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Golfing in Belize

This Caribbean paradise finally has world-class golf to go along with world-class diving, world-class fishing... you get the idea

By Turk Pipken

INSIDE: Orientation; Golf; Lodging; Dining; Transportation

Lord and master of land and sea and the links that connect them: That's me.

I'm on a small private island in the Caribbean, playing on a dazzling course with nearly every hole beside the ocean. Along with an airstrip, yacht harbor, clubhouse and a few snazzy accommodations, this 7,000-yard links cost a staggering forty million dollars to build. All of this golfing splendor seems to have been built for me and me alone, for I am the only golfer on the island.

Slipping off my sandals at each tee box to feel my swing firmly rooted to the ground, I marvel at the wonder of the hole before me: number one, sharing a St. Andrews-size double green ninety yards wide and totaling twelve thousand square feet ("Hello, Mr. Four-Putt!"); number three, a 180-yard par three that traverses the island with ocean at both ends and a freshwater lake in the middle. Here my shot cuts through the wind and drops a foot from the pin, eliciting cheers from several greenskeepers.

Heading back toward the big green at number five, I survey the tight par four with an island fairway (!) and a treacherous crosswind that puts a little rubber in your knees. To reach the short par four seventh, all I need is a 260-yard drive over water to a small green, a shot I apparently do not have. The beauty of having the course to myself is that there's no one to report me to the course marshal when I hit a mulligan, or two.

One tight fairway leads to another, with freshwater lakes adding to the hazards of the ocean. Somehow it feels as if the course is forcing me to play well. The near-perfect conditions add to my confidence; on the entire front nine, I don't see a single divot or ball mark besides my own. By the time I get to the seemingly endless 623-yard par-five sixteenth, I'm gleefully dashing from shot to shot, a barefoot hippie golfer in his own tropical paradise.

The site of all these wonders is the new Caye ("key") Chapel Golf Resort & Marina, in Belize, the small Central American nation formerly known as British Honduras. Just south of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and about a two-hour flight from Miami, Belize is primarily known as the place to find some of world's finest diving, snorkeling and bonefishing. There are also incredible inland lodges near which jaguars, toucans and parrots live in jungle and pine-forest reserves. Now you can add championship golf to the list.

For the past twenty-one years, the island of Caye Chapel has been owned by an American industrialist named Larry Addington, who operated a small hotel, fishing lodge and a homemade nine-hole golf course. It was as laid-back a spot as you'd ever find anywhere, much of its business coming from British troops on R&R. But having envisioned an expanded course and an exclusive corporate retreat, Addington doesn't seem to have cut any corners in realizing his dream.

His two- and three-bedroom seaside villas have large dining rooms, full kitchens and rooftop verandas. Add to that a huge clubhouse, an Olympic-size pool and, in the future, a second ocean-side pool and athletic center. The driving range is a large freshwater lake with island greens and floating range balls. To keep the grass green and the lakes full, as well as furnish guests with high-quality drinking water, generators and a reverse-osmosis system purify half a million gallons of seawater each day.

Addington admitted he felt "pretty doggone good" being the boss of his own island and golf course. And fun, not inspiration from other courses or architects, guided course design.

"I just wanted to create some fun holes and unique features that I'd enjoy playing myself," said Addington, who has a degree in civil engineering. "The joy I get out of the course is sharing it with friends, family and business associates. I didn't build it for the commercial value, I built it for my own pleasure."

I WAS PLAYING CAYE CHAPEL JUST before the official opening of the resort, which accounts for my solitary round. But it's hard to imagine that overcrowding is ever going to be much of a problem here, not with villas renting at $1,000 a day, and a green fee of $200. Addison's quest for exclusivity may make for many wonderful days of peaceful, unhurried golf on Caye Chapel. (Note: The course is open to public play on a limited-reservation basis, if you ask nicely. I suggest you ask very nicely.)

In a country that has always favored small-scale development, Caye Chapel was not without controversy. Local environmentalists expressed concern about the dredging of sand and the construction of a seawall, which was built around much of the three-mile-long island. But Construction Managers Cynthia and Brad Ringgold reported that Addington had far exceeded everything the government of Belize asked him to do.

