A helicopter ride over rainforest is a novel introduction to a new country. Houses slide beneath us, then lagoons and coastal scrub, then endless tropical trees.
“Do you want a closer look?” asks Gustavo, the pilot. He dives, and the canopy races past 40ft beneath us, clearly visible through the glass footwell. Birds scatter. There are flashes of colour and light – a scarlet flower, sunlight glancing off water. Soon an old Mayan site appears: Lamanai. Gustavo circles its largest pyramid, pivoting on a 500ft gimbal, nose pinned to the huge stepped structure. Then, with a swing of the joystick, he peels off and heads for the landing zone, where we touch down for a tour and lunch.
Eventually, we’re off again, over the manifold greens, where the graceful curves of cohune palms stand like flash-frozen fireworks among ceiba and yaxnik trees. Near the Guatemalan border we touch down at Ka’ana, a small luxury resort. I am ushered into a private pool villa, where my bedroom gives onto a plunge pool and sundeck. As I settle in and the thrum of the chopper subsides, calm returns. The murmur of the pool filter and ring of cicadas take over.
Belize. Belize? Most of the people I canvassed weren’t that sure which continent it’s on. It’s certainly a tough call in a game of “What’s the capital?” On reflection, they think of Lord Ashcroft and John McAfee. Then things begin to run dry. As it turns out, Belize is bordered by the Caribbean to the east and south, Mexico’s Yucatán to the north and Guatemala to the west. As a former British colony, it feels more like the Caribbean islands than Central America in many ways: in people’s names, in building styles and in the language. The easy-going Belizeans speak with a delightful, soft West Indian accent.
A quick look around me at Ka’ana reveals the emerging pattern of luxury travel here. The country’s superb hardwoods, polished, run in a rich seam of tans around the white and cream walls. In the villas, mahogany-framed French windows concertina aside, opening onto the garden and pool. The furniture, too, is mahogany and teak, and the open-air showers are hemmed by palmetto stems and heliconias.
For all the excitement of flying machines, it is actually slower, quieter pleasures that work on you in Belize. The wildlife is truly spectacular, birds squawk and carry on, the night air rings with tropical noises, and everywhere there is fertility. Undergrowth creeps, overgrowth clambers, tree trunks soar and canopy explodes, and the whole lot is networked with lianas and vines. It is enough to turn a world-weary traveller into a naïf.
Oscar, the villa’s butler, arrives with breakfast. As does a kiskadee, a sort of “stretch kingfisher”. It tilts its head and watches. Oscar and I talk of the day’s activity, a canoe ride on the Macal River – definitely a slow pleasure. We start at Black Rock Lodge, a hotel that grew around a house from the 1970s; there were pioneers in this lost domain even then. As trees slip by, the spellbinding river silence is interrupted only by the susurration of insects and gentle rapids. Tiny mangrove swallows dip and dart across the water’s surface. Dragonflies flit, halt and shift, moving like miniature spaceships. Sulphur butterflies dance in the sun. Then a golden-fronted woodpecker shoots past, while a black iguana lazes on a high branch. There is not a human mark here; Belizean law now prevents development within 20m of a riverbank.
Being a late bloomer has its advantages. “There are few big-brand hotels here,” I am told, “and about the closest you’ll get to a chain is Francis Ford Coppola’s.” (He has two hotels in Belize – plus one in Guatemala and another in Buenos Aires.) What this means is that Belize’s hotels are more individual, visibly invested with the personality – perhaps eccentricity – of their owners. If there’s a criticism to be found, it’s that perhaps the country’s food is not spectacular. It’s an issue in the western tropics in general and it would be wrong to have high expectations.
Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge is yet deeper in the mountains. Cabañas hang on the hillside above a pretty stretch of the curiously named Privassion Creek – though there’s certainly no sense of privation around here. There’s a delightful garden, and each cabaña – with thatch on palmetto walls – has a large veranda and a lovely view onto the river. While it is extremely comfortable, Blancaneaux, which has been morphing here gradually since 1993, is not in sleek, modern style. Instead, Mexican architect Manolo Mestre has given “tropical garden hideaway” a hip turn. The rooms are still quite lean, but the muted tones of the hardwoods are flashed with bright Guatemalan furnishings and carnival masks. There is a strong Italian flavour, with Catholic saints everywhere, surveying the scene from their shrines, and of course, there are Californian wines from Coppola’s vineyards.
In a hammock – one of the finest quiet pleasures, after all – I listen to the morning calls of the kiskadees and chachalacas. This terrain is completely different. A chunk of granite, torn off North America, has risen over time above the surrounding area. Despite the lush garden at Blancaneaux, this is difficult land – hence the privation. And oddly, instead of jungle, there is pine forest.
