Travel

Drink Rainforest-Sourced Cocktails Next to Monkeys at This Bar Worth Traveling For

Some bars feel like home… but these aren't just some bars.

Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar

There are rum bars and then there is the Rum Bar. It’s a straightforward title for a temple of tipples and yet one that’s not nearly as audacious as it seems. Seated in the lobby of the Copal Tree Lodge in the heart of the Southern Belizean rainforest, this bespoke jewel affords a singular cane-spirit-sipping experience.

Drinking in the jungle of Punta Gorda-subdued by the sound of howler monkeys and oh-so-many palm leaves bristling in the breeze-tends to leave a lasting impact on people. As does the infectious personality of the man making those drinks. He goes simply by Ducky (you know, like Cher or Madonna), and is every bit as iconic.

“I’ve been working on the property for 20 years, back when it was a simple fishing lodge,” Ducky recalls. In 2018, Copal relaunched as a luxury eco-resort with millions of dollars worth of low-impact refurbishments, complete with 16 suites suspended above a river valley’s edge. “I started as a dishwasher, but the kitchen wasn’t for me. I began serving food and, well, I’m a cute fellow, so I started talking with the guests, and they loved me. Our GM decided I needed to be making them drinks, so when the bartender left, I took over. I’m still here today.”

Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar

Aiding Ducky in his efforts is an assortment of world class ingredients, most of which are sourced on-site: passionfruit, ginger, cacao, and citrus fruit, to name but a few. The property also houses its own organic rum distillery, Copalli. Here, spirits are crafted from estate-grown, fresh-pressed cane, imbuing them with immediate terroir that has a slightly grassy, tropical top note. Ducky folds those flavours wondrously into his eponymous cocktail, which also happens to be the most popular drink on the menu.

“The Ducky Daiquiri is named after the unofficial prime minister of Punta Gorda: me,” explains the ever-humble host. “A lot of daiquiris are made on the rocks, but a friend and I were playing with ingredients, and we decided to take out the ice and add a good pour of rum. We use seedless limes-the juice is better-and we take our time with the simple syrup, boiling it for about an hour. No rushing. Then we do a medium shake and strain it into a glass. It’s a great [cocktail] with fresh ingredients all from the rainforest.”

The sense of place is impossible to ignore on either side of the stick. Ducky is inspired by the cane fields he drives past on his way to and from work each day. As for his guests, they’re often arriving at happy hour after a day of hiking through the thickets, kayaking on the Rio Grande (which meanders through the verdant valley some 300 feet below), or touring the adjacent distillery. The sunset sessions at the Rum Bar are so transcendent, in fact, that they attract far more than just guests of the resort.

Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar

“We get lots of locals of all shapes, sizes, and species,” Ducky confirms. “You sit at the bar and the hummingbirds are fighting for their food. We occasionally have a few pythons that pay a visit-although they are quite shy. One time, we had a howler monkey literally walk into our bar, all by himself. He just checked things out for about 15 or 20 minutes, admired the view, and then went on his way.”

Though, on any given evening, you’re far more likely to be joined by less hirsute locals. The bar has become a reliable hangout for the Punta Gorda community, particularly during the COVID shutdowns of 2020 and 2021, when the department of tourism promoted a Travel Local program. It’s a lively hub, with the energy of Ducky and his regulars amplified through the occasional addition of live Belizean music and dance.

“We may be rural and remote, but we have daily visitors and guests from all over the country,” says Copal Tree Lodge general manager Jim Scott. “Many come to learn about our rum and recipes, and then realize that they need to bring their friends and family back for dinner.”

The cuisine-like the beverage menu gracing the chalkboard-is built to bend with the whims of the season. Benefiting from acres of gardens, stables, coops, and orchards, Copal Tree is uniquely equipped to work with whatever nature provides. As for the liquid offerings, other favourites include Ducky’s refreshing Watermelon Smash as well as the slightly spicy Ginger Buck. When late summer approaches, the Dragon Fruit Mojito takes centerstage.

Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar
Photo courtesy of Copal Tree Lodge Rum Bar

It all feels like some sort of far-flung fantasyland, but the resort is surprisingly accessible for those willing to hop aboard a small prop-plane to get there. Rooms here start at under $300 per night-an exceptional value for five-star amenities in a literal rainforest. If ever you should make the journey, expect Ducky to welcome you with a smile and a chilled elixir.

“It’s all about the vibe,” he says. “I just did a mixology class with two couples who didn’t know each other, and by the end of the class, they were four friends. We’re bringing people together one daiquiri at a time.”

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Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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