Excerpt from:
Open Road's Best of Belize
Charlie Morris
Paperback
$10.00
A FANTASTIC AMBERGRIS WEEKEND
By Charlie Morris, from Open Roadís Best of Belize

A weekend gives you enough time to get a good sample of all the island has to offer: snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, birding, swimming, eating seafood in funky beach restaurants and sipping umbrella drinks by the pool.

Friday Evening
You can get here by boat from Belize City, or by plane from any of several places in the country. The plane is quicker and cheaper, but either way you come, it will be a scenic trip Ė speeding through little channels between dozens of tiny mangrove islands or looking down on the islands and shallow grass flats from a low-flying plane.

Thereís a huge choice of lodging places on Ambergris. Back when we were planning our trip, we picked the perfect spot based not only on our budget, but on the location. Low-budget travelers, or party animals who want to be in the middle of the action, have several good options right in San Pedro town. Those who want to get as far away from civilization as possible will pick one of the upscale resorts to the north of town. Personally, I like to stay south of town, because you get the best of both worlds Ė itís quiet, with a bit of a secluded atmosphere, but itís easy to walk or bike into town any time you want. For the ultimate in luxury, stay at Victoria House. Those of us with more moderate budgets will love Mata Rocks (see Best Sleeps).

After a short golf cart or boat ride to our hotel, itís time to get into the island lifestyle immediately (the last time weíre going to use words like ďimmediatelyĒ all weekend). Take off your shirt and shoes, grab your welcome rum drink from the bar, and stretch out by the pool. As you watch the waves breaking on the coral reef a few hundred feet offshore, youíll feel things like telephones, traffic jams, suburban sprawl and stress begin to fade from your memory. Continue drinking rum until they are completely forgotten. Our only responsibility tonight is to make sure we have a dive trip lined up for tomorrow morning.

Hey! Wake up! The sunís going down, itís time to think about dinner. The ten-minute walk into town is too complicated to bother with tonight, but thatís no problem. Several of the islandís finest restaurants are located at resorts just a short walk away. Walking along the beach is a favorite way to go dining on Ambergris.

Saturday Morning
If you see nothing else in Belize, you simply must see her beautiful coral reefs. A living coral reef is the most colorful and fascinating wildlife habitat on the planet, and Belize has some of the finest reefs in the Caribbean, including the worldís second-longest barrier reef. Weíve all seen reefs on nature TV shows, but nothing comes close to experiencing it yourself. Coral reefs worldwide are threatened, and they may not be around forever, so get wet and see this natural wonder while youíre here.

The kicker is that seeing the reef in Belize is easy and fun for people of all ages. While scuba diving (diving while breathing compressed air) requires a certification course, anyone can snorkel. All you need is a mask, snorkel and fins, which you can rent anywhere on the island, and a local guide can show you how to do it in five minutes. If you can swim, you can snorkel, and itís especially easy here on Ambergris. Most dive operators pick you up directly from your hotel, and the reef is just a few minutesí boat ride away.

Early morning is the best time for snorkeling or diving. The seas are usually calmer in the morning, and the hordes of cruise ship day-trippers begin to arrive towards noon. And, thereís just something special about a good hearty lunch and a cold beer after a morning out in the sun and salt. We lined up a trip yesterday, so all we need to do this morning is slug down some coffee and stumble to the end of the dock. Within minutes, weíll be underwater.

If you have time for just one dive/snorkel trip, make it to Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Ambergris Cayeís most popular spot for short reef excursions. Just a few miles south of town is the Hol Chan Channel, a steep-walled cut through the reef in 30 feet of water that is particularly rich in sea life and that gives the reserve its name (Hol Chan means ďlittle channelĒ in Mayan).

Hol Chanís protected status means that you can see a wide range of fishy life just a few minutesí boat ride from town. Youíll see schools of yellowtail snapper, parrotfish, angelfish, blue tangs, triggerfish, hogfish, barracuda, moray eels, nurse sharks and lots of lobsters. If youíre lucky, you may spot a blacktip or hammerhead shark, sea turtles, grouper, snapper, tarpon or perhaps even a manatee. Thereís also a profusion of colorful coral species, including elkhorn coral, brain coral, starlet coral, staghorn coral, sea fans, lettuce coral and other soft corals.

