After an especially eventful week on Ambergris Caye, with the San Pedro LobsterFest, the weeklong feast of Saint Peter, a huge downtown fire, and a firetruck getting stuck in sand responding to another fire, what’s a bunch of blokes to do but grab a boat and cruise on over to the Caye Caulker LobsterFest on Sunday morning.
When you’ve got to get away, Caye Caulker is the place.
Yes, that does sound odd, when you live on a tropical island that thousands of people have marked on their calendars as their dream get-away spot. Even Paradise gets to be too much after a while.
So, Caye Caulker. A smaller, quieter, less-dirty version of Paradise. Read the rest of this entry »
As Rose and I ponder the pros and cons of living inland or on the coast of Belize, a new thought enters my mind: Could we be going about all of this wrong?
I have been looking at this scary interactive map on the National Geographic website titled “If All the Ice Melted.” The map invites you to “explore the world’s new coastlines if sea level rises 216 feet.”
Apparently 216 feet is how high the oceans would rise if the title of this interactive comes true. In other words, if Tea Party’s climate-change deniers and industrial polluters prevail and Ted Cruz gets elected president and puts Sarah Palin in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency …
Naturally I went straight to Belize on the map.
Or, where Belize used to be. Read the rest of this entry »
We make plans. We make plans. We make plans.
So in control of our future.
We make plans. Therefore, we are. We make plans. Therefore, we will be.
And then, something happens. And all those plans, all those to-do lists and decision trees and carefully calibrated calculations which are designed to regain control over your life … they don’t mean anything.
There’s one phrase we’ve learned to toss out, here in Belize: “We’ll get an early start.”
Each place where we have spent a few days manages to find its own way of undermining our Western “go-go-gotta-go” mindset.
And so we linger.
For just another view of the beautiful flowers and plantings around Orchid Bay in Corozal; and we travel more slowly down the rutted Chunox and San Estevan roads that runs beside Progresso Lagoon and leads back to the paved Northern Highway.
In San Ignacio, we pause for one more view of mist rising above the rainforest across the valley; and we drop into the New French Bakery for another delicious cup of coffee and pastries. All the time hoping someone would appear and say, “Wait! You don’t have to go. Stay and join us. Make your new life here.” (Perhaps our car and its stone-dead battery were also trying to tell us something on that morning ….)
But they are only imaginary voices. Nobody appears. In our heads, many Belizean voices in so many Belizean places clamor for our attention. Picking a home will not be easy.
At Turtle Bay in Placencia there were more reasons to linger yesterday than I can begin to recount. Certainly the breathtaking beauty of the place, especially after a long night’s rain, keeps us in our seats. The complimentary breakfast overlooking the Caribbean Sea definitely demands our attention for longer than it needs to.
And the people who make Turtle Inn the preternaturally charming oasis that it is — how hard it is to say goodbye to them.
Front office manager Terryann Emmanuel and I must share one last passionate conversation about Belize and conservation. We must make sure that our waiter and friend Victor gives us a call when he visits the Coppola winery in Napa later this month, so that we can share a drink and hear about his first commercial airplane ride.
We search in vain for Ivan, the beach captain, who has also been a terrific guide through the many layers of Belizean culture and who patiently drew a map in the sand to objectively show me how the proposed cruise ship terminal on Harvest Caye would fit, or not fit, into the local ecosystem.
And of course, how can we leave without saying thank you to our host, the dashing general manager Martin Krediet, who sent Rose an excellent bottle of Coppola’s Diamond Collection Pavilion Chardonnay for her birthday dinner?
Eventually we exhaust all excuses to linger, knowing that we have a long drive to Belize City to drop off the Suzuki Jimny. The rain pours down and we press on through the day. Our only stop is in the Stann Creek Valley for fresh pineapple and grapefruit drinks from the front of the citrus factory in Pomona, just off the Hummingbird Highway; and for lunch in Belmopan.
The ride up the 53-mile-long Hummingbird Highway is a feast for the eyes. We join it just north of Placencia, in Dangriga, and travel through coastal pine and scrub, through the heart of banana plantations and citrus orchards, and through lush and hilly rainforest before reaching the capital Belmopan.
From there, a sharp right turn on to the east-west George Price Highway puts us 60 miles from Belize City in a flat and nearly straight blur of farmland and scattered forest growth. We take a shortcut through Hattieville, past the sprawling Belize Central Prison, just missing Burrel Boom as we aim for Ladyville and the International Airport.
At the airport, the rental agent tells us it will be a $25 US taxi ride to the water taxi in Belize City – or we can drive the car to their Belize City office (less than five miles away) and pick up a free shuttle to the water taxi.
