MORE RAMBLES IN BELIZE
By Lan Sluder
Our rambles around Belize, from Corozal to Crooked Tree, Cayo to the Cayes, Placencia to PG, Belize City to Belmopan ... all of our rambles will soon be available on our Web edition of Belize First at http://www.belizefirst.com
, with tons of photos.
It's always a pleasure to be back in Key West ... er, I mean, San Pedro. These days, it's getting harder to tell the difference. What with all the new houses and taxis and condos and timeshares. And all.
But, seriously, folks ... when you're sipping a Lighthouse, in the soft warm Caribbean evening, with a full moon hanging large over the sea, there's no better place to be than San Pedro.
What's new? Better ask, what isn't? Every trip the island changes, especially south of town and on the north end. Beautiful downtown San Pedro hasn't changed much since I started coming here a decade ago, but south of town, wowser! Wall to wall buildings in places, where once there only was sand. We're told there are some 700 construction workers on the island now, including a couple of hundred at those new (and controversial) prefab units on the back side of San Pablo. Apartment buildings, with prices higher than Clearwater, Fla., are popping up like weeds after a rain. I hate to echo what everybody else is saying, guys, but here's hoping San Pedro doesn't kill the golden goose. Tourists don't come to San Pedro to go mano a mano with a pickup truck.
Some things stay the same, though. Elvi's is still packed every night. Fido's is still a hub. Joe Tourist still gets off the Tropic Air flight with 170/95 blood pressure, hanging on to his wallet for dear life; he leaves a week later sun burned, laid back and turned down 50 degrees. And San Pedranos are still among the friendliest folks in the Caribbean.
So, let's take a tour 'round the island. Down south, the oft underrated but really attractive Sunset Beach is building new three-bedroom units for the family market. Victoria House is looking spiffier than ever, and the new pool is a beaut. Tim Jeffers is still running a good ship at Banana Beach and Coconuts. Nobody in Belize has friendlier staff, or offers better value. The new reception area and office at Banana Beach looks great, and I especially like the banana trees in the breezeway. Coconuts has added a room or two, much needed given the high occupancy these two well-run places deservedly enjoy.
I'm told there was a coup d'etat at St. Matthews, the little offshore med school. Some old guys out, some new guys in. Incoming students aren't too happy when they hear about the sudden changes or the eviction notice the school was slapped with a few weeks ago. With the school just graduating its first class, this wasn't the kind of publicity anybody needed. Let's hope things get straightened and the new campus south of town gets built real soon.
I stopped by Xanadu and got the cook's tour from owner, who hails from South Africa by way of Canada, and his son. Xanadu, as you probably know, is that collection of weird looking concrete domes with thatch coverings, as if Buckminister Fuller married a Maya girl. Building these babies involves inflating a a kind of balloon, then spraying on a special concrete mixture. The foam insulation core cuts energy costs substantially. Construction costs for these structures run 30% or more higher than regular concrete, but they're said to be able to withstand winds of 300 miles an hour (how they'll hold up to a 15 foot sea surge, who knows?) Inside, they're surprisingly upscale. Xanadu is building two new three-unit domes, and I'm told the units stay pretty well booked.
Rock's II, not that long ago the island's premier grocery, is out of business, and the space is occupied by an Internet café. El Patio next door is still a good place to eat, though I heard complaints about the s . . l . . . o . . . w service and smaller portions. Guess Island Supermarket is where everybody south now shops, and at the Island Super you can even buy a Mabe fridge with your Red Fanta. I see Barefoot Igauna now has a coin laundry, for the suds and duds set, I guess.
Carmen's, across from Woody's Wharf, is a great, low-cost place for a tasty breakfast or lunch. What an asset for the south end!
We stopped in to revisit Caribbean Villas. This has always been one of our favorite hotels on the island, but of late we have had a complaint or two about the upkeep and furbishings. Susan Lala showed us around, and everything looked pretty good to us. The Lalas are redoing the small rooms and plan an annual "fall cleaning and spruce up." To be candid, though, some of the newer places on the island, with freshly minted rooms, swimming pools, hot tubs, cable TV and other spiffy amenities, may appeal more to today's generation of San Pedro travelers. Older properties like Caribbean Villas, even with their lovely and quiet settings, may need to make some investments to keep up with the Joneses.
Closer to town, it was super to see SunBreeze and GM Julia Edwards looking so nice. SunBreeze remains one of my family's favorites, for location, down-to-earth service and the lovely pool.
Caliente (in the old Little Italy location in the Spindrift) appears to attract a lot of locals. Our meal was very good, though with the closed in design of the restaurant space we missed the cool breezes some of the other restaurants enjoy. Mango's, down at the bottom of Front Street near the library, is another local fave -- interesting sandwiches and refreshing smoothies. Papi's, a bit north of the main part of town, got rave reviews from everyone we talked with who ate there -- it's nothing but modestly priced, honest Belizean food. Try the fried chicken at just US$3.75, or the grilled fish for around eight bucks. Who could ask for more? (But come early, as table space is limited.)
Dinner up on the roof at Jam-Bel Jerk also was delicious, and a bargain. You gotta love them hot wings. It wasn't until the other day that I figured out that Jam-Bel stands for Jamaica-Belize. Duh.