"We've had underwater inspection on the reef throughout construction, and the sea grasses are already rejuvenating," Cynthia reassured me. Seeming to bear out her claims, fish by the tens of thousands were schooling at the base of the new wall while two lobster fishermen were setting their traps close to shore.

Addington also has spent a king's ransom for antifungal injection treatment for more than two thousand coconut palm trees to fend off the leaf-yellowing disease that has devastated so many of the Caribbean's palms. And all of that flawless grass in the fairways is a specially imported Paspalum grass, a variety that stays green even with near-constant exposure to salt air and splashing seawater.

I was staying ten miles across the sea from Caye Chapel, in the hot spot of Belize—Ambergris Caye—, the largest island along the Belize coast, whose one town, San Pedro, has streets made of sand. Most transportation is by foot, bicycle and golf cart. From the long line of small seaside resorts, I chose the colonial-styled Victoria House, an old favorite, and prepared for a hard schedule of fishing, snorkeling and hammock riding.

Because Belize is the site of the world's second-longest barrier reef, snorkeling or diving is a must. Setting out from the Victoria House pier, my group made a first stop at Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where a deep channel through the coral reef has underwater visibilities of a hundred feet, thousands of colorful fish and at least one very large moray eel.

Our second destination had the ominous-sounding name of Shark-Ray Alley. Trust me, the name is well given. Before I'd even put on my mask, a number of six-foot-long nurse sharks were circling the boat. Reassured that we were indeed expected to swim with these masters of the deep, I slipped into the water with vows of keeping my distance, only to have our guide dive to the bottom and, in a move previously known as a bear hug, his arms around the largest of the sharks. I almost swallowed my snorkel when the two of them swam over to me for a close-up look at the shark's double row of razor-sharp teeth and a chance to feel its skin, tough as any leather and gritty as sandpaper.

Night life in San Pedro flows along in a lazy rhythm: sunset cocktails for thirsty divers and fishermen, dinner at a leisurely pace (no one seems to move fast here, including the waiters). The entertainment highlight of the week—known far and wide as Chicken Drop Bingo—takes place on Wednesday evenings at the Spindrift Resort Hotel's Pier Lounge. From 7 p.m. till the chickens give out, participants may buy a square on a board that is numbered from one to one hundred twenty. When all squares have been sold and any stray dogs collared, a chicken is released on the board. The jackpot—a hundred bucks Belize— goes tom the person who bet two dollars Belize (equal to one dollar U.S.) on the square where the chicken relieves itself.

The next day, I took a seven-minute boat ride to Cayo Espanto, yet another private island resort, this one with four nearly perfect one- and two-bedroom villas, each perched on the water's edge with its own pier and pool and incredible views of water and reef. If the world needed a place for guys to cast for bonefish while their wives or girlfriends were having a seaside massage and seaweed herbal wrap, then this is it.

The food is also extraordinary. I had a lunch of Asian slaw salad on rice paper with shrimp grilled between strips of fresh sugarcane. Dessert was cheesecake egg rolls with fresh papaya dipping sauce. Too exotic for your taste?No problem. Fill out a questionnaire listing your favorite foods and the chef, Jason Espat, will cook them for you.

Other than you, the stars and your sweetheart, there's zero night life on the tiny island, but that's rather the point. And for those days when one private island isn't enough, one of Cayo Espanto's boatmen will take you to Caye Chapel for golf.

NO TRIP TO BELIZE IS COMPLETE without a journey to at least one of the country's astonishing inland lodges. Wanting to visit several different areas, I rented a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser and headed for the jungle. My first stop was Chan Chich Lodge, a small jungle lodge in the 225,000-acre Gallon Jug Estate, the majority of which is designated as an environmental preserve. A few moments after my arrival, a lodge guide, Ricardo Romero, told me that he'd just seen a jaguar only a hundred yards from the lodge. He'd been watching a group of coatimundi—a jungle animal that looks like a cross between an anteater and a raccoon—when a cat jumped out of the bush.

"The coatis leaped for the trees," Rick told me, "but the jaguar caught one in his mouth, turned and ran away."