Except that as we are driving to Belize City from the airport, the shuttle driver, Giles, is en route to the airport to drop off a customer.
Giles is worth the short wait. Belize City is a bewildering maze of small and very crowded streets and even more crowded thoroughfares. School is getting out and the streets are jammed with parents picking up their kids at the many public and religion-based schools in the city.
There is a shoulder-to-shoulder festive air to it all. Every student wears a school uniform of prescribed colors and every school has its own colors, so the sidewalks are an undulating rainbow of energetic children with classes behind them and a national holiday ahead.
All the streets, traffic circles and parks are decked out in Belize national flags and red, white and blue triangle flag bunting. (The Belizean red, white and blue are softer, less-aggressive shades than the red, white and blue of the US.) September is Independence Month in Belize, Giles explains, and Sept. 10 celebrates the Battle of St. George’s Caye, in which slaves on the island defeated the Spanish. There are celebrations all over this young nation this month, and we seem to be missing every single one of them.
At the moment though, we are concerned about missing our 4:30 pm boat but Giles smoothly guides his Ford Explorer down alleyways that seem to materialize only for him, and like a Harry Potter porthole, we pop out right in front of the entrance to Belize Express with five minute to spare before boarding.
The porter tags and stows our backpacks, the clerk takes our $60BZ/$30US for the watertaxi and we join the last remnants of a line of people entering the craft that looks slightly like a Buck Rogers rocketship.
We think we’re the last. People keep boarding after us … and keep boarding … and keep boarding … and then the crew asks all of us seated on the center bench to stand so they can add more baggage into the hold. And then they keep boarding … until every square inch is filled with tropic-warmed flesh. I counted close to 100 people in the belly of the rocket, including one brightly colored and feathered Carnival costume for a lady getting off at Caye Cauker.
What a relief when the taxi finally hits the open water, rises up on hydrofoils and sprints across the blue-green surface to Caye Caulker and its citrus-colored fishing and party town. About half the passengers get off here and only a few board, so the balance of the trip to San Pedro is – dare I say it? – a breeze.
It is dusk when we dock in San Pedro and Rose and I take a leisurely hike down the beach to our new digs – the Exotic Caye Beach Resort. The front desk is already closed but the security guard is expecting us and leads us to our room where we find handwritten greeting from Alfredo and some vouchers for dinner and breakfast. Dinner is fish and chips at a place upstairs from Crazy Cannuck’s, a legendary San Pedro beach bar.
But we’re as sleepy as off-season San Pedro tonight, so there’ll be no late-night carousing for us. It is home to read and to bed. In the morning Rose has yoga only steps from our front door and I know I have a cup of hot coffee and a WiFi connection waiting for me at Melt’s, the café just below her yoga studio.
In some ways it is beginning to feel like we’re coming home to San Pedro, where our Belizean adventure began, seemingly ages ago.
It is with some sorrow that we announce the departure of Rose’s constant traveling companion, Monkey Bob.
Somewhere, most likely at Orchid Bay in Corozal, northern Belize, Monkey Bob decided to remain behind. Our guess is that, as we packed for the journey to San Ignacio, Monkey Bob remained asleep under the covers.
Always one to seek out the positive, Rose is hoping that Monkey Bob finds his way into the arms of the one little child who currently lives at Orchid Bay year-round. If so, he will make her delightful companion until other children arrive, likely in the High Season, starting in November.
We held out hope that Monkey Bob would hop aboard one of the many colorful and inexpensive buses that crisscross this little nation, tying together Belize City, Corozal, Belmopan, San Ignazio, Spanish Lookout, Placencia, Punta Gorda, Dangriga, the Guatemalan and Mexican border crossings, and all points in between.
But he didn’t.
Monkey Bob had a talent for amusing Rose when she was bored, distracted or lonely. He would pose almost anywhere in an attempt to make her smile at his antics.
The little monkey.
Monkey Bob’s favorite past-time was photo bombing. He loves the camera and the camera, in return, loves him. Not since Marilyn Monroe has a face been so naturally drawn to the lens, and drawn by the lens.
We carry on, now back in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye for five days. Yes, without Monkey Bob, but still very much in love, even more so, with this spectacularly diverse and welcoming country.
All this means is that Monkey Bob is moving here permanently, months ahead of us.
We will meet again, Monkey Bob. On a beach or in the jungle, somewhere in Belize, we will meet again.
- OK … inhale, hold breath … jump! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Hello, Belize, you beautiful, colorful, complicated thing you! (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- In Belize, ‘What do you recommend?’ opens doors (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- Two points of view on San Ignacio (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
- No! Not that trip to Belize (robertjhawkins1.wordpress.com)
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.
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.
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.
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?