Articles on Belize and San Pedro

Sailing in Belize

by: Eva Hill

The following is a long and detailed report of our bareboat sail in Belize.

Natural Disasters R Us

They call me Typhoon Tonya. “Tonya” is my nom de guerre nom de guerre, my boat alias. “Typhoon” was added to it because my impending arrival to a destination seems to herald disaster, visiting hurricanes, tropical waves, unseasonably bad weather, and other unwelcome natural phenomena on my intended vacation spot. Because my track record is so reliably bad, my crew decided it was time to bury the “Tonya” moniker. A website I’d found, which generates a pirate name for you based on a questionnaire, seemed like the answer. I became Captain Ethel Flint; my husband Rick became Mad Jack Flint (they even gave us the same last name!), and our other crew member Jeff became Dirty Jack Rackham (that’s pronounced “Rack-em”).

And so it was that “Ethel” and the two “Jacks” found ourselves heading for a bareboat sail in Belize. Rick and I had traveled to Belize in February of 1999. Even though Ambergris Caye had a very lively feel to it, and notwithstanding the diving community’s arrival here in force, the cayes of Belize still had a wild and undiscovered feel to them. Even though we were tossing about, and saving frequent flier miles for, such alternative charter destinations as Tahiti and the Whitsunday Islands, there seemed to be an imperative to sail Belize before everyone else figured it out. When we stopped at TMM’s docks in San Pedro in 1999, their handful of boats were the only ones available in Belize; now TMM has a second base in the south in Placencia, as does the Moorings. Seemingly not a moment too soon, we were leaving for Belize on Friday, February 7, 2003.

Despite attempts to kill off “Tonya,” we seemed unable to shake her negative influence. Thursday before departure, the forecast called for snow in Maryland; I hoped desperately that the weather reporters were wrong as usual, but on a whim, tossed my cell phone in my luggage anyway, something which NEVER accompanies me to the islands. Friday morning, there was 6-8 inches of snow on the ground when our limo picked us up, and it was slow going to the airport, since the snow was still coming down. (I made a concession to the weather in my attire: I wore socks with my Teva boat sandals.) The airport was chaotic, but we were on board the plane by 7:45 a.m.; late for the 7:26 scheduled departure, but not bad, all things considered. Of course, taking off was still up in the air.

Who's afraid of a little snow?

It soon became apparent that when and if the plane took off, we would likely miss our connection to BZE, the only flight that day. Armed with cell phones and way too much experience at hastily rearranging travel plans, Jeff and I went to work: I re-booked us on the MIA-BZE flight for Saturday; Jeff, who works for Marriott, arranged for a villa rental in Miami; I called TMM to re-arranged our inter-island flights and to inform them of our likely delay; and Jeff called a friend to make arrangements for a night on the town. Well before the plane even took off, we had a solid Plan B in place and could now relax. Yes, we were bummed about starting vacation a day late, but there are worse things than spending a day in Miami (like spending a day and night in MIA).

The Odyssey of the Luggage

After waiting out clearing of runways, de-icing, offloading of passengers and luggage (to make weight), the flight finally departed about 3 hours late, getting us to Miami just before 1 p.m. Rick headed straight to baggage claim, while I arranged for a rental car. In order to retrieve our bags from suspended animation (they would be “held” until we made the flight to BZE the next day), Rick went upstairs to the American Airlines counter to request that the bags be pulled; he was told we’d have them within the hour. So we ate lunch, killed some time, and checked for the bags again. Nothing. Rick checked again with the baggage office, and was now told it would be several hours, so we decided to leave the airport.

Having planned a night at a popular dinner club/burlesque show in Miami Beach called Madame’s (arranged by Jeff’s friend German, who is an investor) required some shopping. I was already wearing the “best” clothing I had with me for travel: Tevas, cargo pants with zip-off legs, and a safari-type shirt. This simply would not do. While I always travel with appropriate clothing for planned jaunts to cities, my chartering wardrobe consists of swimsuits, t-shirts, shorts, a cotton sundress or two for going “out,” no cosmetics (but a fully-stocked first aid kit!) and those ever-so-elegant Tevas. The boys were equally limited. So we headed to a mall and picked up Miami-hot clothes, the likes of which would not otherwise grace our wardrobes, but which made is feel at home here during this unplanned visit.

Next stop was to our night’s lodging, a vacation club villa near the Doral golf course in Miami. The accommodations were definitely plush: a beautifully decorated and luxuriously appointed 2-bedroom villa with a view of the golf course and a large pond and fountain. The master suite had an enormous Jacuzzi tub and a huge stand-alone shower. Too bad we weren’t staying long!

Back to the airport, where our luggage still hadn’t appeared. I started questioning the baggage agents in the claim area, and when they checked our file, it appeared that our “pull” order had not been properly entered. So, if we wanted our bags (we did), one of us would have to go upstairs to the ticket counter (again), wait in line (again), ask that the order be issued (again), and then wait for the bags for several hours (again). Or we could trust that the bags would make it on our flight the next day … which we were not prepared to do. Feeling sorry for us, one of the baggage guys, Kevin, volunteered to personally find our bags if one of us would complete the paperwork upstairs. Twenty minutes later , we had them (mine had been opened by TSA with no note).

