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Belize's Maya Country

March 17, 2008 By: Travel Agent Central Contributor Travel Agent

Where to go to enjoy the reefs, rainforest and ruins

IT IS EASY TO SELL BELIZE AS A REGULAR CARIBBEAN "SUN, SAND AND SURF" DESTINATION. But that is only part of what can be found in this Central American country. Tucked between Mexico's Riviera Maya and Guatemala, English-speaking Belize is in the heart of the former Mayan empire—and where that ancient culture still lives today in the traditions of the indigenous people. A bedroom at The Inn at Robert's Grove

The coastal areas of Belize, especially in the north, are the nation's melting pot, where African, Carib, Creole and Hispanic rhythms and cuisines mix and mingle. The north is also home to the larger resorts and more frenetic nightlife. The south, meanwhile, is more the province of the descendants of the native Mayans.

Resorts to Pitch

With good reason, the Mayan hinterland of Belize is fast becoming a major ecotourism destination, certain to rival Panama and Costa Rica. A prime example of an eco-resort that provides a total experience, not merely a vacation, is the all-inclusive Cotton Tree Lodge (, the realization of the dream of two Americans, Jeff Pzena and Chris Crowell. Carved out of dense rainforest on the banks of the Moho River not far from the town of Punta Gorda, the Lodge is a beautifully landscaped property that radiates natural charm and promotes intimacy even while exuding a sense of generous space. The many fruit trees that have been planted among the artfully crafted cabanas ensure that there will always be fragrant flowers in bloom and tiny hummingbirds to observe from the hammock on every porch—not to mention the double hammock in the gazebo by the river.

There will be times when one is tempted to spend the entire day and evening swaying in a hammock in the cool shade, punctuated by refreshing dips in the river. But there are too many activities beckoning: exploring caves on land and underwater; swimming amid cascading waterfalls; visiting fascinating ruins of the Mayan civilization's formidable cities, complete with ball courts and sacrificial altars; discovering the power and mysteries of medicinal plants in the rainforest; and boat rides to spot animals and birds in the trees along the banks. AgentAdvice

Perhaps the most popular activity at Cotton Tree Lodge is its week-long chocolate workshop, held in the birthplace of that addictive delight. Participants learn by doing: harvesting pods in orchards and tamed jungle; fermenting and drying beans; then conching, tempering and molding them into delicious, organic dark chocolate bars of retail store quality.

Cotton Tree Lodge is comprised of nine cabanas, identical on the outside but configured individually to sleep two to four inside. Units designed for families have children's beds in a loft, and child care is free to parents wishing to go on excursions.

Honeymooners craving a natural setting will love the choice of special accommodations—a secluded jungle house for maximum privacy or a deluxe cabana equipped with a whirlpool bath for two. Couples can luxuriate in the Jacuzzi while enjoying their private view of the river.

The food at Cotton Tree Lodge is remarkably good. Breakfasts are hearty buffets with stick-to-your-ribs eggs, beans and rice, and lunches and dinners are flavorful and pleasantly varied. Menus are posted in advance and the kitchen will accommodate dietary requests. Meals are generally taken at a long communal table, although smaller tables can be set upon request.

The camaraderie that is fostered at mealtimes actually begins during the pre-dinner cocktail hour, when plenty of hors d'oeuvres are set out on the bar. Alcoholic drinks are not included in the price. Night on the boardwalk at Cotton Tree Lodge

Cotton Tree Lodge is one of the few eco-lodges with a dedicated pastry chef. Fresh-baked bread or rolls accompany every meal, with the added treat of muffins in the morning (the molasses muffins, in particular, are not to be missed). While there is a wide variety of desserts, it comes as no surprise that chocolate often takes center stage.

Note: As is the case with most eco-lodges deep in the bosom of nature, guests should have a tolerance for creepy, crawly critters. Guests can expect to be separated from everyday technology, as there are no phones in the rooms and no TVs anywhere on the property, although guests can check theire-mail in the office.

For reservations and more information, contact Jeff Pzena, director of U.S. Operations ([email protected], 212-529-8622).

Vacationers who prefer staying on the beach will enjoy Placencia, a narrow peninsula about an hour's drive (or a 15-minute flight by single-engine plane) north of Punta Gorda. Placencia is a rapidly developing tourist area, with resorts and vacation homes being built along the peninsula's lagoon and oceanfront, but it eschews high-rises and is characterized by much more of a laid-back ambiance. Resources

Among the many accommodation options, the number one choice here would have to be The Inn at Robert's Grove (, if only because it won Belize's Best Hotel of the Year award in 2007. The Inn, another American-owned property, has grown from one building to four over the years; with each successive expansion, the units have grown larger, from junior suites all the way to two-bedroom, two-bathroom condos. Three compact swimming pools are interspersed among the buildings, the newest one an infinity pool with a poolside bar. In fact, with four bars on the property—one out on the pier perched over the Caribbean Sea—no guest is ever far from libation.

Nor is one ever more than a few steps from the beach. Day and night, gentle waves lap the shore just feet from the outdoor terrace of the main dining room. The Inn has two restaurants—the Seaside, which serves classic American fare, while just across the road is Habanero, the peninsula's only Mexican restaurant. Both are popular with locals, as well as guests.

The Inn bills itself as the "most complete resort" in Placencia, undoubtedly a reference to its tennis courts, full-service spa and professional dive shop for scuba diving and snorkeling off the Barrier Reef, the largest in the western hemisphere. The hotel also has its own tour company for excursions to the rainforest, Mayan ruins and bird sanctuaries. The waterfall slide at Cotton Tree Lodge

An unusual and endearing feature of Robert's Grove is the access to the Jacuzzi whirlpool spas. There are either one or two on each rooftop of most of the residential buildings.

The honeymoon options here are pretty spectacular as well. Robert's Grove owns a private island with four cabanas for delicious, semi-secluded privacy. A second private island, managed by the Inn, is popular with sport fishermen.

As the hotel is a popular venue for weddings, Robert's Grove has its own wedding coordinator, Dasha Shivers, who can be reached at [email protected].

For information and reservations, contact General Manager Elena Cuellar ([email protected], 011-501-523-3565).

Just a few miles up the road from Robert's Grove is a more affordable alternative, the small Maya Breeze Inn (, which has hotel-style rooms, bungalows on the beach and large suites by the new pool and poolside bar. Like Robert's Grove, all units have either a refrigerator, kitchenette or full kitchen, as well as the usual amenities of air conditioning, ceiling fans, cable TV and lockboxes. Verandas on which to enjoy the scenery complete the picture.

The Maya Breeze's Monarch Cafe only serves breakfast, although guests are free to use the hotel's kitchen to prepare breakfast, lunch or dinner for themselves. By next season, the Inn plans to serve all three meals.

In the meantime, the Maya Breeze refers its guests to restaurants in neighboring resorts (including Robert's Grove), as well as in the town of Placencia, now booming with tourist trade. Recommended restaurants in Placencia are Trattoria, which offers Italian fare, and DeThatch, known for its shrimp specials.

Given the surging growth in this popular area of Belize, new venues are bound to open by the time you book your next trip.

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