Hopkins Village, Belize: A Happy Harbour For Beach-Bound Romantics

by Carolee Chanona
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Bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the east, a southward turn down the Yucatán peninsula brings you to the shores of Belize. For those of you familiar with the name, you’ve likely associated Belize with the sought-after Ambergris Caye on its north-eastern edge, but look again and there’s another slower, quieter side. From picnics on the beach to all-out adventures, there’s something for everyone in Southern Belize, and Hopkins Village is more than just a pretty face. Not to mention it’s plethora of natural bounty—undisturbed interior rainforests drip with harmonizing tree frogs and lacy tiger ferns, mere miles from its coast.

Eight miles south of Dangriga and four miles off the Southern Highway, luxury here comes not in the form of uber-flashy hotels, but of wide, open, unspoiled landscapes and quaint enclaves serving up delectable small plates. There’s authenticity in the air, which swirls with the village’s rich and resilient culture—boisterous giggles of barely adolescent Garifuna drummers just before sundown was a gentle reminder of that. So if the beach is calling after months at home, answer with Hopkins Village, Belize.

Adventure & Seclusion: The Rise of Hopkins’ Allure

As a traveler rejoining a new landscape, I’d like to think we’re all collectively thinking harder about how our journeys affect local communities and do more research into where our money is best spent. That’s exactly why the Lodge at Jaguar Reef—entirely Belizean owned and operated from top to bottom—was a natural first choice after their November 2020 reopening. Not to mention, the promise of adventure and seclusion is precisely why Hopkins’ allure is on the rise.

Except for the squally unquiet Great-tailed Grackle, everything seemed to hold its breath at dawn: the jutting foliage amidst semi-thatched dwellings, almost-arrogant egrets and a well-fed iguana strewn out on the property’s (now decorative) dugout canoe. Inhaling deep while swirling my room-brewed coffee in hand, I gaze out from my second-story Seaview Villa onto an equally quiet sunrise: cloud cover mutes the fiery ball ahead, leaking tones of orange and pink into my balcony.

Golden sugar-like sand frames contemporary villas and warm colonial-style architecture and honest accessories here; and the bathrooms which opens up—along with the rooms—from their plate-glass showers to in-room plunge pools of their own mini-courtyard have become the new Belize Collection signature feature.

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The new Seaview villas at The Lodge at Jaguar Reef, with private plunge pools. Image courtesy property.

Hopkins offers up some of the longest fine-sand beaches in the country, and the dwellings at Jaguar Reef—aside from The Lodge—sure make good use of it. There’s Villa Margarita, a private villa available individually or in its 6-bedroom entirety; Almond Beach Resort, 12 cozy beach cottages with a swim-up bar; The Colonial Hotel, their entry-level accommodation; and Villa Bella Vista, a 5-bedroom villa for the whole family. It’s a place where every kind of traveler can find exactly what they’re looking for.

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The beach-chic Lodge at Jaguar Reef has a lot of history, too: it’s been here, just on the outskirts of the village itself, since 1994. The Lodge was almost entirely renovated fairly recently, with the first two-bedroom beachfront condos done in 2015, and the newest units (pictured) in 2018. These units are much larger than the old ones, with the second-floor balconies boasting a private plunge pool facing the sea, for all sorts of weak-at-the-knees romanticism.

And that’s not limited to just the rooms.

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The Paddle House at Jaguar Reef. Image courtesy Monica Gallardo Photography

Belize’s tourism product has matured over the years, where the enchantment of where you rest your head extends past your room door. Today, lobbies are undoubtedly more than a mere entryway or stop to ask questions at the front desk, instead functioning like a hotel’s business card—prime for photo-ops. On arrival, your eyes gravitate toward the Guatemalan rattan chandeliers, gently swaying by sea breeze, thanks to all-door walls of The Paddle House—The Lodge’s full service restaurant. Elsewhere, a handful of both local Garifuna drums types—Primero and Segunda—collectively dot the wood-filled space.

