Beach-Town Life, Belize (from $55,000)

We’d finished dinner almost an hour earlier. But we were still in the restaurant. Our host was back after a few weeks away and it seemed the whole town wanted to catch up. Every time we tried to leave, somebody else dropped by to chat.

Not that we were in any hurry to go. With the stars twinkling overhead and a cool breeze drifting off the ocean, we were happy to linger and enjoy the evening.

In Placencia, Belize, the atmosphere is super-relaxed. Today, scattered around town, you’ll come across boutique hotels, luxury developments, and upscale restaurants. But Placencia has kept its laid-back charm and small-town feel.

Of course, the 16 miles of natural soft sand beach helps everyone to slow down. As does the lagoon fringed with mangroves, access to the Belize Barrier Reef and hundreds of little cayes offshore. Twenty dive sites…a Technicolor reef that’s a giant private aquarium, stuffed with parrot fish, butterfly fish and blue tangs…a lagoon that’s home to dolphins and manatees. This place is a water-lover’s dream…

Many of Placencia’s tourists are repeat visitors. And some decided to stay. They run cafes, restaurants, and boutique hotels. Some branched out into residential development. They come from different backgrounds and different countries (Canada, U.S., Germany, Austria, Belgium and Italy).

It wasn’t always easy to get here, but these days it takes 30 minutes to fly to Placencia from Belize City; the drive on a good road is two hours.

The streets still straggle around the brightly-painted stores. Scarlet and pink bougainvillea tumbles over walls and gates.

But now Francis Ford Coppola owns a luxury hotel and it’s easy to find an award-winning restaurant. Luxury condos overlook little marinas and unspoiled beaches.

There’s a coffee shop, a gourmet gelateria, a pizzeria, and new supermarkets. A big serving of coconut shrimp, rice and salad cost $12.50. A large cup of delicious ice cream (with flavors like coconut, coffee, and pistachio) set me back $3.50.

Everyone greets you as you walk through town. Of course, it helps that everyone speaks English. You can chat with your taxi driver, your smiling waitress, or the guy sitting next to you in the bar.

You can buy a lot at a marina development from $55,000. Or, staying on the water, there’s a home by a small pier on a canal with quick access to the sea. Set in a huge landscaped lot, it’s in a quiet neighborhood and walking distance to grocery stores, restaurants and the beach: $158,000.

On the other end of the scale, a new two-bedroom, two-bath condo in an upscale community, sits just a short stroll from the sea: $365,000. With beach and ocean views and very high end finishes, it’s fully furnished down to the linens and cutlery.

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