By now, we were running late for our dinner reservation, so it was all we could do to run back to our villa, throw on our new clothes, and drive to Miami Beach. We faced hideous traffic all the way, and were late, but finally had our chance to kick back and enjoy Madame’s.

Madame’s is one of those places you must experience to believe. It has a look that is a cross between a nightclub and a bordello (not that I’ve ever been in one), with dimly lit tables, lush velvety fabrics and hangings everywhere, and risqué artwork. The waitstaff are also part of the show. With the exception of one or two of them, all of them are males dressed in over-the-top drag, all of whom perform on stage throughout dinner (though you are never neglected while your server is one stage; one of the others slips in to take care of you). While we were being entertained by the performers, we enjoyed yummy drinks (mojitos and martinis) and dined on modernized Southern-style comfort food. Alas, by about 9:30, the day’s battles (which started at 4:30 a.m.) were started to take their toll on us, so we headed back to Doral and our beds.

Belize At Last

Saturday morning (Feb. 8) we head back to MIA, this time to catch our flight to BZE. The airport is utterly chaotic, which is unfortunately MIA’s “normal” condition. Long lines to check in. Long lines to have our bags inspected. Blessedly short lines to get through security. We had breakfast on the concourse, including verrrry strong café Cubano. Long lines for the ladies’ room. We actually left close to schedule, having scored exit row seats.

The flight was pretty turbulent, but we made it to BZE around 12:40. Customs and immigration moved quickly, as there were many agents on duty. Having cleared that, we went straight to the domestic ticketing area for Tropic Air and got on an earlier flight than originally reserved. Tropic operates small 13-passenger prop planes. While boarding, I got pulled out of line because they wanted me to join the lighter people (yea! it’s events like this and occasionally getting carded which make life a little sweeter sometimes) in the rear of the plane. The view from the rear is not the best, but I had good company in two other ladies, who quizzed me on the ins and outs of Belize, since I had “expert” status from having been there once before.

The low short flight took us off the mainland of this small Central American nation to the island of Ambergris Caye. Belize has offshore the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, and the second longest on the planet. The reef protects, and in some cases serves as the foundation for, a string of islands running from north to south. Ambergris Caye is the northernmost, as well as the largest and most-visited. The glorious waters surrounding the cayes would be our home for a week. After getting a sky view of the waters, we landed on the small strip, collected our bags, and hoofed it to TMM’s office, where Sharr greeted us with “Ah, Smilin' Wide, you’ve finally made it! What a journey you’ve had!”

Sharr led us down the sandy path to the dock to Smilin’ Wide¸ our 35 foot Fountaine Pajot Tobago catamaran. I was instantly thrilled with the design of the cockpit (benches all around, with a table on the port side and helm station on the starboard, with plenty of room for lazing around), as well as the galley-up setup; having spent many an hour working away in one of the hulls of a galley-down catamaran, working with a view of where we were, as well as the rest of the crew, would be a treat. Our bags soon followed us, so we stripped down to islandwear and went to the bar at neighboring Ramon’s Village and its Purple Parrot bar and ordered up some eponymous Purple Parrots, as well as nachos and the most heavenly fish fingers I’ve ever eaten. (We learned that the Purple Parrot is on Jimmy Buffett’s list of Top 10 waterside bars after our visit here in 1999).

At 3:00, the boys returned to the boat for the boat briefing, which I walked to the supermarket to provision. The grocery selections were OK, but meat and produce were iffy. (If I’d had more time, I would have gone to the smaller shops in San Pedro to get fruits and veggies, but I didn’t want to spend my whole first day of vacation working). The provisions were on the pricey side, and I dropped over $250 on food for the three of us, not including beverage provisioning which I’d done through TMM; of course, not expecting much in the way of dining-out options once leaving San Pedro, this was a larger-than-usual provisioning effort. And it’s theprice of paradise. The store arranged to drive me and our supplies back to the boat, and by the time I returned an hour later, the boys were done with the briefing.

By now, it was too late for us to sail off, since traveling with good light is a must in these coral-studded seas. Instead, we hit the streets (which are still made of sand, though some are being “paved” with bricks) and the beach to explore San Pedro. Our tour ranged between the beach, the unofficial Main Street of San Pedro, and the streets, where we visited shops and galleries and mingled with the travelers and denizens alike on this weekend day. San Pedro is, by far, the “busiest” of Belize’s cayes, but this is relative; even one cruise ship in port in any other Caribbean island town would make San Pedro look like the lazy, sleepy outpost that it is. We stopped for a few local beers (Belikin) at BC’s Beach Bar and BBQ under its thatched roof.

Because our tender winter feet were not up to the challenge of walking barefoot, which is the norm in town, we returned to the boat to get shoes before heading out to dinner at Elvi’s Kitchen. Here we promptly slipped our shoes off again to enjoy the sand floors and easy atmosphere, which accompanied local cuisine, like the chicken baked in a banana leaf which I had, and potent rum concoctions. The local “One Barrel” rum is excellent. After dinner, we returned to the boat, stargazed from the trampoline (not a particularly comfortable one, as it is rope webbing) before passing out at an obscenely early hour.

