Somewhere in the Caribbean Sea offshore from the islands that hug the mainland of Belize, there is someone eating a bowl of freshly made ceviche. The sun is draping over them as they idly stretch out on a boat that’s making its way through Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, where snorkeling is at a premium. We’re jealous, of course, but our memories of taking a dip in those same cerulean waters just a few months ago swirl around in our head, and the green monster abates…for now. This is especially true when you consider that not only did we get to experience some of Belize’s most spectacular marine attractions, but did so complemented by a stay in one of the country’s newest—and, we’ll go ahead and say it, utterly spectacular—resorts, El Secreto. Let’s just say that it’s so ridiculously fabulous, we can’t imagine it will stay “a secret” for very long.
Sit down with the owners of the 13-villa El Secreto—exact address: 11 miles north of San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye—and you hear the passion they have for this destination and for the resort they have just opened. Funny thing is, they are not Belizean, they’re Mexican, but they adore their “second home” and this passion spills over into El Secreto, and every minute detail.
We first spoke with the owners, Abraham Roffe and Abraham Saade, back in July and after that initial chat we thought this is going to be quite a resort. So of course at the mere mention of a press trip to see the resort first-hand, we grabbed our suitcase, stuffed it with several swimsuits and were off to this English-speaking Central American country, whose mainland and collection of islands is a gem that truly begs to be explored and not just by scuba divers.
Says Cori Wiesel, travel consultant, Voyages Terra Natura, “There is so much to do for everyone and all age groups. You can choose from snorkeling, caving, tubing, kayaking, sailing, fishing, birding, horseback riding and the archaeological sites. It’s very easy to sell a package that includes water, adventure, nature, culture and relaxation. And don’t forget to experience the Garifuna music and dance, and the Mayan culture.” She also points out that she loves the idea of having another luxury accommodation choice for Ambergris Caye, adding that, “I usually prefer properties that allow me to feel as though I’m in another country and experiencing another culture,” rather than a cookie-cutter American-style hotel.
According to Roffe, El Secreto’s charm is that it exquisitely melds luxury with the country’s barefoot-style natural essence. “Travelers love the idea of a luxurious retreat, and El Secreto offers them just that. The resort offers all the modern and high-tech amenities one can dream of, yet remains true to the destination by providing a naturalistic setting. This is a luxurious, top-quality boutique beach resort that will raise the standard of service currently offered in the country.”
Imagine slipping into your private villa and looking out through one of the numerous windows that bring the outside in, while contemplating whether you’d like to take a nap on the hammock that’s placed ever so delicately on the villa’s deck, a rinse in the private patio’s outdoor shower, or lounge on the deck’s chaise longue while looking out at the spectacular view. That’s a day in the life at El Secreto—having to choose between one relaxing option or the next. And those villas are just the accommodations to do it in. The thatched-roof, free-standing villas are separated into several categories, based on their location throughout the property: the three Sea Villas are oceanfront; the four Tropical Villas offer lush garden views; the five Lake Villas surround the resort’s salt water lake; and for the ultimate in pampering, there’s the IKAL Spa Villa. Interior and exterior villa finishes include king-size bed, flat-screen LCD TVs, marble bathrooms, indoor hot tub, private outdoor jacuzzi with enclosed outdoor shower, outdoor deck with hammock, as well as complimentary WiFi and a pillow menu. For those booking the IKAL Spa Villa, added enhancements include a private double massage cabin, steam room, indoor/outdoor jacuzzi, and a freshwater pool.
These are all amenities, both owners stress, that are not normally found at other resorts in the area. In addition to the array of aforementioned comforts, there’s also, Roffe says, “an ‘intelligent’ in-room system that allows guests to control the villa’s air conditioning and lighting to their own preferred settings using the iPhone provided by the resort as the control.” Let’s put this in perspective: this is a resort that’s a 25-minute boat ride or 1-hour bike ride from the nearest town, San Pedro, which, even then, is only home to about 15,000 residents; it’s practically in the middle of nowhere.
Even then, it’s not only about pure lay-on-a-chaise-and-feel-the-breeze-with-drink-in-hand relaxation either. On site, there are quite a few things to keep guests busy and happy. For one, points out Roffe, we have “the beachfront infinity pool and organic garden on property that is unique to El Secreto and something that neighboring resorts do not offer.” That pool is decked out with overwater hammocks, cabana beds, and if guests so desire, they can request a handpicked coconut for a taste of some fresh coconut juice. Jostling for attention is the onsite restaurant and bar, serving, as you might assume, that delicious local specialty, ceviche, among other culinary delights, including specialty pizza, freshly caught fish and vegetarian options.
