The sun is casting its first rays of gold and crimson as I dip my kayak paddle into the tranquil Caribbean Sea. I’m on a dawn mission to circumnavigate Coral Caye, Francis Ford Coppola’s private island not far from the sleepy fishing village of Placencia in Belize. Brown pelicans flying in perfect formation skim the shimmering surface while keeping a sharp eye out for sprat, the small silver fish that are a mainstay of their diet. Once endangered, the pelicans thrive in this tiny English-speaking Central American country, nearly half of which is protected wilderness, including mist-shrouded jungle, remote mountains, and the world’s second-largest barrier reef – in other words, an ecotourism paradise.
“When I was making Apocalypse Now, I became infatuated with the tropics. I read an article about Belize and learned that it was home to vast reefs and rain forests. I thought it would be a great place to take my kids,” says the legendary filmmaker. Coppola’s love affair with Belize, spanning more than 30 years, also led him to become the country’s most celebrated hotelier – by accident. What started as a small inland jungle cottage, “where I could have a quiet place to write,” grew into his first ecolodge, the 20-dwelling, riverfront Blancaneaux, in central Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. That was followed by Turtle Inn, a collection of 25 beachfront dwellings with Maya Mountain views just outside Placencia, and now Coral Caye, a postage-stamp-size hideaway 25 minutes by boat from the inn (you can add a Caye stay on to your Turtle Inn holiday).
As I glide my kayak over coral gardens, a hawksbill sea turtle pokes its head up for a closer look, while below, schools of green and purple parrotfish dart by. It takes less than an hour to paddle around the island, and when I beach my craft, Martin Krediet, the general manager of Turtle Inn and Coral Caye, tells me that they’re working in partnership with SEA Belize, a local conservation organization, to help protect the country’s underwater treasures. The lodges have already undertaken myriad sustainable tourism initiatives, from eco-design and water conservation to renewable energy. Which is precisely why I’ve come here to celebrate my birthday with a small group of eco-minded friends: Coral Caye is our kind of place. Sure, it has a private chef and access to Coppola’s wine cellar, but the guest experience is more Robinson Crusoe than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Two beach cottages join an open-air thatched palapa, which does triple duty as a bar, restaurant, and hangout. It’s all about simplicity – and in our fast-paced, high-tech world, that may be the greatest luxury of all.