Placencia, Belize — We had just ordered a round of drinks — herb-infused mojitos for the grown-ups, fresh-squeezed fruit juices for the kids — when my 11-year-old nephew reached into his mouth, gave his molar one last yank, and pulled it out triumphantly. He set it right on the table, in the middle of the busy, most stylish restaurant in this little beachside village, hoping to get a reaction.Right on cue, the fashionable American owner, Pamela Solomon, breezed by. We braced for a dirty look; instead she smiled.“You’re the second kid to lose a tooth in our restaurant,” she announced. “The first one was Reese Witherspoon’s son.”As Solomon floated off to talk to other guests, we looked at each other. Whatever we’d expected to find in Placencia, it wasn’t Hollywood A-listers. After all, our party of nine had just ridden four hours in a van — a good hour of it on a rutted gravel road — to get here from the international airport in Belize City. On a Friday night, the big event appeared to be a local soccer match, on a field right in the middle of town. There was not a Ritz-Carlton, a Gucci outlet or a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in sight. But for travelers looking for a different kind of luxury, this stretch of beach at the southern tip of Belize may just be it.“People tell me it’s what Cancun felt like 20 years ago, or other developed places,” Solomon says later, describing the changes she’s seen since arriving with her husband in 2008 to open Rumfish. “They can get in early and be a part of the change.”Maintaining its rustic charmBut Placencia is unlikely to be the next Cancun. For one thing, Placencia village proper stretches for only about one mile at the tip of a narrow, 16-mile peninsula. There simply isn’t the space to support massive infrastructure.For another, local leaders have seemed ambivalent about encouraging larger-scale tourism. A local ordinance bans structures over three stories tall, and so far, visitor numbers haven’t attracted the kind of big chain hotels and restaurants that bring in the mass market. Only about 41,000 visitors made their way to Placencia in 2012, making it only the fifth most popular destination in a country that receives only 250,000 overnight visitors annually. (Mexico, home to Cancun, welcomed about 24 million international visitors last year, according to the Mexico Tourism Board.)In fact, before we arrived, we’d been told to expect little in the way of traditional tourist amenities, that the destination was more of a backpackers’ haven with few restaurants, tours or things to do. That was OK with us. Traveling with a multigenerational family group interested in reconnecting over a long weekend, we primarily wanted a place with pretty white sand beaches and Caribbean-blue water (check); good fishing and snorkeling (check); and one that was clean, safe and friendly. (Check, check, check.) That English was the primary language, and that we could use U.S. dollars everywhere, unlike many parts of the Caribbean and Central America, made it an even easier family getaway. But that “backpacker haven” advice turned out to be a good 10 years out of date, which became clear even before we turned up at our rental villa, with its private infinity pool overlooking the palm-fringed beach. That fancy-looking hotel we passed? Turtle Inn, owned by Francis Ford Coppola. (Reese Witherspoon, we would learn later, was among the celebrities who’ve vacationed there.)All those for-sale signs dotting the narrow road? They’re advertising beachfront lots and luxury villas, many owned by American and Canadian ex-pats as second homes or future retirement retreats.Then, along with giving us a lift to our first night’s dining destination, Rumfish, villa caretaker Reuben was full of suggestions for things we could do during our stay. We could rent a catamaran for sailing; we could hire a guide for flyfishing or deep-sea fishing. We could snorkel or dive. We could coast down a zipline, trek to Mayan archaeological sites, or visit a jaguar preserve.Or we could take the region’s most popular tour — an excursion to Monkey River, where tourists climb onto boats and meander through mangroves and along a jungle river, searching for howler monkeys, iguanas, crocodiles and even manatees.“There is much more to do in Placencia now — more bars, more restaurants, more tours, more activities. Much cuter shops,” says Veronique McKenzie, who moved to Belize from France via the United States in 1999 and stayed after marrying Lance, a Belize native who worked for years in the U.S., as well. The couple opened a tour business in 2000. “When we moved here, you were lucky if you could buy non-stale Ritz crackers and Kraft cheese. Yellow mustard was the best you could get,” agrees Pamela Solomon, referring to her arrival in 2008. “Now we have stores that offer Dijon on a regular basis, Gorgonzola, Brie, gnocchi. . . . Obviously the ex-pat community has made an impact.”Experiencing laid-back, Belizean spirit Still, Placencia has managed to absorb the newcomers, and the new business, without losing its rustic charm. Part of that might be that development has been somewhat slower to occur than predicted. Though it’s been