Sailing Away

Just as we retired to our breezy cabins (the wind kicks up at night in this part of the Caribbean) at an obscenely early hour, we rose equally early. The sunrises over the reef are breathtaking, accompanied as they are most mornings by some cloud cover on the eastern horizon. We started our morning boat routine of lavish application of sunscreen (yuck), writing in journals, studying charts, drinking coffee (iced tea for me), running the engine to charge the batteries and refrigerator, and breakfast of yogurt and granola or Pop-Tarts.

At 8:30, we had our chart briefing with David from TMM, a Belizean whom TMM considers one of its best captains. We shared the briefing with Bob and Carol aboard Bedazzle, the Lagoon 41 which they own and have placed in service with TMM; they are leaving today as well. David’s briefing was very thorough and funny. It quickly dawned on me that these islands are not the relatively easy BVIs or Abacos, which are thoroughly charted and waypointed. Here, the best cruising guide was most recently updated 7 years ago and features hand-drawn charts, so a Belizean charter adventure is definitely not for those with marginal navigation skills.

David then took us out on the boat to the reef so that he could show us how to identify the coral heads and demonstrate how essential it is to have good light. Hull-crunching coral lurking just beneath the surface, which is invisible with the sun in front of us, comes into full, frightening (to me) view with the sun behind us. Satisfied that he’d shown us what we needed in this 5 minute jaunt, David helped us raise the mainsail, radioed the TMM chase boat, and slipped away, sending us on our way by 10 a.m.

Sailing away from Ambergris Caye, south the Cay Caulker, with Bedazzle in our wake.

Now, I’ve heard it said (sometimes by my very own lips) that cats point like dogs. Whether true or not, this was irrelevant on this trip because we never had to sail upwind. Unless a norther rolls through the region, winter winds come reliably from the E to ENE in the winter; with the cayes arrayed from north to south, we had delicious beam reaches every time we raised the sails. And so it was when we set off in 10-15 knots of breeze to the next caye down, Cay Caulker. We skimmed across the smooth blue sea with Rick or Jeff at the helm, while I sat forward on one of the hulls, learning how to “read” the water (which was not strictly necessary on this passage, since there is no minefield of coral heads here).

While underway, I make a lunch of turkey wraps with the delicious local tortillas I buy instead of bread here. By noon, we were anchoring on the back side (west) of Cay Caulker, near the settlement. This was intended to be a brief stop to buy some fresh seafood from the fisherman’s co-op, but they apparently are closed on Sundays. Nevertheless, we tie the dink at the commercial dock (there are no dedicated dinghy docks here) and hit the sandy streets of the town to get a look at the colorful businesses lining the sandy streets. After getting a few more provisions, we take off again, heading for St. George’s Cay for the night.

After leaving Cay Caulker behind us, we zoomed alongside Chapel Cay, a private island, before reaching a narrow channel portentously called Porto Stuck. Here, we obediently dropped the sails and fired up the twin diesels to traverse through (per David’s instructions), watching carefully for the 5-foot light tower marking the channel, and then the three sticks (literally) marking its eastern edge. Onward to St. George’s Cay, which is shaped like a crescent moon open to the southwest, offering great protection, but the anchorage is very shallow with a bottom thick with turtle grass. The anchoring process was slow, as we searched for a sandy spot, and we put down a second anchor (the Fortress) to supplement the Delta #35.

Finally satisfied, we jumped in the warm water and bathed. After getting cleaned up, I rustled up tortilla chips (made from those wonderful local tortillas) and salsa and made one of my special Belizean cocktails. In the local markets during our last visit, we discovered a local fruit juice concentrate I’ve only ever found here which makes an amazing cocktail. Today’s mix featured “Seabreeze Punch” (red, grapefruity, tangy), ginger ale, and dark rum. We toasted an amazing sunset over Belize City, 20 miles west of us. Dinner was a bit dicey, since the solenoid to the propane tanks was acting dodgy, but eventually I managed to make a marinara sauce with Italian sausage to serve over saffron rice, finished with Belikin and Oreos (with yellow cream filling – yuck!) for dessert.

After cleaning up, we stretched out on the trampoline and watched the stars. Once again, we retired early. Sleeping was very comfortable with the reliably breezy conditions; in fact, most nights I had to close the hatches to avoid getting a chill. There was on brief burst of rain overnight, but the 2:00 a.m. Hatch Drill was not required.

Monday morning, after completing our morning chores, we went ashore. We tied the dink up at the dock of the St. George’s Lodge, a very intimate dive resort which features a main lodge an overwater palapas. The grounds are especially lush and attractive, showing the work of loving and devoted hands. We asked our host for permission to tie up the dink, and he was appreciative that we’d even bothered, since apparently others don’t. We walked across the Lodge’s grounds to the “front” side of this very narrow cay, and walked along the sandy paths and lawns of the attractive and brightly-colored homes facing the sea. There weren’t many signs of habitation here, despite the lovely homes; the cay had a decided “edge of the Empire” feel to it.

