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Bella Belize

Discover ancient ruins, booby birds, and rum concoctions at this cabana retreat in South Belize.
By Nancy Nichols |

The Turquoise water of the Gulf of Honduras splash against the Caribbean Coral polish on my toenails. A warm salt breeze flirts with my bare belly. With my head propped up on a pillow if white sand, I state hypnotically as a ship in the distance slowly moves through the gap between my big toes.

I am the only person on the 1,300-foot beach that fronts the Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort in southern Belize. Far from the faddish scuba divers and revelers clad in “You Gotta Belize It” t-shirts that crowd the chain hotels in the north around Belize City and Ambergris Caye, this 25-unit, thatched-roof cabana retreat is the perfect place to dive into luxury.

It seems like yesterday that I boarded the Belize-bound plane at DFW Airport—when in reality I had taken off earlier the same day. Amazingly, the trip from my front door in Dallas to paradise in Central America had taken less time than it would have taken to hit the second floor of the Crate & Barrel store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The transition is startling. Just a few miles offshore lies the second-largest barrier reef in the world, with more than 400 species of fish, 70 varieties of coral, gigantic multicolored sponges, and the world-renowned Blue Hole, a spectacular circular formation 1,000 feet in diameter and 400 feet deep. Just a few miles inland, howler monkeys shriek from their perch high in the trees of the rainforest. Jaguars roam the jungles, and the scratchy calls of keel-billed toucans echo from the forest.

My transcendental state is altered by the sound of bare feet pounding across the sapodilla wood deck of the resort’s beachside pool. “Oh, my gawd,” a man yells with a thick, Italian-American accent. “Kenny, can’t you see it is time to open the bar? What are you theeenking?”

The garrulous man behind the voice is Roberto Fabbri, co-owner of Kanantik. Kenny, a 23-year-old Belizean with a never-ending smile, is Roberto’s “everything guy.” Kenny has already taken care of his duties, and he grins at Roberto’s heightened state of alert. “No worries,” he says calmly. “What can I fix you?”

Ten minutes later, I am sitting at the bar with Roberto and several single women who are also staying at the resort. Over various rum concoctions, we share stories as the sun slides behind us. Roberto, delighted to be surrounded by four women, waves his hands like a mad maestro as he weaves Italian charm into the tale of his illustrious career as a ship-builder. We are all eyes.

Arm in arm, the five of us retire to the dining room. “I am here with my harem,” Roberto announces to the staff. We feast on local lobster, shrimp in a cilantro sauce, and tender ribs barbequed in a Creole sauce. The kitchen is equipped with an outdoor pizza oven, gelato, and pasta machines.

By the time we drain our cognac (and Italian espressos) under the light of a full moon, we are close friends. And together, over the next three days, we will hedonistically explore the delights of Belize.

Kenny picks us up the next morning, and we set out for the Mayan ruins in western Belize. At the widest point, Belize is only 68 miles, but the narrow, winding roads make the trip close to two hours long. As we head west from the beach on Hummingbird Highway, we travel through towering hills sh jungles before a steep climb into the Maya Mountains. Along the way, citrus orchards heavy with fruit, sleepy villages perched above rocky streams, and thick patchworks of forests click by.

Several times, I think I’ve been transported to Pennsylvania as we encounter Mennonites making their way to town in horse-drawn buggies. For more than 30 years, the Belizean constitution has guaranteed the Mennonites freedom to practice their religion, use their language in locally controlled schools, and organize their own financial institutions. Their innovations in agricultural production and marketing have benefited the entire country—Mennonite farmers are by far the most productive—and their dairy industry supplies the locals with high-quality eggs, poultry, cheese, and vegetables.

After a brief chat with two Mennonites (they’re not big talkers), and after we devour thick slices of the watermelon they are selling, we head for the hand-cranked ferry that takes us across the Mopan River and deposits us at the base of Xunantunich, an ancient Mayan ceremonial center built between 150-900 A.D., just a few miles from the border of Guatemala. From the top of El Castillo, the tallest structure (130 feet), we overlook the six major plazas and 25 semi-excavated temples that sprawl across the site.

Ready for lunch, we make our way downriver to dine on the grounds of the Clarissa Falls Resort, a laid-back hotel with 11 rooms and a “bunkhouse” hung with hammocks. The locals come to this pristine spot to eat—the menu boasts delicious black mole soup (75 cents) and pork tacos (75 cents for two). For $6, I sample a platter of stuffed squash, rice, black beans, stewed pork, and fried plantains, which I wash down with a tall glass of fresh watermelon juice. From our hilltop setting, we watch rafters tubing around the river’s bend and listen to Larry the house parrot squeal “agua, agua”—his call for predicting that rain was on the way.

We make it back to Kanantik in time for sunset. While the rest of the group heads poolside for sundowners, I make my way through the thick jungle to one of the two observation towers behind the resort. I climb through hundreds of hummingbirds madly darting for the nectar of the camellias that trail from the railing. I sit overlooking a beautiful pond and ready myself for a live nature show.

And action: within five seconds, what I thought was a log near the shore begins a slow glide through the water—the unmistakable trail of a mother crocodile heading toward her offspring. Once reunited, they crawl up on the shore and come to rest on the only footpath.

Just as I was wondering how I was going to get past them after nightfall, the silence is shattered by the flight of a group of bright-yellow-bellied kiskadees. Before my binoculars fully focus on them, a flock of huge Montezuma oropendolas (black birds with orange-tipped beaks) makes its way into the stocking-like nests that hang like bird condos from a giant ceiba tree.

Below me, orchids of every size and color combine with red ginger, bougainvillea, and plumeria to paint a brilliant backdrop. Cue the toucans—from the south, a dozen “banana bills” land 10 feet from me, monotonously scratching their frog-like voices and puffing their green, blue, red, and orange chests. Thankfully, it is too much for the crocs—they slither back into the water. I seize the opportunity and run for daylight.

Or, more accurately, to the bar, which is alive with locals and guests who have come to enjoy the weekly appearance by a local Garifuna dance group that performs traditional songs and dance from a blend of African music, dance, and religious ceremonies. Okay, so it takes a couple of healthy rum drinks to facilitate my ability to float with the complex drum rhythms, but I manage to capture the fancy of my dance instructor.

The next morning, we head to the pier, where Roberto is readying the 42-foot Newton dive boat with scuba and snorkel gear. With his gray hair blowing in the wind, Roberto steers to the northeast, waxing poetically about his love for Belize and Kanantik. “You know, it takes me more than five years to make this place a perfect hideaway,” he says. “I studied the tides and the marine life to find the right spot for the resort, and I designed every cabana right down to the Guatemalan lamps. I could give up Italy only for this paradise.”

The rest of the afternoon, we snorkel though rainbow-colored coral and schools of exotic tropical fish, including barracudas, blue-striped grunt, grouper, and parrot fish. Huge eels and eagle rays gracefully coast through the water below me—their poisonous spines coming a little too close to mine at times.

Later that night, I sit under the mosquito net over my king-size bed, surrounded by a blend of Mayan tradition and contemporary luxury, and gaze at the moon glistening on the water. Tomorrow morning I could get to the office by noon. Or I could sleep until noon and be home for dinner. Oh, my gawd. Kanantik is that easy.