July 30, 2006
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem in Ambergris Caye, Belize
By CHARLES RUNNETTE
BOBBING off the coast of jungly Belize, south of hard-partying Yucatán, with one pedicured toe in the Caribbean, Ambergris Caye is ripe for picking. Throw in mangroves populated with exotic birds and crocodiles, and a boisterous night life fueled by cheap beer and new resorts — not to mention the Western Hemisphere’s longest barrier reef — and Ambergris might just unseat Vieques as the next Caribbean hot spot.
For a bird’s-eye view of the sugary coastline and the reef, grab a window seat on the 20-minute puddle jumper from Belize City to San Pedro, the old fishing village that is emerging as a tourist hub. If the narrow, 25-mile-long strip of sand looks familiar, that’s because it was the setting for the Fox reality show “Temptation Island.”
Luckily, that fleeting brush with fame has left no nasty scars. There are no hotel chains, fast-food restaurants or designer stores. Like the Florida Keys during the Jimmy Buffett era, the slow-moving town of San Pedro putters along, golf carts bumping along the dusty shop-lined streets. Restaurants and nightclubs are laid-back. No shoes, no shirt? No problem.
Prices are similarly relaxed. For example, Ruby’s Beachfront, a small but comfortable hotel in San Pedro, has double rooms from $35 to $52.60 a night (Barrier Reef Drive, 501-226-2063, www.ambergriscaye.com/rubys).
All prices are in United States dollars, which are widely accepted.
But rates are starting to edge up, as luxury-minded travelers discover Ambergris. The new Azul Resort (North Beach, 501-226-4012, www.azulbelize.com)
has 3,000-square-foot villas, each with a private beach, a swimming pool and a hot tub for $1,390 a night. It joins the recently renovated Mata Chica (North Beach, 501-220-5010, www.matachica.com),
a 14-villa resort where celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Dr. Phil and Tiger Woods have stayed. A small bungalow is $230 a night during the high season, and a three-bedroom villa is $950.
Not that you’ll want to be spending much time indoors. During the day, visitors disappear underwater, to the dozens of diving sites that ring the island. For $38, Amigos del Mar (501-226-2706, www.amigosdive.com)
runs half-day snorkeling trips that include Shark Alley, home to nurse sharks and stingrays, and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a break in the massive reef that feels like an aquatic autobahn.
At night, ruddy-faced tourists gather in San Pedro to sample the town’s lively night life. One downside to the island is the so-so food. A welcome exception is Palmilla, a restaurant at the plantation-style Victoria House Hotel about two miles south of town (501-226-2067, www.victoria-house.com).
Specialties include cashew-crusted grouper with sautéed shrimp, roasted corn, mashed potatoes and green chili butter for $26.50.
After dinner, the action moves under the beachfront palapa at Fido’s (San Pedro Beach on Barrier Reef Drive, 501-226-2056), a live-music bar that serves One Barrel, a Belizean spicy rum. Other spots include Jaguar’s Temple (Barrier Reef Drive, 501-226-4077, www.jaguarstemple.com),
where revelers sing karaoke and dance, and BC’s (Coconut Drive, 501-226-3289), a friendly beachside dive bar where locals flock for $2 Belkin beers and to hear Dennis Wolfe, an expatriate from Florida, singing his tunes, like “Living Jimmy Buffett’s Life.”
“Ambergris Caye has been one of the best-kept secrets of the Caribbean for the last 15 years,” Mr. Wolfe said. “But a quick look at the tourism statistics shows that the secret is out.” http://travel2.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/travel/30surfacing.html?ref=travel