Harvest Caye

I mean, who gets a whole private island for their birthday? (Hint: You’re looking at him)

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Walking around Blackadore Caye on my birthday, enjoying the splendor of a deserted island -- with 20 of my best friends!
Walking around Blackadore Caye on my birthday, enjoying the splendor of a deserted island — with 20 of my best friends!

Your first thought when you step off the boat and on to Blackadore Caye is “This can not be real.”

It is like a Hollywood movie set for a tropical island adventure film.

The coconut trees seem too perfectly spaced to be real. The ground beneath them too perfectly swept clean. The sand too white. The water on either side of this long, narrow caye shimmers in variants of teal, turquoise and aquamarine. The dry, cool wind sweeps so sweetly upon the skin, not a drop of perspiration survives. The cloud-dappled sky is a dreamy blue — azure color #007FFF, if you are into replicating sky colors from an RGB color wheel. Read the rest of this entry »

Should Belize be bracing itself for, gasp, mass tourism? Some think so

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A colorfully decorated Norwegian Cruise Line ship. The company built its own port is southern Belize on Harvest Caye, off the coast of Placencia. The new port landing opens in February.
A colorfully decorated Norwegian Cruise Line ship. The company built its own port is southern Belize on Harvest Caye, off the coast of Placencia. The new port landing opens in February.

Industry news website Travel Pulse sees a “reckoning” ahead for the cruise industry in Belize in 2016.

The reckoning is triggered by the opening in February of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ $50 million Belize fantasy island, Harvest Caye, coupled with the country’s already “strong tourist arrivals growth.”

So, I reckon that means Belize had better be bracing itself for even more tourism growth in the future? Read the rest of this entry »

Placencia is still quaint and funky but there’s drama on the horizon

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Welcome to Placencia. Now, relax.
Welcome to Placencia. Now, relax.

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.

Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!
Rose has done yoga by herself every morning under the palapa at the end of a pier just north of Turtle Inn. The owners let inn guests use the pier. Nice neighbors!

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.

This is a photo by Rose of our cottage near the sea.
This is a photo by Rose of our cottage near the sea.

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.

Placencia still has a funky, sun and sea drenched quirkiness to it, like its signs for various bars and restaurants.
Placencia still has a funky, sun and sea drenched quirkiness to it, like its signs for various bars and restaurants.

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.

Edwin is a talented woodcarver in Placencia and also has property for sale, if you are interested.
Edwin is a talented woodcarver in Placencia and also has property for sale, if you are interested.

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.

Dodi creates beautiful tapestries on her loom. Each takes 6-8 hours. She did not mention having property in Placencia for sale.
Dodi creates beautiful tapestries on her loom. Each takes 6-8 hours. She did not mention having property in Placencia for sale.

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.

If you think Rose has her birthday bliss on here -- that is my beer by the way -- you should have seen her after her 90-minute Thai massage at Turtle Inn later in the day.
If you think Rose has her birthday bliss on here — that is my beer by the way — you should have seen her after her 90-minute Thai massage at Turtle Inn later in the day.

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.

Some views of the village of Placencia from the very end of the Peninsula. It still has loads of charm.
Some views of the village of Placencia from the very end of the Peninsula. It still has loads of charm.

IMG_2161 IMG_2153 IMG_2154If anything, it has the quaint air of the beach bum-and-fishing village that San Pedro on Ambergris Caye might have been 20 years ago.

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.”

Jeesh.

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.

Massage in progress: The shot I missed was the glow on Rose's face after 90 minutes under the practiced hands of a masseuse from Thailand.
Massage in progress: The shot I missed was the glow on Rose’s face after 90 minutes under the practiced hands of a masseuse from Thailand.

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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.

Cruise line buys Belizean caye of its own

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Norwegian Cruise Lines is nothing if not persistent.  Denied permission to build a cruise ship terminal on an island off southern Belize earlier this year, NCL announced on Wednesday the purchase of another set of islands, called Harvest Caye (pronounced “key”), that it plans to turn into a southern tourist attraction for its cruise ship passengers.

Artist's rendering of Norwegian Cruise Lines vision for its southern Belize port on Harvest Caye.
Artist’s rendering of Norwegian Cruise Lines vision for its southern Belize port on Harvest Caye.

The big difference is that the original island, Crawl Caye, was in a marine reserve that formed part of the barrier reef —  a World Heritage Site. It was a clumsy, insensitive move that was ultimately rejected by the Belizean government, despite its outspokenly favorable attitude toward the cruise ship industry.

The government, which has a memorandum of understanding with NCL encouraging eco-sensitive development of an off-shore port in southern Belize, said it would approve the right proposal.

NCL may have found the right one. The 75-acre Harvest Caye, three miles off Placencia, has already been approved for resort development.

Currently all cruise ships check into Belize City to the north, the country’s largest and most crime-ridden city. Some cruise lines have cut back on stops in Belize, the major reason given being port congestion. Belize took in 728,000 cruise passengers on 315 cruise ships last season, October 2012 to May 2013, according to Business Research & Economic Advisors.

The entire population of Belize, a country the size of Massachusetts, is about 300,000.

A second cruise destination would certainly relieve pressure on Belize City, for a short while. NCL has several new ships under construction and says it wants to quadruple its business with Belize.

While NCL would like the cruise terminal open in time for the 2014-2015 season there are many critics lined up against the plans. The sudden disgorgement of thousands of passengers runs contrary to the country’s eco-tourism strategy, they say.

NCL promises the $50 million project will be sensitive to the surroundings and “eco-friendly,” but a project this large is a game changer regardless of what is promised.

According to an NCL press release, “While the master plan for the 75 acres is still under development, the vision is to create a world-class cruise destination, consisting of two locations: an island destination with docking/tendering facilities and a mainland connection point for inland tours.

“Major components of the project are anticipated to include a floating pier, island village with open-air structures on raised platforms, marina, transportation hub for tours to the mainland, a lagoon for a variety of water sports and a relaxing beach area. The goal is to design an authentic experience grounded in the storyline of nature, ancient culture, art, adventure and music that celebrates Belizean, Mayan and Garifuna history and culture.”

That’s some pretty big stuff.

IDEA Inc., a Florida company that designs ”branded ports” has been hired to carry out the vision.