Laid-back Belize resorts feature intimate ambience

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PLACENCIA, Belize -- A trio of properties, Turtle Inn, Kanantik, and the Inn at Robert's Grove, is shining the vacation spotlight on Belize's up-and-coming Caribbean Riviera here.

For a little over a decade, this southern coast area has been gaining recognition for its small-scale, laid-back resorts that offer a mix of such water sports as scuba diving, snorkeling and world-class fly-fishing.

The newest of these three south coast properties, Turtle Inn, opened last December. This is filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola's second resort in Belize; the first is Blancaneaux Lodge in the highland Cayo District.

Turtle Inn's 11 cabanas and villas are located on the beach. Some are steps away from the sea, others farther back, with less of a view of the water. Their design is Balinese-inspired, with artisan-crafted furnishings and thatched roofs.

Each unit features a private garden with an outdoor shower, a screened deck with hammocks and comfortable chairs, a queen-size bed and a large bathroom.

When owner Coppola is not in residence, his Pavilion Villa provides a two-bedroom deluxe suite option with its own pool.

The dining choices at Turtle Inn include the Gauguin Beach Grill, serving up local seafood under the direction of Italian chef Antonio Fecarotta, who opened Coppola's Cafe Niebaum-Coppola in San Francisco.

Before dining, guests can enjoy cocktails in the sunken, sand-floor bar.

Turtle Inn has its own dive shop, offering certification courses for both beginner and experienced divers and operating scuba diving and snorkeling excursions to reef sites.

Other offshore activities include sea kayaking, fly-fishing and sailing.

For further information, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.turtleinn.com.

Kanantik is the Mayan word for "to take care," and the Kanantik Reef & Jungle Resort, open since early 2002, is distinguished by a caring staff that aims to please.

The property is actually located north of Placencia, on a secluded spot along 1,300 feet of palm-studded private beach, surrounded by 300 acres of pristine, forested land.

Two observation towers permit guests a bird's-eye view of a rich variety of flora and fauna.

Wooden walkways fan out from the main building and pool to 25 thatch-roof cabanas with verandas, featuring chaise lounges. Kayaks are nearby for guest use.

Cabanas are spacious and air-conditioned, fitted with double or king canopy beds, a separate dressing room and large bathrooms.

The resort is owned, designed and operated by Roberto Fabbri, whose Italian origins inspire an interesting menu of Creole and Mediterranean specialties as well as a selection of pizzas from a wood-burning oven. Pasta and gelato are made on the premises, and coffee is poured fresh from the espresso machine.

Kanantik offers a complete dive shop, with a Newton 42-foot dive boat for the 45-minute run to the coral reef of Glovers Atoll, as well as a Newton 32-foot boat for bill-fishing and a 23-foot skiff for bone-fishing.

Other sporting activities include Hobie Cat sailing, river canoeing and a boat excursion to see the manatees in Sapodilla Lagoon.

Kanantik is positioned as an all-inclusive resort, with one price covering lodging, meals, drinks (including Belizean beer and rum)and daily excursions that range from scuba diving to jungle trips. Guests are charged extra for fishing charters.

For more information, call (800) 965-9689, e-mail [email protected], or check out the property's Web site at www.kanantik.com.

The oldest of this crop of properties, the 5-year-old Inn at Robert's Grove, covers 15 acres of land between the sea and lagoon.

Guests are accommodated in two-story buildings, scattered among the gardens and facing the sea; there are 32 air-conditioned, beachfront rooms, each with king-size beds and cable TV.

The pick of the pack are the 12 one- and two-bedroom suites, each with a rooftop terrace, Jacuzzi, Mexican-tiled floors, handcrafted furniture and original artwork.

Since its opening, the inn's Seaside restaurant has drawn praise for dishes starring local seafood and U.S.-imported beef.

A weekly Saturday-night barbecue, held under the stars, features local entertainment.

Just opened is a second restaurant, the Habarero Mexican Cafe & Bar, at the hotel's lagoon-side marina.

Another new facility is the Sea Spa, now offering massages and body wraps; there's also a new executive conference room that can accommodate 70 people.

Sporting facilities include two swimming pools, tennis courts, sailboats, kayaks, canoes, bicycles, a fitness room and a fly-fishing center.

Pride of place on the sporting scene goes to the property's PADI International Dive Center, whose boats speed divers and snorkelers to such offshore locations as Glovers Atoll and the Spaodilla Cayes.

Exclusive to this inn is its new offshore property, Ranguana Caye, available for day trips and overnight stays.

Located a half mile off the barrier reef and 18 miles out from Placencia, the 2-acre private island accommodates overnight guests in three cabanas on stilts, with a housekeeping staff and chef in residence.

For details, call (800) 565-9757, e-mail [email protected] or check out www.robertsgrove.com.

Each of these resorts offers guests a variety of standard excursions. These include visits to Cockscombe Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's first protected area set aside to shelter jaguars; Monkey River, a birdwatcher's paradise; and the pyramids, plazas and ballcourts of the ancient Mayan ceremonial centers of Lubaantum and Nim Li Punit.

Getting there: Placencia is the air gateway to the south coast.

Here, a new airport receives several flights a day on Maya Island Air or Tropic Air. Both airlines connect with domestic or international flights from the main airport in the country's capital, Belize City.

Passengers bound for Kanantik are dropped off at the resort's air strip or in nearby Dangriga. For clients arriving overland, the drive from Belize City takes about three hours.

For more information, call the Belize Tourism Board at (800) 624-0686 or visit www.travelbelize.org.

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