In Belize, Recovery From a Storm
by: Frances Frank Marcus
January 28, 2001
When Hurricane Keith stopped pounding Ambergris Cay, a skinny strip of land off the mainland of Belize, in early October, and people left their hiding places to venture outside, the green landscape had turned bare. The wind, rain and floods had repainted the foliage on the cay the color of late autumn.
The storm, which killed five people in Belize, had 135-mile-an-hour winds and gusts that reached 150 or more. Roofs were lifted off houses and flew through the air, and telephone lines went down. In the calm that enveloped the cay afterward, "there were no birds, no dogs, no cats," recalls Katherine Nelder, a Canadian who works in the dive shop at the elegant Victoria House hotel south of San Pedro Town, the small community that is the center of cay activity.
"Dead, everything seemed dead," she says.
But three months later, after a mammoth cleanup, long workdays and the restoration of electricity, 52 of the cay's 64 hotels were open. The rest are expected to be open by the end of next week.
After renovation, some hotels were in better shape than before. During a mid- December visit, however, there was evidence of the storm's wrath: fragments of houses, mostly on the west side of the cay, debris heaped in yards and wind-clipped coconut palms. Trucks rumbled by, carrying sacks of cement and wood for repairs as work crews tried to improve road drainage and upgrade bumpy roads. Deep holes had been dug along the streets for new weather- proof underground telephone wires. Parts of the cay still lacked phone service.
The landscape, however, had turned newly green and was growing greener. Restaurants up and down the beach and on the narrow streets in town were serving customers, many of whom had learned on a Belize Web site, ambergriscaye.com, that the area was again ready for visitors.
"It turned around much quicker than I anticipated," said Wil Lala, a retired dentist from Kansas, who, with his wife, Susan, an avid bird-watcher, owns the newly reroofed Caribbean Villas, a pleasant 10-unit hotel on the beach. The hotel, a 15-minute walk from town, was filled for the Christmas holidays.
With a population of 5,000, Ambergris Cay is the tourism center of Belize and one of the places worst hit by the storm, but its battering served a purpose. The small cay, 27 miles long and 3 miles wide at its widest point, buffered the magnificent offshore coral reef. The vast reef is approximately 175 to 200 miles long, said Miguel Alamilla, a marine biologist, who grew up on Ambergris, "but no one knows for sure."
The reef is as necessary to San Pedro Town as mountains and snow are to a ski village. "Everything is central to the reef _ here on the island and the islands around," Mr. Alamilla said. It is the reason visitors _ scuba divers, snorkelers and fishing enthusiasts _ travel to a place where beaches are often narrow and lined with sea grass. Because the storm's worst winds came from the west, the reef, which lies east of the cay, had little damage.
Without the coral, it seems likely that Ambergris Cay _ once connected to Yucatán and now separated from the peninsula only by a narrow channel _ would still be the sleepy outpost it was in 1965, when the first hotel opened with four rooms, and luggage was carted around in wheelbarrows. In those days, guests arrived by sailboat and the streets were covered with soft, thick sand not yet packed hard by the traffic that has come with tourism. The number of hotel rooms has grown to 938, with 830 of them open in early January.
Though no longer dependent on fishing as it was half a century ago, Ambergris still has the air of a fishing village, its low-slung sandy terrain interrupted by a complex of lagoons, canals, creeks, inlets and mangroves. The hotels are set on the palmy beaches that edge the eastern coast, facing the Caribbean.
In San Pedro Town, home to a few thousand people, small shops and restaurants are housed in picturesque wooden buildings. Up and down the cay, palapas offer relief from the sun that shines fiercely year round. Among the long piers jutting out to sea, dive boats come and go, along with the water taxis and a ferry that connect San Pedro Town with the secluded hotels and beaches north of it.
Weaving in and out of the pre- Christmas traffic in town were residents and tourists on bicycles and golf carts, the main transportation on Ambergris Cay aside from a few taxis and trucks. Some residents and visitors attracted to the cay's celebrated casual atmosphere were shoeless, in Ambergris's tradition, despite bits of storm debris stuck in the sand.
