Be beguiled by Belize
I’m pretty sure that if I asked you where the second-largest barrier reef in the world is, after the one off the Australian coast, you’d be unlikely to say Belize. Located in central America, the Caribbean laps its eastern shore, Guatemala runs along its western boundary and Mexico is directly to the north.
Belize is a land of rainforest and caves, diverse wildlife, Mayan ruins and a coastline that boasts crystal-clear, safe waters for scuba diving and snorkelling (thanks to that 300km-long reef), fishing, and other water sports.
Our journey to this gem of a place started on a very big aircraft to Miami. From there we transferred to a smaller plane for the two-and-a-bit-hour flight to Belize International Airport. And, for the last leg, on to a very small plane indeed (more of which later).
Our final destination was the island of Ambergris Caye (pronounced ‘key’), the largest of more than 200 islands off the coast of Belize, and only half a mile from the barrier reef. Flat, low-lying and made up of coral sand, Ambergris Caye is 25 miles long, four miles wide at its broadest point, tapering to just a few hundred feet.
It enjoys tropical temperatures but is comfortably cooled by the winds off the Caribbean – it’s rarely below 24°C all year. There is a wet season, when periodic showers, often during the night, can deliver about 100cm of rain, between June and August and the sea-water temperature is a consistently delightful 28°C.
The quirky, chilled vibe of the island is reflected in its main form of transport – the golf buggy – and these can be hired in various locations round the island (you’ll need to show your driving licence).
Its only town, San Pedro, is at the southern end and consists of three main streets running from north to south with west-to-east intersecting streets. Slightly shabby, delightfully laid-back, cheerfully colourful and with the airport at one end of it, it’s the centre for the diving and snorkelling services, home to plenty of welcoming shops, budget-friendly accommodation options and lots of great places to eat.
Top of our list were Elvi’s Kitchen, a busy, buzzy restaurant in San Pedro with sand on the floor and offering fresh seafood and flavoursome local dishes; low-key, laid-back Wild Mango’s (so laid back they don't have a website, but you can find it on Trip Advisor) with its open terrace overlooking the beach and a menu of Caribbean and Cajun specialities; and the Blue Water Grill, a relaxed, friendly family-owned restaurant on the beach, with a menu full of appetising fish and meat dishes.
On one of our days on the island, the weather was less than perfect, so we decided to give reef fishing a go.
Our captain, Mike, collected us in his boat at our hotel jetty. Along with Irvine, his crew for the day, Mike did all the setting up of the lines, hooking of the bait and removal of the fish from the hooks. With brief instruction and a few practice casts, we were fishing like pros – in our heads, anyway.
Thanks to Mike’s skill at knowing where the largest concentrations of fish were to be found, and my beginner’s luck, I reeled in a haul of 11 reasonable-sized snappers. (My other half only caught a single, rather weedy one in four hours, but I’m far too nice to mention that!)
Passing a pod of playful dolphins on our return trip was a bonus, as were the graceful stingrays that glided around the jetty to hoover up the heads and bones of our catch, which Mike and Irvine cleaned and filleted before leaving us.
The hotel cooked them for us the next day and we sat in the sunshine, enjoying the unexpected experience of eating a delicious meal that we had caught ourselves.
We could have spent the remainder of our brief stay snorkelling and/or scuba diving around and beyond the reef, sailing, or paddle-boarding on the shallow protected sea within the reef’s edge (the water is no deeper than seven feet from the shoreline to the rim of the reef), but we mostly laid down under palm trees, walked along the water’s edge and pottered around the island in our golf buggy.
When our time came to leave, we were transported from our hotel to the airport by speedboat. The regular flights from island to mainland are treated like a bus service by the locals and we boarded our 12-seater plane along with a passenger who had turned up five minutes earlier with just his phone and wallet… and no shoes.
The cheery pilot’s brief, chatty flight announcements from his seat directly in front of ours, preceded a 15-minute flight over a dazzling blue seascape dotted with tree-covered, sandy-edged islands.
It was a fitting end to a trip that provided the perfect combination of adventure and relaxation.
Where's your favourite island to visit?