Wales or Belize? Tough call
Having a toddler doesn't mean you can't live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasies on a tiny island in the Caribbean
Saturday March 11, 2006
Sweet dreams ... Caye Caulker is ideal for kids. Photograph: Liza Ramyaka.
What were we thinking, taking our 22-month-old to live for a month on a tiny island over 5,000 miles away? "Wouldn't a few weeks in Wales be easier?" suggested a friend.
Maybe. But we wanted to trade the winter chill of Britain for sun, sea and sandcastles. We scoured the web looking for a Caribbean island, but not one covered in resorts, in a child-friendly location. And so we found Caye Caulker - a four-by-one-mile balmy sliver of sand off mainland Belize, itself only a tad bigger than Wales. In the 60s and 70s, the sleepy fishing village was a magnet for travellers on the hippy trail. More recently, traditional businesses such as shipbuilding have given way to tourism - but the island is nowhere near as developed as its busier neighbour (and setting of American TV reality show Temptation Island), Ambergris Caye.
The 1,200 inhabitants are predominantly Spanish-speaking Mestizoes whose ancestors from Mexico's Yucatan peninsula founded the island. Their Garifuna neighbours are descendents of African and Amerindian settlers; Afro-European Creoles and eastern European Mennonites pepper the melting pot.
Part of Caulker's appeal - especially for families - is that there is no traffic. The island has only three petrol-driven vehicles: the fire truck, the police car and the one that delivers the beer. There are no big hotels or resorts - what you will find is a wide range of mainly family-run accommodation, from simple wooden beach cabins to modern, air-conditioned apartments.
The village's three main streets - Front, Middle and Back - are no more than sandy tracks, so many residents and visitors simply go barefoot. "No shirt, no shoes" signs are commonplace, as are the "Go Slow" signs along the sandy tracks. The distant boom of the barrier reef is hypnotic; hammock swinging is obligatory.
We opted to stay in the mainly residential area near the airstrip in a quirky, three-storey house called Sandcastle. The village and beach were an easy cycle ride away; chasing the resident geckoes around the garden became our daughter's favourite game.
The island is an ideal base for snorkelling and diving, from the rich sea life at Hol Chan and Caye Caulker marine reserves to the 300-metre diameter Blue Hole, made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1970s. On our trip to Caye Caulker's reserve, we snorkelled in shallow waters where our guide Luciana helped us to spot stingrays, nurse sharks, barracuda and parrot fish, and a kaleidoscope of corals.
A 40-minute water taxi will take you to the bigger beaches and nightlife of San Pedro, the capital of Ambergris Caye immortalised in Madonna's La Isla Bonita. And for a break from island life, local tour operators organise day trips to mainland Belize's Mayan sites such as Lamanai or Altun Ha.
Inspired by the water but keen to keep his head above it, my husband settled for sailing lessons from local boatman Dean. After only a couple of days, he was eyeing up catamarans with unwarranted confidence. Then again, 5,300 miles and three weeks from home, anything seems possible.
· Continental Airlines (08456 076760, continental.com) flies Gatwick-Belize City via Houston from £615.40 rtn inc taxes. Oasi (holidaybelize.com) has full-kitchen apartments near the airstrip (US$65 per night) and is the agent for Sandcastle (US$400 per week). Auxillou Beach Suites (auxilloubeachsuites.com) has one-bedroom apartments with sea views from US$79 per night plus taxes. Seaside Cabanas (seasidecabanas.com) has the island's only swimming pool; rooms from US$76 per night plus taxes. Luciana Essenziale of Oasi can organise snorkelling and dive tours of local sites. belizefirst.com is run by Fodor contributor Lan Sluder who promises to answer your Belize email query within 24 hours.