around town. Like the PG seafront, the rest of the town has no big pretensions. There’s not much to buy, except for cheap merchandise from Guatemala and Taiwan (Saturday mornings there is a local market, with more to offer.) But it’s fun to shuffle around and soak up the atmosphere. Nobody hits you up for anything, and if you get tired of walking you can stop in at El Cafˇ for a cup of coffee or at Grace’s for a big, cheap plate of beans and rice. PG even has its own Internet cafe these days, next to the Seafront Inn.

I drove out to Nature’s Waves ( ), a little collection of caba–as on the water south of town, in the same general direction as Orange Point Marina. But no one was around. Some of the other good places to stay in PG were, as usual, also mostly empty. St. Charles Inn (23 King St., tel. 501-7-22149) and Tate’s Guesthouse (34 Josˇ Maria Nu–ez St., tel. 501-7-22196, e-mail teach@btl.net) both in town, are inexpensive, clean and pleasant. Nature’s Way (65 Front St., tel. 501-7-22119), the rambling hostel-like guesthouse on the water toward the south end, is still a favorite of budget travelers, and the times I’ve stopped in there the place is almost always bustling with backpackers and unreconstructed hippies.

Although most hotels in and around PG seem never to have a lot of customers, I guess promise of the eventual paving of the rest of the Southern Highway lures folks to build new places. One such, going up now in Jacintoville just north of PG, is Tranquility Lodge (P.O. Box 118, Punta Gorda, no telephone as yet). If you’re going there, at Jacintoville turn off the Southern Highway onto the road to Barranco, then in just a few yards turn right into a long driveway. When I was there, ex-Floridians Penny Leonard and Cheney Roberts were at work on a large, two-story thatch building, with a full-service restaurant on the top floor and rooms on the bottom. There also are plans for a new caba–a or two. A real plus for this lodge is the swimming hole in the nearby Jacinto River.

This trip, I didn’t have time to stop and cadge a beer from Ray Haberd at Fallen Stones ( P.O. Box 23, Punta Gorda, tel./fax 501-7-22167, www.fallenstones.co.uk), but if you’re in PG, don’t miss seeing Ray’s wonderful butterfly ranch. You’ll no doubt enjoy a night or two of comfort at his lodge. The views into Guatemala are well worth the long drive, or, worse, the hike, up the hill to his place. We did, though, get to visit Blue Creek Lodge, run by the International Zoological Expedition folks (210 Washington St., Sherborn, MA 01770, tel. 800-548-5843, fax 508-655-4445, e-mail ize2belize@aol.com, www.ize2belize.com.) IZE offers packages with its Southwater Caye cottages. The lodge isn’t fancy, but it has an unbeatable setting on the river and also Belize’s only jungle canopy sky walk. Some people may go for traipsing in the rainforest canopy, but there’s no way you’re going get me up there on those little ropes 80 feet in the air! By the way, the drive to Blue Creek is beautiful, passing as it does some of southern Belize’s rice fields and several Maya settlements.

There is no nicer visitor center at a Maya site in Belize than the new one at Nim Il Punit, just a hop, skip and a jump off the Southern Highway south of Hellgate. It is just gorgeous, baby, gorgeous, not to mention educational. Nim Il Punit, a Late Classic Maya site, is an example of why Belize is such a pleasure to visit. The entrance fee is only US$2.50. The grounds are carefully maintained, the caretakers are helpful and knowledgeable, and often your group is the only one at the site, so you can walk around and explore to your heart’s content. This is not a high-profile Maya location, but in its way it provides a more productive and enjoyable experience than the bigger, sexier sites. As leave you’ll have to run a gauntlet of local villagers selling trinkets. But being hustled by Maya kids is like standing in a room full of butterflies. The salesmanship is quiet and softly done, and only the hard-hearted would leave without buying a few things.

BELIZE CITY
On our way out of the country, we had a much-too-short visit in Belize City. We had lunch, at the Belize Biltmore Plaza, with Katie Volk. Katie’s an ex-New Yorker who has been in Belize for years and knows just about everything about the country. She lives in Belize City, and she’s one of this burg’s most vocal boosters. We all know what a reputation Belize City has, but if you drive in from the International Airport, Belize City’s ‘burbs look as nice as any you’ll see. There’s new signage everywhere, mostly for the benefit of visitors. New buildings are going up right and left. The Fort George area, and the areas along Princess Margaret Drive and Barrack Road, also are looking good.

