“Everything unfolds frame by frame,” is how Bernie Matute, general manager of Blancaneaux Lodge, describes the guest experience at his remote, romantic retreat in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest in the Cayo district of Belize. That’s no coincidence: Its owner and creative director is one of the most celebrated filmmakers in America.
Cinematic is the way I like to think of Francis Ford Coppola’s trio of tiny luxury resorts in Central America. Nothing feels scripted—not overly wrought or contrived—but someone clearly approached the places with an eye for detail, a sense of framing memorable views, and an intention to let a good story take place. Whether it’s taking the first sip of a lemongrass mojito during a sunset herbal-mixology session in the organic garden, concluding a horseback ride at an enticing swim-in-me waterfall, or simply opening the room-darkening doors in the morning to reveal a vista of the Privassion River, moments have a way of unfolding delightfully here. A loving attention was clearly applied. (Disclosure: I was hosted as a journalist at all three resorts.)
That’s because Blancaneaux Lodge was a labor of love for Coppola. He discovered the property in 1981, while looking for a lush landscape that would connect him with nature in the same way that shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines had. After jumping into the creek and deciding Blancaneaux would be a wonderful place to write, he kept it as his family’s private retreat until 1993, when he opened it to the public. The resort can be a staging ground for touring Maya ruins or getting the adrenaline going with adventure sports like caving, but for many guests, the appeal is simply immersion in nature, with its cool mountain breezes and constant swoosh of the Privasson.
Since then, Blancaneaux has grown to 20 freestanding cabanas and villas, many with large decks and some with open living areas, where a hammock takes the place of one wall, plus a cozy main lodge and two restaurants—one old-school Italian with a wood-fired pizza oven, and the other tiny, poolside and Guatemalan—supplied by that enormous garden. (While the food is excellent, the limited wine list, almost entirely from Coppola’s California winery, is a bit of a drawback.) Everything is decorated with hand-chosen Mexican and Guatemalan textiles and masks.
Not only is it aesthetically pleasing; it’s admirably sustainable. Look before green was cool, the lodge was outfitted with a hydroelectric plant that supplies most of the electricity and heats the swimming pool, and the garden produces much of the food. There are hopes to be completely self-sufficient soon.
In 2001 Coppola expanded his eco-friendly foothold in Belize by buying Turtle Inn on the Caribbean coast near Placencia—right before it was hit by a hurricane. After a two-year reclamation project, he opened the resort as a slice of Bali in Belize. The 25 individual thatched-roof cottages and villas that stretch out along the beach are decorated with Balinese fabrics and hand-carved Balinese doors.
One of the three restaurants (Mare, which usually serves seafood and Italian cooking) has a weekly Indonesian dinner, during which the waiters wear sarongs and the meal is a full-on Indo-Dutch rijsttafel (an idea hatched by general manager Martin Krediet, who is from Holland), with dozens of small, savory dishes served family-style.
For the spa (and for the spa at Blancaneaux), Coppola looked a little farther north, hiring massage therapists from Thailand, where he believes the training is the best in the world. Thai massage at Turtle Inn handily ranks among the best I’ve had in the western hemisphere.
The filmmaker and his family spend a lot of time at both properties, so much that each has a two-bedroom villa known as his. For a time, they were they top villas, though Blancaneaux has since added a stone-walled, one-bedroom, romantic Enchanted Cottage (with a Japanese-style bathroom to die for) atop a bluff a short drive from the main grounds. Turtle Inn’s counterpart is a beach bungalow, informally known as Sofia’s beach house. Its modernist-tropical design, by architect Laurent Deroo, is a departure from the prevailing Asian aesthetic, but one that works. The main home and two cottages flank a pool, just steps from the beach.
Coppola completed his trifecta when he bought the then-modest La Lancha, high above Lago Petén Itzá in Guatemala, in 2003. After major renovations, it’s up to luxury standards, if not as lavish as Blancaneaux Lodge and Turtle Inn (no Thai massages, just one restaurant, smaller rooms), ten charmingly rustic rooms and an open-air dining room that have magnificent (at least partial) views over the lake, and a design that again marries Central America with Bali. The kitchen turns out home-style Guatemalan dishes like chilaquiles and beef tenderloin grilled on an open parilla. The staff makes tortillas nightly, and guests are encouraged to join in.
The draw here is the massive Maya site of Tikal and the Maya Biosphere Reserve, home to howler monkeys, toucans and other exotic birds. Tikal is worth a day, at least—ask the hotel to book Jesus Antonio as your guide—as is exploring the jungle.
But like the other resorts in the portfolio, this isn’t a place to rush through. It’s a place to linger over lunch, soak up the view, and then hike down a few hundred feet to the lake (ask the staff to send down a bottle of wine), and jump in at sunset. Yes, the climb back up takes some time, but that cool plunge is a movie-perfect moment.
By Ann Abel for Forbes