A cannon, dating back to the Spanish Armada, stands sentry over St. George's Caye, the longest-inhabited of Belize's cayes. The cay is home to candy-colored holiday homes of Belize City's wealthy families.

Our chartered Fountaine Pajot "Tobago" 35 catamaran, Smilin' Wide, at anchor in Mapps Caye.

Pirates of the Caribbean

After our brief visit at St. George, we headed south to Mapps Caye. This is a collection of mangroves crossed by glowing blue “rivers” which slice it into pieces. We anchored in one of the rivers and used it as our base for exploring Swallow Caye to the west, another mangrove island which is a manatee preserve. We dinghied across, then puttered and paddled around the caye for 90 minutes, hoping to have a sighting. Alas, all me managed to see was a brief surfacing of one of the old beasts; he poked his head out for a breath, but that was all.

We had a lunch of BLT wraps underway and set our sights for Goff's Caye, a tiny palm-fringed sand spit right on the barrier reef. However, it was already 3:00 by the time we approached, which wouldn’t give us enough time to have a bit of beach fun AND then safely find a secure anchorage for the night before it got too dark to do so, so we turned to Water Caye instead. Water Caye is yet another mangrove island, uninhabited. Because of the silty mud and grass on the bottom, it took us about 40 minutes to anchor here, so we were glad we’d decided to delay our visit to Goff’s.

Barefoot Man sings that "It's just another sunset, just another starry night..." Maybe for him it is, but each sunset on this trip was a celebration, each moment lovelier than the last.

At the south end of Water Caye is a sandy beach. We dinked over to explore, but there wasn’t much to see. Some sand, mangroves, coconuts, conchs and lots of no-see-ums, whose ravenous hunger ultimately drove us away. We returned to our boat, alone in the anchorage, and had a long nekkid swim before taking saltwater baths.

For sundowners, I made cocktails of “Lime Squash,” seltzer water and rum to accompany brie and apple slices. The green drinks portended the green flash we observed as the sun set. For dinner, I’d planned to sauté potatoes to go with salad and grilled pork chops, but our propane tanks failed us and I had to cook the potatoes on the grill with the chops. After much fiddling around and making-do, I finally put together a creditable dinner.

Just as we were sitting down to eat, a sailboat motored behind us, dropped its sails, and dropped an anchor – much too close to us for comfort. It was a local boat with no running lights and we freaked out a bit, envisioning pirates and ill deeds. This is, after all Central America, and the region is rife with tales of piracy, notwithstanding our own experiences with the lovely Belizean people. I lost my appetite and we all prepared for the worst, stowing our stuff, closing ports and doors, and keeping a vigilant watch. Jeff went so far as to ready the flare gun, as instructed by David, for self-defense.

We slept badly, with every creak of the anchor chain or thump on deck potentially being an evil boarding party. By morning, to add to our misery, the wind had died down and the hungry no-see-ums boarded us like marauding pirates. So, with the sun barely peeking over the eastern horizon, we took off for Goff’s Caye to get away from the scourge of flying teeth, and not-so-incidentally, the “pirates.” Of course, in daylight, the evil pirate ship revealed itself to be a local fishing boat, with it’s distinctive gaff rig and accompaniment of dugout canoes trailing behind it and lashed to its topsides. We laughed at the absurdity of imagining ourselves the potential targets of Pirates in Sailboats.

Our "pirates" -- local fishermen -- in their gaff-rigged boats dragging dugout canoes behind them. Much worse were the marauding no-see-ums that drove us to leave our bunks and set off just as the sun was rising. Goff's Caye at sunrise was our compensation for the rude awakening.

An escapist's fantasy, Rendezvous Caye, is a small, palmy sand spit on Belize's Barrier Reef which invites napping and splashing about in the shallows. The snorkeling isn't bad, either.

Gilligan’s Islands

We reached Goff’s Caye by 7:00 a.m. Tuesday and anchored in firm sand in about 6 feet of water close to shore. We took care of our morning tasks and called the TMM base for suggestions on how to fix the propane. In full daylight and with the incentive of coffee, Rick was able to track down the loose and corroding connections, make a fix, and get a pot brewing in no time.

Goff’s is a tiny little islet with a dozen palm trees sitting right on the reef. Goff’s has a thatched palapa and a dock, and we are the only ones here. Unfortunately, Goff’s has suffered from “civilization,” even since we visited in 1999. A favorite of daytrippers looking for a beach fix, including the increasing number of cruise ships calling in Belize City, Goff’s is now littered with their messes. Here and there I find used diapers tossed on the beach, styrofoam containers, plastic cups, and other waste. When we were here a few years ago, our guide scrupulously cleared away all evidence of our having been there; present visitors apparently can’t be bothered. While the boys snorkel, I think about cleaning up some of the mess, but there is nowhere for me to put it (and frankly, I would need gloves before I’d be willing to touch some of this stuff). So I had to content myself with exploring the good parts of the island while keeping and eye out for my snorkelers.