Lunch at the Biltmore Plaza (Mile 3 Northern Hwy. tel. 501-2-32302, fax 2-32201, e-mail biltmore@btl.net, www.belizebiltmore.com) by the way, was excellent. And no wonder -- the restaurant is now being run by Teresa Parkey, of Four Fort Street Guesthouse fame. Teresa recently was named GM at the Biltmore Plaza. The hotel is getting a thorough renovation, one room at a time, and the spiffed-up units look great, as does the completely redone pool. We’re happy this hotel, under new management and some new ownership, seems finally to be getting back on track. The Biltmore Plaza’s gain is Fort Street’s loss, however. The restaurant at Four Fort Street Guesthouse, long one of the best eating and watering holes in the city, has closed. The guesthouse remains open, however. Hugh Parkey, we’re told, is working with Blancaneaux’s Turtle Inn in Placencia to set up a first-class dive operation there.

This trip, as almost always, we rented our car from Budget, which we continue to find friendly, efficient and highly professional in every way. Our Suzuki Grand Vitara was a pleasure to drive and gave us not a spec of trouble. Budget, by the way, has moved its main office from the JMA Motors location to a new location on the Northern Highway a little closer to town. It still has its handy location at the International Airport.

With the opening of the new Tourist Village in the Fort George area, designed to provide a safe, traveler-friendly environment for cruise ship passengers other tourists, and other improvements to the town, Belize City may finally be on the way to overcoming its reputation.

..........

Lan Sluder is editor and publisher of BELIZE FIRST MAGAZINE. A former newspaper editor in New Orleans, Sluder has been banging around Belize for more than a decade. He is the author or co-author of five books on Belize, including the just-published Adapter Kit: Belize, Belize First Guide to Mainland Belize and Fodor’s Belize & Guatemala Guide. A member of the prestigious Society of American Travel Writers, his articles on Belize and other travel destinations have appeared in many newspapers and magazines worldwide, including The Chicago Tribune, Caribbean Travel & Life, Globe & Mail, The New York Times, The Miami Herald, Bangkok Post and The Tico Times.



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Rambles in Belize, 1998

By LAN SLUDER


Here are a few random observations on what's happening in Belize, based on my latest ramble around the country, this one a trip of almost three weeks with my wife and two kids in July and early August 1998:

Belize City is actually starting to look a bit spiffy, what with all the new road work, makeover on the Swing Bridge, and new (and very expensive houses) being built in the "suburbs."

The expansion of the international airport is nearing completion. Soon there will be a new, separate section for domestic arrivals/departures. Talk is that the municipal airport will be closed. There is also a new hotel at the international airport, just beyond the parking lot/car rental area. It's called the Embassy, with rooms in the US$30 to $60 range. It's not exactly first-class, and although it's still under construction already looks a bit beat up, but it might do in a pinch.

The Fort George area is looking good. It feels much safer than anytime in my memory, thanks to the high-profile presence of the tourist police there. The Great House, the newly opened upscale inn near the Radisson Fort George, is beautiful and apparently is doing very well -- all six rooms were booked while I was there. Colton Inn also looks great, as usual. The Radisson Fort George continues to do a pretty good job for business/government visitors. Some of the rooms in the "main" section are a little shabby, but the executive-level rooms are nice and the Colonial wing rooms have just been renovated. My 14-year-old son rates the Radisson's cable TV as the best TV in Belize and indeed the best cable TV at any hotel he's ever visited -- it's 60-some channels with a lot of premium channels offered free. We had the best dinner of the trip at my old favorite, Four Fort Street Guest House. Wonderful place for dinner, drinks and a quiet evening in the breezes off the water. I had breakfast with Emory King, who continues to live up to his reputation for being Belize's most colorful and entertaining adopted son.

The Marine Terminal set-up for boats to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye seems to be working well. It's more like an airline waiting room than the organized chaos of the old system.

Except for the bustle of Belize City and activity at the hotels in San Pedro (but not north and south of town), tourism in Belize this summer seems very slow. It was particularly quiet in Placencia, but whether that's just the typical slow summer or a result of publicity about the tourist murder there is hard to say. (All but one of the alleged perps of this heinous crime have been arrested, outside Belize.) I'm told that Singing Sands has been sold, with the new operator taking over this fall. The hotel was closed when I was there, due to an illness back in Australia in the family of the one of the current owners. My heart goes out to them, for so much trouble at one time. Hotel operators in Placencia are coming together in response to the incident, although I saw little indication that security had been increased.