There’s also a spa, with two treehouse-style treatment rooms, with views over the tree canopy and the chirping of birds accompanying the treatment; a selection of non-motorized watersports, including sea kayaking, and time for yoga and meditative contemplation at the unique onsite labyrinth.
Come nighttime, there’s a sense of adventure as you grab the flashlight provided by the resort and make your way to the dining and pool area. It’s essential you tell clients to take that flashlight before leaving the villa because although there’s a veil of stars in the sky and the moon casts a gorgeous silvery glow on the sea, it’s not enough to guide them back to their villa at night.
If you haven’t figured it out already, this is an idyllic resort for honeymooners and couples looking for an intimate, retreat-like experience where flip-flops are optional. “The dedication to detail is something that sets El Secreto apart from the other resorts in the area,” points out Roffe. “From the daily bedside note indicating the weather of the day to come to the fresh fruit juice left outside each villa every morning, the staff makes it a priority to ensure that each guest is catered to based on their individual needs.”
Rates through April 15 are $550 per night dbl for a Tropical Villa; $600 for a Lake Villa; $650 for a Sea Villa and $1,075 for the Ikal Spa Villa.
out & about
El Secreto, which has a dedicated concierge and excursion planner, offers a good selection of tour options.
• Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Alley: Located only four miles from San Pedro, these shallow waters offer even the novice swimmer a chance to encounter docile nurse sharks and rays. Recommend clients take a dip in the sea to take a swim along the world’s second largest barrier reef—the marine life is out of this world—and definitely take a plunge with the sharks (they’ll be the neighborhood hero).
• San Pedro: Take a stroll along the cobblestone streets, talk to the chatty locals and stop in at Elvi’s restaurant, with its sand floor and open windows that let the joyful street life in.
• Caye Caulker: Your clients are going to want to take a boat ride to this seemingly lost island, with its Lazy Lizard bar, which says it all. Leave the flip-flops on the boat and walk barefoot through the small island, with its very authentic Belizean and laid-back vibe.
“Don’t forget,” says Wiesel, “to let clients know that Belize is one of the few places in the world where you can see the whale sharks.”
Nonstop flights are available to Philip Goldson International Airport in Belize City from Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Newark on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, TACA and US Airways. Once there, clients can transfer to Ambergris Caye on a Maya Island Air or Tropic Air small aircraft—it’s a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the country.
beyond the islands
Ambergris Caye is just close enough to the Belizean mainland for clients to take day trips to explore some of the natural and cultural attractions on terra firma: Maya ruins, hidden caves, botanical wonders, natural reserves and sanctuaries. Any or all could be part of a vacation that actually starts exploring inland Belize before flying over to Ambergris Caye.
The Mayan ceremonial center of Altun Ha is one excursion pick. The ancient, 5-sq.-mile site is covered with ornamental temples, tombs and pyramids; the largest piece of carved jade in Middle America was found in the Sun God temple. Tour members leave the resort early to cross the bay from Ambergris to the mainland, continuing upriver to the village of Bomba where a bus is waiting for the ride to Altun Ha. Following a site tour, take a short ride to Maruba Resort Jungle Spa for lunch, pool swimming and horseback riding.
On the day trip to Lamanai, one of Belize’s most picturesque and interesting Mayan marvels, travelers depart at 7 a.m. to travel by boat up the 28-mile-long New River, whose shores are home to brilliant birds, trees strung with orchids, and sunbathing crocs. At Lamanai, climb the High Temple and photograph the faces on the Mask Temple. The outing includes light breakfast, lunch, beer, rum punch and soft drinks.
El Secreto also combines cave tubing with ziplining and a visit to the very special Belize Zoo on an excursion that departs at 7 a.m. by boat to the Belize River, with breakfast on board and wildlife viewing; at Manatee Lookout, travelers switch to a van for a scenic drive to Jaguar Paw Resort. A light hour-long hike leads to a cave entrance to start a 1.5-hour float in a tube along the Caves Branch River Caves system. What makes the river unique is that it flows in and out of a series of long limestone caves that are easily navigable on inner tubes or kayaks; everyone dons headlamps that illuminate forests of stalactites and the occasional Mayan ceremonial sites.—Carla Hunt