We swam back to the boat and were underway by 10:00 a.m., somewhat saddened and angered by what had become of this little slice of paradise. Our next destination is Rendezvous Cay, a small islet further south along the reef, and hopefully one which has seen less of the ravages of un-accountable tourism. We started under sail, and soon a fisherman in a dugout canoe (perhaps one of our “pirates”?) was paddling furiously towards, shouting “Lobster!” We slow our progress and let him tie up to our swim steps, where he shows us his take of live, wriggling bugs – lobster season ends on Saturday. I ask for 4 of them, and with the knife and bucket I supply him, he deftly separates the tails from the bodies and separates me from $20 U.S.

As high noon nears, we need to make some progress to Rendezvous, so we motor sail. Jeff and I are stationed on the bow, watching for the many coral heads marked on the chart here. My stomach is in knots; with less than ideal light conditions, it is difficult to distinguish the colors of the water, and I’m anxious that we’ll make a mistake. When we finally make it to Rendezvous, anchoring is equally challenging, as we need to sneak in between two patch reefs and fight a bit of surge in relatively deep water. My work is not quite done until I serve up a beans-and-weenies lunch, but after that I get my reward.

My reward, of course, is a perfect little tropical islet. There is another catamaran anchored snugly close to shore, Arc en Ciel, but otherwise Rendezvous bears little evidence of the incursion of humanity. No docks, not palapas, and – best of all – no trash. It’s tempting to stretch out under the palms and snooze away the afternoon in the breeze, as Jeff does, but instead Rick and I take a bit of a snorkel. We splash around in the bathtub-warm crystal blue shallows after snorkeling. But in order to make the best of the day’s remaining light, we leave just after 2:00 p.m. to head for our intended anchorage at Bluefield Range.

Can We Get Any More Relaxed?

After an hour of motoring and dodging a few more coral patches, we reach Bluefield Range, a collection of mangrove islands with a large, protected anchorage smack in the middle of them. There is room for dozens of boats inside, but we are the fourth to arrive here today; the other three are clearly cruising boats, equipped as they are with solar panels, wind generators, and other accouterments which distinguish them from charterers. In the southwest corner of the anchorage is a small collection of blue-painted shacks on stilts comprising a fishing camp/resort. Manatees supposedly frequent this area as well. We anchor easily in about 12 feet of water.

As Rick dives the anchor, a lens pops out of his snorkel mask, so I hand my new mask over to him. A game of “Find the Lens” becomes an un-needed excuse to jump in the water, which we don’t climb out of until happy hour, having gotten pruny and bathed. As we dig into chips, salsa and cocktails, a fishing boat anchors nearby, and soon another canoer come alongside. I’m hoping to buy some conch meat, but he offers me a conch pearl instead; pretty, but it won’t make much of a chowder! For dinner, we grill three of the lobster tails and serve them with melted butter (gilding the lily, but it’s vacation), potatoes and salad. Chocolate chip cookies are dessert. It doesn’t get much better.

As the sun sets over Bluefield Range, lobsters which were hiding among the corals in the morning, and wriggling in a fisherman's canoe in the afternoon, are about the meet their maker.

We have a breezy night at anchor and it looks like there might be rain. So we close the hatches and safely stow the line-drying towels and swimsuits. This turns out to be a good call, as we had rain but didn’t have to deal with it.

Wednesday is just Another Sunny Day in Paradise. By now, I can recite the weather forecast verbatim, for it changes not at all. “Partly cloudy with scattered showers. Winds east to northeast, 10-20 knots.” I’m getting that sunbaked, salt-cured look and feel that a week of sailing in the tropics delivers, despite lavish applications of sunscreen. An impressive collection of no-see-um and mosquito bites dots my skin. I’ll be driven to take a Benadryl to quell the itch before the day is out. But I’m not complaining: the weather, the sailing, and the company have been great so far.

Today will be a slow day. We had thought about going as far south as Tobacco Caye, but we’d either need an extra day to make up for the one we effectively lost (we asked TMM, but the boat is booked), or we’d need to spend very long sailing days – and that kind of “stress” is not what we came here. So, with nowhere in particular to go, we will be turning towards the north to re-trace our route back to Ambergris Caye.

After a very slow morning at anchor, we head out of the southern end of Bluefield Range towards the next cay south, Alligator Cay, to see if there might be interesting snorkeling. The chart warns of numerous coral heads, but the morning’s cloud cover makes it impossible to safely make our way close enough to anchor. So we turn tail and head towards the cay immediately north of Bluefield Range, which is Middle Long Cay.

We have a great sail, beam-reaching all the way. We arrive to this sandy-shored island around 11:00 a.m. and try to anchor. Alas, the deeper waters have a sandy bottom, but it is studded with soft corals (sea fans); the purely sandy bottom closer to shore is way too shallow. Strike two. Our third attempt will be for a sure thing: Water Cay. Another rollicking sail under bright sunlight, with 20 knots of wind. The sea is a bit choppier than it’s been in recent days, but we blame that on the cruise ships we spy off Belize City.

We anchor just off the beach at Water Caye, but this time, far enough away to avoid hungry bugs.

