The pool and beach at Victoria House inspire guests to spend the day outdoors. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby

A guest at El Pescador fishing lodge lands a tarpon. Photo courtesy of El Pescador

Golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation on San Pedro’s cobblestone streets. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby

The pool and beach at Victoria House inspire guests to spend the day outdoors. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby

Paintings by Ambergris Caye artist Eduardo "Papo" Alamilla are available in San Pedro galleries. Photo by Cheryl Blackerby

A middle-aged socialite sat in the shade of a beach umbrella at a luxurious condominium complex, her manicured nails tapping a rhythm of impatient discontent on the poolside table.

A hint of a smile finally appeared as a waiter brought a mimosa, which arrived just as a friend rattled up the gravel path in a golf cart. It was time to leave this expat pocket of the island, populated by Americans and Canadians living a few months a year in multi-million-dollar beach houses and condos, and do a little shopping.

Nearby San Pedro, the island’s only town, and, luckily a fairly upscale one, had a wide range of excellent restaurants, shops and art galleries — enough to keep a high-maintenance expat happy.

Her husband, meanwhile, beamed. “Do you know what a grand slam is in Belize?” Without waiting for an answer he told me, “Catching a tarpon, bonefish and permit all in one day.”

Easy to guess what he was smiling about. He was waiting on a captain to take him fly-fishing. His eyes happily scanned the horizon, appreciating the break of waves over the world’s second longest coral reef (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) just a half-mile offshore.

Most people visiting Belize’s largest island, and the country’s No. 1 tourist destination, look pretty happy — from the exuberant young bride and groom at the elegant Victoria House hotel to the fishermen returning to El Pescador, the island’s premier fishing resort.

The 25-mile-long Caribbean island is just south of the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and, in fact, was part of peninsula before early Mayans dug a narrow canal to separate the island and allow an easier trade route.

Whalers were here, too, and named the island Ambergris after a waxy cholesterol substance taken from the intestines of sperm whales, not a particularly romantic name for a very romantic island.

Settled in the mid-1800s, San Pedro Town was named for the apostle Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. Fishing is still the main industry, but in the form of tourists who are doing the fishing.

The conversation over breakfast early one morning at a fishing lodge became somewhat heated as fishermen debated which fish to stalk, what water to navigate and which flies to cast — should we use tan or pink Crazy Charlies? Those are delicate flies that attract bonefish, the “gray ghosts” of Belize’s flats.

My attention drifted to the divers at the next table, who were discussing which dive shops to use to visit the multitude of sites on the Belize Barrier Reef. One morning I saw two snorkelers, who bypassed the dive operators, strapped on flippers and swam out to the reef from shore.

Bumper-to-bumper golf carts Only about a mile wide, the island has miles of wide sand beaches and mangrove islets perfect for those who like to fish from kayaks, or who just want to look for sea birds and manatees.

Traffic jams here are bumper-to-bumper golf carts, the preferred mode of transportation. And there are plenty of them. I quickly learned to avoid streets near schools when moms were herding the kids into six-seater golf carts.

The overhead buzz of propeller planes is frequent. Tropic Air Airline alone typically flies into San Pedro 20 times a day. That’s a lot of visitors for an island that has only 12,000 full-time residents.

It wasn’t that long ago when the cobblestone downtown streets were sand trails and the only way in was by boat. Old-timers easily remember when San Pedro was a fishing village with no tourists.

Seaside food and drink The San Pedro Holiday Hotel in the center of town was the island’s first hotel, opening in 1965 with five rooms. The inn didn’t have electricity or phones. Guests arrived by boat, and their luggage was taken to the hotel in a wheelbarrow.

Today, the 17-room colonial-style inn’s balconies wrap around three stories overlooking the sea and the coconut palm- and seagrape-shaded beach. The hotel’s Caprice Bar and Grill is still the place for locals and visitors to kick back with a Belikin beer, eat the catch of day and enjoy a view of the Caribbean.

I later ran into the woman from the condo at an art gallery. She was enthusiastically negotiating prices for local art for her condo, as happy as her husband surely was out on the flats looking for bonefish.

Palm Beach Daily News