Lucy Gillmore flies to Belize for the ultimate screen break at Francis Ford Coppola's luxurious Central American resorts

Question: what kind of place turns away Robert De Niro? Answer: a resort owned by another movie legend, Francis Ford Coppola. Not that FFC has anything against De Niro. Blancaneaux Lodge, Coppola's retreat in the pine-clad mountains of western Belize, was so busy before Christmas that even he couldn't get a room. Turtle Inn down on the sleepy Caribbean coast, was also fully booked. Luckily the director has three lodges in Central America - so La Lancha, over the border in Guatemala, it was for Coppola and clan. It would have been no hardship to swap forest-cloaked hillside for panoramic lake-side. De Niro still jetted in to Blancaneaux for a drink at the bar (beneath the fan from the set of Apocalypse Now) and, Bernie the manager told me, Claudia Schiffer and Keanu Reeves have also swung by. Having friends in the film industry certainly doesn't harm business - every year Blancaneaux hosts a screen-writers' workshop.

Question: what kind of place turns away Robert De Niro? Answer: a resort owned by another movie legend, Francis Ford Coppola. Not that FFC has anything against De Niro. Blancaneaux Lodge, Coppola's retreat in the pine-clad mountains of western Belize, was so busy before Christmas that even he couldn't get a room. Turtle Inn down on the sleepy Caribbean coast, was also fully booked. Luckily the director has three lodges in Central America - so La Lancha, over the border in Guatemala, it was for Coppola and clan. It would have been no hardship to swap forest-cloaked hillside for panoramic lake-side. De Niro still jetted in to Blancaneaux for a drink at the bar (beneath the fan from the set of Apocalypse Now) and, Bernie the manager told me, Claudia Schiffer and Keanu Reeves have also swung by. Having friends in the film industry certainly doesn't harm business - every year Blancaneaux hosts a screen-writers' workshop.

Of course busy, in luxury lodge terms, is relative. Although Blancaneaux calls itself a resort it consists of just a handful of villas, with soaring thatch ceilings and polished hardwood floors, that rise out of the forest on stilts. Coppola's first Central American retreat is situated in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, the oldest national park in Belize. The director's love affair with Belize began just after the country gained independence in 1981 (it was once a British colony), its tangled jungle reminding him of the Philippines where he shot Apocalypse Now. He bought the abandoned lodge and the 10 acres surrounding it, and for a decade used it as a sanctuary for family and friends. However, after renovating and expanding it he eventually opened the lodge as a hotel in 1993. Turtle Inn on Belize's south coast joined his portfolio four years ago, while La Lancha, which overlooks Lake Peten Itza in Guatemala and is just a short drive from the magnificent Mayan ruins of Tikal, is his latest venture.

This patch of Central America is no longer the preserve of backpackers. More and more luxury tour operators are now offering tailor-made travel to the region, while an ever-increasing number of lodges and boutique hotels are being opened by both enterprising expats and locals. With a couple of weeks in Guatemala and Belize you can explore picture-perfect colonial gems such as Antigua (once the capital of Guatemala), bustling market towns and spectacular Mayan sites, before winding down on the Caribbean coast. And by linking a handful of independently owned lodges and boutique hotels you can sample the area's diverse attractions in a welcome degree of comfort.

La Lancha has just 10 rooms that teeter high above the glassy Lake Peten Itza in north-eastern Guatemala. Coppola stumbled across the property in 2003, and after renovations it opened for business in December of that year. The rooms are a little more rough and ready than his other two properties, albeit decked out in cheery Guatemalan artefacts picked up by Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, in the markets of Panjachel. However, it's the jaw-dropping vistas that make La Lancha stand out. The main lodge has wide-angled views of the lake, and with its open sides and high thatched ceiling you eat surrounded by parrots and toucans. Wildlife is ever-present - a tarantula scuttled across my path as I made my way for dinner, while the spine-tingling screeching of howler monkeys is the jungle's wake up call. Steep steps hewn into the rock snake down to the lake where you can swim in the clear, icy water, cloaked in mist in the early morning light. But most visitors are here for one reason - Tikal.

Considered the most majestic of the Mayan sites, Tikal towers above the rainforest. The site, discovered in 1848, covers 16sq km and is dominated by five giant limestone temples, with many more still buried beneath mounds of earth topped by tangled vegetation and tree roots. The site is enclosed by the larger Parque Nacional Tikal, a protected area of around 370sq km (roughly the size of the Isle of Wight). Clambering to the top of the pyramids that puncture the forest canopy, all you can see is a blanket of tree-tops.

