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October 10, 2013

Francis Ford Coppola’s Belizean Ecolodges: ‘Luxury with True Simplicity’

By Chris Boyle

Turtle Inn front CoppolaEcolodges should be the norm when it comes to luxury vacations. These resorts make sense: they protect the local environment and heritage while providing guests an adventure against a backdrop of paradise. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn ecolodge on the Placencia peninsula in southern Belize is leading the way.

Francis Ford Coppola acquired Turtle Inn back in 2011 but the beachside refuge was wiped out later that year when Hurricane Iris hit. It was the most damaging hurricane to hit the country in 40 years. But the resort went from nature’s victim to its loyal servant and protector. It was built up within two years into the luxury and eco-friendly destination it is today.

Turtle Inn’s general manager Martin Krediet reels off a list of how the resort works. “We recycle, we grow our own food, we don’t use plastics and we compost out of our own garden,” he says. “We try to minimise our carbon footprint as much as possible.” He adds that Blancaneaux Lodge, another Coppola resort in Belize, is similarly self-sustainable. It runs on hydro power from a nearby river meaning the lodge is off the grid.

The activities on offer at the properties all embrace the surrounding wildlife. Turtle Inn has boat tours to Monkey River where manatees, crocodiles, tropical birds and other species of wildlife are on show. The nearby Dangriga region is home to the only jaguar reserve in the world. The second largest barrier reef in the world is off the southern coastline so guests can go scuba diving and explore its sea life.

And then there’s always the resorts themselves. Turtle Inn’s 25 thatched cottages lie by the golden beach of the Caribbean ocean. Blancaneaux Lodge has 20 suites tucked away in a pocket of the Maya Mountains.

Coppola’s ecolodges are a world away from his cinematic exploits. But there are some visible personal touches. Each room has a ‘shellphone’ for contact with the front desk. Krediet says this comes from Coppola’s filmmaking ‘CID’ – short for ‘Crazy Ideas Department’. The director also handpicked the on-site masseuses and his Coppola wine selection is served at its bars and restaurants.Coppola Shellphone Turtle Inn

He doesn’t make any money from the resorts because he doesn’t need to, according to Turtle Inn’s general manager. “Royalties from The Godfather films are still going strong,” he jokes. So why does he do it? “To give something to the community,” Krediet explains.

Coppola’s love affair with Belize started when he visited the Central American country in the early 1980s. He bought an abandoned lodge and restored it for personal use as a family retreat. It opened to the public as the Blancaneaux Lodge in 1993.

The director still often stays at the resorts. His love of the country lies at the heart of the lodges’ eco-friendly efforts. Turtle Inn is leading the way in this respect and National Geographic Traveler has named it as one of its top ecolodges. It also features prominently on other rankings for the best overall resorts.

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Krediet stresses the importance of sustainable tourism. “It’s alarming to see what’s happening with beautiful destinations. You see it happening in Belize. We need to stop that and get in front of it before it’s too late,” he says.

News that the Belizean government has agreed for a Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) port to be built nearby threatens to undo the good work. The cruise ship company has bought Harvest Caye, an island just five miles from the Placencia peninsula that it plans to develop.

“There’s a lot of controversy behind the cruise ships. Nobody likes to see these big ships come to the second largest barrier reef in the world. It doesn’t really go together,” says Krediet.

The Belize Tourism Industry Association similarly opposes the development. It believes the cruise port proposals undermine the government-backed National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan. One of the policies states that smaller ships are the only acceptable form of cruise travel on the south-eastern coast of Belize.

Turtle Inn’s general manager agrees. “They approved pocket tourism for smaller ships that are higher-end, which is a better fit for the southern part of Belize. Hopefully, it’ll still grow in that direction,” he says.

Coppola is among those voicing concern about the cruise port development and has sent letters to stop it happening, according to Krediet. The prospect of mass cruise travel coming to southern Belize sits uncomfortably with Turtle Inn – its natural environment and the authenticity of its area is under threat.

Krediet says: “We get a lot of celebrities and they really enjoy the bare-foot elegance. These places are real, they’re authentic, and that goes a long way. As one of my famous guests said, ‘finally, luxury with true simplicity’.”

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