September 2003

The Bees Belize

The first time I landed in Belize was courtesy of a Royal Navy helicopter. It ferried me unceremoniously from a destroyer spotting cocaine smugglers in the Caribbean to a British jungle warfare training base.I remember pale-skinned, blonde-haired officers reading, somewhat incongruously, tattered old copies of Country Life while lounging in a jungle clearing somewhere in this Central American country. At 1800 hours precisely the other ranks would gather for the daily ceremony of feeding the Naafi pet python, Sydney (secure in a cage in the canteen), a live rat. All very entertaining. I never forgot marvelling at the endless variety of birds in the jungle and the damp, fertile smell of the tropics, and I was determined to return.
When I did eventually fly back recently, the occasion was a little more salubrious. I travelled first to one of the most luxurious islands off the east coast. Cayo Espanto is a privately owned getaway geared exclusively to the exceedingly rich. We were met at Belize airport by a man with a posh car who drove us to a jetty where another man had a posh speedboat to take us the seven minutes to the island.

Another man in the boat had iced flannels for our perspiring brows. We were clearly not in the hands of Mass Holidays Inc.

When we reached the tiny island, Cayo Espanto's entire staff was lined up on the quay. They were formally presented to us, and included our private butler and dedicated cook. At the end of the line stood our house servant with another ice bucket containing a well chilled bottle of champagne. The accommodation was a stunning bungalow suite, set in isolation with private plunge pool, widescreen telly, hi-fi, two bathrooms and well stocked bar - get the picture? The island's general manager is a lass from Harrogate, Pamela Berry Brouchier, who emigrated to America in 1975, married a Frenchman and went into upper-crust property management throughout the Caribbean. She has since risen to the top of this unusual profession. Cayo Espanto has a staff ratio of three to one and is good enough for the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Heseltine. Sadly, the really big film stars don't come because they insist on their own private air strip - the only facility the island lacks. Cayo Espanto is terrifically expensive, but you get what you pay for.

When you book in London you receive an extensive questionnaire asking you to list your favourite foods, drinks, waking time, bath time, soap - this really is not an ordinary vacation. On arrival your preferences are catered for and your butler remains at the end of a walkie-talkie should you need him. Unsurprisingly, the island is a nirvana of serene calm. The other guests are mostly invisible (the truly rich usually are), there is no ambient noise, no 'group' restaurant or bar. Nevertheless every whim is catered for. Staff morph magically out of the undergrowth, genuflect, serve, and noiselessly evaporate. Good stuff. There's only one snag - you're looking at about £1,000 a night, so come with me instead to affordable Belize.

The Lodge at Chaa Creek typifies the kind of inclusive four-day break that makes good economic sense in Belize. It is a jungle resort, set in 330 acres of private reserve on the steep rainforested slopes of the Macal River in Cayo district. The 20 cottages are finely constructed with high ceilings under thatched roofs, balconies overlooking the jungle and basic but sufficient bathrooms. The cuisine is communal and classy, with original ethnic dishes on a clever menu, and the bar is small and intimate with first-class wines. The place is run by a British/American husband-and-wife team with quiet efficiency. We felt instantly at home.

As amateur twitchers, we found the early-morning birdstalk yielded an aviary of birds within half a mile of our cottage. The stunning Blue Morpho butterfly with its large iridescent wings is indigenous and as common as our town pigeon, while huge iguana tree lizards lounged soporifically on the trees near our cottage. We did the local Mayan ruins, enjoyable even for an archaeological simpleton such as myself, and we walked endlessly along forest trails and river banks wondering what that strange smell was - it turned out to be air unpolluted by petrol and other fumes.

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