My wife and I just got back from a 17-day honeymoon that included 7nights in Belize at the two Francis Ford Coppola properties: Turtle Inn in Placencia (4 nights) and Blancaneaux Lodge (3 nights) and then 7 nights at the Lodge at Pico Bonito in Honduras. Here is a detailed report about each property, all 3 exceptional in different ways.
Rooms: The rooms at Turtle Inn are out of this world. The whole place was re-built in the past year because of a devastating hurricane, so everything feels extremely new and clean. There are two basic classes of room: Cottage and Villa. And both are excellent. The villas are bigger, but the cottages are also large, and the quality is on the same level. Each room is a fairly massive, free-standing unit with a thatched roof. There is a large, screened in porch, with a small sofa and several chairs. Then there is a main room, with a large, firm, comfortable bed, two ceiling fans, a sofa, a desk, and a shell phone. All the furniture is high quality (much of it imported from Bali) and, with the shiny , smooth dark wooden floors, creates an extremely pleasant atmosphere.
The bathrooms are amazing. They all have large sunken Japanese baths, and beautiful tile, and extremely high quality soaps and shampoos. Each room has its own, private, fenced-in backyard with an exquisite outdoor shower that seems to flow out of a piece of bamboo. While it is true that all the "rooms" are exceptional, including the lowest costing "garden-view cottage", the closer you get to the ocean the better. Some rooms are literally on the beach, as close as 15 feet to the ocean, and those rooms have more of a breeze, plus the priceless music of the sea?s rhythmic, ever changing concerto.
Food: The Italian food was very good. The rest of the menu (the non-Italian food, such as seafood) was decent, but not exceptional. If I had to do it over, I would stick to the Italian stuff, (although at times, it felt a little weird to be eating Italian food in Belize). Turtle Inn has a gelato bar that is outstanding and a real treat. Very yummy. The restaurant itself is physically amazing. It?s completely open-air, and the wood is smooth and beautiful, and the ocean is visible in the distance. Oh, and the fruit shakes are yummy too. Also, this is a place that wants to indulge you, so you can have dinner in your room, or on the beach if you wish. I?m not talking room service here. I?m talking about a waiter actually coming into your room, setting up a table, and then coming back to take your order and bring you each course?an amazing experience if you are on the porch in one of the ocean-front rooms
Staff: Very professional and attentive. They really pamper you. For instance, when we arrived, we went to the desk to check in. I was expecting to fill out some paperwork. Instead the woman behind the counter (I guess she was a receptionist or clerk) called my wife and I by our first names (as if she had been expecting us) and soothingly steered us to a large, comfortable sofa in the open-air restaurant. A waiter gave us two yummy fruit shakes. A couple minutes later we were led to our room, where our bags were waiting in the large bureau. The entire staff was pleasant and seemed to have memorized our first names, so they never referred to us as Ms. This or That, but Jeff and Christine. It really helped put us at ease. Though I have to say, as strange as this may sound, there are so many staff people there?manicuring the property, others there to serve you?that it made it hard for me to forget that I was at a resort, if that makes sense.
Property: The property is not that huge, but it feels perfect. Whoever the architect is did a great job with spacing and maximizing the area. A lot of thought seems to have gone into every detail. The pool is gorgeous. The whole operation is top-notch. The soft, white sand, and green, bathwater sea doesn?t hurt either. There are sand flies, which seem to enjoy biting into flesh, whether you?re wearing Deet or not. The sand flies seem to sense new meat and choose t munch on tourists over the locals. This was a small nuisance.
Activities: The snorkeling and diving is outstanding, and the instructors and boats and gear are all of very high quality. Sure, these excursions are a little pricier than what you would pay in town (a snorkeling trip costs $50 per person), but the experience is excellent. They have several other excursions available. They also have a Thai masseuse who lives on the property (her husband works at Blancaneaux?they see each other twice a month), and she gives a mean foot massage. On site, free of charge, there are bikes and kayaks and snorkeling gear that you can use whenever you want.
Surroundings: The property is about a mile or two up from Placencia. You can either walk along the beach to get there, or take the one thin road. We were expecting Placencia to be cuter somehow. We had a good dinner at the Inn at Robert?s Grove, overlooking the water. Very good. Robert?s Grove will actually pick you up at your hotel beforehand and drop you back off afterwards. One of the pleasures of going into Placencia for a few hours was returning to Turtle Inn and being blown away all over again about how beautiful the place was.
Overall: A spectacular place . One of a kind. The prices are going up soon, so make your reservations now.
