Find out where to stay and explore some of Central America's top waterfalls, jungles, beaches and more with your adventurous family.
The small Central American country of Belize (formerly British Honduras) is a surprisingly rich destination. Belize offers superb beach, rain forest and jungle experiences. It’s really a great nature destination for families, as long as children are curious, a bit adventurous about changing their eating and lifestyle routines, and 6 years and older. Though natural attractions are lush, accommodations are mostly rustic and therefore worth focusing on when planning a family holiday.
Here are my notes on the top resorts and lodges in regions where families will experience the best of Belize. However, please read these reviews with the caveat that things change often. The local economy and annual hurricane season can wreak havoc with waterfront accommodations and businesses, which I’ve seen shuttered, or even temporarily closed and reopened with huge improvements!
One reliable resource for up-to-date news is the Belize Tourism website.
As long as Belize City remains the country’s only international air gateway, families will have to spend at least one night in this funky Latin port before heading off on their other, more enjoyable adventures. Times change, and in 2005 a new attraction was introduced. Old Belize ( 501/222-4153) is a cultural and historical center that highlights the major ethnic groups, industries, and eco landscapes for which Belize is known. Families can join a 45-minute tour which will take them back in time through realistic, interactive re-creations of lush rainforests, dark caverns, towering Mayan temples and steam-powered saw and sugar mills. Located along the shoreline of Cucumber Beach Marina, the center also has an outdoor deck, cafÃ© and restaurant.
Don’t miss a meal of curry and rice and pigeon peas at Macy’s family restaurant or a chance to see the Swing Bridge open–it’s done by hand around dawn and dusk daily if boat traffic warrants. The famous Belize Zoo ( 501/220-8004), a motley collection of Central American animals whose displays are signposted with radical save-the-environment-messages, is about an hour from town. The zoo makes a great daytrip with kids as long as you go before the heat of the day drives animals (and sane people) indoors. There are two worthwhile places to stay:
Radisson Fort George Hotel
2 Marine Parade, Belize City
It’s hard to resist the classic, colonial, seaside hotel in any port town and, thankfully, the old Ft. George has been renovated since our (semi) disastrous visit. There’s a nice swimming pool attached to the unattractive modern hotel tower, an original colonial wing, a new marina and dive shop, cozy lobby, pleasant restaurant, and it’s a clean and friendly place. Doubles can start as low as US$104/N with special deals, depending on season and room type.
The Great House
13 Cork Street, Belize City
This stunning, freshly renovated white clapboard family mansion has become a well-kept, full service B&B. Located across the street from the Radisson Ft. George, it shares the same access to the marina and waterfront, but doesn’t have a swimming pool. However, that shouldn’t stop those with some chutzpah from going over to the Radisson’s poolside bar, changing in the outdoor bath facilities, and going in for a swim when the weather gets overbearing. The twelve rooms in the 1927-era colonial home are pretty and pastel, with small balconies overlooking a back garden. Such modern conveniences as in-room A/C, TV, phone and fax, wireless internet access, ceiling fan, minibar, hairdryer and a coffeemaker combine with touches of rattan and floral prints to create the tropical luxe feel. Around US$150/N plus $10 per head for up to four people (two double beds) in a room.
Rain Forest Lodges Around San Ignacio and Cayo District
San Ignacio is one of Belize’s most developed towns, though it is small and easy to stroll around for families. As a long-time tourist destination, it boasts coffee shops, Internet access and fun boutiques along the funky riverfront. The surrounding wooded area of rivers and waterfalls can be considered a rain forest-style jungle because of the heavy precipitation June-October, dense foliage, tropical flora and fauna, abundant birds, monkeys and insect life. The entire Cayo District is definitely worth a two or three-night/four-day stay because it’s slow to get around; however, its natural attractions will fascinate children. You may have read our review of the well established and very kid-welcoming Chaa Creek Cottages (San Ignacio; 501/824-2037), Clarissa Falls (Western Highway, San Ignacio; 501/824-3916) and others. I want to mention one of the newer properties which is deliberately marketing itself to families.
Maya Mountain Lodge
Crysto Rey Road, San Ignacio
This lodge emphasizes nature-oriented tours into the nearby Mountain Pine Ridge, guided tours of archeological sites and visits to local Maya craftsmen practicing age-old artistic traditions. Family-oriented activities for children with their parents and/or grandparents have been developed and include evening storytime with readings of folklore and rainforest stories, ceramics, gardening, cooking local foods and investigations of indigenous plant and animal life.
