Home to a tiny seaside village with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and spirited bars, the peninsula of Placencia in Belize is flanked by the Caribbean Sea on one side and a turquoise lagoon on the other. Accessible by a flight aboard a small plane or a three-hour drive from Belize City, the village is made up of multicolored houses, local shops that sell lion fish jewelry, and restaurants that offer fresh seafood. Once primarily frequented by backpackers, the Central American destination has morphed into an under-the-radar luxury hub thanks to a crop of new resorts that provide top-notch accommodations and easy access to cacao farms and Mayan ruins. Yet in spite of the luxurious new resorts, the peninsula remains a laid-back, peaceful escape that thankfully still feels more like an authentic fishing village than the next Cancun.
I spent five days in Placencia last August while on assignment for work. I just so happened to be there on my golden birthday, and it was the perfect place to celebrate. I spent the first portion of my trip at Itz'ana Resort & Residences, a 20-acre beach resort and residential community that includes a hotel, 46 one- to five-bedroom homes, two swimming pools, two restaurants, a spa, and a speakeasy-style rum room. More than 300 Mayan artifacts will be on display at the resort, and jungle-themed rooms make the property feel connected to its surroundings. I stayed in a gorgeous suite with a waterfront balcony, a sitting area, and a bathroom with a sumptuous walk-in shower. Located just steps from the beach, it was the perfect place to unplug and decompress.
Water is the lifeblood of Placencia, so it was only fitting that I spent one day snorkeling at the Belize Barrier Reef, which is the second largest reef in the world. After taking an hour-long boat ride from Placencia to Gladden Spit & Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (a sugary stretch of sand encircled by three different shades of blue water), I donned snorkeling gear and waded into the water with my guide. Purple and yellow and blue fish danced below the impossibly clear water, creating a colorful explosion. (Word to the wise: Be sure to wear powerful sunscreen. The sun is extra strong, and regular sunscreen might not cut it.)
One evening, I joined fellow guests for a multi-course dinner at the oceanfront dining tables. Stationed on the powdery soft sand and surrounded by lush trees, the dining tables provide an elevated picnic experience. The mouthwatering courses included monkey bread with avocado nut butter, line fish poached in orange, cardamon and yellow ginger root, and Mayan chocolate Gianduja with coconut lemongrass jelly.
I spent the remainder of my time at Naïa Resort and Spa, a resort in Maya Beach that features one treetop villa and 34 studio- to 3-bedroom beach houses, many with private plunge pools. Naïa is especially known for its spa and wellness facility, which features six individual treatment suites that extend over lily-topped lagoons. Encircled by palm trees and tropical vegetation, the spa functions as a lush oasis. The soothing, tropical-inspired treatments were just the cure for my sunburned skin. Three waterfront restaurants, a pier, a 50-foot saltwater swimming pool, and a mile-long beach dotted with sea grape and cocoplum trees round out the onsite amenities.
I stayed in a one-bedroom villa with a private plunge pool. High ceilings and wood accents gave the residence a tropical feel. My personal favorite parts were the bathroom, which featured a deep soaking tub and an outdoor shower flanked by verdant foliage, and the patio, where I could eat breakfast near the water.
For lunch, I dined at the beachfront bar and grill, where I ordered cheeseburgers or deep fried fish along with ice-cold Cokes. For dinner, I went to the sit-down restaurant, 1981, where options included fresh lobster served with a cream sauce and pineapple coconut shrimp. Unlike many other Caribbean countries that have much of their produce shipped in, Belize grows bananas, tomatoes, avocados, and other staples. Potatoes, however, are apparently hard to come by. The locals have solved this issue by serving crispy plantain chips instead of French fries. It's a delicious culinary decision that I can only hope will soon sweep the states.
One afternoon, I went swimming at a place the locals call the Point, where a sandy beach gives way to the glassy Caribbean Sea. Another time, I went on a boat ride and drank mimosas as I watched the sun disappear into the sea. At night, I headed to the village with new friends to dine on nightly fish specials at Rumfish or purchase $1 dollar shots at Barefoot Bar, a happening joint with colorful chairs, live music where Belikin beer signs and license plates serve as the decor.
Belize has lots to offer (Mayan ruins, cacao farm tours, snorkeling), and there's no doubt it deserves its moment in the spotlight. But one that only hope Placencia will retain its down-to-earth roots and unfussy ways. Placencia is best savored, with afternoons passed on the shore as three shades of blue crash into the sand.