Turtle Inn Placencia Belize
Our three-seater Cessna plane dandles dangerously as our pilot enthusiastically points out the rainforest-covered Mayan Hills, banana plantations and hectares of orange groves nearing the coast. I pray Mr Smith stops asking questions and leaves the man to concentrate on his flying. By the time we’ve passed the vast inland shrimp farms and approach the long sandy spit of the Placencia peninsula, we’ve had a lesson in the history, geography and politics of Belize. It’s a crash course with a happy landing though, as we gently skim over the sea to arrive at the toy-town runway framed by the limpid Caribbean on one side and the manatee-filled mangroves on the other.
We’ve hardly settled into our transfer when we arrive at Turtle Inn: a walled mini-village of Balinese-inspired villas, cabanas and cottages – dark wood, palm thatching and intricate carvings – wow! All set on an idyllic white powder-soft beach. The lush gardens of this luxury Belize resort are lovingly landscaped with raked sand, neat green lawns, tropical flowers and shady palms. And as well as the natural beauty, it has an Asian aura to its exoticism thanks to Japanese-style raked sand and imported stone sculptures. Still, oriental pools flanking the pathway to reception are filled with snapping terrapins and other assorted paddling beasties, curiously eyeing all new arrivals. Granite turtle sculptures peep out from behind potted tropical plants. At check-in there’s an enormous reptile-painted gourd. I spy piles of wooden terrapins in the hotel’s gift shop beyond. Forgive me if I’m labouring the point, but there are turtles everywhere – and charming they are too. Reception is in a huge, vaulted open-side cabana, shaggy with palm fringing, and check-in involves a rum-punch cocktail while we pause on a wicker sofa to take in a seductive view of the sea and a peek at the hotel’s Italian restaurant. We’ll be back later to experience Mares – a doff of the cap to the owner’s heritage, none other than Francis Ford Coppola.
Our seafront cottage is at the far end of the estate, inches from the water. From the outside it’s sturdy: palm-topped and wood-built, with an intriguing high wall. Seven-feet-high and very solid, the wall has impressive hand-carvings and reminds us of the wall built to keep out King Kong. A couple of steps up to the porch, which is separated from the main bedroom by a beautiful and highly decorative wooden doorway, and we take in the sheer space. The design incorporates wood galore with an Eastern glint; a gleaming engraved mahogany coffee table, artisan-crafted headboard, silky-smooth, curved chairs. Colourful rugs and local textiles with geometric designs give character and warmth and cream sofas add chic. And of course there’s a wooden turtle. With Coppola’s cute conch-shell telephones given pride of place, this is beach hut deluxe unlike anywhere else.
Stepping through another carved doorway, imported especially from Bali, our King Kong mystery is solved. A double-sinked, jade-tiled bathroom with massive ‘Chinese bath’ (super-sized shower) leads to our own private Garden of Eden, complete with Japanese-style shower for fun-enhanced alfresco ablutions and iguanas for company.
Walls comprised of net-covered, shuttered door panels, mean we potter around opening and closing sections, deciding whether we’re in the mood for seclusion or sea vista. Explorations at an end, we plug in our iPod, pop open a locally brewed Belkin beer and settle onto our cosy veranda to watch the sun set over the lagoon.
Here when it gets dark, it really gets dark, and nightfall drops like a stone. As we walk to dinner we can’t help peering into other people’s cottages, drawn by the shadows and silhouettes thrown up by candlelight, creating an intimate backdrop. (I make a note to remember this if we want privacy at bedtime.) It’s Friday, so it’s Garifuna night at the main palapa: Mare’s restaurant hosts a local family from Seine Bite village, who present song and dance from the Caribbean freed-slave tradition. Fantastic entertainment, Belizean fish cooked Italian-style, and crisp Californian wines on tap. What more could we want? Celebrity co-diners maybe, and Bjork’s here adding a touch of Icelandic cool to the cosmopolitan proceedings.
Our next meal is a hearty pre-dive Belizean breakfast of fresh pineapple and fried Jacks covered with syrup. A short boat ride from Placencia is an array of different dive sites, and we’re excited about the chance to swim with the largest fish in the sea: the peaceful Whale Shark. Having jumbled our dates, and not being here between March and May, we organise trips to nearby Laughing Bird Caye, where we spend the day merrily underwater ogling groupers and stingrays, corals and conches. By the afternoon, we’ve just about enough energy to cycle into the local town on rickety bikes, dodging potholes. We’ve heard the ice-cream from Gelateria Tutti Frutti is a must, but a whispered word in your ear – the corn flavour speciality is an acquired taste.
Lots of friendly hellos are thrown our way as we wander along the sidewalk, a sandy path between road and sea. Occasional stalls are packed with vivid painted wooden animal masks including indigenous jaguars and maccaws, bead-and-bauble jewellery and ethnic-patterned fabrics. Colourful clapboard homes and shacks where you can eat and drink stand proud bang on the bleached beach. This sleepy sandy peninsula is fantastically laidback in a peeling-paint kind of way, and the casual vibe suits these vacationers perfectly. Our new friends from the dive trip have recommended the weekly Jump Up night at Barefoot Beach Bar. How better to spend our final night than bopping with locals to live music? We get stuck in, but duck the lethal-looking local-tradition alcohol-filled Frisbees. What a cocktail of cultures, we’ve experienced already – Mayan customs, Spanish accents, freed-slaves colonies and British rule have all contributed to a Central American country where cultures have not so much collided as fused – and Placencia has been a winning Caribbean adventure.