By Julie Becker and Christian Toto
Turquoise blue waters welcome you before your plane even lands. Glancing out the window, dark green tones standout amid the sparkling blue green expanse.
Those darker areas provide a first glimpse to anextensive barrier reef, which stretches about 185 miles and was heralded by Charles Darwin as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.”
Caye Caulkeris one of the out-islands, or keys, just off coast of Belize. With lush underwater island reefs and the myriad of colorful sea creatures that inhabit them are numerous snorkeling and scuba opportunities to be found.
“Go Slow” is the unofficial motto of this mile-long out-island, a place for travelers who appreciate reading a good novel while stretched out on a hammock or strolling along clear blue waters.
Caye Caulker tour providers simultaneously serve up plenty of action-packed excursions on the land and in the sea. Scuba dive and snorkel along the worlds second largest barrier reef. Cruise alongside sharks and stingrays. Kite surf in the morning and go deep-sea fishing at noon. Tube through caves considered holy by the ancient Mayans or zipline among the treetops.
Kayak to a baboon sanctuary or hike through the rain forest.
It’s exhausting just listing all the possibilities.
Those unfamiliar with international travel will find Belize a fine starting point. Everyone speaks English and the U.S. dollar is accepted alongside the Belizean version, which is pegged to the dollar ($2 Belizean dollars equals $1 U.S.)
The occasional Internet café can keep you in touch with your e-mail account, and DSL speeds are fast enough to satisfy most.
As you step off the plane, you are greeted by hot, sticky air, but it’s not Savannah, Ga. hot. Temperatures during a recent January visit hovered pleasantly around 70-80 degrees.
It’s just the right antidote to the wintertime blues.
Caye Caulker is accessible from Belize City via water taxi or a short flight ($45 U.S.). The water taxi offers beautiful scenic vistas and a chance to see the sun setting over the horizon if your timing is just right.
Belize offers a melting pot to rival the U.S.’s cultural stew. The island is a snapshot of Belize’s ethnic puree, but residents uniformly hue to the laid-back vibe.
A few merchants will try to hard sell you on their restaurants or tours, but they quickly retreat when you offer them a firm but pleasant “no.”
Automobiles are not allowed on the island, so don’t fear getting stuck in traffic or not being able to find a parking spot. People move around the island by foot, bicycle and the occasional golf cart.
The inhabited part of Caye Caulker stretches less than a mile long, so nearly all hotels will be within walking area of the ocean, restaurants, and bars.
The island beaches aren’t big, but they offer just enough space to spread out with a good book. Try The Split, a parcel of waterfront turf that got its name from a past hurricane, which formed it. If you want wide expanses of sandy beaches, pick another tropical destination.
Caye Caulker’s accommodations are modest at best. The island does not boast luxury or chain hotels, although it is rumored that a high-end hotel may be coming soon. The island does offer clean oceanfront guesthouses with comfortable beds, sunny verandas and workable kitchenettes.
These small-scale, locally owned and operated hotels generally require advanced reservations, often via e-mail.
Before booking accommodations, read a few reviews on www.tripfinder.com as not all lodgings stand up to your mother’s version of clean. For example, Da Real Macaw sits in a great spot with food, amenities and the ocean just steps away, but the shower spigots were crusted with sea water making the bathroom seem more like a frat house than island getaway.
Maxhapan (http://www.toucantrail.com/Maxhapan-Cabins.html) stands out as a great place to stay. While not smack dab on the beachfront, it offers clean, well-kept cabanas with a large garden and a thatched roof. Relax on lounge chairs and hammocks on the common area patio, a perfect place for friends to gather, play cards or host a barbeque of the catch of the day.
Louisa Aguilar, the owner of Maxhapan, may be the most hospitable guest-house owner on the island, so book with the knowledge that you will be well taken care of.
She keeps snorkeling equipment and bicycles for guests to use during their stay, and recently left flowers for a guest on her birthday.
Many guesthouses have peculiar bathroom setups where the walls do not reach the ceiling. Delicate travelers won’t like the bathroom’s sound proofing, or lack thereof. Bring your iPod and mini-speakers or turn the TV on when nature calls.
Those looking for a deserted island feel will enjoy staying at The Driftwood which debuted in January 2008 and boasts canopy beds covered in crisp white mosquito nets and doors in each shower that open to the sea. While this may be the most romantic accommodation on the Caye, it is also the least convenient as you need to hop a water taxi in order to get to the main island where most of the bars, restaurants and excursions are based. Occasionally the water taxi takes a day off, so guests rely on kayaks to get to the main island.