Francis Ford Coppola
Yesterday was Rose’s birthday and, Rose being Rose, she started the day with yoga on the end of a pier here in Placencia. Just Rose and the deep blue sea. Nobody else.
I say Placencia but we’re here at Turtle Inn, full name Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn, which is a few minutes north of the town by bicycle. I wouldn’t be the first person to call the Turtle Inn one of the most incredible experiences ever. And I won’t be the last.
With its intimate Bali-Indonesian setting … well, we’ve been living a fantasy existence for the past few days. Our two weeks at Anse Chastanet on St. Lucia, where Rose taught yoga, is the only thing that comes remotely close to this experience. But I think we both agree, Turtle Inn is tops.
Everyone we have met assures us that Francis and Eleanor Coppola take great personal pains to be involved in every detail of this resort’s presentation, from the decor, to table settings, to the food that is served to the way the staff dresses and relates to guests.
We have a spacious cottage with thatch roof and a large screened porch, local hardwood floors and a lush view of the ocean through the foliage. At the back of the cottage is a walled courtyard with Zen-like garden and outdoor shower. Throughout the cottage and the grounds are original Balinese furnishings, statuary and art and even the pathways through the sand are paved with Indonesian stone. There are 25 such residences, two swimming pools, two bars and three restaurants and a large reception area — and all are integrated into this carefully cultivated environment.
Rose and I have spent the past few days talking extensively with the staff and we are greeted by name by many whom we may have met only once. Last night after dinner chef Edwin Alvarado joined us at our table in the Mare restaurant and spent more than an hour sharing wine and great stories, including the time that Coppola, on two weeks’ notice, summoned Edwin to accompany him to Italy on his private jet so that he could work beside the Coppola chefs and learn their craft. Edwin didn’t even have a passport but the mad scramble was worth it, he said.
After yoga and a continental breakfast, Rose and I borrowed a couple of the hotel’s bicycles and pedaled into the town of Placencia. There was a bit of trepidation on my part over what we would find. On the trip down from San Ignacio, along the stunningly beautiful and appropriately named Hummingbird Highway, we experienced lush tropical growth, fruit tree and banana plantations and the occasional small village.
We even detoured to a primitive coastal village called Hopkins.
None of it prepared us for what we encountered as we turned south and headed down the narrow peninsula toward Placencia. I can only describe it as steroidal development gone wild. On both sides of the only paved road that travels the spine of the peninsula there were enormous houses, even more enormous condo projects and even more insanely enormous resort/condo developments. A lot of the lagoon-side development was on land that was clearly filled-in lagoon.
It is the Cancunization of Belize. I think both of us were a bit deflated. This was not what I was expecting. For all the multi-million dollar properties, there was a bland international anonymity to the architecture. Nothing says “Belize.” A lot of it screamed “Miami” and “big money.”
What I had been focusing on was the fact that Placencia until recently was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the narrowest paved Main Street in the world. It is little more than a raised sidewalk fronting the beach-side buildings and it really is used as a street.
Several miles before arriving at Turtle Inn, the land began to calm down. We passed through Seine Bight and Maya Village, a couple of older small fishing villages and noticed that parcels of land were actually filled with lush growth instead of gated mansions.
Farther down, the municipal airport forces the road to take a sharp U-shaped turn around the eastern end of the landing strip, nearly putting cars on to the beach; it is so tightly wedged into the land.
Very quickly after that you reach Turtle Inn, an oasis, for sure.
So, what did we find in the village of Placencia?
Well, they now have a paved road that runs all the way to the end of the peninsula. And there are some signs of big-testosterone development but mostly it is still small tropical-fruit-colored restaurants and beach bars, coffee shops, markets, cottages, bed & breakfast inns and real estate businesses.
It only seems like every piece of property has for sale sign on it.
Indeed, I met a quiet-spoken local named Evan, a woodcarver with a head full of Rasta braids. He was sitting beside a humble shack trimmed in yellow, black, red and green — working on a sign for a couple with a new home. He showed me some of his driftwood carvings and they were intricate and beautiful.
“I also have a beachfront lot,” whispered Evan, tossing his head back over his left shoulder toward the sea. “It is for sale if you are interested.”
Placencia still has its charm but everyone seems braced for the coming boom – either in dread or anticipation. Not only will the development to the north bring spending customers and pressure for growth to the village but so will the cruise ship industry which is positioning itself just off shore.
Norwegian Cruise Line has purchased Harvest Caye, south of Placencia and has plans to develop it into a self-contained Disney-like cruise ship destination. Inevitably some of those thousands of people who drop anchor at the caye will want to load into launch boats for a taste of the authentic Belize in Placencia and Big Creek on the coast. They’ll take river cruises and cave tours and visit Mayan ruins and zipline adventures and, some say, generally overrun the carefully calibrated eco-tourism industry that exists today.