The contrast with Mexico tourism is particularly striking. Yucatan and Quintana Roo states are booming with tourism: Planes full of tourists from the U.S., Canada and Europe are coming in on cheap flights, Mexican and foreign investment is pouring in by the billions, new condos and hotels are going up right and left, and a new divided highway is under construction in the Cancun-Tulum corridor. It's a zoo, and except for some out-of-the-way spots is definitely not my kind of place, but you still have to raise the question of why Belize can't get even a small fraction of the action that its neighbor is getting?

This trip, in reaction to many questions from readers of Belize First, we decided to fly into Cozumel and then bus to Belize. The island of Cozumel alone gets more than 10 times the tourist traffic of the entire country of Belize. Why? Is it the cheap and direct air service from the U.S.? (They are.) Is it the perception that Coz is safe? (Then why do so many homes have burglar bars in Coz?) Is it the perception that diving is better? (Maybe better than off Ambergris Caye, but arguably it's not up to Belize diving in other areas.) Is it the perception that hotel and restaurant costs are lower? (They aren't.) Is it the honky-tonk, touristy, Senor Tee-Shirt/Hard Stone/Planet Dollywood/Carlos & Bimbos atmosphere of town? (Hope Belize never succumbs to that.)

Anyway, we flew into Coz (US$250 RT instead of US$500+ to Belize City), stayed at the Plaza Azul (nice family-owned hotel north of town, US$140 for a suite), took the ferry to Playa Del Carmen (25 pesos), had our luggage tri- biked to the Playa bus terminal, took at ADO bus to Chetumal (85 pesos, reserved seats, five hours, more comfortable than the American plane, two videos), taxi from the main terminal to the border (40 pesos), then a Batty bus into Corozal Town (BZ$1.50). Not a bad trip at all, but with connections, it's a full day of traveling ... although this time of year there's a two-hour time difference between the Yucatan and Belize, so you get to Belize two hours earlier than you think you will. By the end of the day, we were all bone tired. It does save money, but whether the extra hassle and the loss of two days of vacation (one coming and one going) is worth it is questionable. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? No. In fact, flying back we paid a considerable extra amount to get our tickets changed to depart from Belize City. Due to flight cancellations and delays by American, we flew Continental back to Houston and then Atlanta. Comparing the two, this trip I preferred Continental -- much newer, cleaner equipment, friendlier service, free drinks, and better connections. Continental now has two daily 737s from Houston to Ladyville, and I believe it may be adding a third. Talk is that Delta will begin service soon, and there's a rumor of possible direct service on a discount airline from Germany.

In Corozal District, Hok'ol K'in guest house had good business, and the restaurant at Tony's Inn was jammed. Otherwise, things seemed slow. Don Quixote was supposed to have reopened, but construction apparently has been delayed or stopped, and I was told the place was for sale. The Santa Cruz Inn was also closed when I stopped by. Casablanca at Consejo is operating -- contrary to what was reported, it never closed, says Beverly Tempte, one of the owners. Smuggler's Den in Consejo, which offers houses for rent, is getting favorable comment, but I didn't get a chance to stop in. We enjoyed our stay at Hok'ol K'in -- it's a great value and the folks are so nice. The breezes from the bay are wonderful, and as long as they're blowing I won't miss the ultra-cold A/C at Tony's, a long-time favorite of ours. The authors of the Belize Retirement Guide, who write under the names Bill and Claire Gray, live in Corozal Town, and I spent an enjoyable morning with them this trip, when we met in San Pedro. Both are far too young to have retired anywhere!

Speaking of A/C, this is a trend everywhere in Belize. I've seen the future, and it's air conditioning. Call it the upscaling of Belize. Everywhere hotels are adding A/C and new amenities such as pools. In Placencia, Rum Point had built new units -- beautiful ones, too, although they aren't directly on the beach -- with A/C and has added a pool. Barry Bowen's Chan Chich has a new pool, as does SunBreeze in San Pedro. Ramon's is redoing its pool. Victoria House south of San Pedro says it is tearing down some of its casitas and putting in a pool and a 24 new "villa" units (AKA condos.) Jaguar Paw near Belmopan, of course, pioneered A/C in the jungle, with its big generator putting out the chill for its upscale rooms. Both Maruba and Jaguar Paw have beautiful jungle pools. The new oh-so-chic Mata Chica resort on north Ambergris has A/C in its villas, all of which have fruit themes (banana, cranberry, mango, watermelon) developed to the hilt by a French designer. Even the bathroom sinks have fruit illustrations on them, and the exterior of the units are painted in the appropriate fruit colors. I'm not making this up! The restaurant is mostly Italian. Expensive, but good. The filet mignon is said to be imported from Honduras.

