Nothing to do but sway in a hammock, stare at the ocean

By Pam LeBlanc
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

BAHO CAYE, BELIZE — Eventually, I'm going to have to rouse myself from this gently swaying hammock on a pint-sized island a daydream away from Ambergris Caye.

Hanging in a hammock on a sunny afternoon on a beach on Ambergris Caye might make you never want to get up and leave Belize. Pam LeBlanc AMERICAN-STATESMAN Hanging in a hammock on a sunny afternoon on a beach on Ambergris Caye might make you never want to get up and leave Belize.
Organizers of a lion fish tournament collect and fillet the fish turned in on the beach in the small town of San Pedro, Belize. San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, is just about three blocks in total, plus a strip of beachside huts.
Chris LeBlanc photos
Organizers of a lion fish tournament collect and fillet the fish turned in on the beach in the small town of San Pedro, Belize. San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, is just about three blocks in total, plus a strip of beachside huts.

But until I do, I'm just going to fantasize about what it would be like to live here.

Can you imagine? Surrounded by water so clear and sparkling it's like liquid sapphires, cooking in an outdoor kitchen set up in a pink clapboard lean-to, and nothing — no people, no TV, no computer — to distract from the soft slap of surf on sand.

Unfortunately, someone's already got the job. His name is Mike, and he's sole caretaker of this sandy spit, hardly any bigger than my yard back home in Austin.

I've come here via a small hired boat for a day trip from Ambergris Caye, and we're the only visitors.

Mike welcomed our party of six ashore, showed us to the wooden picnic table, pointed out the hammocks and offered up fishing poles. In a moment, we're going to eat some traditional Belizean beans and rice with stewed fish and chicken.

Pure bliss.

This is my third day in Belize. I felt the pace slow as soon as the 14-passenger puddle jumper we picked up in Belize City landed on Ambergris Caye.

The town of San Pedro, the hub of activity on that island, is just three blocks wide, unless you count the beach, which is lined with little palapa hut bars and restaurants. Golf carts and bicycles bounce over cobblestone streets and houses dipped in mint green, yellow and pale blue paint line the main thoroughfares.

Ambergris Caye is no Cancún, with its sprawling, Americanized resorts. It's more down-to-earth, less pretentious and, I think, a lot more fun. Think of a smaller version of Playa del Carmen 20 years ago, before the slightly gritty mishmash of storefronts and eateries was transformed into a more polished — and antiseptic — resort destination.

"It's foreign, but familiar enough that visitors feel comfortable," says Mark Maggiotto, general manager of the 30-room Phoenix Resort, where about 80 percent of customers are American, and many of those come from Texas. "People love that it's laid-back."

It's a popular destination for Texans, who can catch a direct, 21/2 hour flight to Belize City from Houston or Dallas. (When I booked, it was cheaper to fly through Atlanta, which added to the travel time.) From there, it's a 20-minute hop over to San Pedro.

Yesterday, I scuba dived along the barrier reef that skirts the shore of Ambergris Caye. Amid the swaying sea grass and coral formations, I spotted moray eels as thick around as my leg, shy spiny lobsters and a quartet of curious nurse sharks.

In the afternoon, I spent a few hours walking the beach and exploring town.

Much of the available lodging is basic — I stayed a couple of nights in a charming but aging one-bedroom condo called Paradise Villas. I loved the palm-shaded sitting area right on the beach, where I could read a book or watch the trickle of tourists and locals stream past.

My last night I'll be staying at the Phoenix, a stylish new resort owned and operated by a couple with Houston ties.

On the way to this forgotten island paradise today, we stopped to snorkel at the famed Hol Chan Marine Preserve, where we ogled a graceful eagle ray soaring through the depths, a turtle busily snacking on underwater plants and a couple of bullet-shaped, silvery tarpon.

From there, it was another 10 minutes to Shark and Ray Alley, where we mingled with two dozen or more velvety-soft, pizza-shaped stingrays and glided just above a tangle of nurse sharks, which are no more menacing than 6-foot catfish, scavenging for fish scraps tossed overboard by another tour boat.

Later today, we'll head back to Ambergris Caye. On my agenda? Another beach stroll, a leap off one of the myriad public piers for a swim and a trip to Manelly's for the world's best coconut ice cream.

Until then, there's nothing to do but savor the sea breeze, admire the conch shells and try to figure out how I can land a gig as a caretaker on a nearly deserted Caribbean island.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

If you go

A two-tank dive at Chuck and Robbie's Dive Shop costs $75 per person. For more information go to www.ambergris cayediving.com.

One-bedroom condos at Paradise Villas range from $125 to $175 U.S. A one-bedroom suite at The Phoenix costs $360 (less during off season starting May 1 or through promotional specials.) For more information go to www.thephoenixbelize.com.

I flew Delta from Austin to Atlanta and on to Belize City for about $500 plus taxes. From there, catch a 15-minute Tropic Air flight to Ambergris Caye for about $120 round trip.

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