Mahogany Bay Village is a recent addition to Belize’s blooming tourism industry.

Belize was pretty much just a speck on the tourism radar before the millennium, but its Caribbean charms are finally attracting hospitality development. And now the former British colony may be at the ideal tipping point for luxury tourism — Belize just began offering four-star comfort fairly recently, but, far from being overrun with tourists, it retains its authentic Mayan flavor. indeed, tripadvisor declared San Pedro its No. 1 destination in Central America for 2016. (more on San Pedro later.)
During a recent visit, I was surprised to learn something scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts already know – the Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s second largest after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The 190-mile section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, home to 500 species of fish and 65 of stony corals, was praised by Charles Darwin as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies” in 1842. It still is, thanks to the government’s dedication to sustainable tourism, requiring divers to swim to the reef from boats anchored a short but protective distance away.
The most popular launching pad to the reef is Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island, although at 25 miles long by 1 mile wide, you can still wrap your arms around it. You can reach the island 35 miles off the mainland by puddle jumper in a snappy (but occasionally unnerving) 15 minutes. Madonna literally sang its praises in her 1987 song, “La Isla Bonita” (“The Beautiful Island”), a common nickname. The caye’s largest town is historic San Pedro, still casual enough that most people there travel by golf cart, not car (another ecologically cool plus). And these days, new hotel and condo construction is dotting the area. Not surprisingly, the country’s stayover tourist arrivals in the first six months of 2018 jumped 17.1 percent over the same period the year before, according to the Belize Tourism Board.
Such numbers are music to the ears of savvy American entrepreneur Beth Clifford. A veteran real-estate developer, Clifford saw Belize’s potential around the millennium (before San Pedro’s streets were even paved), when she started working on Mahogany Bay Village (mahoganybayvillage.com) — her first hotel project and Belize’s first global luxury-branded resort, affiliated with Hilton Worldwide’s Curio Collection — by compiling land parcels at the southern tip of San Pedro to form a 60-acre reserve. Despite the Hilton brand, Mahogany Bay, which officially opened in December, doesn’t have the corporate ambience you might expect — it’s really all about the personal touch of the owner/CEO, who frequently logs 12 hours keeping the place up to four-star snuff.
Eco-friendly Mahogany Bay Village is the country’s largest resort with a 207-key hotel featuring cottage- and villa-style accommodations, 150 private residences for investors who can include them in the resort’s rental pool (with more under construction), a marina, a beach club, a wellness center, shops and restaurants. Yet it feels like, well, a small village, with airy cottages from studios to five bedrooms evoking the country’s colonial past, when it was British Honduras. (With English as the official language and more competitive pricing than longer-established tourist destinations, Belize is also attracting retirees.) Gifford clad the property in tasteful rustic chic, with Belizean hardwoods, full-length porches and atmospheric wood ceiling fans (in addition to air-conditioning).
Definitely visit the resort’s fine restaurants, particularly Jyoto Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar and the Verandah, with its haute take on Caribbean cuisine. But no trip abroad would be complete without sampling some authentic local food, yes? No problem in San Pedro. Its 75 restaurants are just a short golf cart ride away. Try Elvi’s Kitchen (elviskitchen.com), where I enjoyed creamy Belizean seré, with shrimp, green plantains, onions and coconut milk.

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