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By Steve Barnhart

We had a great experience in Costa Rica last year for spring break, so we decided to try Belize. It offered many of the elements that worked well for our family last year: warm weather, lots of outdoor activities, a mix of activities for adults and kids, good flight connections, only one time zone change, and the chance to see how another culture operated.

We flew American Airlines to Belize City via Miami. Other than some de-icing at O’Hare, it was a very smooth trip. The Belize City airport would qualify as rustic, but operated smoothly. The transportation from our first place of lodging, Chaa Creek, was there to pick us up.

As we headed out of the airport, we had our first change in plans. We were going to stop at the zoo on the way to Chaa Creek, but we were traveling on Good Friday, and the zoo was closed. This was not a big issue, and we went on our way. The first big surprise was to find that English was the primary language. We had assumed it would be Spanish (o.k., our homework on local customs and history had been weak up to this point) as it was in Costa Rica, and in all of Belize’s neighboring countries, but had we remembered our geography well, and tracked the evolution of the British colony outpost of British Honduras into Belize, we would have understood why English was the main language, although Spanish, Creole and Mayan, along with other tongues and dialects, are also spoken.

Belize is surprisingly small, about the size of Massachusetts, 300,000 or so inhabitants, and apparently really only 4 major roads. The highways are fine. The dirt roads, well, I grew up on a gravel road, and dirt is a real step down, but it certainly helped define the undeveloped nature of the place.

The lack of development was both surprising and refreshing. A large part of the country is set aside in parks and preserves, and there are also a lot of orange and banana fields, so almost all the country felt green and vibrant. The variety and number of birds is very high, as billed, and the rest of the wildlife is also truly all around you. On several occasions we saw spider monkeys, and not only saw howler monkeys, but had one climb on our middle child (that is not a recommendation).

We stayed 3 nights at Chaa Creek, the first of our two spots, and couldhave enjoyed the entire week there. It was an early eco-lodge, and has that feel to it today, even as it has added additional comforts.  Our room was very nicely appointed with local art, and had a great porch overlooking the valley, and an outdoor hot tub which the kids adored. Meals were all taken at the restaurant there, and the food was excellent. Wi-Fi was available in a lounge area for those, like me, unable to completely disconnect.

Xunantunich2Our family tested what appear to be many of the classic adventures for this area. We went tubing through caves, with miner-like lamps on our heads. There are a lot of caves in Belize, and I am told the Mayans believed they were part of a mystical underworld of sorts. Depending on which caves you try, you can do a lot of paddling with your hands, or a lot of floating, and can see crystal formations, stalactites, stalagmites, ancient Mayan pottery and the skeletons of those offered as human sacrifices centuries ago.

We took a "zip-line" tour through the rainforest tree tops. This was popular with the whole family, as it proved to be not too physically challenging for anyone, but at least somewhat adrenaline inducing for all, as we scooted along on cables 50 or so feet above the rainforest floor, and then rappelled down.

Horseback riding and canoeing at Chaa Creek were fun family activities, all included in the cost of our lodging, but the big outing was to Tikal, billed as the greatest classic Mayan site that has survived. This was a case where the journey was truly part of the adventure. It was about a 3-hour trek each way, involving customs exiting Belize and entering Guatemala (both really pretty efficient and quick for us), a stop in each direction at a souvenir shop, and roads that varied from nicely paved to potholed to washboard and dirt. Apparently this is sometimes an issue for those that get easily car sick, but it turned out to be no issue for us. However, the time investment was too much for some of our party, so they went to the much closer, but smaller Xunantunich ruins, which proved sufficient for them.

Tikal was impressive, with several temples in the range of 140 to 170 feet high, and the largest at 240 feet tall. They were particularly impressive as they rise out of the jungle, and from the tops you can see over the jungle all around you.  We were told that at the height of the Mayan period that all of the land visible from the tops would have been in cultivation, such that there would have been no jungle there to tower over, and the view would have been very different. It was very interesting to understand that much of what looked like virgin rainforest to us (technically most is tropical moist forest, we were told) is actually not virgin at all, but rapidly re-grew as the Mayan civilization retreated.

PlacenciaOur second stop was at The Inn at Robert’s Grove, in Placencia. We traveled there by a hired van, a bit over 3 hours. You can make the trip a bit quicker by taking a car back to Belize City and flying down in a small plane, but we wanted to see the countryside, and would do it again, although once you get to the peninsula where Placencia is located, the road was truly quite rough. The countryside was green, with orange trees, banana trees and lots of pretty views as you drove through the mountains. We had an excellent and entertaining driver who rounded out our understanding of the development of the local culture and politics.

We had high expectations for the Inn at Robert’s Grove, but it was still a pleasant surprise. We came off the dirt road to a beach paradise, but a very civilized one. Our accommodations were 3 adjoining rooms for our family of five, with very ample space, each with separate balconies and baths, and a large living room, all with separate AC (not quite as eco-focused here) and dual ceiling fans. Out front was a pool and two hot tubs, and immediately beyond that, warm, inviting blue and turquoise ocean waters. There were two other pools on the property, numerous other hot tubs, a small spa facility, a good restaurant and a nice long dock with a cabana at the end. The cabana and several of the pools had covered bars by them, so it was easy for both kids and adults to stay as well hydrated as they wished.

On the other side of the road the property featured a second restaurant
and a dive shop. Only one of the five of us had ever dived before, and
we found the staff to be excellent. They accommodated the very diverse
needs of our 3 novice and one near-novice divers, and our still-too-young-to-dive snorkeler. 

Our first full day we took advantage of the kid-friendly offerings
available on-site, migrating from hot tub to pool to ocean to sea
kayak, to attempting to wind surf. Then in the afternoon we biked down
the road into the town of Placencia to get some ice cream. This was
more work than expected, which went over well with our 12- and 14-year-old boys, but was a bit much for our 10-year-old girl, as the soft dirt
and rocks in the road made for some rough riding, particularly the
first mile of the five-mile ride.

The second day we took a scuba diving "resort course," where we took a
boat out to a caye (one of many small islands off the coast) where they
instructed us in the basics and then took us into the waters off the
caye with a guide. After lunch we went out with the regular divers out
on the boat to deeper waters, and, again with our guide, took the
plunge. It was fabulous. While I have no reference point other than
snorkeling in Costa Rica and off Florida, it was beautiful, and every
authoritative source seems to agree that with the second longest
barrier reef in the world, and many cayes, Belize offers truly
spectacular diving.

Our third day we filled with tennis, lounging, looking at some of the
local art galleries (not a well developed scene, but some nice pieces)
and walking through Placencia, dining at the Purple Space Monkey and
making our second stop at Tutti Frutti’s, where the gelato and ice
cream really hit the spot.

Day four saw part of the family diving again, returning with rave
reviews of what they saw diving near the barrier reef: nurse shark,
barracuda, eels and more fish than I can name. The balance of the
family enjoyed a more leisurely repeat of day one, with some card
playing on the veranda built-in.

Bottom line on our Belize adventure? Ten thumbs up from our family.

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Steve Barnhart is the president and chief executive officer of Orbitz Worldwide.

Tagged: Caribbean, Family time

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