Monday, April 04, 2005

How to Trek Without Really Trying

Want to experience the natural wonders of the Central American rain forest with an eye to ecological correctness? Don't want to give up all the amenities of civilization? You can do so at Francis Ford Coppola's eco-lodge in Belize, covered extensively in Sunday's NYT:

Because this moment was created by Mr. Coppola - director, producer, writer, winemaker and hotelier - it feels slightly unreal, but in the nicest possible way. In my experience, this sort of outing has been synonymous with slogging, sleeping on the ground and feeling like a contestant in a reality show. In order to see the Himalayas, for example, I once trekked for eight days in August with two guides and four ponies - chugging water that reeked of iodine and breakfasting on raw apples. And when I went to Camiguin, a volcanic island in the Philippines, the only time I wasn't slicked in grease and sweat was when I was paddling in a reef with sea snakes.

But here at Blancaneaux and at Mr. Coppola's other Central American properties - Turtle Inn, in the village of Placencia on the coast of Belize, and La Lancha, on Lake Petén Itzá in Guatemala - travelers who might have been backpackers in another era can enter an authentic but sensually gratifying version of the third world stage-managed by a master. The feeling at Blancaneaux Lodge and at La Lancha, which I also visited, is that of being at a private club for experienced travelers hip to the notion of exploring, preserving and celebrating the indigenous culture without sacrificing laundry service and a wine list.

With handmade textiles, furniture and folk art collected by Mr. Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, across Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, guest quarters are free of telephones and, of course, TV's or DVD players (though Internet access is available at the front desks). International cellphones don't work, and you'll have to stand in line to use the house telephone - not that anyone seems to mind. You're free to tune in to the scratching sounds of thatch-colored lizards or the ticking of woodpeckers or to the screams of howler monkeys staking out their territory in the dead of night.

But it's the charm factor that puts Mr. Coppola's resorts over the top. When I wake at sunrise, craving sustenance, I press the switch on an intercom by my bed; it's concealed by a conch shell that promptly lights up. Room service arrives 10 minutes later. (Later, Mr. Coppola tells me via e-mail that the device, which he calls the shellphone, "was an idea I had for years. I love its eccentricity.")

Part of the allure of visiting remote vacation destinations is the journey and sacrifice (albeit small) of the traveler: it is the "re-creation" of something that existed before, seen as unsullied, pure, untouched. Room service doesn't seem to me to be part of that wonder. It reminds me too much of a tale recounted by American mountaineers in the Himalayas. Apparently, you could tell the British climbers from the Americans before they emerged from their tents after a good night's sleep: the British instructed their Sherpa guides to bring them hot tea while still snuggled in their sleeping bags.

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