Local children stroll along the waterfront of San Pedro, the only town on Belizeís Ambergris Caye. (JEFFREY SIMPSON)
THIS IS supposed to be a vacation but it feels a bit like Iím walking the plank.
From inside a small boat, Iím looking at an ocean thatís roiling with sharks ó and Iím being prodded to jump overboard.
Dimas Mejia, whoís taking our small group of tourists on this trip to the appropriately named Shark-Ray Alley, is attempting to reassure his uncertain passengers that itís a perfectly safe spot for snorkelling.
"Itís all right," Mejia, 23, says. "I carry a life-ring with me."
As if Iím worrying about drowning as I watch five potential man-eaters about my size going after the fish heads heís tossing into the waves. Fortunately, these are nurse sharks. Although they may bear a striking resemblance to Jaws, theyíre usually harmless.
"Just donít stick your hand in their mouths because theyíll suck it right in," Mejia says.
With that tidbit of advice foremost in my mind, I pull on flippers, grab a face mask and sink into the turquoise Caribbean, trying the entire time to keep my hands to myself.
Iím staying in the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, a 40-kilometre-long island 45 minutes by water taxi from Belize City on the mainland. The sliver of land is a tropical paradise, with a sandy white beach stretching along a palm tree-filled coast.
There are no worries about being underdressed for any occasion in this laid-back holiday haven. Shoes and shirts are always optional. Even a television reporter on a local station was wearing a ragged tank top while covering a story on the supper-hour news.
Most people get around using golf carts or bicycles and thereís only one paved road. Canadians might feel a bit more at home in the former British colony than other foreign tourist destinations ó thereís a bar called Crazy Canucks. English is the official language and the Queen even adorns the Belizean money.
Unsurprisingly, the place has attracted plenty of retirees from more northern climes, yet, it still doesnít feel swamped. Ambergris provides a great area for cycling or popping into the different bars. It has resorts that are scattered throughout the more sparsely populated sections of the island.
But the countryís premiere attraction is a short distance offshore, the stellar snorkelling and scuba diving around Belizeís 300-kilometre barrier reef, which is the second largest in the world after Australiaís.
The coral reef system is a UNESCO site, its waters home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals that live in the underwater caves and among the atolls.
The Hol Chan Marine Reserve, of which Shark-Ray Alley is a part, is about a 20-minute boat ride away.
It feels as though Iím flying as I drift along near the oceanís surface, wheezing through my snorkel. I gaze down at underwater canyons that run to a depth of about two storeys. The water is so clear that the sun shines right through, allowing for fantastic views of schools of iridescent tropical fish that dart here and there.
A stingray gently flaps its broad wings on one side of me while a green turtle paddles along on the other. Mejia dives deeper to point out creatures of interest along the seabed, such as a moray eel that pokes its head indignantly out of a crevice in the rocks, chomping on one of his flippers.
"They can bite your hand off," he tells me later, showing me a scar where one apparently tried.
The reef runs about a kilometre from the coast of Ambergris and blocks the rougher surf from hitting the caye. The water inside the reef is shallow and calm.
Few things are as naturally relaxing as sitting on shore near the waterís edge, sipping something cold and, if itís somewhere between November and May in Canada, appreciating that youíre not there at the moment.
Thatís what Ken Timmons had in mind by taking break from blustery Chicago.
"I didnít know where Belize was," says Timmons, 52, recounting how a former colleague had piqued his interest.
But heís finding it to be a pleasant change from other better-known vacation spots.
"Itís a little more laid back maybe than Mexico," he says. "Itís still got a little bit of a local flavour thatís not ruined by cruise ships."
Asked how heís spending his time on the caye, he glances at his girlfriend Donna Engelhard and grins.
"Iím not sure your readers really want to know that," he says, breaking into laughter before quickly adding, "Actually weíve been bike riding a lot."
Ambergris does provide a decent setting for romance. After a beautiful Caribbean sunset, the soft lights flicker on at restaurant patios, providing alfresco dining to the sound of waves lapping the nearby shore and the wind caressing the palm trees.
Naturally, the specialty is seafood and one of the best places is a slightly upscale yet relaxed restaurant called Mangoís, where the coconut shrimp is about as good as it gets.
But thereís also a lot of good eating available on a smaller budget, from simple taco shacks to papusa joints offering the Salvadoran dish of corn tortillas filled with cheese, beans, chicken or seafood topped with salsa and slaw.
For a change of scenery but more of almost-the-same tropical beauty, there are boats that zip over to Caye Caulker in 30 minutes. That island, about eight kilometres away, is smaller and less-developed than Ambergris.
I head straight to "the Split" at the northern tip of the island, where a small straight of water separates the main part of the caye from another mangrove-lined section. The two sections were apparently joined until hurricane Hattie blew through in 1961.
Now thereís an open-air bar called the Lazy Lizard, where you can sit at partly submerged picnic tables and sip Belikan beer while watching pelicans swoop down to the water. Itís the perfect place to float away the afternoon.
And for further drinking, San Pedroís nightlife rocks on until dawn, attracting locals, ex-pats and tourists. No need to worry about sleeping, since there will be ample time to doze under the sun during lazy afternoons.
And thereís no better feeling than waking up to another day in paradise.
Jeffrey Simpson is a Canadian journalist based in London, England.