TRIP REPORT AUGUST 2011
After several years of making excuses as to why we couldn’t, my wife, Marilou, and I finally made our first (but definitely not our last) visit to the beautiful island of Ambergris Caye, Belize from August 2nd through 9th, 2011. We arrived at the International Airport at around 2:20 PM on Tuesday, and were a little apprehensive about getting through Belize Customs and Immigration, but in all honesty, it was really a simple process and much easier than most of the other foreign destinations we have been to. The whole process took less than 15 minutes, after which we immediately checked in with Maya Island Air for our flight to San Pedro. I made and paid for the flight reservation in advance, and that really seemed to make things a little easier for us. It was the first time either of us had flown on an aircraft as small as the one used for our flight to San Pedro, and again there was a little nervousness, but that quickly went away after we were airborne, and the flight was actually a very scenic and enjoyable 17 minutes.
We arrived in San Pedro at around 4 PM and after gathering our bags, took a taxi through town and across the bridge to Grand Caribe. I actually did a lot of research about San Pedro and Ambergris Caye prior to departing Las Vegas, so even though it was our first time visiting, it almost felt like we had been there before. The taxi ride did seem a little adventurous, but after several days on the island we discovered that was the way most of the taxi drivers drove all the time. When we arrived at Grand Caribe, we were immediately greeted by Yanira at the front desk, as well as Judy, the Concierge. The security guys immediately took our bags to our condo up on the third floor, which was very much appreciated after a long day of travelling. As soon as we entered the condo, we knew we had made the right choice about where to stay. Everything was beautifully decorated and the view from the balcony of the pool and ocean was awe inspiring. We had originally planned on going to dinner that evening at Rojo, but they closed for vacation just a couple days prior to our arrival, so we asked Judy to make us reservations at Portofino instead. Portofino’s boat picked us up at our dock at around 7 PM and we were seated promptly upon arrival at the restaurant. The food and bottle of Merlot we shared at dinner was fantastic. To be honest, we were really looking forward to eating at Rojo, but truly enjoyed our meal at Portofino and the service was great. Besides, now we have another excuse to return to San Pedro in the future. After our dinner we were returned via boat to the Grand Caribe and decided to call it an evening, to we could get an early start on exploring San Pedro the Wednesday morning.
We woke up Wednesday around 6:30 AM, and decided to take a little early morning stroll down the beach and check out the breakfasts we had read so much about at Ak’Bol. All I can say is the food there was so great that we ate breakfast there three more times during our stay. The multi-grain banana pancakes are delicious as was everything else we had. After our breakfast we walked back to the Grand Caribe where we rented a golf cart from Ultimate Rentals for the week’s stay. We immediately left to go explore San Pedro and to locate several of the places we wanted to check out during our stay. I must say that the road from Grand Caribe down to about the Reef Village area was in great shape. From just north of Reef Village to the bridge, the road was in really bad shape. I understand there were some pretty heavy rains the week or so prior to our arrival so would expect that caused the diminished road conditions in that area. We found our way into San Pedro, and navigating the streets was really pretty easy for us. I read several comments on the message board about the traffic problems in San Pedro, but we really didn’t experience anything that bad. Of course my wife is from the Philippines, and I have spent a great deal of time there, so comparing the two, San Pedro really has no traffic problem at all. We were there during a slow time of the year though, so I could see it being a lot worse during peak season. After locating the Black Orchid Spa thru which we scheduled massages and a sunset cruise for Wednesday, it was on to find Ramon’s where our catamaran would depart from the next afternoon. By this time it was around 11:00 AM and was really getting hot so we decided some cool refreshments were in order. We stopped at the Purple Parrot at Ramon’s where we me Alex, the bartender, who served us our first ever Belikins and was more than happy to answer all of our stupid tourist questions , which I am quite sure he has heard about a thousand times by now. After the beers (one each) we headed north on Front Street, then back down Middle Street (we know they all have different names now, but it was just easier remembering Front, Middle, and Back Street) until we found Elvi’s Kitchen. We had some calamari and a couple more Belikins. Marilou had some type of shrimp dish and I had a club sandwich. Both of our meals were absolutely delicious and the service was, once again, fantastic. One thing we noticed everywhere during our entire stay was that each meal we had was served with just the right portion, so we ended up eating everything, felt satisfied and didn’t waste a bite. In Las Vegas, (the land of the Great Buffet) most restaurants serve portions that are way too big for one person to eat and a lot of food ends up wasted, which is really a shame. After Elvi’s we did some grocery shopping at Super Buy on Back Street then headed back to the Grand Caribe and relaxed for a while at the pool. There we met Che’, the bartender, who didn’t seem overly friendly, but made some really good foo foo drinks for my wife, while I stuck with the Belikins. After a couple of hours at the pool, we went back to the condo, where we both ended up taking a nice little late afternoon nap (Does that mean we are getting old?). Waking up around 6 PM we were going to go check out Ladies Night at Wet Willie’s, but I guess we are getting old because we decided to walk down to the Palapa Bar and get a little to eat. It is a short stroll down the beach just a little father south past Ak’Bol and is really a nice walk during the early evening hours. There was a lively crowd at the Palapa Bar and it was very relaxing sitting out on the water with the sea breeze enjoying a few cocktails. My wife had the shrimp which she said was incredible. I ordered the chicken wings and they really weren’t very good. On top of that it seemed to take a very long time to get our meals. Having said that, I get the feeling that most folks don’t go to the Palapa Bar for their food, as much as for the fun loving atmosphere and the nice sea breeze and view of the reef. Actually, my wife thought the shrimp she had was excellent and wanted to go back to have them again during our stay, but we never seemed to find the time.
