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DETAILS: Ambergris Caye, Belize

At Elvi's Kitchen, the shrimp in watermelon sauce costs under $20.
At Elvi's Kitchen, the shrimp in watermelon sauce costs under $20. (By Richard Morin)
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Sunday, January 27, 2008

GETTING THERE: Numerous major airlines serve Belize from Washington, but there are no direct flights. My round-trip ticket on American Airlines cost $510 and involved a two-hour flight to Miami, a two-hour layover, then a two-hour flight to Belize City, site of the international airport. From there, it's a 15-minute flight to San Pedro on Tropic Air. The Belize City-San Pedro hop is included in packages offered by El Pescador; otherwise, it's $109 round trip. For those wary of puddle-jumpers, water taxis run between Belize City and San Pedro for $20 round trip.

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GETTING AROUND: Forget about renting a car. Regular water taxi service connects San Pedro to El Pescador and other major resorts on Ambergris Caye. A one-way trip from El Pescador costs $7. Walking is the best way to see the town, and you can rent a golf cart for less than $50 a day. The caye's extensive lagoon system can be explored by kayaks that are available free to guests at many of the hotels, or they can be rented. But watch out for crocodiles after sunset (really).

WHERE TO STAY: Travelers should contact individual hotels for updated rate information; definitions of "seasons" seem to vary week to week at some places.

El Pescador (800-242-2017, http://www.elpescador.com) is the only full-service fishing lodge on Ambergris Caye. Seven nights at the lodge and six days' fishing for two anglers staying in one room and fishing together in the same boat with a guide currently runs $2,995 per person. The price includes room, meals, beer and wine, and air between San Pedro and Belize City. Special deals during the August-to-December off-season include a two-for-one fishing package that means your buddy goes for free if you pay the full single-angler price.

Most hotels in San Pedro will make arrangements for guests who want to fish, scuba dive or snorkel. Victoria House (800-247-5159, http://www.victoria-house.com), a full-service resort south of town, is considered by locals to be the best hotel on Ambergris Caye. Rates for the most-requested casitas rooms (in thatched hut cottages with a view of the beach) start at $295 a night during the current high season (Jan. 3-May 31), $245 in low season (June 1-Dec. 22) and $330 during holidays.

Captain Morgan's Retreat (888-653-9090, http://www.captainmorgans.com) is another full-service resort, north of San Pedro. Rates for casitas rooms range from $139 during the low season (May 1-Dec. 19) to $199 during the current high season (Jan. 6-April 30) to $249 during the holidays. The SunBreeze Hotel (800-688-0191, http://www.sunbreeze.net), just south of the heart of San Pedro, has doubles from $153 during peak season (now through April 30) to $133 during the May 1-Dec. 14 off-season. There is no holiday premium.

WHERE TO EAT: We took all our meals at the lodge as part of our all-inclusive package. Guests who ventured into San Pedro for dinner raved about Elvi's Kitchen, where a full lobster dinner runs less than $30. Try Elvi's shrimp in watermelon sauce or the traditional stewed chicken, rice and beans, both less than $20. Fresh local snook, considered by many the tastiest fish that swims, is available at the Blue Water Grill. If you're still hungry, head to the Casa Picasso in San Pedro for the coconut bomb dessert.

Two distinctly Belizean treats that shouldn't be missed: Marie Sharp's Habanero Hot Sauce (not for the faint of palate) and Belikin beer, perfect after a long day in the sun.

WHAT TO TAKE: Light tropical wear is appropriate everywhere year-round, but bring a jacket in the winter and early spring; cold fronts blowing in from the north occasionally make for chilly days and nights. Whatever the time of year, bring a rain jacket. There are mosquitoes and sand flies, so bring bug spray -- the more DEET the better. Sunscreen is a must, and so is a wide-brim hat: The tropical sun is more unforgiving than the bugs.

ANGLERS: Fly anglers should bring 8- and 10-weight outfits, which will suffice for bonefish, permit and the resident tarpon. You can use a 5- or 6-weight rod for bonefish, which tend to be small. But remember, wind is a factor most times of the year. Floating lines are fine, though you might bring an intermediate-weight line. A 12-weight rod is a good choice for the larger migratory tarpon in the summer. And don't forget backup rods.

As for bonefish flies, the usual suspects work well in sizes 4, 6 or 8. We caught the bulk of our bonefish and the permit on a size 6 pearl Gotcha. Bring tarpon flies in sizes 1/0 to 3/0; Cockroaches, Black Deaths and the Toad series are effective.

If you have room, bring a pair of flats wading boots or diving booties; there are many flats along the shore that you can wade for bonefish and permit without having to pay for a guide or boat.

WHAT TO DO: Go fishing, diving or snorkeling, of course. For those who don't want to get wet, most hotels on Ambergris Caye run day trips to mainland points of interest, including the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha, the Belize Zoo and inland rain forest parks. The price for these trips varies by vendor. Rates at El Pescador varied from $60 for a tour of the baboon sanctuary, $75 for the river trip to Altun Ha ruins and up to $200 for the combination cave tubing and rain forest zip-line trip.

INFORMATION: A local merchant maintains a fact-filled commercial Web site with info on attractions, rentals and more at http://www.ambergriscaye.com. Also: Belize Tourism Board, 800-624-0686, http://www.travelbelize.org.

-- R.M.


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