by Nancy Bestor
As I think back on the hotels in which we’ve stayed over the years, I realize it’s not the fancy ones that stick out in my mind. It’s not the dumpy ones either—the truth is, I try really hard to forget those. No, the hotels I remember best are those with character. The places where the owner is engaging, or you feel like you are visiting someone’s home, or perhaps the town hot spot, where the locals gather to sing karaoke.
On our recent trip to Belize, we were lucky enough to stay in a lodge overlooking the New River in Orange Walk that was “the” spot for locals to hang out. The Lamanai Riverside Retreat was also the place for wannabe Lionel Ritchies to belt out the lyrics to Hello. Turns out it was also the place for a semi-professional Belizian basketball team, coached by the hotel owner’s son, to meet up before their big playoff game, and then sleep on the floor of the band room after the victory. It was the place locals gather after work on a Friday and buy beer for everyone in the restaurant, including the two foreigners. It was also the place for the Retreat’s owner, Mr. P., to play his electric guitar with a friend on drums, in his band/rec room off the dining area. There we were, eating dinner in the beautiful open air restaurant on our first night at the resort, listening to the techno music coming out of the juke box, only to have it be drowned out by Mr. P’s band. Sounds crazy I know, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
We booked a room for our family of four ($50 a night, for all four of us) at the Lamanai after reading its description in the Rough Guide for Belize. “This relaxing retreat takes full advantage of Orange Walk’s prime perch on the New River. The (three) wooden cabanas are simple (with hot water and a/c), but the surroundings make the place, wake up to birds chirping and the gentle rush of the river, followed by a tasty breakfast served on the open air deck of the restaurant.” I agree with the Rough Guide’s description and recommendation, but it was the Lodge’s character and the people we met there that made this spot memorable for me. One friendly ex-pat, who liked hanging out at the Lamanai in the evenings, enthusiastically told us about the pending basketball game, and offered to drive us there. How could we refuse? Another local, the one who bought us beers at dinner, tried to get us to come to his house, saying he liked to party, and his wife would be delighted if we came home with him (we politely declined).
Mr. P was kind enough to offer his cell phone when we needed to make calls to hotels for our next stop and his laptop computer when we needed to check email or look up information. He booked us a terrific tour to the fantastic Mayan ruins of Lamanai and always had plenty of cold beer at the ready.
Oftentimes a hotel acts as a refuge from the trip. But the best hotels are those that end up an integral and memorable part of the journey. From a warm greeting upon our arrival to Mr. P’s pinpoint instructions for catching the local’s bus to our next destination upon our departure, the Lamanai Riverside Retreat provided us a memorable experience. And it only took a few hours to get the Karaoke version of Hello out of our heads.