Tips on great places to stay in Belize, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Panama where you can enjoy hiking, canoeing, or just relaxing as beautiful birds and butterflies surround you.
Sandwiched between active parents and active kids, I like to plan ‘soft adventure’ destinations for annual family reunions. In someplace new, we can explore together with parents who might never venture there alone, and with our children, who love to see the Oldies play Indiana Jones. From Belize to the Virgin Islands, our family’s under-10s through over-70s have birded, kayaked and hiked gentle slopes in search of nature’s beauty, a good meal and a comfortable hammock — our version of quality time.
The small Central American country of Belize (formerly British Honduras) is unexpectedly rich in marine, rain forest and jungle experiences, all of which are easily accessible. More civilized than exotic, Belize is a great ecotourism destination for adults and curious children 5 years and older. Because the central region of rivers, waterfalls and rain forest experiences heavy precipitation June to October, it boasts dense foliage, abundant birds, monkeys and insect life. These are a few eco-lodges, in Belize, Florida and Panama, that I recommend for your family.
Jungle-clad Rivers of Belize
Lodge at Chaa Creek
Reservations Office: P.O. Box 53
San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize
(501/824-2037; US toll free: 877/709-8708)
This resort compound outside the scruffy town of San Ignacio, winner of environmental awards from the World Travel and Tourism Council, American Society of Travel Agents, Caribbean Travel & Life and others, offers 23 well-decorated, thatch-roof cottages above Chaa Creek. Most recently built are two deluxe one-bedroom “Tree Top Suites” perched in the hardwood trees above the Macal River, each with accommodations for four. Chaa Creeks’ 365-acre nature preserve also includes a health spa featuring treatments using botanicals in the resort’s rainforest, whose recipe is said to come from traditional Mayan shamans. The budget and eco-conscious Macal River Jungle Camp is where our family stayed — a rustic alternative to the cottage suites, with fixed canvas tents, cots with linens, and common bathing and dining halls. The main lodge’s stylish bar and terrific restaurant are a meeting place, even for those in the camp. The staff is wonderfully knowledgeable, friendly, and great with kids: gently placing a butterfly on our son’s wrist, pointing out a visiting scorpion, scarlet macaw or howler monkey, leading flashlight-illuminated nature walks, giving rides along bumpy dirt roads in an open pickup truck, even demonstrating tortilla-making.
The very fit can hike the nearby Vaca Caves (site of an underground Mayan pottery) or the hilltop Mayan temple of Xunantunich. More sedentary types will love river canoeing or exploring the Natural History Centre and Butterfly House. Although daytrips are surprisingly expensive, Chaa Creek’s staff works hard to make local wildlife, bird-viewing and the pristine environment accessible to all ages. Seemingly high (for Belize) rates are good value here and there are special meal plans for children under 12.
The Lodge at Chaa Creek also offers The Mac Morpho Kids program every Saturday during the summer for environmentalists between the ages of 6-15. The program offers participants the opportunity to get in touch with the rainforest they are vacationing in. Each family will hatch their own Blue Morpho butterfly, to be released into the jungle. Children can partake in a “Nature Rules” treasure hunt where they will learn about the wildlife around them and the importance of environmental conservation. Other components of the program include: a horseback ride to ancient Mayan temples, as well as a canoe trip along the Macal River culminating in a visit with a family from the Cristo Rey village. Parents can join their children in arts and crafts and any of the other activities the program offers. They may even bump into Mac Morpho, the Lodge’s environmentally friendly emissary, while exploring the 365-acre Nature Reserve.
Mayan Ruins of Belize
Other, less-posh, lodges in the Cayo District — the region where Chaa Creek is located — are also highly recommended by families. Two well-known ones are the Clarissa Falls Cottages (501/804-3916); duPlooy’s (501/804-3101; fax. 501/824-3301). Both offer a variety of watersports on the rivers.
