The pristine, warm waters of Belize delivers up an ocean full of family fun—with a splash of adventure for the old man.
My yacht’s cockpit came into view as I rounded the point of South Water Caye. My wife Gayl lay reading in the shade of the 47-foot Moorings catamaran’s large bimini; near her our three-year-old daughter Leila had her coloring books laid out on the big cockpit floor. I was on the yacht’s sailboard, renewing my back-breaking love/hate affair with windsurfing while the warm Belize sun blazed overhead and clear aqua water flowed by below me. Over the past hour, I had worked up an appetite playing tug-o-war with the ornery boom, but had timed my return perfectly: within 10 minutes, a gourmet meal would be served on white linen by Fenella, the yacht’s good-natured English chef who had done nothing for three days but sweat in the galley and appear with incredible two- to five-course meals that belied the idea that England is the land of bad food. I’d have just enough time to take a quick freshwater rinse and pop a beer before her lunch surprise. Then a darker thought hit: Was I dreaming? Because this was very much like a dream I usually have after a tortured day chained to my the desk, and…
The sailboard scored again as I pulled my patented head-over-boom wipeout, the crowd pleaser that ends with me sucking water under the windsurfer’s sail and Leila cheering for more.
I struggled to the surface, fully expecting to pop up in my bedroom. My cold, dark bedroom.
But no, the sun still blazed, the water was still warm: This was the vacation I hoped for when I booked it from the confines of my paper-cluttered office. Hell, it was the vacation Trump hopes for. But it was also the vacation I had never expected.
In my own defense, a family vacation to an exotic, remote locale (read: third world and far from decent medical care) can strike fear into the heart of the most adventurous dad. For the less adventurous – i.e., me – it’s downright terrifying. The hours spent hunting for a safe restaurant, keeping a toddler entertained, renting equipment, and chasing away Barney-sized bugs and street vendors with the tenacity of deranged seagulls can turn a family vacation into something more exhausting than the office Christmas party. And I didn’t even mention the mountains of gear and toys to pack, the research of best spots to visit, and, worst, the perpetual exchange rate calculations.
So when Gayl, Leila and I signed up for a week in Belize – one of Central America’s smallest and poorest countries – it was with a heavy gulp. And just to ensure that the adventure-meter stayed redlined, we’d be going by sailboat. We had all been on boats before, it’s true, but my daughter had now officially entered the “I don’t hear you because I’m too busy running straight towards trouble at Mach 4” mode. And 47-feet isn’t much of a runway.
By the second day of the trip, however, it was obvious that I’d been dead wrong on just about every score – as usual, really. While it was true that sailing among the hundreds of cayes (pronounced keys) and reefs in Belize felt adventurous, the truth was any old salt would condemn us as landlubbing dilettantes. Our new air-conditioned yacht, complete with captain and chef/crew was nothing short of a floating resort. A very private one. Every meal was served on linen, on board were sailboard, kayak, kneeboard, snorkeling equipment, a TV with DVDs, and a stereo. In our stateroom we enjoyed hot showers, soft beds, daily houskeeping, even flush toilets. No self-respecting man of the sea would be caught dead here. Yes, we were amateurs all right – very, very happy ones.
We were also members of a relatively select few, for while the Caribbean’s more popular locales – mainly the islands on the sea’s eastern perimeter – are overrun with tourists, tourism is a very new industry in Belize. Blessed with incredible Mayan ruins, lush forests and teeming sea life, Belize was also cursed with hostile European invasion and demoralizing colonialism until 1981, when the country gained independence.
The region just south of the Yucatan Peninsula, known today as Belize, survived Spanish slave traders, European diseases, cutthroat pirates, and more than a few wars. Not to mention Catholic missionaries. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times about a thousand regions, but few waited so long for self rule.
All this makes the fact that the new Belize government and its fledgling tourism board has been able to get the “Belize buzz” out there that much more impressive. Most people know something about Belize, whether it’s that the diving is amazing, the people are super-friendly, or that the land is still fairly pristine. For their part, the people seem to understand that tourism can be a slippery slope: Policies are already in place to preserve Belize’s natural resources but attract the best in the tourism industry. For the lucky travelers who discover Belize now, it’s the best of both worlds – unspoiled land and sea, luxury accommodations. In short, get there before Hooters does.