Rooms: Coming from the Turtle Inn to Blancaneaux, there was a bit of a letdown. The rooms were not as good, and there appears to be a big jump from the villas (which are excellent) to the cabanas (which are decent, but not great). Also the small bathrooms in the cabanas are not completely screened off, so bugs (of which there are of course many out in nature) have easy access into your room. Another hurdle we had was that at first we kept comparing Blancaneaux to Turtle Inn, when perhaps it would be fairer to compare Blancaneaux to other resorts in the very rustic Pine Mountain/Cayo district . (We rode our mountain bikes to Kitty?s, and while it seemed like a nice enough place, it was no Blancaneaux.)
Food: The food here was pretty good, definitely better than the Turtle Inn (though no gelato). Blancaneaux has their own vegetable garden, so those are very fresh. Their nightly soups were real stand-outs. The Italian food was good, but so were the more regionally appropriate dishes, such as seafood and the gumbo (courtesy of the Garifuna, I believe). Breakfasts were very good too.
Staff: Incredibly nice and down to earth. The waitress Roxy was particularly cool and warm to be around. They really make you feel at home. Exceptional, friendly, efficient service.
Property: Blancaneaux began to grow on us. After we went through our Turtle Inn detox, we began to see that this place was also extremely charming, but more subtle. The grounds are intricate. The highlights are a horseshoe shaped pool that overlooks the river, perfect for soaking in after a long day of activities. Somehow the pool is cool during the day and hot at night, almost as warm as a hot tub, exquisite. The stars over Blancaneaux are just fantastic. Almost wish there was an astronomer there to point Mayan constellations out.
Activities: There is a waterfall (about a 70-minute hike or a 15 minute bike ride)) that is gorgeous. You can swim in the river and cozy yourself all the way up to the waterfall. Exquisite. You can also swim in the river that trickles through the property. There are numerous for-pay day-trips provided by Blancaneaux. Be cause the property is extremely remote, you basically have no choice but to do the tours with the Blancaneaux guides (as opposed to the many tour operators based in San Ignacio). Yes, the Blancaneaux tours are quite pricey, but we found the guides to be really pleasant and knowledgeable. We took a canoe ride through a cave in Barton Creek one day. You can actually swim in the cave. Awesome and creepy, with bats flying around. If the guide turns off the flashlights, then you are in infinite darkness.
The second day-trip we indulged in was to Tikal, which is in Guatemala and takes almost 13 hours door to door (6 a.m. departure, 9:30 a.m arrive at Tikal, 2:30 Lunch, 3:30 drive home). It was very pricey ($250 for 2 of us), but we were the only ones in the van, so we had our own private tour. Tikal is one of the most amazing places I?ve ever been, a massive lost city in the middle of a dense tropical jungle with spider monkeys and howler monkeys flipping through the lush trees, and intoxicating pyramids. Worth every penny.
Surroundingslancaneaux is in a pine forest. The only problem is that a few years ago, some beetles came along and devoured all the trees, so now much of the surrounding area looks like an ecological graveyard. Still the area where the lodge sits is quite lush and jungle-y. The road to Blancaneaux is very bumpy, for about 40 minutes, so there?s really nowhere to go unless you hire a guide, or if you have your own car (better be a 4-wheel drive).
Overall: A really, charming beautiful place that really starts to grow on you and enchant you the more you stay there.
Rooms: We did not know what to expect at Pico Bonito. We had seen the website and read numerous testimonies to its greatness, but we were still a little nervous as neither of us had been to Honduras before. To make matters more mysterious, we arrived at the property close to midnight, so everything was shut down for the evening. The first thing that struck us was the property?s size. The 21 cabins are really spread out. We opened the door and were pleasantly surprised with what we found: shiny, wooden floors, wooden slats on the windows, a firm, classy bed, tasteful decorations, our own private porch with a hammock and ceiling fan, and a clean, aesthetically pleasing bathroom. The phrase "rustic elegance" comes to mind. Needless to say, we were very happy with our cabins, which were several steps above our room at Blancaneaux and in the realm of our cottage at Turtle Inn. I shoukd add that there is no real drop-off between the standard cabins and the luxury cabins at Pico Bonito, both are really good.
Food: The fruit at Pico Bonito is superb. Probably the best I ever had. No wonder all those US fruit companies set up shop down there. The breakfasts were so healthy and delicious: granola and yogurt, and fresh fruit and juice. The liquados were out of this world. Imagine a watermelon smoothie that is essentially a chunk of watermelon dropped in a blender with ice and condensed milk and then delivered to you poolside. Hot chocolate was also outstanding.
For whatever reason, lunch and dinner are served as fixed menus. For lunch there about 3 choices each day ($12). Everything we had was tasty. For dinner ($25) you cannot order anything ala carte. It?s either everything or nothing. Each night there?s a set soup, a set appetizer, a set desert, and hen you have 4 entrees to choice from (usually a chicken, a beef, a seafood, and a vegetable). I found the food to be mostly very good. I was surprised by the rich, creamy sauces, and the variety of curries that the waiter said were common to that area. My wife would have preferred having a few standards to choose from, such as a basic chicken noodle soup, or a grilled piece of chicken with some rice. Overall I found the food at Pico Bonito to be the best of the 3 resorts.