Three-quarters of a mile south of town at Wil and Susan Lalas's comfortable white-arched villas, Mrs. Lala's three-story bird-watching tower had been repaired and the wind-blown bougainvillea in the garden was blooming gorgeously. Two tiny black orchids, Belize's national flower, blossomed near the office door, along with more orchids called Ladies of the Night, named for their potent perfume. The sapodilla trees were showing fresh green. A so- called Jesus Christ lizard, which can run on water, was back at home under a hibiscus bush.
Guests dozed in hammocks, bicycled, swam off the 360-foot-long pier or sought shade under a gazebo at the end of the pier. They booked snorkeling and dive trips and made forays to the mainland to visit Maya ruins and listen to howler monkeys.
A mile and a quarter down the beach, magnificent frigate birds circled under blue skies at the manicured, 30-room Victoria House. The resort, spiffy before the storm, was spiffy once again with new thatched roofs on the cabanas facing the beach. Like the other cay hotels, Victoria House had raced to open as early as possible before high season.
"Our maintenance supervisor worked for two months without a day off," said Brent Kirkman, the general manager.
Though many thatched roofs collapsed, one that remained despite some damage shelters the crowd at BC's Beach Bar, a hangout in town owned by an Australian, Bruce Johnston, and his Belizean wife, Charlene Woods. BC's kept its palapa but lost, at least temporarily, its part-time Cajun cook, who became so busy repairing storm damage he had no time to prepare the jambalaya and other Louisiana fare served on Thursdays.
In general, Mr. Johnston said, BC's cooking style is a mix: besides Cajun once a week, "my wife's recipes and barbecue recipes from Australia" _ a friendly blend, like the cay's culture, which includes elements of Mexican, Maya, British, and African.
At BC's Sunday barbecue a week before Christmas, held under a sheet of blue plastic lining the bottom of the damaged palapa, all the bar stools were filled. "I'd like to stay here all afternoon," a visitor enjoying the sea breeze and the well- spiced grilled fish said to a resident, Kay Picou, a transplant from Louisiana. "Lots of people do," she responded.
North of San Pedro Town on one of Ambergris's prettiest beaches, beyond a narrow river that slices through the cay, is the stylish Mata Chica Beach Resort, accessible only by boat. Here a crew of thatchers had worked long hours after the storm, through pouring rain, using 13,000 pieces of thatch to remake the towering roof over the lobby.
The owners, Nadia and Philippe Berthome, had been traveling during September before the storm while a Fox Television crew filmed part of the show "Temptation Island" at the hotel. They returned to find their beach a shambles, their hotel damaged. Two neighbors had died while trying to save their boat.
The thatchers worked 45 days at the resort, whose 11 elegantly outfitted air-conditioned casitas and bungalows facing the beach are painted in fruit colors. Mata Chica reopened on Dec. 1 as carpenters built an addition: three luxury villas on stilts. About a mile and a half south, the 70- unit Journey's End Resort was still closed (it reopened some rooms Jan. 20). But a mile or so farther, at the rustic 25-unit Captain Morgan's Retreat, where rooms in thatched casitas have mahogany floors and mahogany armoires created from mainland trees, guests lounged beside the pool. Hammers resounded as repair work continued, and a wedding was about to begin. Seven of the resort's units are new additions, which opened for Christmas.
"We lost most of the roofs," said Debbie Tillet, the general manager. "The water damage was a killer." Ms. Tillet was traveling to San Pedro Town daily, by boat, to a cyber cafe where she could check and send e- mail messages. The phone lines in that part of the cay were still not working.
The pace on Ambergris Caye, like that at Captain Morgan's Retreat, is low- key. In an odd way the cay feels like a small Southern town, where everyone knows everyone else. Many longtime residents are related and share business connections. A member of the prominent Paz family, Daddy Paz, was the taxi driver in December for a visitor who was searching for Elvi Staines, the founder of Elvi's Kitchen, San Pedro Town's best-known restaurant.
"Oh, sure," Mr. Paz said, zipping the cab around the corner on a narrow street. "I'll find her. She's my aunt."
Mrs. Staines was found, at her restaurant on Pescador Drive, presiding over preparations for the reopening.
The sand-floored dining room, with a flamboyant tree in the middle, was rebuilt after the storm. But that day, the place was dark and dusty, looking as though, with plenty of hard work, it might open in a week or two. "Everything's a mess," said Mrs. Staines, sounding not a bit discouraged. "We'll be open Friday," which was just two days away. She was right.
