Daniel Lighter has shifted much of his attention from jury to jungle.
The Montrealer, who spent five years as a Crown attorney in Quebec and then some 25 years practicing criminal law in Quebec and Ontario, has now diverted much of his energy to a far more southerly locale, having bought two eco-lodges in tropical Belize.
The McGill University law school graduate bought the oceanside Matachica Resort as a micro-hotel in 2006 when it had 11 casitas, a restaurant and bar. The retreat had been built by a European couple in 1998 who had decided to move on. Under Lighter’s oversight, Matachica has become a 30-room boutique hotel with a full-service restaurant, two bars, a spa and area tours.
That was followed by his buying a small rainforest lodge in 2012.
“I had visited and fell in love with the property,” Lighter recalls of GAIA Riverlodge. “The owner ran it as a small 15- room lower-end property. I purchased it and spent a year and a small fortune renovating it and bringing it to its current wonderful state. The improvements included room renovations, the construction of a main lodge, restaurant and bar. It also involved the purchase of three all-important Land Cruisers, facilitating comfortable and fun guided tours throughout the rainforest. We later added a wonderful vegetable/fruit garden where we now grow almost all of the produce served at our restaurant.”
But why would someone with a successful criminal law practice venture into the Central American hospitality trade while initially continuing to remain part of the legal profession?
“I am not aware of any other criminal or other attorneys who are now doing this kind of thing, but I’m sure that it’s not entirely unique,” Lighter says. “I came to Belize over the Christmas-New Year holidays in 2005-2006 and fell for the beauty of the crystal-clear water, the amazing snorkelling and diving, but most of all, the Belizean people. Their warmth and casual good nature was just wonderful. I promised myself that I’d return, with a vision of possibly investing in a small beachhouse where my family and I could enjoy the unplugged and adventurous activities that Belize has to offer. “Before long and a series of coincidences, twists and turns, I purchased Matachica and owned it within five months of my initial holiday visit. The purchase at the outset was very much an accident but would not have happened anywhere else. It was timing, and it was the unique country and its people that drew me in. The choice of the beach resort at first was, of course, the result of the famous barrier (coral) reef which Matachica faces. You can kayak on your own and jump into the second-longest reef system on the planet! The water is incredibly clear, the marine life robust with sharks, turtles, dolphins, grouper, snapper, stingrays, eagle rays, barracuda, eel and more. Just incredible to see what the sea has to offer and so accessible. So between diving, snorkelling and fishing, with the beauty of the water, the decision was obvious.”
GAÏA in turn sits upon a river home to waterfalls and a beach where guests can enjoy drinks, lunch and or simply hang out or read or sleep, leading Lighter to label it “quiet, disconnected and magical. The location is far, secluded and hard to get to… but that’s precisely the point. If it wasn’t you wouldn’t be interested in heading there.”
Belize has long been promoting itself as a pioneer in eco-tourism, touting the importance of conservation, underscored by its having the likes of the world’s only sanctuary created specifically for jaguars. Lighter says his properties blend easily with the be-kind-to-nature philosophy, saying staff are doing what they can to be as sustainable as possible, particularly at GAÏA. Gardening practices, the off-grid power source (water and a battery system) and other innovations have lead to GAIA becoming a Green Globe Certified hotel.
Matachica is in the process of greening many services, which Lighter says is more challenging than it was at GAIA, in part because of its specific power needs. Matachica management is also working with Green Globe.
“We will be having our vegetables sent from GAÏA, we have changed our soaps and shampoos to sustainable products and have furnished our rooms with sustainable furnishings, all in an effort to do what we can,” Lighter reports.
Lighter, who would consider buying a third resort outside Belize, says those vacationing in the Central American nation won’t find the crowds or vendors selling trinkets that are common in many other tropical tourism destinations, adding a Belize holiday entails a “small, micro, off-grid, different adventure, pure, intimate and unique.”
Lighter continues to live in Montreal but spends several hours a week on his hotels and is in constant contact with his team in Belize and suppliers of services – many based in Montreal — that range from PR to marketing to consultants in food and beverage. He also continues to travel to Belize, spending about two weeks every other month there.
Attending occasional conferences also has become part of his routine, all of which lead to him gradually spending more time on tourism and less on law.
This year finally saw him winding down his law practice entirely to devote more time to both hotels and other real estate and business ventures.
So which has been the more rewarding, dealing with movers and shakers in the legal profession or working to ensure that people can get up close and personal with Mother Nature in a comfortable manner while on vacation?
“Good but unfair question!” he says. “I have enjoyed both very much. I began my law career as [IS1] a Crown attorney with the Province of Quebec Prosecutors Office, where I spent five years before becoming a defense lawyer. Those two experiences spanning a 30-year career allowed me to plead before judges, juries and Appellate Courts. A truly enriching career. The hotels offered the opportunity to be creative and entrepreneurial in ways that law simply did not. So my good fortune to have been able to enjoy both has been wonderful.”