Finally, we choose a spot off the southern tip of Water Cay, off the beach but hopefully far enough away from the shore to avoid no-see-ums. We set two hooks in just over 4 feet in a muddy/sandy bottom. While swimming around off the boat, we observe excursion boats from the cruise ships going to and from Goff’s Caye. At one point, we sighted what looked to be a tiki hut floating on pontoons coming our way (it was the Amber Tiki, which serves cruise ship passengers). Having exhausted our ice supply, I joked that we should see if they had any to sell; moments later, Rick dinks over to the Amber Tiki, then returns with a trash bagful of ice which they gave us for free, since they are friendly with people at TMM. Icy boat drinks guaranteed for the rest of the week!

After a lunch of pepperoni pasta salad, the afternoon is spent alternately reading, sunning and snoozing. We range between the tramp, the hulls, cabin top, or cockpit, depending on our sun exposure preference. I’m beginning to feel like a lamb shank or osso bucco, as described in a cookbook article: cooked under the sun, low and slow, with all of my sinews having melted. Later, what looks to be a Moorings charter boat anchors behind us, so we avoid the nekkid saltwater baths today, out of respect for our neighbors. Sundowners tonight feature Lime Squash, then Seabreeze Punch, the supplies of which I’ve now exhausted. Dinner is lobster and corn chowder. After dark, we watch the two giant cruise ships, illuminated like Christmas trees, pass out of English Channel into the open sea, thankful that we were virtually alone in this breezy anchorage tonight and not on one of these behemoths with 1500 “friends” on our way to Cozumel.

Inching Back Towards Society

Thursday will take us a few steps back towards civilization. We have an easy morning, and today there are no no-see-ums to escape because the wind has kept up all night. We have another amazing sailing day as we beam-reach in excess of 8 knots back to St. George’s Cay; we sailed all the way except for the last stretch into the anchorage, which was dead upwind. With optimal light, we’re able to identify the sandy/silty spots to anchor it, setting 2 hooks, settling in by lunchtime.

Rick has arranged a dive with Fred Good at St. George’s Lodge. Until 2:15, we loll about and then dink over in time for Rick’s dive, where we meet divemaster and host Fred, who welcomes us to the cay and to his amazing lodge. While Rick motored off with the rest of the divers, Jeff and I lounged under a spreading mango (I think) tree on orange-painted adirondack chairs, then moved to the orange adirondack chairs on the palapa-topped dock.

Despite its diminutive size and remoteness, St. George's Caye is one of the most historic of Belize's cayes, and offers a number of civilized pleasures -- the comfortable atmosphere and warm welcome (as well as superlative diving) of St. George's Lodge, as well as the incredible stories told by Neil and Sally at the Unicorn Gift Shop, housed in the oldest standing building on the caye (and featured on the $5 BZ bill). It would be easy to while away an afternoon on the Lodge's comfy orange chairs, or to picture yourself in one of it's overwater cabanas. As for the Unicorn Gift Shop, you don't go there for shopping as much as you go for the company.

We moved into the Lodge, which is a rich, dark wood-finished space with a central bar and rooms on the sides. The Lodge also has over-water cabanas. We lounged in comfy wood adirondack chairs (these not orange) and made the acquaintance of Debbie from Philly, whose husband Larry is diving. They are staying for a week, after a week in Punta Gorda.

St. George’s Caye has the distinction of being the first of Belize’s cayes to have been inhabited (1650), and now serves as a vacation retreat for the wealthy families of Belize, who are only in residence part-time. With this illustrious past, Jeff and I finally rouse ourselves enough to take a walk. We strolled a few minutes south until we reach a cleared area which looks barren and desert-like (we later learned it’s been cleared to be subdivided and sold as lots with both east and west water frontage). Then we turn back north and re-trace our steps from our earlier visit, waving to the British military men at their compound, and then stopping in the Unicorn Gift Shop.

The gift shop is part of the oldest surviving home on the island, which graces the back of the Belizean $5 bill. Sally and Neil, an American couple who met through the personal ads, have been living here for 15 years! Before meeting Neil, Sally had no intention of ever leaving her home or children in Indianapolis; yet persistent Neil, who had fallen in love with Belize during his travels for a major American corporation, had her living in the wilds of Belize within a year after they met. They gave us a tour of their amazing residence, the walls, floors, doors, shelving and much furniture in which is hand-crafted and custom-made of a variety of dense, heavy and beautiful tropical hardwoods. The floor in each room is designed in a different parquet pattern utilizing these multi-colored woods. The home is bullet-proof and virtually self-sufficient, except for the groceries they have delivered to them periodically. Now that Sally and Neil and housebound due to their various illnesses, they have created a little world for themselves on this tiny caye. They welcome visitors like us for the company we provide, and we are richer for having spent a little time with them.

Knowing that Rick’s dive boat was soon returning, Jeff and I had to take our leave. We bumped into Bob and Carol from Bedazzle as we walked back, and returned to the Lodge just as the dive boat returned. Waiting for Rick to settle his tab with Fred, we settled back into the Lodge and chatted with the guests coming and going. Soon Fred and Fran joined the gathering, as did Bob and Carol. As sailors are wont, we were soon swapping boat stories, all of us noting that the sailing world is small indeed.

Smilin' Wide's crew of Rick, Jeff and Eva (a.k.a. Jack, Jack and Ethel) enjoy the warm welcome and pleasant company at St. George's Lodge. Before returning to the boat, we savor the sunset from the rooftop deck of Fred and Fran's neighboring home.

