As the engine roar melted to a kitten purr and our boat nuzzled up to the Caye Caulker pier, we did a quick inventory check. Dancing palms, tick. Sun bleached beach, tick. Island motto, “Go Slow”, painted lazily on a signpost stuck in the sand, tick. I gave my partner in crime a private smile. This was the place. We’d escaped…for now.
Bobbing up and down against a tiny Belizean island on the Caribbean Sea wasn’t in the original script. The plan had been to fly into Belize for a quick taste of eco-adventure before slipping over the Guatemalan border. But we’d got greedy, and four days later, we were still there with our hands caught in the action jar. Jungle hikes, eco-tours, Jaguar spotting, cave tubing, Mayan ruins and mountain bike treks. Where would it end? The equatorial heat was on. We’d needed a place to lay low for a couple of days. Somewhere a man could find a secluded beach and lie back and think of England, or anywhere else he’d rather not be. After making a few discreet inquiries we knew there was only one place to hide, and only one man powerful enough to help us get there. The man known only as, “The Marine Terminal ticket booth guy”.
So we paid for our boat passes in small, unmarked bills, jumped aboard the first vessel bound for the islands, and left the spoils of mainland adventure in our wake. Not that the warm blue coastal waters were fooling us. Home to more than one hundred and seventy islands, or cayes, and the world’s second largest barrier reef, it wouldn’t be easy to keep our hands off a bounty of aquatic fun that has tempted travellers since Blackbeard and his Buccaneer posse cruised these waters back in the 1600’s. Yet, as we stood on this unassuming wharf and watched our getaway vessel pull out of dock, the captain turned to us with some re-assuring words of advice, “Relax mon. You’re on Caye Caulker time now”.
If Gilligan had ever taken up real estate development, Caye Caulker town would have been his Big Apple. Dozing peacefully on this slip of an island, the cluster of brightly painted ramshackle beach hideaways, deserted beach lots, scattered fishing boats, palm trees, sand floor restaurants, dive huts, and salty old sailors propping up bars at 11am in the morning, makes for the perfect getaway haven.
The jewels in Caye Caulker’s crown are it minimalist pleasures. No international resorts, flashy nightclubs, or peak hour traffic. Remember the motto? Go slow. Our mission, and yes we did choose to accept it, was to find a bungalow for as little as forty dollars per night on a quiet stretch of squeaky white sand, treat our palates to an array of seafood delights, and then debrief over a drink at a beach bar watching the sun slip beneath a sheet of Caribbean blue sea. This message will self-indulge in five seconds.
Before long, we’d slipped into the “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” and “sarong, swimsuit, smile” dress code, and immersed ourselves amongst the welcoming band of eclectic castaways. It soon became clear that the local brew of Creoles, Central Americans, and Europeans posed little threat to our relaxation plans. However, we’d have to keep tabs on the North American retirees swerving along the streets in rickety old golf carts, sending dogs, children and loitering tourists running for cover.
For three perfect days we hid behind sunglasses, cocktail umbrellas and lobster menus, wondering if maybe, just maybe, there would be no more calls to action, and life really was a beach after all. Then one night, whilst minding our own business over a couple of tall Panty Rippers at Popeye’s Bar and Restaurant, the bartender told us a man had been in asking questions. “Did he know anyone who might like to explore the reef?” “Had he seen any tourists dance so badly to the reggae band they couldn’t possibly show their faces around the island?” The next morning, we went to see a man about a snorkelling tour.
Whilst experienced divers prefer the more exciting sites in the waters off Caye Ambergris, the beautiful calm reefs of Caye Caulker offered the ideal setting for first timer submariners like my nervous companion, a Canadian mountain girl, much more at ease in a set of ski’s than a pair of flippers.
After the initial disappointment of learning that this wasn’t my chance to wear a tight rubber body suit in public, the reef snorkelling trip turned out to be a fantastic experience. We goggled and gawked at the amazing array of fish, eels, and spectacular coral formations. The highlight of the three-hour tour was Shark Ray Alley, where Nurse sharks circled our wary group from a distance before weaving in for a closer look, and the Southern Ray stingrays slid their expansive wings over our bodies. Both proved to be fairly harmless, if perhaps a little fresh for a first date.