As always, I tried to spend as much time at Belize's wonderful jungle lodges as possible. Chan Chich never fails to please. My wife had never been there, and she was amazed at the beauty and peacefulness of the place. She said photos she had seen of it of it simply don't do it justice. My 9-year- old daughter saw got to see a tarantula close-up on a night walk, a highlight of her time there. A few days before we arrived, there were five jaguar sightings in one day at Gallon Jug, a record. We didn't see a jaguar, but the birding as usual was terrific. From there, we went on to Lamanai Outpost. Happily, Mark (definitely a chip off the Colin block) and Monique are back fully in the saddle there, after a period when under different ownership, and I'm expecting even better things from this fine lodge. The setting is spectacular, and whatever you do don't miss the "nightspotting" trip by boat on the New River Lagoon and New River. A Ph.D.-candidate doing a study of crocs often comes along to catch and tag crocs (fun to be in a small boat with a seven-foot croc!), and even if you don't see a crocodile up-close-and- personal just being on the water at night is a thrill. We then went on to the Mountain Pine Ridge and a stay at Blancaneaux. This trip, we stayed in one of the villas, which are simply the most beautiful accommodations in all of Belize -- two huge bedrooms, two Japanese-style baths, a fantastic living room with kitchen area, 20-foot high thatch ceilings. Anne Wade, the beautiful Scot who manages the place for Francis Ford Coppola, showed me the renovations underway on the cabanas, which will make them much nicer as well, with decks and renovated baths. By the way, the fast-growing bush has reclaimed and regenerated most of the areas of the Pine Ridge damaged by fires last year and earlier this year. It is scary, though, to think how close the wildfires came to both Blancaneaux and Five Sisters lodges.

There is always a lot of talk about how expensive Belize is, but I find prices for resort hotels and lodges quite competitive and in fact generally considerably cheaper than in the rest of the Caribbean and even in resort areas of Mexico and Costa Rica. Where you can run up quite a tab is for meals, especially at jungle lodges where there is no way to go out for a quick bite at a local restaurant. It can pay to stop at Brodies or Save-U or another grocery and stock up on sandwich fixings and snacks for picnic lunches. Two other pet peeves of mine about Belize hotels: One is the widespread practice of charging extra for extra persons in the room. A few places, such as Green Parrot at Maya Beach, have a flat rate for up to four people, which is a boon for families. I'd like to see more of this. My other peeve is the practice of some hotels -- albeit it's becoming less common -- of adding a surcharge of 5 percent or more if you pay by credit card.

There's a lot going on in Placencia, but most of it seems a bet on the future. Many building lots have been sold, but very few homes are yet under construction. The new Inn at Robert's Grove is already adding a new section of rooms -- the Inn is very nice, with a beautiful pool, tennis courts, air conditioning, and attractive rooms and a new restaurant. Luba Hati next door is, if anything, even more beautiful, with a stunning restaurant. In the summer, the lack of A/C in the rooms may be a drawback, and there's no pool. This trip, we didn't stay at my old fave, Kitty's, but we did have a fine lunch there. You just can't beat one of Kitty's beachfront cabanas for barefoot comfort, the nicest beach around, and friendly Belize atmosphere. Business was so slow in Placencia that it was tough to get a meal outside of one's resort.

In Sittee Point and Hopkins, real estate sales also seem to be in high gear, with "sold" signs on dozens of lots. Only a little actual building go on, though. We overnighted at Jaguar Reef and appreciated the new upgrades at this excellent hotel, including A/C and refrigerators in the rooms. Neal Rogers and Bruce Foerster have done a terrific job marketing this hotel. I'd encourage some of the other innkeepers in Belize, especially those new to the business, to take lessons on marketing Belize from people like Neal and also from the folks at Chaa Creek, Chan Chich, Lamanai Outpost, Ramon's Village, and Blancaneaux. Too many Belize tourism operators just sit back and wait for tourists to show up. The Internet is helping, but savvy operators also need to develop a targeted database of agents and inbound operators worldwide, and they need to work with universities and organizations like Elderhostel to build forward bookings. With country-wide occupancy rates still in the low 30-percent range, marketing is the key to building any tourism business in Belize, that and hard work in meeting the expectations of visitors.

Turn-out of travel agents and tour operators at BETEX in Belize City in early August was reported to be disappointing this year. Many think the show should be held only every-other-year, not every summer.