Just south of the channel, and also part of the reserve, Shark Ray Alley is one of the top places in the Caribbean to snorkel with large sea creatures. Local fishermen have been discarding fish waste here for years, making the area a frequent haunt of nurse sharks and Southern stingrays. You can swim with these enormous fish in water only a few feet deep Ė itís a fine place for novice snorkelers, and an unforgettable wildlife encounter even for seasoned divers. The nurse sharks (up to six feet long) and rays (up to four foot wingspan) are not dangerous. On the contrary, they seem friendly, like big dogs eager for a handout (but be safe Ė donít touch them, and let your guide handle the feeding).

All dive shops on Ambergris and Caulker run daily snorkeling trips to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley. Info: www.holchanbelize.org. Thereís a park entry fee of $10 per person, which is included in the price of your trip. Thereís a visitorsí center in the middle of San Pedro where you can learn more about the ecosystem of Hol Chan.

Saturday Afternoon
The dive boat drops us off back at our hotel worn out and crusty with salt, but happy. First stop is the pool bar for an ice-cold Belikin, and the next is the pool itself for a quick rinse-off. Then I guess weíll have to put on some pants (but not necessarily any shirt or shoes) if we want to have lunch. Weíll borrow a couple of bikes from the hotel and ride into town.

San Pedro is a clapboard and concrete Caribbean town that is slowly evolving from a sleepy village into a major tourist resort area. The visitors are a mix of divers and honeymooners, upscale travelers and backpackers, Americans and Europeans. Golf carts and bicycles outnumber cars, but traffic on the sandy (in rainy weather, muddy) streets can be hectic in high season. The town has a Mexican feel: youíll hear more Spanish spoken than English, and excellent Mexican food is to be had.

Speaking of which, itís high time we were sitting down with a menu. Most San Pedro eateries serve a mix of Mexican dishes, seafood and American favorites. Elviís Kitchen is perhaps the most famous local spot. Ambergris Delight and Caramba are also good choices, and so are the Jamaican-style JamBel Jerk Pit and the inexpensive Celiís. Weíll start with a little ceviche (fish or seafood in a lemon marinade, served with chips), then Iíll have a large local fish. The kids can have a burrito or a burger.

After lunch, letís walk down Front Street and see the cultural sights of the town, such as they are. San Pedro has just three north-south streets, which the locals very sensibly call Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street. There is a half-hearted effort to replace the first two of these functional names with the more colorful Barrier Reef Drive and Pescador Street, but only tourists seem to take much notice. The beach itself serves as a busy pedestrian street Ė most of the dive shops and bars are located there, so itís the real center of the action (San Pedroís Broadway or Champs-…lysťes, if you will).

The Ambergris Maya Jade Store and Museum is a classy shop and mini-museum, with beautiful jade replicas of artifacts from the classical Mayan era, as well as exhibits about Jade and its significance to Mayan culture. Belizean Arts, located inside Fidoís Courtyard, is an excellent art gallery with a huge collection of oil paintings by local Belizean artists, several of whose works can be seen in local hotels. Info: www.belizeanarts.com. Tel. 226-3019. Inside Fido's Courtyard. Other art galleries are Island Originals Art Gallery on Front Street and Isla Bonita Gallery, just south of the airstrip. And thatís about it, folks.

Thereís not much else to do here that doesnít involve getting yourself wet either outside or inside. I say we do both. Thereís an outfit right here on the beach, SailSports Belize that has all manner of sail-powered craft for rent. How about spending an hour or two making fools of ourselves on a windsurfer or a Hobie Cat? Waverunners and other motorized craft are also available. The beach here stays busy with folks doing every water sport known to man, from water-skiing to parasailing to kitesurfing (one of the reasons why the beach in San Pedro isnít especially good for swimming). Info:www.sailsportsbelize.com.

