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.