Like Sally and Neil, Fred’s story is equally compelling, and Fran showed us photos to back it up. Fran told us how Fred came to build the Lodge. Fred had acquired the property in the early 70s, when it was nothing more than a barren sand spit (Hurricane Hattie had taken great chunks of land away). With a dredging permit in hand, Fred dredged and used the spoil to build up the land. While looking for financing to build a house, a banker told him financing was unavailable, but it could be had if he were willing to build a “first-class” hotel. Fred didn’t think the area was ready for such a hotel until has asked what constituted “first-class” - it turns out that first-class is merely a lodging with rooms having en suite baths. That Fred could do, and he did it by sheer will and faith.

Over the years, Fred and Fran starting building their own house next door. It has grown in fits and starts, each phase seemingly begetting the next. Fran invited us to have a look around, especially the rooftop patio, which was the highest point on the island. At her direction, we simply let ourselves in, took in the spectacular woodwork and soaring spaces of their house-in-progress, and then climbed to the roof to get unparalleled views of the cay and surrounding waters. What a treat!

Darkness was approaching, so we reluctantly took our leave of this warm, hospitable place and eased into our evening routine of bathing, sundowners and dinner. My provisioning had been nearly perfect, as we were approaching the end of our food supply as we approached the end of our cruise. Overnight, we were glad to have set two anchors, as the wind was really kicking up; we also had a major rain shower at about 3:00 a.m. – it wouldn’t be a vacation in the tropics without it!

Friday takes us even closer to “civilization.” After a very leisurely morning at anchor, we sail off for Cay Caulker by 9:30 a.m., running ahead of the first real chance of daytime rain we’ve seen all week. The wind was kicking up, in excess of the 10-20 knots predicted, and the seas were choppy. We dropped the sails to get through Porto Stuck, but notice that Bedazzle, behind us, did not. After passing, we put the sails back up and screamed all the way to Cay Caulker. Once there, a couple of stinging showers pelted us as we anchored, but that was the last of the rain we saw the rest of the week.

Rather than eat aboard, we went ashore to lunch at the Sandbox, a sand-floored bar/restaurant facing the Caribbean Sea. Having eaten rather wholesome, homemade food all week, we all craved some bad stuff, so we ordered nachos, conch fritters (really big, delicious ones), and assorted sandwiches with fries. After filling up on bad, greasy, deep-fried food, we walked the dusty streets of town, which were filled with backpackers, daytrippers and college students on a lark. Cay Caulker is a hippie dippy kind of town, where tie-dye and incense (and not a few whiffs of discretely smoked marijuana) set the scene.

The feel of Cay Caulker, with its sandy streets and predominantly young visitors is best summed up by the name of the bar where Rick and Jeff find themselves: The Lazy Lizard.

After running into Bob and Carol of Bedazzle again, we stopped at the Lazy Lizard for drinks. The Lazy Lizard is a ramshackle open-air affair located at the “Split” (or the “Cut”), a narrow channel - recently made wider by Hurricane Keith - splitting the cay in two. The young people seem to congregate in this general area, sunning and preening on the bulkheads.

I’d managed to lose three ankle bracelets on this trip while snorkeling, so it was time to get another. A Rasta was making and selling them from a table in front of the Lazy Lizard, so I tried a few on for size before settling on one I liked that fit me. When I didn’t have change for my jeweler, I offered to leave the bracelet behind while I got some change from Rick, but the Rastaman said “Don’t be like dat, mon; I trust you.” Soon thereafter, the transaction was completed. When I arrived at the bar, I’d found that Rick and Jeff had ordered a round of “Lizard Juice,” the house specialty. These neon-green drinks would have tasted better had they caught a few geckos and whirled them in a blender – that stuff was nasty, suitable only for looking at!

By now, we’re so relaxed that we’re nearly immobile. It was all we could do to muster up the energy to return to the boat and loll around. After watching the sun set, we returned to town – it was, after all, Valentine’s Day, and a meal out was what we were doing to mark the occasion. The hostess at highly-recommended Habaneros actually asked us if we had reservations (!), which of course we didn’t. Instead, we ended up at Rasta Pasta on the beach. Rasta Pasta is the same restaurant we ate at on Ambergris Caye in 1999, but had since moved to Placencia before ending up on Cay Caulker. We soon found ourselves enjoying the famous drink of Belize’s cays: the Panty Ripper (coconut rum with pineapple juice), as well as conch ceviche, Thai curry, and a giant fish burrito. Back on Smilin’ Wide, we ate Carr’s ginger lemon crèmes, the traditional last night dessert on charter vacations.

Little did we know that our adventure was far from over…

Groundhog Day

On Saturday morning, we made an effort to pack up, clean up, and set sail by 9:00 a.m. The wind was blowing well over 20 knots, so we raised only the jib and still made over 6 knots over choppy seas (the seas were HUGE outside the reef). As we came closer to TMM’s docks, we radio-ed ahead and a chase boat deposited a TMM skipper aboard, who took us first to a fuel dock to replenish the tanks, and then to TMM’s docks. Once having offloaded our luggage, we are relieved of any further clean-up chores; a few minutes later, we settle our account at TMM’s offices and our sailing trip is over.

