The Go Slow Island
For anyone who's ever had the urge to flee the rat race and parachute onto a tropical island with velvety air and a breezy, barefoot lifestyle, Caye Caulker would likely fit the bill. It's the kind of laid-back, sun-saturated spot that's as inoculated to the rat race as a civilized place can be. The vegetation is lush and tropical, houses are wooden clapboard, the streets are soft sand, and shoes are optional.
Belize is a flavorful stew of cultures, of Creole, Chinese, Mestizo, Indian, Maya, and more -- and Caye Caulker has an authentic Belizean feel. Although tourism is now the island's major industry, big business has not intruded here. Lodging largely consists of family-run inns, gaily painted guesthouses, and weather-beaten motels on stilts planted in the sand. Dining is local and home-cooked. Look for fish, rice and beans, and curries. In lobster season, which begins in June and ends 9 months later, you can eat local spiny lobster just about every night at modest prices.
In spite of its modest, no-frills demeanor, Caye Caulker has a fairly spectacular draw: the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and one of the last unspoiled coral reefs in the world. It runs for 306km (190 miles) of rich and diverse marine habitat less than half a mile offshore. The diving and snorkeling along the reef is world-class. Just 16km (10 miles) north is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, one of the most popular diving and snorkeling sites with a spectacular variety of marine life. Turneffe, the largest of the atolls, has a beautiful and varied underwater terrain. Recommended tour operators include Belize Diving Services (tel. 501/226-0143; www.belizedivingservice.com), which has been operating full-service dive trips out of Caye Caulker since 1978, and Frenchie's Diving (tel. 501/226-0234; www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com), whose divemasters and captains have a combined 70 years of dive experience.
You can enjoy sailing, diving, birding, jungle tours, fishing, and windsurfing in the clear azure waters of the Caribbean here. One thing Caye Caulker does not have is big, wide, white-sand beaches. Sand beaches tend to be squeezed between mangrove forests and ocean, and sea grass grows in the wading shallows. Most people swim off the public piers that extend beyond the sea grass or at the Split, a gathering place to sip the local Belikin beer and watch the sunset. Go slow indeed.
Information: www.belizetourism.org or www.cayecaulker.org.
Getting There: Belize City to Caye Caulker (Tropic Air; 15 min.). Water taxi (45 min.) between Belize City, Caye Caulker, and San Pedro (Ambergris Caye): Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association (tel. 501/223-5752; www.cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com).
Where to Stay: Iguana Reef Inn, Back St. (tel. 501/226-0213; www.iguanareefinn.com). Seaside Cabanas, Front St. (tel. 501/226-0498; www.seasidecabanas.com).