World's Best Hotels: Blancaneaux Lodge, Belize
We sent Kate Donnelly to Belize and Francis Ford Coppola's awesome Blancaneaux Lodge. Not surprisingly, it was a holiday straight out of a movie.
CAYO DISTRICT, Belize – There's something special in the air at Blancaneaux Lodge, Francis Ford Coppola's magically remote, secluded oasis, situated on 70 acres in the northwest corner of Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in western Belize's Cayo District. It's the warm familiarity you feel visiting beloved friends and family.
Which, in a roundabout way, I suppose I was. In my early film career, I met Francis and Eleanor Coppola on a boat trip down the Amazon River. Now thirteen years later, they were hosting me at the rustically charming hideaway that reflects their personal aesthetic. Funny how life works sometimes.
A quick Mayan Air puddle jumper lands on a dirt-strip runway. From there, I'm ushered on a horse-drawn carriage to a welcome "Jaguar Juice" concoction (local craboo liqueur, aged rum, and fresh pineapple juice) and a cool aromatherapy wet cloth. The charm cup runneth over.
THE STAGE IS SET
The main lodge is full of old school touches; creaky, dark wood floors; perfectly worn furniture; earthy tones with tropical pops; black and white photographs of ancient archeological digs; a ceiling fan repurposed from Apocalypse Now; a stone fireplace that's a great place to sip something warm. The staff is terrifically friendly (first name basis, please) and includes fun and informed guides (Eddie, Geraldo, and Jorge), the passionate conservation officer, Roni Martinez, and genuinely hospitable veteran manager, Bernie Matute.
I'm spoiled in Villa 7, the director's personal abode with sweeping views of Mother Nature. High-soaring, locally thatched ceilings meet open-air living areas, screened porches, native Guatemalan and Mexican wares (sourced by the Coppolas), family photographs, and cinema memorabilia (like a rare poster for the Coppola-distributed film, Perfumed Nightmare).
The bathroom features hand-painted tiles and a Japanese tub with delicious local soaps. I can easily access my private plunge pool. Views are supremely enticing — cue the tumbling waterfall, long wooden bridges, and strategically placed chairs overlooking the shimmering Privassion Creek. Although Wi-Fi looms, Blancaneaux beckons you to remain gloriously analog. I happily oblige.
I'm riding the 7-year-old horse, Lightning, along the pine savanna and forest trail to Big Rock Falls, listening to our resourceful guide, Eddie. I make my Last of The Mohicans debut and jump in the cool waterfalls for a refreshing, invigorating swim.
Later, I stroll the organic garden, an impressive 3.5-acre spread of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs (excess bounty is shared with Blancaneaux's other Belize property, Turtle Inn). Equally impressive is the small hydroelectric plant that harnesses energy from Privassion Creek to supply the resort with clean, renewable power. Blancaneaux is miles ahead on green curve. All this eco-love makes it easy to escape the modern world's tangled wires and mass-produced ways.
The nature activities — the Mayan ruins, the Jaguar Project, the scarlet macaw spotting — could fill a whole other postcard. In fact, they did: Read about Eco Belize.
Relaxation beckons. Options introduce themselves in various forms: a retreat to my hammock, a plunge in the freshwater infinity pool, a cool foot soak, and an idle dip in the U-shaped hot pool. Then, the pinnacle of relaxation is unleashed: The magic hands of Thai masseuse Prasert Thaweeser who performs miracles — true miracles! — as I'm wooed and rocked by a mind-blowing stress recovery wrap with herbal tea and honey, scrub, and massage.
Still, a girl's gotta eat.
Early morning birds serenade me out of slumber. I spike my heart with a 77-step sprint from Villa 7 to Montega Restaurant. (Yeah, there's a lot of sevens on this trip.) Usually, I'm a coffee girl, but the cleansing ginger tea is stimulating. I have fresh fruit from the organic garden, yogurt and granola, and traditional Johnnycakes — biscuit-like cornmeal flatbread which pair well with butter, syrup, and honey. But the top breakfast prize goes to the traditional Mexican chilaquiles, fried, house-made corn tortilla chips cooked with eggs, chiles, and cheese, with a few douses of Marie Sharp's hot sauce. Good morning, habanero pepper.