We put close to 800 miles on our Budget rental car this trip -- a Suzuki Sidekick in first-rate condition -- with nary a problem. Thanks, Budget, for your continued highly professional service and affordable rates. We hear that the Thrifty nameplate is coming to Belize (at Tour & Travel Belize) to join Budget, Hertz (Safari), National and Avis franchises, plus unaffiliated locals such as Jabiru, Crystal and others.

The Southern Highway is as bad as ever, although about 20 miles at the PG end have now been paved, and the second phase of paving is supposed to start soon. The road to Placencia is also in bad need of scraping. But otherwise, roads seem better than ever. As noted, Belize City roadways, with new roundabouts and traffic lights, are looking great. The 19-mile unfinished section of the Hummingbird is being graded and prepared now for paving later this year (although there are still some bad bumps to negotiate.) The road from Georgeville to the Pine Ridge has been scraped recently and has never been in better shape, and the route from San Ignacio is also in better-than- usual condition. Once into the Pine Ridge, the road to Caracol still has problems though, and is occasionally closed to all but the toughest, highest 4WDs. The Northern and Western highways are as good as ever, but reckless driving continues to take its toll in highway accidents and unnecessary deaths. The secondary and tertiary roads such as those to Gallon Jug and Lamanai, and also the coastal highway, are all in pretty good condition.

Crime -- that's a dirty word in Belize now, especially among tourist operators. Everybody wants to pretend that crime never happens in Belize, and certainly never to tourists. People get angry when journos write about crime. But it does happen, and I'm afraid that demographic and economic trends in Belize and in neighboring countries are such that it will continue to be a problem for Belize. For example, in July, two Ambergris Caye hotels were robbed at gunpoint. Sure, it turned out to be a toy gun, and the alleged robber was caught, but that doesn't mean the victims were any less frightened. BUT, and let me be absolutely clear about this as our old pal Dick Nixon used to say, reports in the media about crime in Belize must always be put in context. In fact, crime against visitors to Belize is very, very rare. I'd say more than 99 percent of tourists to Belize feel safe and secure. During this most-recent trip to Belize, my family and I had zero problems and never felt concerned about crime anywhere, not even in Belize City (of course we took sensible precautions.) My kids wandered around alone in San Pedro, and in rural areas such as Gallon Jug it's so crime-free lodge guests don't even get a key to their door. I think the key point is that when you're in Belize, barring a few unfortunate situations and a few rough places, most people FEEL at ease and feel safe. Belizeans and their guests are friendly, relaxed, and there's simply very little daily concern about crime (again, except in certain places.) We need to get that point across to potential visitors.

As a side note, with amusement: We've been publishing Belize First Magazine for more than four years. We've run hundreds of positive stories about Belize and doubtless have helped bring thousands of new visitors to Belize. But the ONLY time we've ever heard from the Belize Tourist Board was in July after we had posted a report on recent episodes of crime in Belize on our Web edition of Belize First. We got a faxed letter of complaint from a BTB public relations functionary in Virginia. If anyone is wondering why Belize doesn't always get its fair share of the Caribbean tourism market, the fact that BTB hadn't bothered to contact us except to lodge a complaint, is, to coin a phrase, illustrative.

On a gentler note, Belize is becoming quite a destination for butterfly lovers. There are now six, yes, SIX, butterfly "farms" in the country. In addition to the well-established blue morpho operation at Chaa Creek, the Fallen Stones butterfly ranch near PG, and the perhaps resuscitated Shipstern farm, there is an ambitious operation in Cayo near M.E.T., Green Hills, operated by ex-Shipsterners. Beautiful place! Also, The Trek Stop just west of San Ignacio has an interesting and very well-done butterfly room and nature exhibits. And near Lamanai, Xochil Ku is a small community-based butterfly educational center. We'll be doing an article on Belize's butterfly farms soon.

At Belize First, we try to stay out of politics, but I can't leave this ramble without saying that nearly everything in Belize seems to be on hold until after August 27. "We won't do anything until we see what the new government is going to do," is a common refrain. That the PUP will win seems to be a given in the minds of most Belizeans, although most everyone ponders the impact of the UDP approach to voter registration. The good thing about the election seems to be that it has made the present government much more responsive to citizen requests for anything from getting permits to having a pothole repaired. One thing I'd like to know is who does all the political signs? We joked that there's one little guy in in a storefront in Belize City who does all the political signs for both UDP and PUP. He uses the same stencil for every sign, and just changes the color of the paint. Must make enough in a few weeks to live for the next five years!

Lessee, what were the highlights of this trip for me and my family?

Lan Sluder
Editor & Publisher
Belize First Magazine

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