On Thursday morning we were going to sleep in late, but once again we found ourselves up around 6 AM and walked out on the dock to enjoy our morning coffee. Soon, we again found ourselves walking along the beach to Ak’Bol for breakfast. After breakfast it was back to the pool for a couple of hours. At around 1 PM we decided to search out the Lone Star Grill down south of San Pedro. I had read a lot on the message board about the chicken fried steak there, and considering myself somewhat of a chicken fried steak aficionado I just had to try it. Without much difficulty, although it is a good little ride south, we found it, and it was well worth the trip. The chicken fried steak ranks right up there with the best I have ever had. My wife ordered a Texas Cheeseburger, and naturally, it was too big for her to finish…LOL. From there we headed back into San Pedro for our 3 PM couples massage at the Black Orchid Spa. OK, I have to be perfectly honest here. I was not looking forward to this, because I wanted to go parasailing which I had never done before. But I gave in to my wife’s wishes for the massage thing so we could spend some “quality time” together. I am extremely glad that my wife convinced me to do this because it just may have been the most relaxing part of our vacation. I had been having a bad problem with my left shoulder from weight lifting. Rebecca, my masseuse asked me if I was having any problem areas prior to starting the massage. I told her about my shoulder and she spent a good deal of time working on it. I haven’t had a problem with my shoulder since, and that in itself was well worth the trip to San Pedro. My wife related her massage was also very relaxing. Black Orchid Spa will definitely be on our list of things to do next time we come back. From there it was over to the Purple Parrot for a couple of drinks before we embarked on our sunset cruise with SeaDuced. The cruise was also very enjoyable and relaxing. Immediately after the cruise, we walked down the beach to Blue Water Grill where we had dinner reservations. We were taken to our table immediately when we arrived, even though we were several minutes early. We ordered a bottle of Merlot and some ceviche to get us started. Both the wine and ceviche were spectacular. For being right on the beach the place was impeccably clean, a very enjoyable atmosphere, and very busy. My wife ordered the lobster, and I had the stuffed chicken breast. Both our meals were more than delicious. Hands down, and we had some really incredible meals in San Pedro, this was our favorite place to eat while we were there. It was a nice relaxing environment and was cool to “people watch” while people strolled on the beach as we ate our meals. The service was also top notch. We walked back to Ramon’s to pick up our golf cart, and enjoyed a nice leisurely drive back through town, then across the bridge back to Grand Caribe. The drive at night wasn’t nearly as challenging as I expected it to be.
On Friday, we slept in a little bit getting up around 9 AM. After checking email (Grand Caribe has an outstanding WIFI connection) and having a little breakfast, it was off to San Pedro for shopping and lunch. We visited Wings, Love Belize shop, and a few other small shops on Front Street, then went back to Ramon’s Village for lunch. After lunch (which we shared with our friend Michele from New York, whom we met on this message board) we did a little more shopping at Ramon’s Gift Shop, then headed back to Grand Caribe for a little relaxation in the pool and another nap (I’m definitely getting old). We had dinner reservations at Hidden Treasure and arrived there (via our golf cart) at around 6 PM. Dinner was fantastic, even though we had to fight off flies most of the evening. You could tell it was the slow season because we were the only ones in the restaurant the entire evening. It was a very nice evening, and Hidden Treasure was a lot easier to find than I expected it to be. There were plenty of signs along the route to keep you heading in the right direction. After dinner, we decided to check out Wet Willie’s since we had missed it on Wednesday night. We got there about 9 PM, and it was absolutely deserted except for two locals (one of whom was extremely intoxicated & loud) and an ex-pat and his wife. We chatted for a while with the bartender who explained that Wednesdays and Saturday (Karaoke) nights were the busy nights there. We finished our drinks and headed home to Grand Caribe. You notice I just said “headed home” to Grand Caribe. After our first day on the island, Marilou and I both caught ourselves quite a bit referring to Grand Caribe as home. It was such a relaxing and beautiful place that it really did feel like home to us.