Jungle Lodges of Northern Belize
The north part of the Cayo District is in many ways similar to the San Ignacio region, with some wonderful jungle lodges to welcome kids interested in bugs and butterflies, scorpions and monkeys. Our family stayed two nights/three days in each of these regions and found them different enough to be enjoyable, but I realize others may not have such a high tolerance for heat and bugs! We’ve covered the celebrated Chan Chich Lodge (Gallon Jug, Orange Walk; 800/343-1088), which has a wonderful small pool before, and must again mention Francis Ford Coppola’s chic Blancaneaux (Central Farm, San Ignacio; 501/824-4914), and the rustic Lamanai Outpost (Orange Walk; 727/867-4481) two other well known lodges in the north with an excellent reputation for skilled nature guides.
Jungle Hideouts of Southern Belize
Placenia, on the mainland coast, provides the sand ‘n’ sea/snorkel experience without the bother of getting to the Barrier Reef Islands, which should appeal to families with little time or patience. Both it and Dangriga, coastal towns in the southern part of the country (near Guatemala), offer beach access as well as daytrips to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve. However, the snorkeling and coral reef viewing cannot be compared to the much more pristine Barrier Reef.
Consider your family’s needs beforehand. We met families who loved the simple, fan-cooled, thatch roof bungalows and the company of other families. We met those who hated the sand flies and mosquitoes, didn’t enjoy day-long fishing excursions in small power boats, and didn’t appreciate a rustic beachside existence.
Of the many small and casual hut-cluster resorts, the most widely recommended (and one of the most expensive now) is:
Jaguar Reef Lodge and Spa
Dangriga, Stann Creek
On 300 acres of wilderness and over 1,000 feet of private beach facing the Caribbean are thatch, duplex cabaÃ±as with all the modcons plus bathtubs, a feature sure to please parents of fussy bathers. The main lodge nearby is the center of social activity, with a bar and stylish dining room. Great daytrips include the Jaguar preserve, the recently discovered Mayflower ruins, or Antelope Falls. It’s ideally situated near the Dangriga airstrip, making this very comfortable and smartly-run place such a lure for families. Book early!
Ambergris Caye: Queen of the Barrier Reef
The largest and busiest of the Barrier Reef islands, Ambergris is about 90 minutes by water taxi from Belize City. Though wildly overdeveloped by jungle standards, the island’s only village of San Pedro will remind you more of a funky Mexican beach town than any resort community. There are few sand beaches to speak of — most of the coastline is sharp coral– but small power boats transport snorkelers out to the reef regularly.
Accommodations range from modern, full convenience condos with small swimming pools to a few older, colonial clapboard guest lodges. The in-town inns have the virtue of being in the middle of the action – that is, you don’t need to put on your shoes to enjoy a lobster dinner and an imported bottle of wine along the lively, sand-paved main street.
The out-of-town, quieter places mean you’ll probably rent a golf cart for souvenir shopping, dining, bar-hopping or researching the next day’s diving expedition, because after about 24 hours in this laid-back little retreat, your mind will be unable to cope with walking anywhere! Some of the inns include breakfast in their rates.
22 Coconut Drive, San Pedro
A cluster of white clapboard bungalows and a small main lodge sit under tall palms along the island’s south coast at what is arguably the island’s ‘best” resort. It’s quiet and classy, romantic and ideal for those who aren’t worried about receiving a fax from their office. We did see kids here, pushing palm twigs through the sand and making little piles of seashells, but it’s probably better for the older kid who doesn’t have to make a lot of noise. It’s about 15 minutes by golf cart from town, very self enclosed, with its own restaurant and conservative Caribbean ambiance. Doubles run upwards of US$200/N.
Coconut Drive, San Pedro
With some of the Polynesian flair of “Gilligan’s Island” and a bar scene you’d expect at Jamaica’s Hedonism II, Ramon’s has crystallized the Caribbean good life for many guests. It tends to draw a young crowd–we mean 20-somethings, not kids–but it’s comfortable, the pool’s fine, and the surf’s up and waiting for you to dive in with a windsurfer, banana boat or boogie board. They do welcome children, but yours will feel more at home over a school holiday period when other families appear. Housing is in cute, thatch-roof round bungalows and there’s a well kept sand beach out front. The front desk is happy to help you arrange a local babysitter.
White Sands Cove
This inn is situated on a quiet beach about two miles north of San Pedro. Accommodations include one and two-bedroom, air-conditioned condos with full kitchens, ocean views and hammocks. Family activities include fishing, snorkeling, windsurfing and diving, or touring around on your rented bikes. Many packages are available; check out the website for details.
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