Staff: The staff at Pico Bonito is excellent. Very professional, pleasant, and laid back. The waiters in the restaurant were superb. The management people we met were great. And there are a number of environmentalists on staff who lead guests on hikes and excursions. A real class operation.
Property: The property is amazing, outstanding, gorgeous. Believe it or not, the website does not do the property justice?not just because the website isn?t slick enough (it?s decent, but not exceptional), but more because the setting is so lush and huge that it is not easy to squash into a camera or computer screen. You feel like you are in a jungle, and this is because you are. The hotel itself has been built into a national park in Pico Bonito tropical cloud forest. Just sitting on our hammock, we felt like we were in the jungle: the trees are so green and thick, the cicadas are throbbing, colorful birds are zipping through the branches. Hardly any humans traipsing around. Just paradise. I would suggest getting a room with a porch that faces away from the property; this will increase your sense of being in the jungle.
The dining room is lovely and huge. The tables are spaced far enough apart so that you don?t feel pressed up against anyone. Outside of the restaurant is a great, giant porch with several comfy sofas and three sets of chairs?perfect for sitting and reading, sipping a delicious liquado, or a tea, every now and then glancing up at the mountain rising out of the jungle. The pool is pretty basic, pretty much your average pool. What is not basic is the trees that surround it. Again just beautiful. It was great to splash into the pool after a hike in the cloud forest and sip a watermelon liquado while standing in the pool.
Oh, and they also have a butterfly farm on the property, which they give you a free tour of. Very cool. And there is a working coffee farm and cacoa farm (pronounced Ka-kow) on the property, so the hot chocolates were to die for.
Activities: The lodge offers numerous activities for purchase, such as horseback riding, or nature walks with an expert at night, but for free you can hike the several trails that are for reserved for hotel guests within the national park. One goes to Mermaid Falls (about 30 minutes each way). The river swimming hole you find there is some of the clearest water you will ever see. The more ambitious trail takes about 2 hours and is moderate to strenuous. Both are extremely lush and enchanting.
The lodge is big enough and comfortable enough so that you can easily spend several days there just relaxing, reading on your private porch, or by the pool. They have a small library by the bar with a couple dozen books (I recommend The God of Small Things).
Many people who come to Honduras go to the Bay Islands (Roatan, Utila, Guanaja) for sun and snorkeling or diving. English is the official language on the islands. We wanted to go snorkeling, but would have had to fly to get to the Bay Islands, so we turned to Cayos Cachinos (the Hog Islands). Pico Bonito does not offer a tour there, but they helped us find a reliable tour operator that did. (Apparently some tour companies are second-rate.) This day trip was incredible. At 6 a.m. Pico Bonito drove us to La Ceiba (the not so inviting city 25 minutes away), where we met our guide, who drove us to a Garfinua village (Garifuna are descendants of escaped slaves) strangely called Sambo Creek. From there we boarded a tiny boat and drove 10 miles out to sea. The coastline on that part of Honduras looks a lot like Hawaii . Just stunning. We went to our own private island and snorkeled for several hours. Great fish. Then had lunch on the secluded beach. I made the mistake of eating a sandwich the guide provided. I was so used to being in resorts that I forgot about not eating local food if you aren?t sure it?s safe. Luckily my stomach did not start hurting until we were back in Sambo Creek around 1:00 pm. Truth be told, I would have traded 10 tummy aches for that incredibly romantic snorkeling trip.
Surroundings: Honduras is a third world country. There?s a lot of poverty. What was most jarring for me was driving on the roads, even as a passenger. On two-lane highways (one lane for each direction), it is common practice for drivers to pass one another in a way that I would describe as reckless, dangerous, bordering on the psychotic. I saw several near crashes . Also many people carry pistols and machetes, so that?s a little different, takes a little getting used to, but never once did I feel at risk. I certainly would return to Honduras in a heartbeat. It is an obscenely beautiful country, and has a lot to offer any visitor. We spent two nights in Copan after Pico Bonito, and the scenery is lovely. Copan is a great little colonial town. (I highly recommend it.) And the ruins are top-notch?not as overwhelming as Tikal, but very well preserved stone carvings, and there is a contagious tranquility about the place.
Overall: Pico Bonito is an amazing place. Such a beautiful property, and an excellent staff, and yummy food, luxurious lodgings. It definitely holds it own with the Coppola properties, and all things considered (including price), out of the 3 amazing resorts, Pico Bonito is the one I am most likely to return to.
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