02/25/2006 11:32 PM MST

Serious Leisure
Visitors enjoy the friendly residents and relaxed pace of Ambergris Caye island
By Tom Wharton
The Salt Lake Tribune

AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize - "No shirt. No shoes. No problem."
The white sign hangs over the turquoise wall of Estel's Dine by the Sea, a family-owned breakfast and lunch stop in San Pedro, the only town on this tropical island 36 miles from the mainland.
It accurately reflects the attitude of owner Charlie Worthington, who brags he hasn't worn a pair of shoes in 18 years.
And it was exactly this kind of low-key, informal kind of place we sought on this island. We wanted to do plenty of relaxing on the beach coupled with a little shopping and snorkeling.
The sign's slogan is typical of the attitude of many of the 5,000 permanent residents on this Belize island, which is separated from Mexico only by a narrow passageway that was once enlarged by the ancient Mayans.
On a warm January morning, Worthington chain smoked while sipping an ice cold Belikin beer, a Belizean beer that is perhaps the island's most popular beverage. He sat in a chair on the inside of the little restaurant, named after his wife, Estella, a native of this small Central American country.

When Worthington came to this 25-mile-long island in 1983, he discovered a quaint fishing village inhabited by fewer than 1,000 people. There were few vehicles, refrigerators or tourists in a place that got its name from a substance from whales' intestines used to make perfume.
Worthington gave up his stressful Tampa, Fla., brokerage job, hauled his drum set to Belize and purchased what was then the Isla Anita Hotel. He covered up the green marble floor inside with sand and opened his little restaurant on New Year's Day 1992.
"The hardest thing I had to learn to do was relax," he said.
Judging from the laid-back atmosphere at the restaurant, decorated with old rock-and-roll posters, conch shells, a honky-tonk piano and well-used bass, Charlie has managed just fine.
He and a friend, local musician Dennis Wolfe, once recorded a compact disc in a corner of Estel's, including the songs "Gringo in Belize," "Blame It on Buffett" and "I Do Believe."
The latter gets its name from an exchange between the two friends. In a somewhat serious moment one day, Wolfe asked Worthington what he believed. The restaurant owner contemplated the question and declared, "I do believe I'll have another beer."
Ramon Nunez, who was born the 15th of 15 sons while his mother was on a sailboat near Ambergris Caye, has either owned or managed Ramon's Village since 1981. It's one of the oldest resorts on the island.
Nunez knows much about the island's history and culture, including the reason that golf carts are the chief form of transportation on the sand-covered streets of San Pedro. He said he began using electric golf carts as a way of protecting the environment, something the resort owner takes seriously.
I rented a four-passenger golf cart for a day to explore the northern part of the island. At one point, a crew, using ropes, hauled our cart on a tiny ferry to get over a river. My group discovered a wonderful bar called Palapas built at the end of a wooden pier on the second floor overlooking the ocean.
As Ruth Murray served us Belikins, we watched dolphins frolic in the shallow water. Iguanas crossed in front of the cart as the road got considerably rougher to the point that it was impassable. That gave us an excuse to visit a winery, one of the unexpected finds along the way.
Travelers to Ambergris Caye will not find high-rise hotels or franchise restaurants. Ramon's Village, for example, has 71 units built like small cabanas, with palm fronds serving as roofs. The rooms are clean, but basic, with no television sets or tubs. There is a pool, dive shop, Internet access inside the small lobby, a bar (that does have a television) and restaurant.
Ambergris Caye's big draw is the second-largest barrier reef in the world that stretches 185 miles and is just off shore. Snorkel lovers and divers enjoy a preserve called Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley, where fishing was banned to allow species, including sharks, stingrays, coral and a variety of tropical fish, to thrive.
Since the water is only 8 feet deep in most portions of this natural preserve, even novice snorkel enthusiasts can see stingÂrays, human-sized nurse sharks, tarpon and hundreds of colorful tropical fish and feel relatively safe.
Scuba divers with more experience especially like deeper holes and canyons along the reef. No surprise here - Belize has become one of the world's top diving destinations.
One day, at a cost of $30 each, four of us rented a glass-bottom boat to explore Hol Chan. As we prepared to do some snorkeling, our guide, Mai Ellis, pointed out a 4-foot-long nurse shark swimming just under the boat. The sharks are not dangerous to humans, but the big critter left quite an impression on inlanders from Salt Lake City.
But it was the friendliness of the residents of Ambergris Caye, who are of Creole, African, Garafina, Mayan, British and Spanish descent, that left the strongest impression during our week stay. Walking around at night through the streets or beaches of San Pedro, we always felt safe.
Live music streamed from bars, such as Fido's, where a band plays every night. Wolfe is a regular throughout town, often playing at small restaurants right on the beach. And, on most Wednesdays, visitors participate in a type of gambling that might delicately be described as a crapshoot.
Participants purchase a number for 50 cents from a bar, drawing it at random. A board with 100 numbers is placed on the nearby beach and surrounded with a mesh fence. A rooster is placed on the board, and if it poops on your number, you win the $50 prize.
Dining at Elvi's Kitchen or Caliente, though somewhat expensive, proved to be a delight, especially if you like fresh fish.
Contact Tom Wharton at wharton@sltrib.com or 801-257-8909. Send comments to livingeditor@sltrib.com.

Ambergris Caye, Belize

WHY GO? This is the perfect Caribbean Island vacation. The island's only town, San Pedro, is small, safe and fun. The diving and snorkeling are among the best in the world and include exploring the second largest barrier reef in the world. Travelers nervous about not knowing the language might be surprised that English is the official language of Belize.

HOW TO GET THERE: Most Wasatch Front residents would fly from Salt Lake City to Houston, transfer planes to Belize City and then take a "puddle jumper" small prop plane to the tiny airport on Ambergris Caye.

WHAT IT WILL COST: Expect to spend about $1,500 for air and hotel expenses. If there is a downside to the trip, it is that food on the island tends to be expensive. Expect to pay about $7 for breakfast and $15 to $20 for dinner.

NOT TO MISS: Make sure you experience water sports, such as scuba diving and snorkeling. At $30 per person, half-day snorkeling trips to Shark Ray Alley, Mexico Rocks and the Hol Chan Reserve are a bargain that should not be missed. Expect to see all kinds of coral, tropical fish, sharks, manta rays and eels.

WHERE TO EAT: Estel's Dine by the Sea, with its sandy floors and wonderful smoothies, is a great breakfast place. Elvi's Kitchen features fresh seafood; Caliente has a Mexican twist on seafood; and Fido's, which features live music, is another good dinner choice.

WEATHER: The dry season runs February through May. Weather is generally hot and humid in a tropical climate, with highs around 80 this time of year and lows around 70. Afternoon showers are always a possibility.