In other restaurants on and near the beaches, snorkelers and divers said favorite underwater sites, like those in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, appeared undamaged and had plenty of fish.
Hol Chan encompasses a natural break in the barrier reef four miles south of San Pedro Town. Exploring the reserve is "like swimming in an aquarium," said a satisfied snorkeler from Las Vegas, Gary Waddell, who was visiting the cay with his wife, Chrise. They were lunching at tiny Los Cocos, on a side street in town three blocks from the beach, where a few plain wooden tables stood on a sand floor. "There were rays with a six- or seven-feet wing span," Mr. Waddell said. "Parrotfish three feet long and grouper the size of this table."
Known for the diversity and large numbers of fish, Hol Chan offers the opportunity to swim among nurse sharks and southern sting rays. There is a proposal to double its size, said Mr. Alamilla, the reserve manager, as he sat in his hurricane- damaged office in San Pedro Town. Hol Chan's visitor center, with its displays of shells, coral and a conference room for presentations about coral reefs, is expected to reopen by spring.
Hidden in a corner of his office, a tiny, maimed turtle, a hawksbill hatchling with injured flippers, was swimming in a blue plastic dishpan. "A little boy found it on the beach after the storm and brought it here," Mr. Alamilla said. "It's recovering slowly."
LISTINGS & INFORMATION
The Belize Tourism Board keeps no records on the number of visitors to Ambergris Cay, but it reports that 172,292 tourists visited Belize in 1999, including 34,130 people on cruises.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the dive and snorkel attraction near Ambergris that is popular among tourists, had 37,954 visitors.
The attractive 10-unit Caribbean Villas Hotel, (501-26) 2715, fax (501-26) 2885, www.caribbeanvillashotel.com, where I stayed, is three-fourths of a mile south of San Pedro Town. It offers guests free use of bicycles, books tours and gives helpful advice. There is a shallow roped-off swimming area at the end of the private pier. The hotel's agreeable management more than compensates for the lack of a restaurant and a hulking supply barge a short walk up the beach that interrupts the view of town from the pier. Bright white suites with touches of mahogany. Rates for suites start at $150, plus 7 percent tax, at 2 Belizean dollars to the United States dollar.
Two miles south of town, the 30-unit Victoria House, (501-26) 2067, fax (501-26) 2429, or at www.victoria-house.com, is British colonial in flavor. It has tasteful furnishings, an attractive dining room, new swimming pool, gardens and inviting outdoor sitting areas, and a handsome new palapa at the end of a pier, past the dive shop. Rates start at $155, plus 17 percent tax and service. Reservations, (800) 247-5159.
At once stylish and rustic, Mata Chica Beach Resort, (501-21) 3010, fax (501-21) 3012, www.matachica.com, probably the cay's most fashionable hotel, has a restaurant, 11 bungalows and casitas and 3 new villas, about five miles north of town. The soothing décor uses fabrics handwoven in Guatemala, Mexican and Guatemalan art, and attractive tiles. Rates start at $225, plus 17 percent tax and service.
The 25-unit Captain Morgan's Retreat, (501-26) 2567, fax (501-26) 2616, at www.captainmorgans.com, a few miles north of San Pedro, has a swimming pool facing the beach and a restaurant. Furnishings include mahogany armoires, and the rooms are clean and cozy. One of the cay's best restaurants, Capricorn, is a short walk down the beach. Rates start at $185, plus 12 percent tax and service. Reservations, (888) 653-9090.
BC's Beach Bar, (501-26) 3289, open daily from 9 a.m. to midnight, faces the beach in town. Besides the Sunday barbeque and Cajun fare on Thursday, the food includes burritos, chili and sandwiches. Meals from $5.50 to about $13.50. The Belize-brewed beer, Belikin, is $1.50, a rum and Coke $2.
Los Cocos is three blocks from the beach in town. Grilled or fried whole red snapper, with potato salad and a generous mound of beans and rice, Belizean style, costs about $4. No alcohol, no phone.
Capricorn, (501-26) 2809, fax (501-26) 2091, on the beach about three miles north of San Pedro, offers tasty French-Italian fare prepared by its French Canadian owner-chef. The peel-and-eat shrimp appetizer with creamy garlic or spicy dip costs $6.25. Fish of the day is $16, rum chocolate cake $6. A bottle of Chilean Chardonnay is $24.
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