Mail: P.O. Box #37
Belize City, Belize, Central America
(501/223-4419; in the USA 800/343-8009)
From San Ignacio, a whirring prop plane took us north to Gallon Jug for a surprisingly different nature experience. More than 250,000 acres host this lush, tropical jungle resort, as well as the eco-agricultural experiments of its owners, the wealthy Belizean Bowen family. The 12 very chic guest bungalows snuggle in amongst a circle of grass-covered Mayan burial mounds which still evoke an eery dignity. Ceiba trees filled with squawking buccaneer birds mask the fact that few of the huge, old mahogany trees which dominate the surrounding forest still exist. Yet in the midst of a region devastated by logging, the Bowens have used development to enforce agriculture and ecologically-strict management policies. Old logging roads are kept manicured by resort guides, who lead thrice daily walks around the property to look for toucans, the occasional jaguar, tayras and jungle fauna and to explain Mayan history to visitors.
All ages will love the cacophony of bird and monkey cries, the privacy of neighboring bungalows, sit-down meals made from fresh local ingredients (plus an imaginative kids’ menu), and the opportunity to relax at the pretty, screened-in pool. Guided day and night walks are offered. Although only the delightful on-staff guide Gilberto was able to keep the kids interested, avid birders at the lodge were in heaven! Bungalows sleeping two to four people in two queen beds run about $$ depending on season; children under 12 stay free. The full meal plan is reasonably priced and essential as the cottages are so isolated.
Birding, Flora & Fauna in the Caribbean
Maho Bay Campground and Harmony Resort
St. John, Virgin Islands
The idyllic beauty of the island of St. John, with sparkling blue waters, white-sand beaches, and winding mountain roads is for those able to afford the quintessential island paradise. Two-thirds of the island has been designated as national parkland making this island feel almost completely untouched by the voracious Virgin Island tourist industry. In addition to its storybook beauty, St. John is home to the uber-eco-friendly Maho Bay Camps. Maho Bay is a camp, not a resort, so you are roughing it a bit, but your vacation footprint will be small.
Maho Bay Campgrounds’ 114 eco-tent cabins, cooled by sea breezes flowing through well-placed screens, and shaded by trees, crisscross a steep hillside above the shore on stilts. My son said it looked like where the Ewoks live, and he was exactly right. They are connected to one another by a series of elevated wooden boardwalks through the trees. Sixteen-by-sixteen-foot, three-room cabins come with bed linens, towels, cooking and eating utensils, a small propane stove, and an ice cooler. Bathhouses are shared. Plan to enjoy at least one meal at the outdoor restaurant to take advantage of one of the most beautiful views in the islands. The beach at the bottom of the hill may be a tough hike back up for toddlers but its pristine swath of white sugar sand with its own well-equipped watersports center is a compelling draw. Open-air buses that circle the island stop at Maho, so it’s easy to explore St John’s other beaches, most of which are undeveloped National Park property.
Another part of the resort, Harmony Studios, is perched above the tent cabins and offers guests the use of Maho’s facilities — transportation, restaurant, grocery store, cultural events, and watersports — but with extra comforts and amenities. Harmony’s two-story guest buildings are much more upscale and feature full kitchens, dining areas, and spacious decks; all power is generated by sun and wind.
The Canopy Tower
Mail Address: Apartado 0832-2701
Republic of Panama
(507/264-5720, toll free US: 800/930-3397)
Just 30 minutes’ drive from Panama City lies the Soberania National Park, a rainforest the Nature Conservancy claims has countless species of plants and 283 species of birds. Within this reputedly pristine eco-paradise is an eco-resort built inside a former US Air Force radar installation. Guests in uniquely rustic doubles (private hot showers, and recycled water flow toilets) supposedly have a bird’s eye view of the rain forest canopy, a Nirvana wingless birders will never attain. The top floor is covered by a 30-foot-high geotangent dome and provides a surreal dining experience with panoramic views of the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, the skyline of Panama City, and an array of wildlife. Staying there is quite the adventure; children under age 15 require prior approval from their management for safety reasons. There’s lots to see off property. I still can’t tell a Ruddy Crake from a Sooty Tern, but I’ve learned to love those bad hair days that come with humid, birder-friendly tropical climates.
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