For the rest of the day hardly a word was spoken. Mountain girl and I adjourned to our secluded patch of waterfront paradise, soaked up the afternoon sun, and flipped through back issues of Mexican celebrity gossip magazines found discarded in our room – anything to keep our minds off the fact that our days of sloth were numbered. Back at the bungalow we hatched our plan. We were not giving up our life of leisure that easily. We would go down partying. Caye Ambergris awaited and I had a birthday to celebrate.
As the largest, most developed, and most expensive of the Belizean islands, Caye Ambergris caters well for the first class holiday seeker, with a range of villas, luxury home stays and resorts to choose from. To prepare for our last stand, we checked into the mysteriously named Sun Breeze Beach Hotel, close to the main town of San Pedro, for some pampering and creature comforts. The spacious rooms, resort style swimming pool, Jacuzzi, massage studio, swanky outdoor bar, and international flavoured restaurant were a world away from the Gilliganism’s of Caye Caulker, but at only USD125 a night, my inner Thurston Howell the third was calling.
Pandered, pleasured, and fed in ways that only money can buy, we climbed to the lookout over the hotel bar. Slipping in the hammock, we witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets the Caribbean has to offer. Swinging back and forth with a birthday cocktail in hand, I could truly appreciate how delightfully far we were from anything resembling an office cubicle. Contemplation over, I made my final charge into the night. Crazy Canucks Bar, crazy Canadian in tow, we drank, laughed and danced embarrassingly to reggae music until sunrise.
The following days we gorged on water sports as fast as Caye Ambergris could dish them up. There was diving amongst some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs, sailing tours around the island, deep-sea fishing for sailfish and barracuda, jet skiing and paragliding off the sun-tickled beaches. Oh how we feasted!
Our hunger for aqua adventure finally satiated, we wandered into town, plonked our behinds on the nearest bikes for rent, and peddled to the far reaches of the island. Crossing a small river by man-pulling-rope-very-hard-powered ferry to the less populated north island, we cycled along remote dirt tracks lined with sweeping palm trees. Emerging from the bush onto the beach at the edge of the lapping blue Caribbean, it was a leisurely ride along long stretches of white squeaky sand to the “money” end of town.
The north beach plays host to luxurious resort bungalows and private beach villas. I pondered ambitiously over the For Sale sign standing outside one particularly hedonistic abode. Apparently, the former owner wasn’t happy about motoring his 80ft cruiser around all that coral nonsense to moor outside his beach palace. Being the entrepreneurial type, he’d used a few sticks of dynamite to blast a neat little driveway straight through the reef. Unfortunately, the government didn’t see it that way and sent him a fine big enough to clear the Belize national debt. He was last seen paddling a canoe in the direction of Cuba.
A little further along we stumbled across Captain Morgan’s Retreat, setting of the original Temptation Island show. As we stood outside the Mecca of televised drama, so many touching memories came flooding back. Amber and Troy whispering under a palm tree, probably discussing the effects of global warming. Shawana ditching Gary and confessing to Chad ‘you had me at “are those things real?”‘ At that moment, I couldn’t help but appreciate the truly important things in life. I turned to the ski bunny and told her she had a smile so beautiful it could almost pass as cosmetically enhanced.
Peddling across the beach towards town for the last time before heading back to the mainland, we waved goodbye to all the things we loved about the cayes. The lazy palm trees, the ivory white sands, the aqua blue waters, the hammocks swinging in the breeze, the friendly faces, the plastic whale and dolphin fountain splashing water over Jesus outside the pink Jehovah’s Witness mansion…the what? Anyway, for a couple of repeat adventure travel offenders, it sure made a nice place for a day pass or two.
Some have said I spend too much time living in a fantasy world, that I need to get a grip on reality. Sometimes I think they’re right. But then again, they’ve probably never been to the Belizean cayes.