The first day, we sailed from Placentia Town, the sleepy fishing village at the end of Belize’s Placentia Peninsula that is home to the Moorings fleet, 14 miles to South Water Caye. Gayl was worried about seasickness, but our captain, a gregarious Irishman who drank little and talked politics less (breaking another cliché), assured us it would be no problem. This is because Belize is blessed with the Belize Reef, the world’s second largest barrier reef; it snakes south for 180 miles, from Mexico’s Isla Mujeres in the north to the Bay of Honduras to the south, protecting all of Belize’s oceanfront real estate. Lying from 20 to 40 miles off Belize’s shores, it keeps the coastal waters flat as a bay, even in the normal 20-knot trade winds, creating ideal sailing conditions (this is also what made Belize a great hideaway for British pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries).
There is a down side, however – aside from the pirates, I mean. Because of the reef and the shallow coastal waters, much of the snorkeling off the mainland’s beach is poor, the shallows plagued with algae. Tourists often must take expensive and time-consuming boat trips from their resort to offshore cayes for decent snorkeling. During the week, we saw their tired and sunburned faces often and our decision to charter a Moorings yacht seemed better with every one. We were usually just finishing a great snorkel or beach outing – or sailboard disaster – a hundred yards or so from our boat. As they readied themselves for a wet 90-minute boat ride back to land, we saluted them with fresh sashimi and cold Heineken and almost felt guilty. Almost.
In fact, we fell in love with South Water Caye instantly. It’s privately owned and is only three-quarters of a mile long and a quarter-mile wide at its widest point. But there’s plenty there. The south end is home to the Pelican Beach Resort and fronted by wondrous coral gardens that are actually the inside edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Sea life is prevalent, so much so that the island is home to Pelican’s University, which hosts student research groups, and International Zoologist Expeditions, which runs educational tourism packages.
It would have been very journalistic to speak with these people. And each morning I woke up with the strong intention of doing just that.
But then the wind would fill and the sailboard would call. Next, Captain Allan would insist on towing me around the large bay on the kneeboard (I think he had more fun than I did since every ride ended in a high-speed rag doll wipeout). After that, Gayl and Leila would convince me that a day at the beach was the kind of research I should pursue – snorkeling soon followed.
“Good writing needs first-hand experience, right?” Gayl said.
So I’d load up the kayak, our new family wagon, and we’d paddle to the perfect family beach, with calm shallows and soft sand. To break up the long, relaxing hours in the sun (as an American, I can only handle so much down time), I’d take long, investigational snorkels in the water, with my daughter tagging along in a tow inner tube. Finally, the day would finish up with cocktails and perfect sunsets in our yacht’s cockpit. I’d promise myself I’d talk to someone, anyone, mañana and we’d toast to our good fortune. Then, the white linen and gourmet food would start and I’d almost feel guilty. Almost.
If there was any doubt that we had ventured far from the gloss of the OC, it disappeared on the fourth day out when we passed a small disc of sand with a one-room shack on it. The caye was so small, in fact, that the shack took up about 98% of the caye’s landmass – sort of like a home in CdM, but worth about $4 million less. Captain Allan steered us in for a closer look and, as I worried that our wake might flood the sad little structure, he said, “I call it Huck Finn Island. My favorite part is that the guy’s got a bicycle.” He was right, there was a bike, a palm tree – which gave it its official name, Palm Caye – a dog and a sign: “No Loitering.” Apparently, the island used to be part of a bigger caye, then hurricane Iris came along and rezoned the area.
“Who lives there?” asked Gayl.
“A winner of the Belize lottery,” said Captain Allan.
The story goes that about five years ago a huge load of plastic-wrapped kilos of cocaine washed up on Placentia Town’s shores, probably scuttled by drug-runners making the trip from Columbia to Florida: When the Coast Guard closed in, they dumped their load and the easterly trades pushed the high-priced jetsam to Belize.
