‘I love the smell of habanero in the morning,’ exclaims Mr Smith as he delves into a mountain of chilaquiles – tortillas scrambled with egg, chillies and cheese. It’s one of Blancaneaux owner Francis Ford Coppola’s favourite breakfasts, apparently. I look to the pine-swathed hills, steaming as mist burns up in the morning sun, and smile at the hummingbirds that dart around our heads as they vie for space around flamingo-pink bougainvillaea. It’s hardly Apocalypse Now, I think as we’re handed two more cappuccinos.
Our location is a three-hour drive from Belize City airport; which, when we arrived yesterday, culminated in a 50-minute jolt along a dirt track. As we turned into the lodge’s hibiscus-lined driveway, and Mr Smith wondered aloud whether he’d ever sit down comfortably again, I couldn’t help but notice an airstrip. I’m all for authenticity and experiencing the thrill of the journey, but I’d take a flight in a three-seater Cessna any day.
How Francis Found Blancaneaux has entered into lodge legend, and we are told the story as soon as we arrive. The scene: Blancaneaux was left mouldering by its owner after the jaguars he was regularly shooting started dwindling away. Strange that. Coppola was in Belize after the tribulations of filming of Marlon and the boys in the Philippines, and happened, while up to his bushy beard in pine woodland, across this abandoned wreck. He felt that, with its back-to-nature vibe, it was the ideal place to write; and, after a decade of doing it up, he opened it to eco-loving visitors – with Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio leading the A-list influx.
The combination of hills, waterfalls, woodland and gently ruffling foliage makes for a convincing jungle playground, though, in truth, it’s a landscape that’s been primped to perfection by legions of dedicated gardeners. Nature is definitely nurtured here and it’s been staged and lit to Hollywood standards. Standing on the wooden terrace of our cabana, munching a biscuit, I listen to a soundtrack of birdsong that’s so loud it drowns out the nearby waterfall. I risk cricking my neck as I look around me for toucans and parakeets making their home in the forest.
Our own nest, built from local hardwoods and topped with shaggy palm thatch, is like a treehouse perched on the hillside. Inside it’s as colourful as the finches that flit around the roof. Striped fabric hangings, which dangle down rough, white walls, are echoed in the huge rugs and vivid bedspread. It’s the yellow-and-black carvings of beady-eyed jaguars, skulking in the corners, which give the space its real character, though. This is laid-back living, where sun-warmed breeze wafts through the open doors and windows, softly blowing the fresh flowers on your tables, and bringing the scent of pine into your midst.
A short amble up to Big Rock Falls is as much as we can bring ourselves to do before dinner in the Montana restaurant. The Italian-in-the-jungle idea is certainly unusual and, though we usually like to try local dishes when we travel, the pastas and wood-fired pizzas, supplemented by wines from Coppola’s Californian estates, are intriguing. If the idea of air-freighted mozzarella fills you with horror, fear not: the kitchen is supported by a lovingly tended organic kitchen garden. This means the restaurant is able to chalk a couple of Belizean dishes onto its specials board each night, and that Mr Smith and I can sample a delicious chicken stew with black beans.
I am woken the following day by a talking conch shell. ‘Good morning! This is your wake-up call!’ it shouts as I jab blearily at Mr Smith’s ribs. There’s something surreal about being roused by a mollusc – the communications system is another of Coppola’s idiosyncratic touches – but needs must. It’s our own fault. After several glasses of Shiraz last night, we committed ourselves to an early horse ride through the rainforest. This, strangely, seemed a better idea at 11pm yesterday than it does at 6am today.
We follow our knowledgeable guide, though Mr Smith proceeds at a plod as he’s ended up on Godfather, the stable’s eldest horse. His steed is not unlike the Brando character in Coppola’s film: venerable and pondering, yet facing his twilight years with dignity. We don’t see any jaguars as we ride deeper into the lush, damp vegetation of the rainforest, but we are fed as many facts about toxic trees, insect-farming woodpeckers and medicinal plants as we can handle.
In the afternoon, we canoe on the green waters of Barton Creek, and paddle deep into an enormous, stalactite-dripping cave to visit a Mayan sacrificial site. The bats that hang like leathery sacks from the cave ceiling squirm in the light of our super-powerful torches, and our guide suggests we turn off the beams ‘for a moment of reflection’. All spiritual feelings evaporate for me when we are plunged into blackness. I sit rigid in the canoe, bracing myself for the first bat to tangle itself in my hair.
All tension is pummelled away that evening, though, as Japanese masseuses go to work on my knotted shoulders. Afterwards, Mr Smith and I sink up to our chins in a steaming hot pool and reflect upon what a wonderful couple of days we’ve had. Our fellow guests, with whom we commune over plantain chips and homemade tomato ketchup in the Jaguar Bar, are in complete agreement. A collection of adventure-hungry honeymooners and intrepid couples, they have all fallen in love with the laid-back, eco-conscious atmosphere. We only wish that, like them, we were staying for longer.
It turns out the three-seater Cessna is easily organised, so, inspired by the Blancaneaux owner’s filmic spirit, I book a plane to add some drama to our departure. After just two nights in his rainforest retreat, I leave the lodge feeling like the star of one of Mr Coppola’s features. We rise off the airstrip, leaving the dense, emerald-coloured jungle in our wake, and I swear I can hear the 'Ride of the Valkyries' resounding triumphantly in my ears.