The drive from La Lancha over the border to Belize takes a couple of hours. The border posts are separated by just a few feet, but are a million miles apart in terms of style. Guatemala's is a hole-in-the-wall affair, Belize's a spick and span modern office. From here another lodge on the route to Blancaneaux provides a worthwhile diversion.

Chaa Creek was the first lodge to open in Belize and is owned by a British/American couple, Mick and Lucy Fleming. Back in 1977 they got chatting in a bar in Belize City to the owner of a run-down 140-acre farm in the Cayo district - and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. At first they just ran the farm, growing vegetables and producing milk, yoghurt and cheese that had to be ferried down the Macal River to the little town of San Ignacio in a dug-out canoe. However, travellers hearing about the place started to drop by, so the Flemings built a cottage for visitors. And then a couple more.

Chaa Creek Cottages opened for business in 1981 - and a road was built two years later. In 1987 the lodge was hooked up to electricity and, in 1988, hot water. Now there are 21 thatched timber cottages including the Treehouse Jacuzzi Suite - the choice of Cameron Diaz, Mick told me, when she flew in to lend her support to the battle to stop the controversial damming of the Macal River. Belizean environmentalists took the government to court to try to halt the project, as the upper Macal river was one of the largest wilderness areas in Central America and home to a number of endangered species, including jaguars and the only scarlet macaws in the country. (You might remember Craig Doyle and the BBC Holiday crew bumping into her while they were filming, and her agreeing to canoe down the river with him for the programme.)

Today Chaa Creek, set in a 330-acre private reserve with a relaxed "no key policy", is a great place to unwind. From the moment you're greeted with a chilled mint-infused face-cloth and glass of fresh sorrel juice, you're imbued with a sense of wellbeing. This feeling is aided by a visit to the spa, which is accessed via a steep path with dreamy views of rolling hills - and three mahogany trees planted by supermodel Heidi Klum, another past guest. For those after activity it is possible to go horse riding past Mayan sites, to canoe and swim in the river, to go hiking or mountain biking on the lodge's trails or bird-watching for some of the area's 247 species (which include toucan, laughing falcon and hummingbirds). The Flemings still work the land but now much of their produce is used to feed guests.

The road from here up to Blancaneaux Lodge passes through ramshackle settlements painted in cheery colours before climbing up through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, devastated a couple of years ago by rampant bark-eating beetles, but now thankfully recovering. Blancaneaux's rustic luxury villas, which blend almost seamlessly into their surroundings, tumble across a hillside that slopes down to the rushing Privassion river. Inside, Coppola and his wife have made their influence tell again, scouring Mexico, Guatemala and Belize for brightly coloured bedspreads, chunky wooden carvings, masks and local artwork. The mahogany furniture dotted over each private deck and the restaurant was made in the little town of San Ignacio, while the slate bar is covered with ancient Mayan symbols carved by a local artisan. One of Coppola's first innovations was to build a private hydroelectric plant to provide electricity for the lodge 24 hours a day, and to heat the open-air hot tub.

It is clear that only the best will do - whether it's expertise from local craftsmen or consultants flown in from around the world. Turtle Inn has a *

distinctly Balinese feel after Coppola sought help from the Balinese architect Made Wijaya after the resort was destroyed by Hurricane Iris in 2001. Similarly, the spas at both Blancaneaux and Turtle Inn have an Oriental slant. Coppola wanted a Thai spa - and so he hired the best Thai masseur around.

The tiny pavilion down by the river at Blancaneaux was lamp-lit as evening drew in, throwing dark shadows across the room. Even in white Siamese pyjamas it felt strangely intimate as Prasert, straddling me on the bed, put his foot in my groin and lifted my leg above my head. The terrifying crunch that followed was also unsettling. "Thai massage is not about relaxing," he explained, a little unnecessarily. Focusing on the body's pressure points and stretching the limbs apparently improves circulation - I gritted my teeth as he pulled and twisted my body into positions more usually mastered by the stars of Cirque du Soleil and Olympic gymnasts.

Apart from the intermittent clicks and the occasional sharp intake of breath, the only noise punctuating the silence of the forest was the gentle whirring of the ceiling fan and the soft music blending with the rushing water outside. Somewhere on the other side of my pain barrier, I knew that I was in good hands. Prasert studied at the Sacred Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok and worked for five years at The Oriental Hotel and Spa in the city before moving to Blancaneaux. His wife runs the spa at Turtle Inn.