On Saturday our day started very early. We were picked up at our dock promptly at 6:15 AM as we were told we would be by Jovan from Belize Jungle Trek. David, our boat driver took us to the airport where we flew to Belize City and were picked up by Jovan. He had a breakfast of meat pies (delicious) and orange juice waiting for us when we arrived. We drove across the country to the Xunantunich Ruins. Jovan put us at ease from the moment we met him and you could tell he really wanted us to have a good time spending the day with him. He kept the drive interesting explaining everything about the areas we were driving through on our way. The tour of Xunantunich was amazing, and Marilou, who is afraid of heights, seemed very eager to climb to the top of the ruin which truly surprised me. I am a history buff, so listening to our guide explain the history and intricacies of the ruin was fascinating to me. After the ruins, we drove back eastward along the same route previously travelled, about 35 miles of so to do some river cave tubing and jungle ziplining. We decided to do the ziplining first then have lunch, followed by the cave tubing. As I stated earlier my wife is afraid of heights, so I knew it would be hit or miss whether or not she would actually do the ziplining. At the first jump tower she froze, until she finally just said, “Push me.”, to which I gladly accommodated her. From that point forward, it was like she had lost all her fears and couldn’t wait to do the next jump. I have some pictures of her with this HUGE smile across her face as she is coming in to the landing tower. Being career military and a police officer, I have rappelled from towers and building several times, but I have to say the ziplining was quite exhilarating. We had a great lunch and then it was a little bit of a hike to start of the river cave tubing. The river was refreshingly cool and clean. It was so relaxing just floating through the caves as Jovan explained the history of the caves and their use by the Mayan civilization. My wife was a little apprehensive because of the darkness and the fact she isn’t a great swimmer. But as I mentioned earlier Jovan just seemed to have a way of putting us at ease, and she soon relaxed and enjoyed the ride. We finished the day’s adventures a little earlier than expected (I think because it was just the two of us) and Jovan was able to get our flight back to San Pedro moved up about an hour. That was great because we had dinner reservations at Mambo and it gave us a little extra time to get back and relax before dinner. Dinner at Mambo was once again outstanding, although the service didn’t seem to be as good as some of the other places we had dinner. In fairness our waiter appeared to be a little nervous, which would indicate he was probably new.
Sunday we were going to sleep in again, but once again we were up at 6:30 AM and walked down the beach to Ak’Bol for breakfast. After breakfast we were going to rent a jetski, but instead decided to just laze the day away, go into San Pedro for a bite to eat and some final shopping. We went to Wild Mango for lunch, but they were closed for the day. So on the spur of the moment we decided to check out the Phoenix Resort and have lunch at Red Ginger. The young lady at the front desk was more than happy to give us a tour of the resort and showed us one of the 2 bedroom condos. She told us the place rented for $350 a night, which I thought was a little expensive, until we actually walked into it. It was absolutely stunning, and a place we would have to give serious consideration if we come back the next time with family and/or friends. The balcony was gigantic, while overlooking both the pool and the ocean. I could envision having a nice little party out there with family and friends in the evening. Lunch at Red Ginger was extremely good, and understanding that it was slow season, still couldn’t understand why we were the only ones in the restaurant since it was nicely decorated, air-conditioned well, and not at all too expensive. My wife had fish tacos, and I had chicken fingers. Marilou said they were the best fish tacos she’s ever eaten, and she eats fish tacos frequently. My chicken fingers were absolutely delicious too. From there it was back to the pool at Grand Caribe, relaxing for a few hours before heading up to Capt Morgan’s Casino for a poker tournament.