My first lunch includes ceviche with shrimp, organic vegetables, lime juice, and freshly house-cut tortilla chips washed down with a glass of pinot grigio. (Coppola is a man of vineyards as well as cinema and hotels.) Another day, it's a pizza and a cold local Beliken beer. Day three, a refreshing cup of gazpacho and sweet basil pesto linguine with grilled shrimp (and a few bites of my friend's calzone). Dessert? The creamy, smooth flan. (Naturally.)
Early evening cocktails commence with bubbles. I skip the flute and opt for the Sofia Blanc de' Blanc can. Dinner is a warmly lit, family style affair, full of food and ripe with laughter. We try our hand at making crudités, my pal slicing the day's bounty to my voyeuristic delight. The main culinary assault is an abundance of pasta — samplings of spaghetti alla carbonara and spaghetti aglio e olio pepperoncino, pizzas like Tu Vo Fa' l'Americano, and (old-school sweetness alert!) Mrs. Scorese's lemon chicken, a dish Francis borrowed from his pal Marty's mom, who "drowned the chicken in lemon juice," then added plenty of garlic, olive oil, and fresh oregano. (Here's the recipe.) Specials include fresh seafood — shrimp, conch, and lobster washed down with one of the rotating threesomes: Coppola's claret, rosso, and bianco pinot grigio.
The authentic Guatemaltecqua Restaurant is small and intimate. Starters include a little delight called cebollitas, grilled green onions served on corn tortillas with local dry cheese and a slice of lime, followed by warm bean soup. Camarones alla Guatemaltecqua is a hearty, soul-soothing bowl of seared shrimp, bacon, green corn, sweet pepper, zucchini, and cream. Dessert are rellenitos, plantains filled with sweetened black beans. The last night, I'm wowed by a Belizan BBQ feast of a few deliciously simple ethnic dishes. Empanadas are a traditional Mestizo dish; rice and beans are a Creole dish traditionally served at home on Sunday. I grew up on Kansas City BBQ, so I dress my grilled chicken with a proper smothering of homemade BBQ sauce. I set my bar high and it passes the test.
Under a culinary jungle spell, I saunter out into the dark night under a canopy of bright stars resembling a Lite-Bright kit. Wide-eyed and alive, I'm taken with another flawless day and savor my evening stroll back to slumber, where a turndown of low-lit candles, a soft comforter, and warm water bottle beckons. Yes, this is living.
A SECRET ON LOCATION
The Enchanted Cottage, once owned by author Ian McLeich, author of Native Orchids of Belize, is the hidden gem at Blancaneaux. I detest labels, but this hideaway falls in that perfect mod-rustic-romance category thanks to its lighting, decor, gourmet kitchen, and infinity pool. By day, you can see for miles above the treetops. Night ushers yellow hues of cozy candlelight bouncing off the stone. It's secluded enough for a seductive getaway (think Scotch and toasty fires) or writing your first novel (think Scotch with pen and paper).
Without appearing formulaic, it's easy to see why a writer would establish such a coveted spot to turn off the world. Channeling Daphne du Maurier, the first words of my novel will read, "Last night I dreamt I went to Blancaneaux again."
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Fly: All international flights to Belize arrive at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport (BZE) in Belize City. American Airlines flies direct from Miami and Dallas; Continental flies direct from Houston and has one direct flight from New York on Saturday; US Airways, from Charlotte; TACA Airlines, from Houston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York; Delta, from Atlanta; and Tropic Air, from Flores and Guatemala City
Drive: The hotel is a 2½ hour drive from BZE. Or you can charter a flight into the Blancaneaux airstrip.
Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve
P.O. Box B, Central Farm
Cayo District, Belize