The beach in front of Ramon's Village is one of the best on Ambergris Caye, and offers a view of TMM's docks and the fleet of charter catamarans. Meanwhile, the "streets" of San Pedro are just as sandy as its beaches.

Since we can’t check into TMM’s condo til 2, we have lunch at Ramon’s Village (as well as some of those yummy Purple Parrots!), and lazily wander around San Pedro, picking up a few souvenirs and gifts. At 2, we take a cab to the condo (on the water, basic and comfortable, with AC). We’d all been looking forward to long, freshwater showers, but were disappointed to find no hot water; nevertheless, it was nice to worry a little less about conservation and to finally get all the grime of a week of sailing off our bodies. The Weather Channel heralds a foot of snow in Baltimore and Washington on Sunday, so we have no idea whether we will get home tomorrow or not.

In the early evening, we started walking down the beach to Fido’s Courtyard, a huge open-air palapa facing the beach which features a bar, stage, restaurant, and a number of artsy shops. A band was tuning up, so we grabbed a table as far from the speakers as possible. Fido’s Panty Rippers are the BEST, and dinner was awesome as well (sticking mostly to fresh fish). Walking back, we stopped at a small market to get breakfast food, and then headed back to the condo to watch worsening weather forecasts.

Sunday is yet Another Sunny Day in Paradise, but the weather at home is deteriorating. Try as we might, we can’t make international calls, so we can’t really get a sense of what is happening at home and have to roll with whatever comes our way. We spend some time on the beach, where small waves are actually coming ashore; this is highly unusual for the San Pedro waterfront, but not surprising given the many days of strong onshore winds.

At noon, it is time for us to check out, and our taxi driver arrives promptly. We “check out” by leaving the key on the table and leaving the door unlocked behind us, per instruction. You’ve got to love a place like this! We drop our bags at the airstrip and walk over to Jerry’s Crab Shack, behind Ramon’s Village, for lunch. Jeff succumbed to the building pizza craving, while Rick and I stuck with fish.

This palapa on the beach in front of our condo is the last view of the tropics we'll have for a loooong time...

Our Tropic Air flight was on time and uneventful. But while checking in at BZE, we learned, unsurprisingly, that while we could board the BZE-DFW flight, the DFW-BWI flight was cancelled. The earliest DFW-BWI flight we could get confirmed on was for Tuesday night, so we signed up for it, hoping we could do better once we arrived stateside. After we cleared security and settled in, the ticket agent found us in the departure lounge and advised us that there were no hotel rooms in Dallas, offering us the alternative to stay in Belize until Tuesday. Although another 2 days of sun was far more appealing than staying in Dallas, our inability to communicate with the U.S. led us to take our chances.

Our flight to Dallas takes off close to schedule, though the beginning is quite bumpy due to thunderstorms. Minutes before landing, I make a game plan: I am to get a rental car, and Jeff is to look for hotel rooms anywhere within driving distance. As it turns out, neither chore is particularly taxing, as it appears that the ticket agent in BZE was overstating the scarcity of accommodations. Indeed, we get two very nice rooms at the DFW Marriott at Jeff’s employee discount rate. The seemingly longest part of our journey is now beginning: getting out of DFW Airport…

At the hotel, the staff is especially solicitous towards us – after all, they are taking care of someone from corporate headquarters. But the hotel, as attractive as it is, seems to be a part of the vast megalopolis that is DFW, and it seems that, much like in the movie “Groundhog Day,” we can never escape the endlessly repeating loop that is the airport area. This feeling is compounded by the fact that we are wearing the same clothes for several days running, since none of us has anything more substantial to wear than the outfits we traveled south in (I did eventually pick up a pair of tennis shoes – since my Tevas were NOT the shoes to wear in the snow – and a sweater).

And so we spend the next few days doing the same thing: watching the Weather Channel, following airport status, checking flights with American Airlines, driving to nearby restaurants for meals or grabbing snacks in the Concierge lounge of the hotel, and yes, wearing the same clothes. (We did sneak out to visit Dallas’ West End, but it wasn’t particularly inspiring). Finally, on Tuesday, BWI re-opens at 3:00 p.m., so we try to escape the endlessly repeating loop and head for the airport.

What a scene to come home to -- over 2 feet of snow!

We try to stand-by on the 5:30 p.m. flight to BWI, but the stand-by list is 2 pages long before it even gets to our names. The 7:30 flight gets cancelled. And the 9:17 a.m. flight we are confirmed on FINALLY leaves DFW close to 1:00 a.m. We arrive home around 4:30 a.m., to a landscape barely recognizable as the home we left 12 days before, buried as it is under 2 feet of snow.

Thankfully, the warm afterglow of our Belizean journey carried us through the next few challenging days. And as annoying as it was to have our journey delayed, both southbound and northbound, we know we were lucky to have the wherewithal to make comfortable – even fun – alternate arrangements for ourselves, when others have ended up sleeping in airports. Of course, while I have learned how to solve travel problems on the fly, it seems that those problems occur with disturbing regularity on my adventures!

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