“To this day, whenever we take locals out for a day sail, all they do is watch the water,” said Captain Allan.
In a young country where the per capita income is $4,900 and 33% of the country lives below the poverty line, it’s understandable why.
“It’s really sad,” said Fenella, “I’ve heard stories about five-year-old kids walking down the street with a bunch of kilos slung over their backs.”
“The smart ones sold the stuff,” said Captain Allan. And the not-so-smart ones? “Well, they didn’t.” He nodded toward the island.
I looked at the shack on the island and couldn’t imagine anything worse than being hopped-up on cocaine all alone on a humid, hot, 300-square-foot spit of sand.
We set Huck Finn Island astern and raised sail in a gentle 12-knot trade for our 16-mile journey east to the Pelican Cayes.
Predictably, the sea was calm, the sun was out and the mood was festive. It hit me that, unlike most other land-based vacations, I had already begun to unwind, a mere 24 hours after leaving the bustling OC. Part of it I attributed to the destination – Belize is almost subversive in it’s mellowing effect. But most of it was due to the mode of travel: the yacht. Sure, I was being ferried and pampered on a luxurious four-stateroom sled, but the age-old simple appeal of taking to the sea and sailing for the clean horizon was still overwhelming. I suspect that, secretly, Columbus didn’t risk all to prove that the world was round, but sailed the ocean blue just to get away from the paperwork that came with all his claims; he just had to get out of the damn office. If they had email and cell phones in 1392, his grandfather would have discovered America.
Even Leila was leaving the stress of preschool and her intensive finger-painting regimen behind. Five minutes after stepping onto the boat, she shed all her clothes and declared she would be the “happy naked pirate girl.” Thanks to the catamaran’s huge covered cockpit and stability – the things are like floating condos, perfect for either honeymooners or families with children – she got her wish.
But unlike any real pirate, she had little fight left in her. We were all mesmerized by the palette of calming blues, accompanied by the soothing soundtrack of wind and rushing water.
“How about fresh fish for lunch,” I said, and reached for the yacht’s fishing pole.
“Well, I was planning on shrimp cocktail and–”
“No, no, we’re underway,” I said. “We’ve gotta fish.” I had done a bit of talking to Captain Allan about my fishing days, and saw the chance to prove myself.
“Shrimp sounds good, though,” my wife said.
I ignored her and clipped a lure onto the line.
Ten minutes later I was still trying to untangle the bird’s nest I had created when I forgot to put my thumb on the spool as I fed it out.
Captain Allan walked over and assessed the situation. “I’ll get the shrimp out,” he said.
Luckily, all was forgotten when we made our destination, Ranguana Caye, the sort of tiny island hideaway that seems dreamed up for a Hollywood movie: the size of a few football fields, and featuring a bar, a palapa with a hammock, a perfect beach and coral garden, and few visitors. This would become our home for the next three nights, much to the surprise and delight of Captain Allan. “Most guests want to rush around, hitting at least two cayes a day,” he said. “They end up seeing so much, they don’t see anything at all.” Ranguana Caye also held a sentimental spot in his and Fenella’s heart. Located just a mile inside the Belize Barrier Reef, this was the first bit of Belize they saw after sailing across the Caribbean and Atlantic, delivering a Moorings yacht from Europe. “We saw it and we thought, yes, Belize was a good decision,” he said.
We echoed that thought, and quickly fell into another routine of snorkeling, windsurfing and beach-going like the days at South Water Caye.
Here, I had a few extra adventures, however. The first was diving the Barrier Reef. Since we were already anchored less than a mile from the wonder, I got to avoid the hour-plus boat ride from land. I merely stepped from transom to transom, had barely enough time to get my gear ready before we were at the dive site, and splashed in. In fact, between dives, they motored me back to my yacht so I wouldn’t miss Fenella’s lunch.
Thanks to an uncommon conservation effort, Belize’s Barrier Reef is still full of life. It is considered some of the best diving in the western hemisphere, and I now believe it. Within 20 minutes underwater, I had spotted a six-foot shark (I’d tell you what kind, but I was fairly busy swimming the other way), a sea turtle the size of my desk, a scorpion fish, two of the biggest moray eels I’ve ever seen, and so much more.