Upon arrival, we were told there would be no tournament because there weren’t enough people. I am an avid poker tournament player in Las Vegas and do quite well. I also have extremely good observational skills. I let one of the dealers talk me into playing in a live no limit game, which was a mistake. Although I did quite well initially, soon a very nicely dressed lady sat down at the table and almost immediately started consistently winning with improbable straights and full houses, that resulted from very weak starting hands. This got my attention right away. Then, I noticed that the lady in question was actually giving instructions to the floor people, casino manager, etc. This really got my attention. I asked one of the ex-pats playing next to me if by chance this lady was the owner’s wife, and he stated she was. Almost immediately, the dealer, who heard us even though our conversation was very low key, corrected that she was actually the owner of the casino. Now I understand this is in Belize, and things might be a little or a lot different here, depending on your perspective. But when the owner of the casino sits down to gamble in her own casino and immediately starts winning on odd hands, it’s time to go. Not implying there was anything underhanded (no pun intended again) going on, just saying…………Also, I understand that the police in Belize are very underpaid and several have part time jobs. Being a retired police officer, I can understand their position. However, as a poker player, it is pretty unnerving to have a police officer (albeit working part time as a security person) watching directly over your shoulder while playing poker.
Monday morning we had scheduled a snorkeling trip with Grumpy & Happy tours. We went into town and picked up Michele so she could join us. We were picked up promptly at 9 AM as Lorne stated we would be. My wife had never snorkeled before and as mentioned is not a great swimmer. Michele has some claustrophobia issues although she has snorkeled before. Jolene and Lorne spent a lot of extra time with them trying to make them (and me) as comfortable as possible. They were very patient with all of us and it made it all much more enjoyable once we realized we were in great hands. We snorkeled at Mexico Rocks area and it was great. Lots of beautiful smaller fish, several rays, and I even got a few pictures of a spotted eel slithering through the coral. All in all it was a lot of fun, although next time I think I am going to try to get scuba certified while I am down there, probably completing the online portion with Elbert at White Sands Dive Shop prior to coming down. I checked out Elbert’s website several times before, and when I asked Lorne, he related that would be a great choice if I wanted scuba certification. After snorkeling we stopped back at the Grand Caribe pool for a couple of drinks. Then it was another enjoyable golf cart ride back to San Pedro to drop Michele off at Royal Palms, say goodbye and have some lunch. We went back to Wild Mango, they were open and boy are we glad we returned. My wife had the coconut shrimp and I had tacos, both of which were excellent. We also shared banana and mango daiquiris which were also delicious, while enjoying the nice sea breeze from their patio. Then it was back to Grand Caribe for our final pool time, another nap (oh boy) and a little packing for our departure on Tuesday. We had dinner reservations just a short stroll north of Grand Caribe at Aji at 7:30 PM. We arrived at 7:15 and were seated immediately. At 7:25 our order was taken and our bottle of Merlot was brought to us immediately. By 8:00 PM we still had not received our appetizer (calamari) so we asked about it with a female whom I believed might have been the owner. Finally after being told twice that our calamari was “coming right up” we received it at 8:25 PM, a full hour after we ordered it. Shortly afterward the same young man who took our order came and asked us if we ordered calamari. We received our meals at around 8:40 PM, and by this time the whole experience had put a sour taste (no pun intended) in our mouths. Our meals were adequate, but nothing spectacular. It was a Monday evening during slow season and yet it seemed to be very busy. It appeared that they were overwhelmed and unprepared. We both are big believers in second chances, so on our next visit we will try again before we decide if our bad experience at Aji was just a fluke or the norm.
Tuesday morning we awoke, and reluctantly checked out from the Grand Caribe to head to the Belize International Airport for our flight back to Las Vegas. The processing for our international flight was some of the simplest we have ever encountered and much easier than even a short domestic flight in the US. All the airport personnel we encountered were extremely friendly and helpful. It was a breeze….much more so than our rude awakening when we processed through Customs and Immigrations upon arriving in Dallas.
In summary, we had a fantastic time in San Pedro and will be returning again in the near future. We are considering AC for retirement in a few years. Of course it would take several more trips of lengthier periods to make sure it is the right place for us, but at this point it really looks promising. We would like to thank everyone on the message board for answering our sometimes irritating questions in order to better prepare us for our journey. To all the folks at Grand Caribe, thanks for making our stay so memorable. I would like to give a special thanks to Jim Blackburn for being so open and honest with me about our concerns before travelling to San Pedro. His input helped make many of our decisions a lot easier. We would also like to personally thank, Yanira & Judy at the Grand Caribe, Alex at the Purple Parrot, Jovan from Belize Jungle Trek, the ladies at Black Orchid Spa, and Jolene & Lorne from Grumpy & Happy tours for putting up with us and helping make our vacation a truly enjoyable and memorable experience!!!
Jim and Marilou Null