We were about 200 yards off Laughing Bird Caye when I heard the shouting. Surfacing from the Caribbean Sea, I spotted our boat captain on the beach, waving his hands frantically and calling out to our snorkeling guide, Dorin, who was busy searching for barracuda along the Belize Barrier Reef. My two daughters were swimming beside me, and I grabbed their hands and pulled them close.
After getting Dorin’s attention, we listened to the captain above the wind and waves, bobbing in the 25-foot-deep water with eyes peeled. Following a minute or two of uncertainty, the captain’s words finally cut through the chop: “Man-a-tee!” he shouted. “Behind you!”
All fear suddenly turned to excitement—perhaps in no one more than Dorin. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” he exclaimed before darting off toward the open sea. The chase was on, and we pushed deeper and farther from the island’s rapidly shrinking shore. Finally, about 300 yards out, we came upon the manatees—seven of them, feeding on the bottom and rising to the surface, where we floated alongside the bulbously beautiful creatures for a blissful quarter hour.
“You have to send me that video,” Dorin said as we boarded the boat back to Turtle Inn in Placencia. He had grabbed my GoPro and filmed the encounter, which was indeed a movie-worthy moment, complete with suspense, action, and ultimately a happy ending—all of which is just the way Turtle Inn’s owner would have it.
Set on a sliver of sandy peninsula on Belize’s far southern coast, Turtle Inn is one of three resorts in the country operated by Francis Ford Coppola’s Family Coppola Hideaways. Coppola, who first visited Belize back in 1981, built his legacy and fortune as the director of Apocalypse Now (see page 192), the Godfather series, and other classic films. And while he’s not the type of celebrity who’s mobbed on the street for selfies, he’s visible enough to appreciate the prospect of true privacy, of going to a place far from the public eye where you can let your guard down, be yourself, and, perhaps most of all, think.
“The moment came after the conclusion of shooting Apocalypse Now,” Coppola recalls of his first trip to Belize. “Like many directors who are on location for a long time, I became accustomed to the jungle and at one point even wanted to buy an island in the Philippines.” Rather than returning to the site of the film, however, Coppola and his son Gian-Carlo went on an adventure to the small, newly independent Central American country, where they discovered the abandoned Blancaneaux Lodge. “I was hoping to find a caye, but I was taken to the beautiful and very remote pine forest,” Coppola continues. “Blancaneaux was connected to an airstrip—complete with a plane wreckage indicating a failed takeoff. I peeked in through the window and saw a big dining table and thought immediately: ‘I could write there.’”
Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, soon acquired the mountain lodge, which they restored and kept as a private retreat for family and friends. In 1993, they opened it to the public as a resort, where today the emphasis is as much on adventure as it is on idle time. Guests stay in one of 20 thatch-roofed bungalows and villas on the banks of Privassion Creek and spend their days touring jungle-covered Mayan ruins, swimming under waterfalls, ziplining over the forest canopy, and spelunking in the massive cave systems that run throughout the region.
No trip to Belize, however, would be complete without a visit to the Caribbean. And so, eight years after opening Blancaneaux, the Coppolas added a Belizean beach resort to their belongings, purchasing the rustic Turtle Inn outside of Placencia. Once known mostly to divers and fishermen, the quirky town at the peninsula’s tip has received some buzz in recent years—even being labeled the “new Tulum.” Still, with its remote location—a three-hour drive or half-hour flight from Belize City—Placencia remains a good place to disappear for a few days (or years, judging by the large expat community).
Just a few minutes by bike from town, the now-luxurious Turtle Inn is undoubtedly Placencia’s best place to vanish. The resort’s 25 cottages and villas are scattered across a breezy slice of palm-covered beach between the Caribbean and the Placencia Lagoon, where a private dock is a gateway to fishing, diving, and snorkeling adventures on the nearby barrier reef—the world’s second largest. It is in many ways the epitome of a barefoot Caribbean hideaway, and yet Coppola’s distinct imprint is evident throughout.
Coppola, who turned 80 this year, has long traveled with his children and grandchildren, and Turtle Inn encourages the same. In an almost European manner, kids are welcomed without being fussed over, integrated into the experience without dictating it. Take for example the resort’s all-day gelato bar, which sits unattended under an old mango tree just off the main restaurant. If a child wants an ice cream, they simply ring the bell over the bar and a friendly gelatorista magically appears with scoop in hand.
Coppola’s influence is also seen in the details, especially the vintage EIKI 16 mm movie projector that’s wheeled out twice a week to show Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin silent movies over dinner. The director’s passion for stories and originality extends to the resort’s staff members, the hiring of whom Coppola likens to casting actors for a film.
“It’s the same way you find any cast,” he says. “You meet charming, warm, and friendly people and talk with them, and then the next day you think, ‘Who stuck in your mind?’”
“I look for genuine personality, practicality, humor, common sense, and initiative,” says Martin Krediet, the general manager of Coppola’s Central American properties, which also include La Lancha in Guatemala and Coral Caye, a private island near Placencia. “It’s a combination of characteristics, especially for those who will be ‘onstage.’”
If Turtle Inn is a stage, Kriedet is its leading man, a polished and personable Dutchman who orchestrates a constant and convivial interplay between staff and guests. “Martin is above all the host,” Coppola says. “While it may be my hotel, it’s Martin’s show.”
That show, however, never comes across as scripted—more like a well-executed improvisation. Conversations across dinner tables turn into multifamily excursions to the jungle or barrier reef the next morning. A question to a staff member about the gelato-bar mango tree might lead to an impromptu lesson on picking and peeling the tropical fruit.
“These properties are small enough to be able to engage intimately with our guests,” Krediet says. At the same time, they are places where high-profile people can decompress in peace. “I have had some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry in house and on Coral Caye, and they are completely left alone.”
Coral Caye—the third addition to Coppola’s Belize collection—is a speck of an island located about 25 minutes by boat from Turtle Inn. Opened in 2016, the exclusive-use resort is an oasis of effortless cool, where two open-air cottages and a sand-floored Great House accommodate as many as 12 guests, who are served by a dedicated butler and chef.
“We call the experience Gilligan glam,” Krediet says. “It’s rustic, Caribbean casual, and in my mind what an island experience should be.”
The day after our manatee encounter, Krediet and Dorin led us on a small-group outing to Silk Caye, a popular snorkeling spot about 30 minutes past Coral Caye. Three dive boats from other resorts were enough to make a crowd on the tiny island, but below water, any noise or outside activity vanished at the spectacle of the Belize Barrier Reef.
Just offshore from the caye, a congregation of nurse sharks, stingrays, and loggerhead turtles zigzagged through the green water and the dozen or so divers in our group. It’s a performance that the prehistoric creatures put on daily and one that, judging by the reactions of Krediet and Dorin—each of whom has done the dive dozens of times—never gets old.
To celebrate our good fortune over two days on the reef, we transitioned from snorkeling into a seemingly unplanned stop on Coral Caye. The consummate host, and occasional performer, Krediet spent his time on the island making sure everyone was happy—cocktail or Belikin beer in hand, swinging in a hammock in the Great Room, or taking a dip in the sparkling Caribbean Sea.
The party continued on the boat ride back to Turtle Inn and at the beachside bar on our return. The next day, several of the guests would leave and new ones would arrive, but the story would keep unfolding on the cayes, in the forests, and on the beaches of Belize.