But I found true adventure – or at least as close as a middle-aged family man can get – without any guide. The sailboard had provided a few – the time I sailed far down wind from the boat only to discover that wand and current were going to make it impossible to get back before nightfall. After I struggled with the sail for 20 minutes, Allan showed up in the dinghy and towed me into the lee of a caye – where I promptly sailed into a coral head and knocked the skeg off my board.
“You’ve done this before, right?” he asked.
I took the fifth.
That afternoon, the last we were to spend on the boat, was quiet. Gayl and Leila were relaxing in the yacht’s hammock, Allan was practicing various cloth napkin folds – he surprised my daughter with a different animal or flower every night – and Fenella was, of course, preparing to cook.
“What’s for dinner, Nella,” Allan asked.
“I think we’re down to the chicken,” she said.
“No,” I broke in. “We’ll have fish.”
“I wish we could but we’re all out–”
“I’ll handle it.”
I went to the stern and loaded my speargun, mask and fins in the kayak. Allan watched.
“How about snapper?” I said. I had a feeling Captain Allan’s belief in my late-night stories of spearing mahi mahi in the Sea of Cortez and surfing hollow waves in Tahiti was fading. I was starting to doubt them myself. So I couldn’t wait to surprise everyone with a kayak full of fresh fish and, most of all be the hero dad and put a proud smile on my little girl’s face.
I paddled off toward where I had seen dozens of snapper and hog fish while snorkeling the day before.
The first kink in my plan was rounding the point of Ranguana Caye. Our boat was in the lee of the island, to the south, while dinner was swimming in the waters to the north. The day before, the winds were light, but now a strong trade had kicked up, creating a wicked current that ripped around the point.
After 25 minutes of tough, wet work, I got to a good place in the reef, however, about 20 feet deep, with lots of life. Victory was virtually guaranteed. I swam down and tied the kayak off to a coral head, then climbed back aboard to put my gear on.
Once in the water, I swam up current a little ways, then went to load my speargun, which required stretching two tight bands of surgical tubing back to a barb on the spear’s shaft. I put the butt of the gun on my hip and pulled hard…
That’s when the gun slipped off my hip and the barb tore through my trunks and ripped a two-inch gash in my side. Blood oozed out, dark in the blue water. I thought of the shark I had seen earlier, then shook it off: “So I’ll just get an appetizer and get back.”
After only a few moments I found a few decent-sized yellow-tailed snapper. I dove a few times on them, trying to stay stealthy, despite the fact that I left a trail of blood behind me anywhere I went.
Finally, I got near a nice fish, and fired. This was it, finally I was going to get respect. I envisioned the toast to hunter-gatherer dad over seared…wait a minute…
Was that my spear bent and lodged under a rock? And where had dinner swum of to?
Back at the boat, my wife and daughter were waiting for me.
“Daddy has a boo-boo,” said Leila, pointing at my side and the bloody kayak.
Fenella heard and brought out the First Aid Kit. Leila chose the yellow, smiley faced Band-Aide.
“Oh, that, well, that’s nothing, really,“ I said. “Just a–”
Allan popped out. “So what kind of fish are we having?” I handed my gear to him as he searched the boat with his eyes.
“Well, it’s like this,” I started. “There was a big–”
My daughter handed me my smiley Band Aide.
“I’ll get the chicken out,” Allan said.
“I’ll start the oven,” Fenella said.
“Daddy, you’re funny,” said Leila. I put the Band Aide on. At least I got my smile.
Sitting in the Belize Airport a few days later – just off the single-prop plane ride from Placentia – popping antibiotics like candy, my body showed all the signs of a fully realized vacation. My ear pounded, finally succumbing to spending six hours a day in the ocean; my hip throbbed from the fresh spearfishing wound; my arm featured a few minor contusions from a dozen sailboarding and kneeboarding crashes; and my hands and feet showed reminders of other adventures gone wrong.
But I was glad to have them, because they were also reminders of the best family vacation I had ever had, one where everything else went very right.