This is serious ecological drama, folks.
As far as living there, we get the feeling that that ship has already left port. The most livable places seem to start in the high $400,000’s and rise rapidly into the millions of dollars. This time of year, Placencia is delightfully quiet and low-key but clearly when high season arrives the beach bars and restaurants will be jammed with the manic, sun-toasted tourist crowd — cramming a whole lot of local rum and good times into their one-week vacation.
Not what we want.
San Pedro has that, too, but it also has room to get away from the touristy and beachy craziness. Of course, so does San Ignacio far to the west in the jungle river regions, which is also in full contention for home.
I think I’m going to be a little sad when we leave Turtle Inn tomorrow. This has been such a special treat for both of us – and we really like hanging out in Placencia like it was 1980 all over again. Only it isn’t.
Tomorrow we drive back to Belize International Airport, drop off the Suzuki Jimny that has been sitting silent since we arrived and grab a boat taxi back to San Pedro for five more days. I wonder if we will see San Pedro differently, the second time around?
Especially after this time we have spent in the remote Corozal region and bustling San Ignacio and the funky island-like Placencia.
Many of you have asked, “Will you be living next door to Leonardo DiCaprio in Belize?”
To which I reply, “Ha. Ha.”
Surely everyone knows that Leo – may I call him Leo? – owns an island. To live next door would mean treading water for an awfully long time.
DiCaprio’s 104-acre island is about two miles long and just off the coast of Belize City. Are private islands to become the new celebrity Belize bling? The new gated community? (Everyone knows paparazzi can’t swim.)
Well, there are about 450 more cayes (pronounce it “keys”) out there and many are indeed for sale. So it seems inevitable that celebrities would start scooping them up like jewelry. Hey, wouldn’t you if you had millions of dollars at your disposal?
As a selling point, quite a few of them list their proximity to DiCaprio’s island, Blackadore Caye. Like this one, Rosewood Caye — 25 acres and yours for under $1.3 million. It claims unobstructed views of Leo’s island, a mere four miles away.
Not that you’ll spot Leo through your binoculars or be able to cruise over and invite him aboard for drinks. DiCaprio and a co-investor plan on developing the island as a Four Seasons eco-resort. What the future owners of Rosewood will see is a presumably lovely and extremely expensive resort that is at one with nature and American Express. Maybe. It has been nine years since the island was purchased.
My current favorite Belizean island for sale is one sent to me by my son Ryan. We shares my fantasy streak, apparently. It is called Wee Wee Caye (Yes, wee wee key) and it comes with its own solar power, dock, boats, marine research facility and a list of universities that have leased it in the past. Less than an acre, the appropriately named Wee Wee is off the coast of central Belize, far from Leo’s domain.
In Belize, DiCaprio isn’t the first celebrity to come up with this idea, either. In 2001, director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, bought Turtle Inn, a resort in Placencia. Hurricane Iris almost immediately obliterated the place leading Coppola to think, “My god, what am I doing? Living through “Apocalypse Now 2: The Resort”?
Coppola must have been toughened by the endless series of off-screen (well on-screen, too, if you count Marlon Brando) disasters that accompanied the making of his masterpiece “Apocalypse Now.” The Coppolas set about rebuilding the resort in their own vision, which is today an award-winning combination of rustic and elegant.
Our budget teeters more toward the rustic, so if anything, Turtle Inn will be a drive-by glimpse in the mirror. Those $400-plus per-night off-season rates are too rich for me!
Placencia is really a slender, dangling peninsula, not a caye. I get the impression that it is a less-developed version of the slender, dangling Ambergris Caye, which is an island and the country’s leading tourist destination.
But, hey, wait a moment. As the oceans continue to rise — thank you, climate change — you have to wonder how many of these islands will be around in 50 years or so. Not that I’ll be around to shore up the shore.
Still, owning an island has got to be one of the all-time top day dreams. They all seem to come standard with white sand beaches (often imported to the islands), mangrove forests, palm trees, aquamarine blue waters and heavy, heavy fantasy potential.
Buying one would make for a great episode of “House Hunters International,” the HGTV series that can be ridiculously addictive.
I can hear the narrator, Andromeda Dunker, now: “Coming in at $1.2 million, Bob and Rose’s budget is going to provide some challenges. Finding an island close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s that has a five-bedroom cabana with hot running water and flushing toilets, wet bar, pool, 9-hole golf course, WiFi and a deep-water dock won’t be easy ….”
Guy’s gotta have dreams, don’t he?