Strolling down one of Cay Caulker's few streets on the way to dinner our third night on the island, my wife and I come across a graceful yellow house flanked by red bougainvilleas 20 feet tall. Like virtually every house in this fishing village, it's set on stilts. Unlike most, it bears a fresh coat of paint. As if on cue, the lady of the house appears at her unscreened window. She is perhaps 60, with silver hair drawn back in a bun. She smiles down at us. "You have the most beautiful house," Jane calls to her. "Thank you," she says. She looks us over a bit more closely, then announces: "Next time you come to the island, you stay with me. My father died last year and now the house is too big."
Has it been a while since something like this happened to you on vacation?
Go soon, before the developers sink their talons into the place. Cay Caulker, a four-mile-long sliver of island just off the coast of Belize, has everything it takes for a vacation in the sunny part of the extremely slow lane. The 800 natives in the village that occupies one-fourth of the place (the rest is uninhabited) are welcoming and helpful. The official language is English, Belize being a part of the former British Honduras. Instead of Burger Kings, discos and jewelry shops, you'll find strangers who say hello with no ulterior motive, family-run restaurants and children playing freely in the sandy streets. The longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere is just a mile offshore, creating exceptional snorkeling, diving and fishing. There are seldom more than four cars on the island at one time. The locals generally hoof it or tool around in electric golf carts, a policy instituted to avoid tearing up the fragile sand streets.
Not least, Cay Caulker is a steal. A clean, no-frills double with private bath and hot water will set you back about $25 a night; a caught-today lobster dinner with a couple of Belikin beers, $10; an all-day snorkeling trip with gear and lunch, about $20. And the hospitality is free.
There's a catch, of course. And it is probably what has saved Cay (pronounced "key") Caulker from the hordes that have turned much of the Caribbean into a sunlit picture of Rockville Pike. The island, divided into two sections by a narrow channel courtesy of Hurricane Hattie in 1961, has no beach. Oh, it's easy enough to go for a swim off any of its many docks, and there are plenty of places to relax by the water in a beach chair or hammock hung between two palm trees. It's just that the shore is usually either slightly rocky or slightly mucky or taken up by mangrove trees. We saw any number of American tourists on the water taxi arriving from Belize City, who, upon finding out about the beach situation, got back on the boat and kept moving.
The reef, which protects the island from the full force of hurricanes, is also what has kept the ocean from piling up sand on the island's shore. Consequently, there has never been a fashion photo shoot on the island. The cruise ships don't stop here. So far, Cay Caulker is the Land That Chic Forgot. And of course that's how the locals want to keep it. "Mon, they've ruined San Pedro," one of the fake rastas who hang out by the water taxi stand tells me, speaking of the town on Ambergris Cay, a half-hour boat ride to the north. "You can get anything you want there. Except civility."
Having established a speaking relationship, he proceeds to try and sell me some marijuana. "Clinton smoked it and we smoke it. Better than Viagra, mon. That stuff'll kill you dead."
I'm not sure what it is about me that triggers the male-potency marketing approach, but I pass on the weed. The fellow doesn't take it personally and we keep talking. Picking up a coconut lying on the ground beside me, I shake it to see if there is water inside, and tell him I've never figured how you open one without an electric drill. "Here," he says, borrowing a machete from a passerby. Holding the coconut in his bare hand, he takes a few vicious whacks, producing a small hole. "Drink that," he says. "Very good for you. Full a' minerals."
It's said that Belize has become a major drug route ever since Panama got shut down with the arrest of Noriega. As with virtually every island in the Caribbean, there certainly are drugs around. But we never see any evidence of violent crime during our visit.
What we do get to see is life on a small island. You eat, read, sun and snorkel by day. You find a hammock and a beer to watch the pelicans gliding an inch off the water at sunset. Then you have dinner, read four pages of your novel and fall asleep by 10. Lather, rinse and repeat for five days to achieve a deep sense of calm.
We quickly make friends with Chelo, a skinny, quiet fellow who showed up every other day selling bowls, hats and tropical birds he weaves from palm fronds. They are lovely, surprisingly durable and sell for the equivalent of two bucks each. (The Belizean dollar is permanently pegged to the U.S. dollar at the exchange rate of two Belize to one American. There is no need to ever go to the bank because American dollars are accepted everywhere.) Chelo takes special orders: a bigger hat, a smaller bowl, a set of nesting bowls. And he delivers.
On one street lived a man with shaggy hair and a beard who spends his days throwing rocks at dogs stalking his chickens. It has become more or less a way of passing time for all parties involved. The dogs almost appear to be smiling as they slink back for another round. It's hard to tell who's playing whom.
We regularly come across a group of boys cruising the streets on their bikes singing at the top of their lungs some indecipherable Creole version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." We stop and take their picture. "When I grow up, I'm going to live in a mansion," one announces loudly.
Our hotel, Trends Beachfront, is run by Wayne Miller, a Belizean who spent 24 years as a toy buyer in New York before coming home two years ago to open a hotel and the Sand Box, a bar/restaurant that has become a center of island social and business life. With its low-maintenance sand carpeting and bar chairs bearing the names of regulars, the place is always humming with a surprising mix of people: fishing guides on their way in or out to the reef, American and European tourists, young backpackers taking a year to "do" Central America and snorkel/dive tour operators looking to snag clients.
