Lush island lures nature lovers
Huge coral reef mecca for divers
Nov. 2, 2006. 10:19 AM

AMBERGRIS CAYE, Belize—A little over two years ago, Paul and Heather Claus left their full-time jobs and comfortable home in Victoria, B.C., to resettle on a subtropical island off the coast of Belize that few of their friends and relatives even knew existed.

They had visited Ambergris Caye, a 40-kilometre-long island, twice before on vacation and were captivated by its natural beauty, sandy beaches, plentiful sunshine and treasure trove of underwater sea life.

The Clauses finally decided to take the plunge. They bought a plot of land on Ambergris Caye, spent $250,000 to build a small store with coffee-roasting equipment and opened Caye Coffee.

"We like Ambergris Caye because it's English-speaking, and has English laws," says Paul, who worked as a mechanic for Chrysler. "Most important, the weather is nice and warm."

For good luck, a pair of snowshoes leans against the wall in the shop, where morning visitors are met by Coffee the dog and served steaming cups of arabica coffee by Heather, a former management consultant.

The Clauses are not the first to seek their fortune in Belize, which was originally part of the extensive Maya empire.

Shipwrecked English sailors settled the area in the 16th century while it was under Spanish rule and harvested large quantities of precious mahogany and logwood.

Ambergris Caye served as a trading centre and provided fish and other foodstuffs to the northern Belize logging camps. During the 17th century, the island became a hideaway for marauding pirates who attacked the Spanish fleets and hid their bounty on land. Over the centuries, settlers developed Ambergris Caye's fishing fleet, coconut plantations and chicle (tree gum) production, which now have given way to a growing tourism industry.

La Isla Bonita (the pretty island) is south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, just a 20-minute flight or 75-minute island ferry ride from Belize City. It lies along the Western Hemisphere's largest barrier reef, which rivals its Australian counterpart as a natural wonder of tropical coral and sea life.

Recently, Ambergris Caye — the largest of Belize's 200-plus islands — has become a mecca for diving and fishing enthusiasts, bird-watchers and naturalists and family vacationers.

The warm, protected, 2.4-metre-deep waters inside the reef offer a perfect setting for snorkelling, kayaking, swimming and boating. Parasailing and glass-bottom boat excursions are also popular. Neatly manicured beaches invite sunbathers to settle into a lounge chair with a good book. Outside the reef, scuba divers can explore vast grottos, sheer walls and canyons, including the world-famous coral atoll, the Great Blue Hole. Many dive shops on the island offer lessons and certification programs for novice divers.

Bird-watchers are drawn to Boca Bacalar Chico, a national park at the north end of Ambergris Caye. In this protected sanctuary, it is possible to spot many of the 260 species of birds that make their home on the island.

Fishermen come to here to angle for bonefish, tarpon, snook, king barracuda and other tropical trophies.

During our week on Ambergris Caye, we took a water taxi one morning to Caye Caulker where we poked around in small art galleries, natural-food stores, reggae shops and seaside bars, including the Lazy Lizard.

At Caye Caulker Condos, manager Barbara McIntyre told us she moved 12 years ago from London, Ont., to the island, where she has raised her two daughters. Friendly people, beautiful weather and a lush tropical setting were the main attractions.

"Belize is not for everyone, but if you have an easy-going type of personality, it will be for you," says Barbara. "This lifestyle is very interesting compared to my life in London. Simple things, such as shopping before every meal, deciding what to cook and having no hot water in your house, have made it a challenge in every way.

"But good friends and a good sense of humour have saved me. I have enjoyed every minute of my stay. I am almost a `local' now."

One of the best ways to explore Ambergris Caye is by rented golf cart. Locally owned taxis and water taxis are also available, but car rentals to tourists are prohibited. The island is divided by the San Pedro River into a more commercialized south end and a less developed north end. To get from one end to the other, you have to traverse the "Cut." A rusty steel barge hand-pulled by several men on shore is used to transport vehicles, passengers and goods across the narrow channel

San Pedro Town, once a coconut plantation and slow-paced fishing village, nestles on the south end of Ambergris Caye. Its hard-packed sand streets and wooden-frame houses are home to between 5,000 and 10,000 Sanpedranos (no one seems to agree on an exact number).

The three main streets, Front, Middle and Back, are lined with beachwear and gift shops, open-air seafood restaurants and funky bars blasting rock-and-roll songs and local "punta" music, a unique African drumbeat from the Garifuna culture.

We spent an afternoon browsing through a large selection of black-coral jewellery and carved mahogany figures at the Little Old Craft Shop and admired Belizean scenes painted by local artist Eduardo "Papo" Alamilla on display at the second-floor Tropical Arts Gallery.

The San Pedro area has a number of attractive restaurants, ranging from inexpensive hole-in-the-wall to upscale casual but found ourselves returning to Rico's restaurant at the Villas at Banyan Bay to dine on fresh snook, barbecued pork ribs and shrimp kebabs while we sipped frozen margaritas at sunset.

Seated at a white-linen covered table lit by a flickering lamp, we savoured the sound of rustling palms, Latin music and lapping waves. That's Ambergris Caye at its very best.A treasure trove for fortune hunters
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