Flush from the 2-and-a-half hour drive, the welcome drink—a sorrel-steeped concoction topped with fresh pineapple juice and local Kuknat (coconut) rum—tasted exactly like a working vacation. I remove my face mask, and savor each sip. And because the lobby flows into The Paddle House, this space also becomes the heart of the property. Culinary experiences are a highlight, starting with a lunch laden with comfort. Fish and chips, because we’re on the beach after all, and any food culture that says fried fish and fried carbs is a balanced meal is a food culture I can get down with.

There are two common downfalls of fish and chips: dry fish and soggy batter. This was neither. So highly recommended in fact, our entire table of five ordered the exact same thing. The Paddle House‘s ethos is to inject Belizean flair into every dish, frying the line-caught snapper in a Belikin batter and serving it alongside hand cut cassava root chips. Chef Rahim joined us later, animated with passion that the real magic lies within its food chemistry: baking soda is his secret to its dry and crispy crust, flavor and a golden–brown color. Don’t tell anyone I told you.

With little persuasion needed, I trailed behind Chef Rahim—the Corporate Chef behind all the eateries of the Belize Collection—for a tour of the kitchen. It’s compact, clean, and meticulously labeled for quick service—all the great things a full service kitchen should be. Finally, food is becoming less of simple sustenance and more of an experience, and Belize’s rich biodiversity, multicultural history and unique staples are the basis of a singular, thrilling cuisine.

They’re extending that principle past The Paddle House too, with à la carte menus based on seasonal ingredients for Sleeping Giant Lodge’s Grove House and wood-fired pizza at the brand-new Don Tonito’s. (Yes, we did stop in for pizza on the way back too.)

Personally, I will travel just about anywhere for food.

I didn’t have to wander too far for our next stop though. Afternoons in Hopkins are made for fresh Piña Coladas, Rum & Coke Ice Pops and languid sun-worshipping at the attraction-in-itself, over-water Big Dock Bar. The ceviche bar, open daily from noon until 8 pm, paints a perfect picture of Belize’s duality: ceviche, a stronghold darling for Central American foodies, and citrusy jolts to tried-and-true rum-based cocktails against a Caribbean Sea.

As evening draws near with two hours to ourselves before dinner, I opted out of another cocktail and instead, waded into my iridescently tiled pool to enjoy the solitude. This two-story vantage point affords me unrivaled views: empty beach hammocks in the distance hover above a gently sloping beach, lapped by calm waters and tinged a blue-green mosaic in the distance from healthy seagrass beds.

Those very same Primero and Segunda drums echoed down The Lodge’s paved pathways: locals are bouncing around from villa-to-villa for a quick intro into Garifuna culture. If I wasn’t one story up and comfortably nestled into these warm waters, I’d be right there, synchronizing my laughter with a valorous weight-shifting attempt of the Afro-indigenous dance.

Shoes optional, dinner service begins with fresh baked bread and a verbal breakdown of the ever-changing blackboard of fresh menu items. For breakfast, ditch the bacon for Chef Rahim’s thick-cut yet crispy pork belly that’s every bit indulgent and delicious as it sounds. Fragrant coffee is on tap, and it’s piping hot—I’m a firm believer in either ice-packed or heated-like-you-hate-me-hot coffee. No in-betweens, please.

Yes, I burn my mouth, and I’ve never been happier about it.

Stop for an aperitivo by the Caribbean Sea, then settle in for a slow dinner—seafood is the specialty here, but there’s plenty more to eat, too. Come for the private in-room plunge pool, but stay for Punta lessons on the beach as dusk settles behind the Lodge’s landmark Hopkins sign. As my first mini-break in Hopkins since the earth-shaking pandemic more than a year ago, I wholly appreciated each moment even deeper: every lingering orange-slice sunset; every grain as my toes sank into the sand; and every spoonful of Chef Rahim’s Nance spiked flan.

All other images not captioned courtesy author.

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