Caracol, the major Mayan site in Belize, is yet more remote. Picking up the local military escort (hardly necessary, but there officially because of Guatemalan intruders), we descend off the pine ridge and begin a proper jungle journey – along water-gouged tracks, flicking the encroaching trees aside – into nowhere. Then, suddenly, illogically, there’s a road, laid for the site’s grand opening 10 years ago. Just a few people visit each day, but imagine this: Nasa has spotted thousands of structures in 200sq km of jungle here.
My guide, Israel, explains the buildings: massive ceremonial pyramids, royal quarters, a ball court and celestial observatory buildings, as well as several stelae – huge decorated memorial stones laid out under a rickety tin roof. In the heat-oppressed midday, he describes daily life between 12 and 17 centuries ago. I still find it hard to conjure up a picture. These ghostly grey stone pyramids were once primary-coloured monuments, stuccoed in striking reds, yellows and blacks against the surrounding green fertility. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the sight of a great leader appearing 45m above you, fresh from communing with the gods, clad in bright-red feathers and exploiting the acoustics to the full, would have been awe-inspiring.
It’s a fairly standard plan, after spending time up country here, to head for the beach, though whereas the Belizean jungle is spectacular and pretty-much pristine, its beaches don’t seem quite as good as others in the region. Coppola’s coastal property, Turtle Inn, is in the southern town of Placencia. Better known, though, is the island of Ambergris Caye, which stretches north to the Mexican border. And so I board a five-seater plane bound for the Caribbean coast. Mercifully, the pilot skirts the stacks of oh-so-pretty-looking cumulus clouds. After a couple of stops en route, we slide down towards the caye.
On final approach, an island appears below. Cayo Espanto is famous for its connection to another Hollywood luminary, Leonardo DiCaprio, though he’s a guest rather than an owner. There’s a rarefied Caribbean magic to this sandy outcrop – just 75m by 175m and eccentrically patterned each morning using rakes – with its seven villas, each strategically positioned for privacy and its view over a private dock onto the glossy surface of the lagoon. Dressed in teal blue, the buildings use traditional Caribbean themes, mixing indoor and outdoor space under tin roofs and through louvres and French windows. There’s a liberal use of hardwoods, of course. And the guests? Well, they arrive at their docks and, being who they are, you might never lay eyes on them.
In Ambergris Caye itself, we enter hardcore tourism; San Pedro town is a shoreside infestation of brightly coloured buildings hugger-mugger with dive shops offering scuba trips out to the blue hole. But there is a handful of good hotels doing the beach-escape thing here, sprinkled along the coast. In the south, Victoria House has gradually metamorphosed from a 1980s fishing lodge (diving and deep-sea fishing are the area’s two long-standing attractions) into a luxury beachfront hotel worthy of the name. Recently, however, the most interesting developments have been in the north. One of the newest is El Secreto, 45 minutes from San Pedro by motorboat. We scoot over glassy green shallows – never more than 8ft deep – between the beach and Belize’s glinting barrier reef, the second-longest in the world. Evidently, people have owned villas here for a while: dock after dock reaches out to meet us as we speed by.
El Secreto, created by two Mexicans, Abraham Roffe and architect Abraham Saade, reveals itself initially as two large palapa buildings in a screen of coconut palms along the shore. A walk down the dock brings you to a sandy shorefront garden, where villas sit among the trees. Some are carefully positioned by the beach, while others cluster around a lagoon at the rear. They are thatched and each has a veranda and a private hot tub outside. Inside, they are floored in pinkish polished concrete and enclosed by a combination of glass walls and generous use of woods such as mahogany. They are controlled via an iPod Touch, offering a choice of music and lighting moods, and are, luckily, foolproof; I didn’t even manage to lock myself out.
Lit at night in rich, revolving colours, the resort has a distinctly youthful take on beachside luxury, as you might hope from an architect given free rein. The centrepiece is the dining room and bar, where the palapas rise from a bulletwood deck through logwood columns to a network of glasswood beams and thatch. It is artfully simple and delightfully airy. A few earthy colours zing off the jade sea and blue of the pool, and there is a touch of modernity in the octagonal white parasols and diaphanous hangings, but the focus is permanently, irreducibly on the sea.
This gives plenty of opportunity to pursue another vital quiet pleasure – the contemplation of the straightness of the sea horizon. And time to commit the name of Belize’s capital, finally, to memory. Created in the 1960s after Hurricane Hattie, it’s called Belmopan.