Hurrying back to the spot, we found the trampled ground where the brief battle had taken place and set off on the jaguar's trail. The biggest cats in the western hemisphere, jaguars are an extremely endangered species, and though Chan Chich is considered one of the most likely places to see a jaguar in the wild, the cats are elusive and sightings number fewer than a hundred a year. I knew I'd never have a better chance, but after moving slowly and quietly several hundred yards down the trail the jaguar had taken, we had to admit the big cat was gone.

After a wonderful night's sleep serenaded by the distant roaring of a band of howler monkeys, I set out for Chaa Creek Resort & Spa and Inland Expeditions, perched high on the banks of the Macal River. When Chaa Creek's owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, came to Belize in 1977, their first job was picking coffee beans for sixty dollars a week. Figuring they couldn't do worse on their own, they bought a farm several miles up the river from the mountain town of San Ignacio.

"The river was our lifeline," Mick told me late one night over cocktails. "At eleven p.m. one night when Lucy went into labor a month early, I had to paddle her to town by moonlight."

The hotel now has twenty-one thatched roof cottage rooms overlooking the river valley, ten fully screened casitas in its Macal River Jungle Camp, a fine outdoor bar and restaurant, and a four-star spa. Despite all the new creature comforts, Mick and Lucy's place remains dedicated to adventure: cross-country mountain biking, caving expeditions with subterranean boating past ancient Mayan artifacts, and whitewater canoe trips in class III and IV rapids that will put you in touch with the howler monkey inside of you.

Finally I stopped at Blancaneaux, an extraordinary lodge owned and frequented by film director Francis Ford Coppola. Beside a long series of waterfalls on the Privassion River, Blancaneaux looks like the world's most exotic tropical movie set. In the cool mountain air of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve area, the cabanas and villas are shaded by pine, surrounded by tropical gardens and overlook a waterfall. A pizza oven imported from Italy turns out the best pies this side of Naples, perfect with a bottle of the owner's award-winning wines from the Coppola-Niebaum Winery, in Napa Valley.

The massive Mayan ruins of Caracol are just an hour's drive away, but after checking into Coppola's personal villa, I was so taken with its comfort and grace that I could barely be stirred from my rooms. In front of the villa and overlooking the waterfalls is a low wooden chair set on a huge granite boulder that I'd begun to think of as Coppola's Rock. Sitting there on my last morning at Blancaneaux, I watched the sun rise through mountain mists and tried but failed to think of anything wrong with this wonderful country.

ORIENTATION 
AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize's most popular island destination, is thirty-five miles from Belize City. San Pedro, on the southern tip of the island, is the twenty-five-mile-long island's largest town is only six blocks long and four blocks wide. The Belize Barrier Reef touches the northern tip of the island, offering world-class diving. Inland, the CAYO DISTRICT is a favorite destination of eco-tourists because of the unspoiled natural beauty. Rivers, jungles, cave systems, waterfalls, diverse biology and Mayan ruins make this area an excellent vacation spot. Both inland and coastal regions are typically reached by flying to Belize City and then taking a charter flight. Flights are arranged through the hotel or can be booked, More intrepid travelers may also rent cars.

WHERE TO PLAY 
CAYE CHAPEL GOLF COURSE 
T&L GOLF Rating: **** 
Dramatic location. A fun and challenging layout, and course conditions are pristine. Also, you'll probably have the course to yourself. Par/Yardage: 72/6,995. Green Fee: $200. Architect: Larry Addington. Phone: 011-501-228-250.

WHERE TO STAY 
SECLUDED ISLAND GETAWAYS 
Caye Chapel Golf Resort & Marina 011-501-228-250, [email protected] 
The eight two- to three-bedroom villas rent for $1,000 a night, and each features modern architecture, a kitchen, a dining room and a private rooftop deck. Facilities include tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool and a nearby airstrip. The restaurant has the largest commercial kitchen in Belize.

Cayo Espanto 
888-666-4282, www.aprivateisland.com 
With a maximum of twelve guests on the island, this five-star resort is located three miles from San Pedro. There is a spa on site ($55 to $135 for treatment). Each of four guest cabanas offers a private pool and an al-fresco shower. The chef customizes the menu for each guest. One-bedroom cabanas start at $1,395 in the high season; two-bedrooms run $1,795. All rates include a private butler and three meals a day. Ferries to the Caye Chapel Golf Course.