Letís stroll down the beach, stopping in at a few laid-back beach bars such as Fidoís, sand-floored Estelís and the Cannibal bar, which sometimes has live music in the afternoons.

ALTERNATE PLAN
If youíre a certified diver, then get out there and do a two-tank dive this morning. If you have non-diving kids or spouses in tow, head for Hol Chan, where they can snorkel and you can dive in peace. Otherwise, choose any of a dozen great sites on the reef just off Ambergris. Shark Ray Alley is strictly a snorkeling spot, so save it for Sunday morning before you leave. A lot of divers go to the famous Blue Hole (photo below) from San Pedro, but itís a long 12-hour trip, starting at five or six in the morning. If you want to do the Blue Hole and/or Turneffe, itís better to stay on Caulker or one of the small cayes, which are much closer.

While diving gets most of the attention, but there is excellent fishing in the area. Bonefish and permit cruise the flats, grouper and snapper haunt the reefs, and tarpon, tuna and billfish swim offshore. Fishing charters from San Pedro are run by freelance boat captains, but you can book a trip through your hotel, or through any of the dive shops.

Saturday Evening
Letís dress up (on Ambergris, that means putting on a shirt) and go out for a really nice gourmet meal tonight. For a delightfully romantic (but expensive) night out, take a moonlight boat ride to one of the gourmet restaurants on the north end of the island. Considered to be one of the best restaurants in Central America, Capricorn has been featured in any number of fancy food magazines. A table under the stars is yours for the evening, so take your time savoring Belizean goodies such as lobster tails, stone crab or grouper prepared with Continental flair, and a bottle from the nice wine list. In the same area, and also highly recommended, the Rendezvous Restaurant & Winery creates seafood and meat dishes with a fusion of Thai and French influences, and proudly serves their own house wines.

South of town, and easily accessible by foot, bike or golf cart, the Palmilla Restaurant at the Victoria House is also among the top dining experiences on the island, serving a unique mix of island seafood and Continental cuisine. Their ceviche and lobster salad are really special.

See Best Sleeps & Eats for more details on these and other restaurants.

After dinner, thereís no need to go to bed, as San Pedro has by far the most hopping nightlife scene in Belize. Fidoís, right in the center of town, is the main hangout, with live music every night. South of town, the Crazy Canuck is another stop on the local circuit. If you want to hit the dance floor, make the scene at the Jaguar, in the center of town. After midnight, the Red Bull crowd heads to Big Daddyís, an after-hours club where the locals get crazy (and I mean very crazy) until dawn. See Best Activities for more on island nightlife. Ambergris is a pretty safe place Ė nothing like Belize City. I donít know if Iíd walk back to my hotel all alone, but if you stick with a group and remain reasonably alert, I doubt youíll encounter any problems.

Sunday
No one says you canít snorkel just before flying, so Sunday morning would be a perfect time for a snorkel trip to Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley if you didnít go there yesterday (or maybe even if you did). Otherwise, letís take a boat tour around the island to see some of the local residents. The sea creatures get most of the press, but Ambergris is also home to over 260 bird species, including vireos, flycatchers, kiskadees, woodpeckers and hummingbirds, to say nothing of the many water birds that hang out in the mangroves.

At the Caribbean Villas Hotel (Tel. 226-2715), south of San Pedro, aspiring birder Susan Lala has built a four-story ďpeople perchĒ that offers a panoramic view of the entire island and plenty of interesting bird sightings. Itís open to the public daily. Read about her birdy experiences at www.caribbeanvillashotel.com/birds/cvbirds.html. Other great places to spot birds are Little Iguana and Rosario Cayes, two small protected mangrove islands just off Ambergris, and San Pedro Lagoon, in the north part of the island. The islandís greatest bird guru is Elbert Greer, who writes a weekly column about birds for the San Pedro Sun, and offers guided bird watching tours by boat around the island. He works as a guide at Ramonís Village (see Best Sleeps), so you can contact him there, or see www.ambergriscaye.com/birds.

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