The Coppola Trilogy

Issue 9 - 2018
By Claire Wrathall · Images Andrew Durham

Francis Ford Coppola isn’t just an Oscar-winning director and highly regarded winemaker, he also knows a thing or two about creating great hotels. Claire Wrathall travels through the central American jewels of Guatemala and Belize, stopping off at the director’s trio of idyllic properties

Issue 9 - 2018
By Claire Wrathall · Images Andrew Durham

Francis Ford Coppola isn’t just an Oscar-winning director and highly regarded winemaker, he also knows a thing or two about creating great hotels. Claire Wrathall travels through the central American jewels of Guatemala and Belize, stopping off at the director’s trio of idyllic properties

Not many manatees – perhaps a thousand – survive in the Caribbean. So we hadn’t expected to see one, though you have a better chance off the coast of Belize than anywhere else. But suddenly the boatman cut the engine of our dinghy and pointed. There, in a circle of ripples, a wrinkled whiskery snout appeared above the placid surface of the sea, followed by a pair of doleful eyes. Another smaller head appeared nearby: a calf! Then another, and another. And soon these shy, elephantine mammals, some of them several metres long, surrounded us, swishing their mermaid tails.

 

We were in Belize, staying on the coast at Turtle Inn, one of a trio of gorgeous hotels in the portfolio of the film director Francis Ford Coppola. The situation of the other two properties – Blancaneaux Lodge, three hours inland from Turtle Inn and the first of the three to open, and La Lancha, deep in the Guatemalan jungle over the border – means you can put together a compelling Coppola Odyssey through Central America.

 

Wildlife is the big draw in Belize, a Commonwealth realm about the size of Wales, tucked between Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west, one fifth of which counts as nature reserve, sanctuary or conservation area. That morning we’d set out to explore the Deep River Forest Reserve, where the main waterway leading to it, Monkey River, is named after the howler monkeys that live near its banks.

 

Puttering upstream, we’d heard them long before we saw them: their reverberating roar is a sound so threatening that Steven Spielberg used it as the dinosaur call in Jurassic Park. But the deeper we went into the jungle, the more we spotted howlers – and spider monkeys too, swinging with breathtaking alacrity through the trees, some with young on their backs. There were actual spiders too, with glittering webs of golden silk, while at one point a tarantula, burdened by its eggs, ambled across our path. (You want to be wearing proper shoes when that happens.) Even more amazing were the clouds of butterflies – huge, electric-blue morphos among them. And the birds! Motmots, toucans, egrets, night herons, hummingbirds no bigger than your thumb... We may not have glimpsed a jaguar, armadillo or tapir, but we soon became blasé at sightings of deer and coatimundi.

 

Monkey River Town lies 12 miles southwest of Placencia, a little resort of candy-coloured wooden houses on a narrow strip of land flanked by a lagoon to the west and the Caribbean to the east, a stretch where whale sharks congregate at full moon between April and June. Otherwise, it’s probably best known for Turtle Inn, a mile up the beach. It’s a heavenly place: 28 thatched wooden cabanas, some more palatial than others, strung out along a palm-sheltered white-sand shore that Coppola built from scratch after Hurricane Iris razed the area in 2001. The newest and most spectacular villa is Sofia’s Beach House, designed in strikingly contemporary style – in contrast to the Balinese look of the other houses – for FFC’s daughter, Sofia Coppola, by the French architect Laurent Deroo, whose work she’d encountered in Tokyo while shooting Lost in Translation. Another addition is Coral Caye, a two-acre islet that Coppola acquired in 2016, eight miles offshore but protected by the Belize Barrier Reef, which sleeps 10 in a couple of simple clapboard cottages, where guests can enjoy an even quieter, simpler life for a wonderful night or two.

 

 

Main image: Sofia Coppola in Belize, where one of the beach houses at her father’s Turtle Inn resort is named after her. Above: The waters around Turtle Inn are teeming with marine life

 

taking it easy at Turtle Inn

 

Taking it easy at Turtle Inn

 

a “shellphone” hiding an intercom link

 

Guests at Blancaneaux do without phones – to contact reception, there’s a “shellphone” hiding an intercom link

 

Francis Ford Coppola with his wife Eleanor and children in the 1970s

 

Francis Ford Coppola with his wife Eleanor and children in the 1970s

 

While the coast is Belize’s chief appeal, it’s worth heading inland too, to Blancaneaux Lodge, deep in the dark heart of the 107,000- acre Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, three hours by road from Placencia, and the first of Coppola’s hotels. During the two years he spent shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, he grew to love the rainforest and “was searching for the same jungle paradise [he’d] enjoyed” there, in which to build “somewhere to write”. Asia was too far from California to be practical as a regular holiday destination, so he’d begun to look closer to home, and in 1981 came upon what was then a rundown guesthouse.

 

A decade or so on, he decided to turn it into a “little inn”. Nothing glitzy or luxurious – the rustic décor still favours local textiles and brightly painted wooden animal masks – or that overtly celebrates his career as a filmmaker, though the ceiling fan in the bar is the very one Martin Sheen gazes up at in the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now. “I am not just a person who licenses my name,” he once told me. Stay in his hotels and you get a real sense of his, and his wife Eleanor’s, impeccable tastes. She chose the furniture, he makes the wines served in the restaurant, and the menu features family recipes and those of their friends. (If Mrs Scorsese’s lemon chicken is on offer, it’s well worth ordering!)

 

As at Turtle Inn, Blancaneaux does without air con, televisions or telephones. There is an infinity pool, but you can also swim in the river – which has been dammed to form glassy pools. Otherwise there are horses to ride, waterfalls to bathe under and rugged landscapes to hike through.

 

 

 

The ceiling fan in the bar is the very one Martin Sheen gazes up at in the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now

 

 

Blancaneaux is also well-placed for Caracol, a ruined Mayan city that, at its peak in AD700, was home to perhaps 200,000 people. The 42m pyramid of Caana is still the tallest man-made structure in the country. It’s well worth a day trip, even if it pales in comparison with Tikal, 125 miles west across the border with Guatemala, and perhaps the most impressive of all the ruined Mayan cities in Central America – where Temple IV rises above the treetops to a height of 65m.

 

It’s therefore worth pressing on, especially as Coppola has another jungle retreat less than an hour’s drive from Tikal. Located high on the steeply sloping edge of Lake Petén Itzá, La Lancha is a cluster of 10 hillside casitas on stilts, all with balconies strung with hammocks. If you can’t face the steep schlepp down to the water there’s a little funicular that descends to a small sandy beach, where we watched enchanted as a family of howler monkeys tested the water. There’s also a temazcal, a traditional Mayan sweat lodge, which renders your skin silky and your spirit energised, while the chanting and ritual reinforce the feeling that although you haven’t travelled that far from the border, you are in a very different country. English is no longer the lingua franca and there’s a quetzal, Guatemala’s rare and exotically plumed national bird, rather than the Queen’s head, on banknotes. This is Latin America proper.

 

To arrange your tailor-made trip to Guatemala and Belize, call us on 020 8682 5030 or visit scottdunn.com/belize

 

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