A Getaway in Belize, Roads Optional, By KEVIN BRASS
New York Times, Published: May 2, 2008

AMBERGRIS CAYE was a sleepy destination for divers and fishermen 15 years ago, when the singer and songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker and his wife, Susan, built their house on the Caribbean waterfront.

Since then, it has become Belize’s most popular tourist destination. High-end residential developments now dot the island. It is even possible to find a good bottle of French wine in San Pedro, the island’s main town.

But Susan Walker, who is based in Texas, is convinced that Ambergris will maintain its distinct island charm.

“This place is just funky enough to keep the people away,” she said.

Despite the recent growth, Ambergris resists many of the trappings of high-end tourism found on other Caribbean islands. The water along the 25-mile-long island is too shallow for cruise ships and mega-yachts, and there are few big resorts. There is also a dearth of top-end restaurants, spas and glitzy discos. The nearest golf course is 40 minutes away by boat.

Still, since 1993 the island’s population has jumped to an estimated 12,000 from 2,500, including a wave of Americans and Canadians who bought second homes or retired on the island. Ambergris is “booming, but it’s booming nice and quietly,” said Chris Allnat, owner of the Pelican Properties real estate agency.

Most of Ambergris’s new development is north of San Pedro in an area still primarily accessible only by boat. Last year a small bridge was built over the Cut, the nickname for the channel that separates the much larger northern part of the island from San Pedro and the south. But cars are still banned on the one bumpy dirt road that stretches through that northern section of the island.

There is talk of paving the north road but limiting its use to golf carts, which are still the main mode of transportation on the island. “We do not want it to be suitable for carrying cars,” said Diane Campbell, a local developer. “We’re trying to decrease the number of cars.”

Ms. Campbell and her husband, Bob, have built six small residential projects on the island. Their latest is Solaria, a collection of three waterfront houses with wide verandas, priced around $900,000 to $1 million.

Most of the developments on the island range from 20 to 70 units. Government restrictions limit buildings along the waterfront to three or four stories, which has kept projects small.

“They don’t want to change the feel of the place,” said Macarena Rose, president of the Belize National Association of Realtors.

Agents say prices for houses have spiked 20 to 30 percent on Ambergris in recent years, but are still relatively inexpensive compared with those on other Caribbean islands. A two-bedroom waterfront condo typically sells for $300,000 to $500,000.

Few pristine lots are available, and many parts of the island are swampy and only stretches offer white sand. In the last three years, waterfront land has jumped from $3,500 to almost $6,000 a linear foot for developable beachfront property in the north, agents say. (In Belize, land is commonly priced by the length of its beachfront, and prices are quoted in United States dollars.)

For foreign buyers, Belize offers many attractive features. English is the primary language, and the currency is fixed at two Belizean dollars to one United States dollar. It also makes it easy to retire there, simplifying the process for foreign citizens to establish residence and transfer possessions into the country.

Tony Newshel, a New Jersey resident and an avid scuba diver, said “the ease of being in Belize” and the island’s relaxed atmosphere played large roles in his decision to buy on Ambergris. Three years ago he and his wife, Ginny, paid about $500,000 for a two-bedroom waterfront condo in the Phoenix development near the heart of San Pedro.

From an investment standpoint, the changes on Ambergris have been completely for the better, Mr. Newshel said. “The town is able to handle more people, more conveniently.”

CHANGES include paved roads around San Pedro, two supermarkets and a number of new restaurants.

The Phoenix, where the Newshels bought an apartment, is billed as the first upscale development in San Pedro. The 30-unit complex was built by Jerry and Linda McDermott, who ran a popular bar and hotel on the site for 20 years. “We’re trying to create a new niche in the market,” said Mark Maggiotto, the Phoenix’s general manager.

Twenty-four of the 30 condos have been sold since the project went on the market in 2005, Mr. Maggiotto said. The six remaining units — not on the waterfront — range from a one-bedroom for $399,000 to a three-bedroom unit for $589,000.

In recent weeks, agents on Ambergris report a slowdown in buying activity as the troubles in the American economy ripple through the market. But sales could get a boost if direct flights to Belize City are initiated from Europe, as is widely anticipated. Last year the main runway at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City was expanded to accommodate bigger jets. (People usually connect to San Pedro on small planes.)

And even Susan Walker realizes that, although the charm may remain in tact , there will be more development in the island’s future. “I think it’s inevitable,” she said.