Victoria House 
800-247-5159, www.victoria-house.com 
San Pedro is only two miles to the north. Excellent restaurant, and fishing and diving guides/instructors. Standard rooms in the main building start at $115, thatch-roof casitas are $140 and the three-bedroom villa runs $695 in the high season.

Ramon's Village Resort 
800-624-4215, www.ramons.com 
This sixty-one-cabana resort is a five-minute walk to San Pedro. Good restaurant, gift shop, boat rentals and Belize's largest diving operation are on-site. One-room cabanas start at $150, and two-bedroom, family-friendly suites are $340.

INLAND RETREATS 
Chaa Creek Cottages and Inland Expeditions 
011-501-922-037, www.chaacreek.com 
Located on the banks of the Macal River, a short drive from San Ignacio. Each palm-thatched cottage has Mexican-tiled floors and large mahogany beds. Excellent restaurant, and activities include hiking, swimming, canoeing, horseback riding and birdwatching. Family-friendly; full-service spa on the premises. Rooms start at $140 in the high season, while the luxury garden suite runs $365.

Chan Chich Lodge 
800-343-8009, www.chanchich.com 
Set within a 225,000-acre private reserve in northwestern Belize. Twelve thatched-roof cabanas, each with two queen-size beds and a veranda with hammocks. On site are screened-in pools, a bar, a restaurant and a library. Mayan ruins are close by, and hiking, canoeing, horseback riding and guided trips are available. Double-occupancy rooms are $145 in the high season; suites are $175.

Blancaneaux Lodge 
800-746-3743, www.blancaneauxlodge.com 
Located eighteen miles southwest of San Ignacio on the Privassion River. Francis Ford Coppola's resort mixes Italian food with Latin American accommodations. Trips to Mayan ruins, caving, canoeing and horseback riding are offered. Room rates set by occupancy: Double-occupancy cabanas start at $150, while two-bedroom, two-bathroom villas are $350.

WHERE TO EAT 
Elvi's Kitchen 
Pescador Drive, San Pedro, 011-501-262-176, www.ambergriscaye.com/elvis/index.html Crab claws, lobster, calamari, scallops, mussels, freshwater lobster, shrimp, conch, fish and other entrées are priced in the $15 range. A local favorite.

Capricorn 
Capricorn Resort, three miles north of San Pedro, 011-501-262-809, www.ambergriscaye.com/capricorn/index.html 
Overlooks the ocean and the owners make food to order. Expect to spend $45 per person.

Mambo 
Mata Chica Resort, San Pedro, 011-501-213-010, www.matachica.com/mambo.html 
This intimate restaurant serves up good Caribbean cocktails, fresh-baked bread and pasta. Daily dinner specials run about $25. Try the Italian dishes and chocolate mousse.

THINGS TO DO (BOOK THROUGH HOTELS) 
FISHING: Tarpon, snook, snapper, bonefish, permit, barracuda, grouper, jack, sailfish, marlin, bonito and pompano. Spin-cast, fly-fish or troll. Fish are caught all year long.

DIVING AND SNORKELING:. See the three-square-mile Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which features a variety of fish, including the apty named Shark-Ray Alley, and Mexico Rocks, which provide habitat for a variety of marine life. Note: Look out for the irritating, rash-inducing larvae of the thimble jellyfish, which spawns in May.

LAMANI: Ruins in a wonderful setting on the New River Lagoon. Black howler monkeys live close by.

CARACOL: A one-hour drive from Blancaneaux Lodge. Ancient Mayan ruins of a city that, in 650 A.D., had an estimated population of 150,000 people.

BELIZE ZOO: Thirty-one miles west of Belize City, www.belizezoo.org. Exhibits of more than 125 native animals.

TRANSPORTATION 
AIR 
Javier's Flying Service, 011-501-235-360. A three-seat plane starts at $170 per hour for local flights; a five-seat plane is $240.

RENTAL CARS 
Avis, 011-501-234-619, Budget, 011-501-232-435, and Safari/Hertz, 011-501-235-395, all have offices in Belize City.

WEATHER 
Belize has a mean temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Dry season, November through May.