Best of Belize can be discovered in southern town of Placencia

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PLACENCIA, Belize -- The limes are orange, the oranges are green, the tallest building is an ancient ceremonial temple and Main Street in Placencia is a concrete sidewalk that stretches a mile through town.

Belize it or not.

This Central American country has one foot in the Caribbean and another in rain forests dotted with Mayan ruins.

"You Better Belize It," read the colorful logo on the T-shirt of the driver who met me at the airstrip in Placencia, a village at the end of an 18-mile peninsula that juts into the Caribbean in southern Belize.

Rum Point Inn in Palencia can serve as the base for further explorations in the area. The region is gaining recognition for its small scale and its laid-back beach resorts that offer an easy mix of scuba, snorkeling and fly-fishing among the atolls of the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere.

Nature reserves, ancient Maya sites and present-day Maya villages also draw visitors.

Placencia is definitely a country cousin to the more developed Ambergris Caye, a 15-minute flight north from the capital of Belize City.

Travelers who favor a true Caribbean getaway can find it here.

Placencia is relaxed, carefree and friendly, a place for the sports-minded, nature lovers and those who simply want to wind down.

Maya Island Air and Tropic Air serve Placencia on several daily flights from Belize City.

Visitors also can travel by car along the Southern Highway to Dangriga (a three-hour drive).

The road is paved for the first two hours to Dangriga. The paving will be completed to Placencia this year, according to local sources -- who gave me the same information two years ago.

Another option is to spend a few days in the Maya Mountains area southwest of Belize City and then continue on the Hummingbird Highway from San Ignacio to Dangriga, a day's drive.

Clients can arrange to drop their rented car in Placencia and fly back to Belize City.

A car is not necessary in Placencia because inns provide airport transfers. The town can be reached locally by taxi, on rented bicycle or aboard a new shuttle bus that operates (on a somewhat vague schedule) along the coast road.

Placencia has many good local inns, including the 12-room Nautical Inn and the Green Parrot Beach Houses.

The two properties that I found that offered the best resort stays in Placencia are Rum Point Inn and Inn at Robert's Grove.

Rum Point, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, was about the only accommodations game in town when I first visited here more than a decade ago.

The inn, owned by Placencia pioneers George and Corol Bevier, has grown in size.

Accommodations include 10 beachfront cabanas that resemble domed igloos tucked beneath the palm trees and 12 air-conditioned suites, housed in three two-story buildings.

Amenities feature a king or two queen beds, seating areas, private baths, refrigerators, coffeemakers and safes.

Belizean hardwood furniture, local art and Guatemalan fabrics accent the decor.

The resort's social hub is the main house with a bar, a dining room, a library and a veranda hung with hammocks.

A 40-foot pool, bicycles, kayaks, a Hobie Cat, Sunfish, a sailing dinghy and a nature trail are available to guests.

Rum Point Divers Center has daily snorkeling and scuba trips on board the 42-foot Auriga II dive boat.

Scuba courses range from a one-day course for nondivers to a four-day course for PADI certification.

A PADI-designed Bubblemakers' course for children ages 8 to 11 was recently added to the dive program.

Fishing excursions feature fly-fishing, trolling, spin casting and drop-line fishing.

The Inn at Robert's Grove, owned by Risa and Robert Flackman, opened three years ago.

Accommodations include 20 air-conditioned, beachview rooms and junior suites, spread among three haciendas with Jacuzzis on rooftop terraces.

Guests will appreciate the king beds, ceiling fans, private decks and modern Mexican tile baths.

The main house, which resembles a plantation house, has a great room with a bar, a library, satellite TV, VCR, CDs and tape players.

The restaurant and dining veranda draw visitors from other hotels in the area. Poolside barbecues are featured on Saturday nights.

New York steaks are on the menu as is a variety of wines from the only temperature-controlled wine cellar in Belize.

Resort facilities include a 50-foot pool, sailboats, windsurf boards, canoes, kayaks and 12 bicycles.

Snorkeling at the resort's private island and offshore dive trips supervised by a PADI divemaster are available.

Both resorts sit at the southern part of the Belize Barrier Reef. Placencia is the springboard to 40 of the best dive and snorkel sites in Belize.

Visitors have many choices for land excursions, including a boat trip along the Monkey River to a birdwatcher's paradise, much of which has been declared a Special Conservation area.

The stars of this trip are the howler monkeys and 300 species of birds, including toucans in the forest. Manatees can be found at the mouth of the river.

Lunch at a local restaurant in Monkey River Town is an extra treat.

The really adventurous can book a day trip to the Cockscomb Basin Wild Life Sanctuary or Jaguar Reserve northwest of Placencia.

This is a protected area set aside to shelter the jaguar, considered to be the most elusive wild cat in the world.

The escorted excursion includes a trail walk where it's not unusual to spot a tapir or an ocelot, armadillo, agouti or dozens of bird species.

Pants, a long-sleeved shirt, hat, sunglasses, sturdy walking shoes, swimsuit, sunscreen, insect repellent, binoculars and camera are recommended gear for this jaunt.

The Maya ruins of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, southwest of Placencia, are well worth a full-day visit.

The ruins are remains of a civilization that prospered in Belize and neighboring countries between the third and 10th centuries.

Recently excavated with funding from the European Union, Lubaantun has 11 pyramid platform structures built around five main plazas and three ball courts.

Nim Li Punit is a ceremonial center noted for its two dozen pillars, eight of which are carved.

Placencia itself is a treasure trove, a Creole settlement of pastel-colored houses set on stilts.

Fishermen huddle over their nets on the dock, children saunter to and from school and residents visit Miss Lilly's bakery for coconut bread.

Eateries have wonderful names, such as La Petite Maison, the Galley, Daisy's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, Flamboyant, Kowloon Chinese, Mr. Bones at Cozy Corner, the Pickled Parrot and Shipwreck.

Popular with the locals is Franco's at the Italian-owned Luba Hati Inn, which offers a delicious mix of Italian cuisine with Caribbean touches.

The airy dining room sits at the heart of the resort, tucked away on a tranquil beach and reminiscent of a private villa.

A pier with a spacious palapa juts from the beach. A massage and sauna area is nearby.

Placencia deserves an entry in your best-kept secrets file for the Caribbean.

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