rumored that big cruise ships are coming — and the public pier was being spruced up during our visit, perhaps in an effort to accommodate cruise ship tenders — no major cruise line currently stops there.The international airport that was announced several years back appears to be on permanent hold; the Belize Tourism Board wouldn’t even comment on its status.But a lot of it seems to be just that Placencia has taken the typical laid-back Belizean spirit, and turned it up to 11. Our days quickly took on a slow, relaxed rhythm: Get up and take the golf cart into town; remember to wave back at everybody who waves first. (Translation: Just wave at everybody. This is a friendly place.) Stop for breakfast at Wendy’s downtown, determined to have the best version of the Belizean specialty fryjack — a heavy, fried piece of dough, similar to a sopaipilla, served plain with syrup or stuffed full of refried beans, bacon, eggs and cheese like a burrito. Browse the shops, all selling pretty much the same things, but cheerfully, and at decent prices: painted, carved lizards and fish, beaded jewelry, T-shirts, Guatemalan clothing and handicrafts. Head back to the villa in time to lounge by the pool, or do some bodysurfing in the gentle waves. Pop open the day’s first locally brewed Belikin beer and start thinking about where to have dinner: Rumfish for craft cocktails and Peruvian ceviche? Local favorite Omar’s for curried fish and rice-and-beans? Barefoot Bar for burgers and burritos and a side of live music? Get up the next day, rinse, repeat.“I’ve never brought anybody down there who didn’t absolutely love it,” says Rebecca Berquist, who with her husband owns the rental villa, Casa del Sol, where my family stayed. “It’s so unusual to find a village that has such charm, yet is in an area that is just so beautiful.”In fact, the Berquists love Placencia so much that they want to share the love. They are developing more homes in a subdivision called Vista Cove, on the lagoon side of the peninsula about five minutes from the village. Vista Cove will have primarily two-bedroom homes under 2,000 square feet, each with its own boat slip. Lots start at about $75,000 — a steal compared to lots in many other Caribbean beach resorts.By Day 5 of our vacation, our family had grown so comfortable in Placencia that talk of buying our own piece of paradise became part of the dinner conversation. (Though, to be clear, a fair number of Belikins had been consumed at the time.)Though that talk cooled in the light of day, the underlying sentiment did not. We’ll go back to Placencia — and hope that it never really changes.
If you go
Getting there: American Airlines offers direct flights from DFW Airport to the capital of Belize City. From there, it’s a quick 30-minute flight (about $120 per person, one way) or a leisurely four-hour van transfer (cost depends on the size of your group; our party of nine paid $450 plus tip.) Rental cars or SUVs, not a bad idea if you’d like to tour on your own, start at about $500 per week if you get one at the airport.
Getting around: If you’re staying in town or within a couple miles, a golf cart is the way to go; a rental will cost about $50 a day. Taxis are available in town, but there’s not always one to be found when you need one.
Staying: Small, intimate hotels are the rule, not the exception here. We peeked inside several that I’d love to come back and try:
• Turtle Inn: The best-known resort on the peninsula, thanks to famous owner Francis Ford Coppola. Thatched cottages, some just steps from the sea, are decorated in a mix of Balinese and Belizean style and outfitted with iPod docking stations and local soaps. There’s a spa, plus six restaurants and bars, including a kids’ gelato parlor tucked next to the open-air bar. About $300-$850; the three-bed, two-bath family pavilion, which comes with a private attendant, starts at $1,680 nightly. www.coppolaresorts.com/turtleinn
• Chabil Mar: If you want resort luxury close to Placencia village, this is your best bet; you can walk along the beach and be shopping or eating in town in 15 minutes or less. It has about 20 stylish villas, two small pools, open-air dining, a secluded beach area well-stocked with umbrellas and comfy cushioned lounge chairs, and a deck/lounge that extends over the water; guests can even reserve a candlelit dinner there under the stars. About $250-$650, depending on season and room selected. chabilmarvillas.com
• Roberts Grove: The first major resort in the area and still one of the most complete, this has a spa, its own dive shop, a marina, a tour office, and several restaurants, plus 2 guestrooms and villas. It’s a bit farther from the action of the village, so you’ll probably want a car or golf cart if you’re staying more than a couple of days. From about $150 for a basic room, up to $700 for a three-bedroom villa. robertsgrove.com
Tours: We arranged in-country flights, villa booking and van transfer through Caribbean Travel & Tours, run by efficient husband-and-wife team Veronique and Lance McKenzie; they also book tours such as snorkeling, sailing, caving and ziplining. www.ctbelize.com
More info: Belize Tourism Board: 800-624-0686; www.travelbelize.org.