Coppola's quest for excellence also extends to the restaurant. Much of the food, just as at Chaa Creek, is grown in the lodge's organic garden. The neatly tended lines of tomato, aubergine, leek, radish and lettuce seem an anomaly in the jungle, but Blancaneux's elevation and cool evening temperatures mean that it's possible to grow a whole host of things among the native papaya, plantain and pineapple. And with a wood-burning pizza oven to satisfy Coppola's cravings for the Italian staple, there's a need for an unending supply of tomatoes and basil. Freshly squeezed orange juice comes from their citrus groves; bread is baked on the premises; local chickens are smoked behind the restaurant. Many of the dishes borrow from his Italian heritage, while the wines come from his Napa Valley estate. On the wine list is Sofia - a "fruity, young and delicious" blanc de blanc, named after his Oscar-winning daughter. His private plane is also called Sofia. It's around a four-hour drive down to the coast to Turtle Inn, much of it along unpaved roads, but we were flying.

On the grassy airstrip in the middle of the mountains the tiny caramel-coloured eight-seater looked a little worse for wear, as did it's roguish, paunchy pilot, Raphael. However, strapped into the lived-in leather seats we were soon careering down the makeshift runway and airborne for the 20-minute hop to Placencia.

Turtle Inn is in the south of Belize, a mile from the tiny Creole fishing village of Placencia. Surrounded by coconut palms on its own beach, there are eleven thatched Balinese-style wooden cabanas each with a private garden and outdoor shower. Coppola has his own villas at both Blancaneaux and Turtle Inn that, despite being scattered with his things, are let out to guests when he's not there. At Turtle Inn I had the director's residence, which comes complete with its own swimming-pool right on the beach. The grand two-bed, two-bathroom property has rooms linked by covered walkways, huge carved wooden doors and Balinese statues. The bathrooms have two showers (one steam) with a plunge-pool in between, and a massive mahogany table outside with a view over the sea. It also contains a couple of insect-like Ikea lamps (bought by Coppola himself), a butler called Emerson, a conch-shell intercom to call him and two bikes for the gentle meander to the village.

Placencia is an off-beat little place that lays claim to the narrowest sidewalk in Belize. Scattered with pastel-coloured clapboard façades housing dive shops and craft stores with names like "Art and Soul", it feels refreshingly off-kilter. When we were there an angry Rasta drummer was singing about the revolution and a notice on a telegraph pole encouraged readers to "Be a missionary for a day". The road petered out at the water's edge.

At dinner on our last night we savoured a few more Coppola vintages, although not all the guests, we discovered, were fans. One French film-maker who shall remain nameless (purely because I couldn't get his identity out of the manager) complained that he'd been sent to "wine Siberia" (he owned his own French vineyard). One piece of information I did extract was that FFC is now casting his gaze towards Panama, having decided that Costa Rica has been "done". But back to the wines, which were slipping down surprisingly well. It had clearly been a case of sour grapes.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Teh writer travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700 614; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers a Jungle to Reefs itinerary from £1,859 per person based on two sharing with flights via Miami, some meals, guided tours and transfers. It includes one night at Casa Encantada (Antigua), one night at La Lancha, three nights at Chaa Creek, three nights at Blancaneaux Lodge and four nights at Turtle Inn.

You can fly to Guatemala or Belize via Miami on BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and American Airlines (08457 789789; www.americanairlines.co.uk). Iberia (0845 850 9000; www.iberia.com) flies to Guatemala via Madrid.

STAYING THERE

La Lancha (00 501 824 4914; www.lalancha.com) has doubles from $116 (£61), with breakfast. Chaa Creek (00 501 824 2037; www.chaacreek.com) has doubles from $65 (£34), with breakfast and dinner.

Blancaneaux Lodge (00 501 824 4914; www.blancaneaux.com) has doubles from $214 (£113), with breakfast. The oriental massage costs $95 (£50) for 60 minutes.

Turtle Inn (00 501 523 3244; www.blancaneaux.com) has doubles from $286 (£151), with breakfast.

WHEN TO GO

In Guatemala the lowland area around Lake Peten Itza and Tikal has a dry season from November to May. In the highlands the rainy season is from May to October. The climate in Belize is subtropical, with summer rains between June and September.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Guatemala Tourist Board (020-7351 3042; www.guatemala.travel.com.gt). Belize Tourism Board (00 501 223 1913; www.travelbelize.org)

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