March 11, 2009 01:20

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As the sun slowly crawls down the skyline, the cares of the world are far away. At a table almost enveloped in water, a group sits in their swimwear, knocking back beers number eight and nine.

They’re cheering on the guys by the diving board, who are attempting ever more ambitious plunges into the fast-flowing channel that divides the two halves of the island.

The crowd gathered at the Lazy Lizard bar are a clue to what Caye Caulker offers. Off the coast of Belize and situated next to the world’s second biggest barrier reef, it has become something of a secret backpacker hotspot.

Caye Caulker doesn’t have any beach worth speaking of, and this is arguably what helps it to retain its character. The resorts are never going to take over in the same way that they have on Ambergris Caye further north purely because the masses have no sandy stretches to lie on.

It’s an island of bright clapboard guesthouses, an anything goes attitude and a slow, shuffling pace. Within minutes of arriving, hectic hurrying is reduced to a contented shamble along the colourful main drag, and two-for-one daiquiris before lunch seem mighty tempting.

It’s a seriously relaxed place. Everything works on island time, happy hours last “until everyone is happy,” and any sartorial advance on shorts and flip-flops is completely overdressed.

Many visitors to Caye Caulker are lured by diving or snorkelling trips with rays and manatees, but stay because of the vibe. It’s the sort of place that sucks people in. Many will come for two days, extend for a couple more and before they know it, they’ve not seen their family for 12 years.

Hence, the ranks of those that live on Caye Caulker are multinational. Boat skippers from Nicaragua, crews from Canada, dive shop managers from the U.K. and grocery store owners from China are common.

It’s a place where the party is never planned, but one could break out at any time. A quiet bar can morph into a sin-packed reggae club in which some of the dirtiest bumping and grinding imaginable takes place.

And then the next morning, one of those dancers may well turn out to be the captain of the reef trip boat. Turning up 40 minutes late for the tour with a pounding head, then throwing a series of empty beer bottles off his rainbow-coloured vessel before departure is absolutely par for the course.

But if you finally do get out into the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, it’s a wonderful playground. It becomes something of an aquatic highlights reel. Alongside the manatees and rays are sharks (not the man-eating variety), eels, barracudas and turtles. Throw in brain coral and thousands of brightly coloured fish, and snorkelers are pretty much guaranteed to hit the jackpot.

Despite this, the reef is just a pleasant bonus for those that kick back on Caye Caulker.

If there’s one place that perfectly captures the island’s ridiculously laid-back vibe, it’s Jolly Roger’s Grill. To call it a restaurant would be going a little bit far — it’s just one man and his oil can barbecue, with a few tables scattered by the beach. There are generally only two or three menu options, and the dishes come served in polystyrene boxes.

Doesn’t sound all that promising, does it? But the old adage of never trusting a skinny chef comes into play here. Roger is enormous, and as jolly as the name of the restaurant suggests.

He also makes the best snapper in garlic sauce you’ll ever taste, and routinely grills lobsters for virtually nothing, as if they were common-or-garden chicken fillets from a budget supermarket.

Nothing fazes him — if 20 people turn up at once, he just dishes out free rum punches while he cooks, and sends a friend down to what passes for a supermarket in order to get some hot sauce.

He’s Caye Caulker through and through — a drink, a smile and a “no problem” is the cure for all ills.