These days, there's so much to do on the island -- windsurfing, parasailing, jet skiing, clubbing, restaurant hopping. Who can remember when the only activities were avoiding the bends and bending an elbow. My son, brave at 17, did the parasailing thing. He thought it was fun to do once, but not too exciting . However, Marty Casado tells me one of his two trips was a rip-roarer. Guess a lot depends on the wind conditions.
We broke Moncho's rules and went as far north (cart and two people, five bucks US round trip on the hand ferry) as we easily could in our golf cart, to around Belizean Shores. Captain Morgan's is still abuilding as is Belizean Shores. Is there really a market for all these condos?! Next door, the Essene Way is just sitting and fading away. You know the story, don't you? Orlando nutrition supplement magnate spends US$7 million on buying and fixing up the old Belizean property, keen on making it a Millennium hideway, religious retreat cum upmarket resort. But 2000 comes and goes, and nothing much happens. And nothing much happens. And nothing much happens. We're told the place is for sale. That's Belize for you.
Another day we chartered a boat ("Oh, Danny Boy") and toured around the island. Farther up the island, the chic Mata Chica is still perking, with an enviable occupancy rate, we're told. Portofino nearby is a kind of Mata Chica clone, with plans to be even more tony and pricey. If all the plans come to fruition, it will be quite a spot. But as with any new resort, the proof is in the pudding. First it has to be built, then it has to be run in a people pleasing way. Folks who pay US$300 a night for room only have high expectations, and only management with a rare combination of style and detail orientation can make it work.
Speaking of Portofino, Avalon (nee Casa Caribe) is another question mark. Can the Mexican timeshare company that bought this make this remote property work? Will they really try to cut a channel through North Ambergris? Years ago, we would have said no way, but with the new money-opens-doors attitude in Belmopan and San Pedro, who knows?
Timeshares seem to be sprouting up everywhere on the island these days. It doesn't yet remind us of Cancun or Coz, where every street corner holds a timeshare tout, and let's hope it never to gets to that stage. The highest profile new timeshare is Basil Jones Resort & Club, next to the Nova shrimp farm about 13 miles north of San Pedro. This "Tiki" style timeshare was originally scheduled to open this past spring, but various problems -- money and partner problems, natch -- held up construction. Most of the sales to date have come from auctions on e-Bay. The announced opening date is now October 1, and construction by Graniel actually has recommenced, but it's hard to see that everything will be ready then. (The Web site calls for "occupancy starting January 1" at US$3,495 for a "red week" in "phase II" ... whatever that means in timesharespeak.) We do applaud the effort by GM Gary Carlson, who was kind enough to show us around the property, to take care of buyers who showed up with no place to stay. Gary, who only arrived on the island in May, has a lot on his plate. We also like the natural beauty of this part of North Ambergris. Rare in Belize, there's snorkeling around coral heads close to shore, though the current can be pretty strong. Still, we wonder if naive buyers who arrive without ever having been to the property or even to Belize realize how remote Basil Jones is. As the Web site accurately states, a stay here will definitely be a "relaxing vacation." We also wonder how long the beachfront cabanas will last, come the next hurricane or even heavy tropical storm. By the way, there's a similarly named, unopened Basil Jones resort just a few hundred yards up the island -- no relation.
On the dark side, a Miami doctor died while we were on the island in a Blue Hole diving accident. To date his body has not been recovered.
The muncipal water supply was out all over the island for about three days. Lesson: keep those cisterns and wells in order, for emergencies like these.
(Update) * * * * + Villas at Banyan Bay ( P.O. Box 91, San Pedro, tel. 501-26-3739, fax 501-26-2766, e-mail: [email protected]
) This trip, my family and I stayed in one of Banyan Bay's two-bedroom, two-bath condos, and a terrific family place this is. This time of year at least, the majority of the guests here appear to be families. The kids seem to love the big, two-section pool, and dad and mom go for the fully equipped kitchen and the jacuzzi off the master bedroom. The beach is here, about a mile and a half south of town, is one of the best on the island, there's a dive and gift shop on the pier. The new Rico's restaurant didn't knock us out, but service was good, and it has a beautiful setting on the water for drinks or dinner; breakfast is handy and workmanlike. We were impressed by the space at Banyan -- these units are twice as big as many of the so-called "two bedroom condos" on the island -- and by the high degree of maintenance. The apartments we saw look just as good now as when they were built several years ago. The woodwork and cabinets are mahogany, and the cathedral ceilings in the main living area sport a stunning array of tropical hardwoods. But I like this place for a simple reason: The air conditioning works. I get a bit tired of hotels in Belize where the air conditioning just barely sputters along, where it only gets cool in the middle of the night. At Banyan Bay, the units get cool and, with the help of ceiling fans, stay comfortable. At this 42-unit condotel, there's 24-hour security, cable TV and all the pleasures of home ... if your home happens to be just steps from the Caribbean. Yes, we know this is an RCI-affiliated "TS" but that's just a minor part of the operation. A new office/lobby and fitness center are under construction, and plans are for expansion to the temporary St. Matthews site, with more units and another pool. You don't get this quality for peanuts. Rates start at US$200 off season for two people (though there are packages and some discounts available) and range way up to US$375 for four people in high season, plus 7% hotel tax. All in all, highly recommended if you and your want space to spread out and enjoy island life.
More to come ...