Comparing the top four spa resorts
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The Insider's Guide: Belize
By Ann Abel
January / February 2008
Belize isn't one of the world's great spa destinations. The spas at even the best resorts are tiny, with no hydrotherapy suites or fitness centers. Rather, it's a premier ecotourism destination, with one-fifth of its 8,866 square miles (roughly the size of Massachusetts) set aside for nature reserves, and just offshore, the world's second-largest barrier reef. But when you think about it, spa-going and ecotourism have much in common: Both involve unplugging from the world, connecting with nature, and having fun while keeping fit. Who needs a gym when you can climb Maya ruins and kayak out to that reef? And at the resorts covered here, spa treatments are top quality. For this Insider's Guide, I spent 12 days in Belize and visited four top resorts with spas, two beach hideaways and two jungle lodges, chosen for their luxury quotient. Here's my report on a country that turned out to be surprisingly rich in spa spirit.
Getting to Belize is easy—a two- or three-hour flight from Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, or Miami—but getting around it is not. Roads are potholed (if paved at all), rutted, and torture on the back. A rainstorm can make them impassable. Getting around also requires taking the eccentricities of the country's two airlines, Tropic Air and Maya Island Air, in stride. My flight from San Pedro to the international airport in Belize City landed at the municipal airport instead. (The pilot then flew me to the international airport.) On another flight, the 12-seat plane was full so I was given the copilot's seat. Boat transfers are fine when it's sunny, but not when it rains, as boats are generally open. If it rains, activities are canceled and those open-air living rooms that are so lovely in the sun aren't nearly as pleasant. Rainy season is June to November, but I visited in December and saw more rain than sun. One last caveat: Many of Belize's native animal species are insects. While the resorts do an admirable job of controlling them, no amount of fumigation and citronella coils can keep them all out of your room. Off-property, it's worse. The CDC recommends travelers use an insect repellent with DEET and take antimalarial drugs. I went through a whole bottle of Off! and still ended up with huge (but harmless) blister-like bites. My bottom line: If you can adapt to luxury that's sometimes rough around the edges, you'll like Belize.
Overwater deck at Cayo Espanto
CAYO ESPANTO Just the Two of You
Cayo Espanto's tag line—"a private island"—says it all, yet it's still an understatement. This resort, a four-acre speck off Ambergris Caye, doesn't have any public areas: no lobby, no restaurant, no bar. Everything takes place in your villa, so if you're the sort who likes to strike up conversations poolside, this is not your kind of place. What Cayo Espanto does have is a knack for orchestrating things so guests feel that they're the only couple in the house—that the resort revolves around them. The entire staff lines up on the dock (above) to mark your arrival and see you off, you're assigned a butler who's both clairvoyant and discreet, and the chef drops by each afternoon to ask what you'd like for dinner. He presents a customized menu of three choices based on the preference form you filled out before arrival, then tells you that if none of them sounds good, he'll make whatever you want. (I liked all the food, but the standout was the fresh local lobster.)
There are six one- and two-bedroom villas (center), ranging from 1,150 to 2,500 square feet. They have indoor and outdoor living areas and upscale-beach-house decor: concrete floors, turquoise louvred doors and window frames, white cushions on the bamboo-and-leather furniture, and puffy white duvets on the thick, soft beds (opposite, top left). Casa Aurora has the biggest pool (tiled in luminous green mosaic), and the two-story Casa Estrella has the best sea views, especially from the upstairs bedroom. The new Casa Ventanas has an over-water design, and a second over-water villa will be added this year. Unlike most resorts in Belize, Cayo Espanto has flat-screen TVs with dozens of satellite channels, in-room phones, and reliable wireless Internet. It's a defense against cabin fever, but even being here alone, I found them beside the point. It's the secluded patches of beach, plunge pools, and private docks (opposite, bottom left) for sun-bathing or romantic torch-lit dinners that make a stay here singular. I never saw another guest, though the manager told me two other villas were occupied.
Spa treatments are done in-room, too, and the menu, though brief, covers the bases: relaxation and deep-tissue massages, two facials, a handful of wraps and scrubs, and, curiously, ear candling, an Ayurvedic treatment that cleans the ears. The standout was a body scrub with coffee and fresh coconut that left my skin like silk.
Therapist We Love
Shy and unassuming, Kristi Gonzalez has patience and persistence that belie her short tenure (three years as a therapist, after learning massage in Atlanta and Florida). She painstakingly applied and removed a coffee scrub, and doggedly kneaded my shoulders until the knots came undone. But it was her focus that impressed me most. When it began to rain during a massage on my veranda, she had me get up so she could move the table inside, then regained her flow almost immediately. By the end of the treatment, I'd nearly forgotten the interruption.
The Ecotourist's Hydrotherapy
Running the length of the country's coastline (185 miles), the Belize Barrier Reef, 20 minutes from the resort by boat, is the world's second longest (after Australia's Great one). It's home to some 500 species of fish, 247 plants, 65 corals, manatees, crocodiles, and sea turtles. During an hour-long snorkeling tour, I saw hundreds of silver jacks, blue and green parrot fish, nurse sharks, and six-foot-long spotted stingrays. (I tried not to think about Steve Irwin.) They drifted between purple fin coral swaying like the backdrop of a Disney movie. The resort's longtime marine guide, German Alamilla, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the reef.
18-minute flight from Belize City to San Pedro and 7-minute boat ride to the island. The resort meets guests at the airport. US$1,595–$2,295, 888-666-4282, www.aprivateisland.com