"We still get more Europeans and Australians than Americans," Wayne tells us over coffee and fruit one morning. "But that's starting to change. And we've always had a lot of backpackers who camp here. But it's interesting; they're not the heavy party types. I don't know how it happened, but Cay Caulker seems to be on the circuit of hip places like Goa or Bangkok or Prague. I can't tell you how many times I've seen kids say, 'Didn't I see you at the hostel in Budapest?' " Miller says land values have gone sky-high in recent years, but that most properties remain in local hands. "We've done a good job so far of keeping a fishing village mentality," he says.
But an American developer has succeeded in buying up a sizable chunk of the southern part of the island, with plans to put up a $400-a-night resort. Someone has already cut down a large swath of mangrove, which angered a lot of locals. "All these keys exist because of mangrove," one regular at the bar told us. "A mangrove seed hits an exposed piece of sand, takes root and starts trapping more sand. After a couple hundred years--poof!--you get an island. But you start cutting that down and the island goes away."
Capt. Chocolate cuts the twin engines on his boat after a 45-minute run from Cay Caulker to the calm waters off Swallow Cay and switches to the 25-foot white mangrove pole he uses to maneuver the boat closer to the feeding manatees. A former commercial fisherman, the 70-year-old Chocolate discovered a colony of manatees here feeding on the abundant sea grass a quarter-century ago. Now he guides visitors here full time and has become the animals' chief defender, erecting signs warning motorboats to be careful and chewing out any guides he sees getting out of line. He poles the boat closer to a large white shape slowly bobbing in the water. It looks like an extremely zaftig seal with a round paddle for a tail.
"I know this one," says Chocolate. "A baby. Only about 3 years old, maybe six, seven hundred pounds." Every 90 seconds or so, the animal's nostrils break the surface for a breath, then it sinks back down to feed on the grass below.
Chocolate tells us that this colony consists of 17 animals, that it takes an hour and a half for manatees to mate, that they breast-feed for two years and can live to be 60. A fully grown manatee may be 15 feet long and weigh 3,000 pounds. They have five bones in their front flippers, like fingers, and they use these appendages to gather the 40 or 50 pounds of sea grass they eat every day. It's easy to see why wild manatees are having a tough time these days. They're like huge, backward-looking family businesses: slow, set in their ways and mostly oblivious to the world around them.
What's infectious is Chocolate's love for the animals. "How are you, sweetie?" he calls. "I haven't seen you in a couple of weeks." He's trying to get the government back in Belize City to establish this area as a reserve: no motors in the manatee area, no cutting of mangrove, no swimming with the animals. It seems slightly insane that the government hasn't acted already to protect what is a fairly significant tourist attraction.
On the way back, we stop at Goffs Cay, a tiny island where pelicans and frigate birds cruise the shallows near the reef and coral fans wash up on the shore. Chocolate leads us on a snorkeling tour past brain coral, sponges and schools of fish practicing synchronized evasion maneuvers to a place where the bottom simply drops away. "The shelf," he announces, when we're all together on the surface. Maybe. It looks more like the abyss to me. I'm happy to get back to shallow water and the boat.
A nice counterpoint to the manatees is an afternoon trip straight out to the reef to see what's close to home. We learn the hard way that it's best to book a boat with two motors, even for a short trip. Ten of us get stuck half a mile offshore for about half an hour when the engine cuts out. Our skipper, a hulking fisherman named Rally with a shark's tooth around his neck and a fish hook through one nipple (intentional, apparently), finally gets the motor going, but only at idle speed. We chug slowly out toward the reef and anchor at Stingray City. There is also supposed to be a stop at Shark Alley, where tame nurse sharks congregate for handouts. But today the stingrays and sharks have joined forces. So when Rally throws sardine chum over the side, the water is suddenly full of both gray rays and brown sharks.
"Go ahead," Rally tells us. "But it's shallow here, so don't wear your flippers. And don't step on the rays because they don't like that." No one moves. "I'm serious!" he says. "They won't hurt you." I wait for somebody else to be the lead lemming, then obediently follow him over the side.
Instantly, there are large sheets of marine protein coming at me from all directions. But the rays all veer off at the last instant and soon I'm having the time of my life watching them fly through the water. The sharks are three or four feet long with suckerlike mouths. They don't come too near me and I return the favor. One ray actually bushes my hand on its way by. It feels soft, almost rubbery. "They're friendly," says Rally. "Got a good thing going here."
We are supposed to make one more snorkeling stop, but the engine still won't run except at a low sputter. "I don't like this," Rally tells us. "I'll take you if you want, but I'm not comfortable." I think Rally just wants to get back early. Still, when a man with a shark's tooth around his neck and fish hook through his nipple says he's reached his comfort threshold, you tend to defer. We chug back in.
On our last night, we pick up our last order of palm stuff from Chelo, shake the sand out of our bathing suits and go out for one more lobster dinner. The knowledge that in 24 hours we'll be standing outside Reagan National, a winter wind knifing through our cotton clothes, is almost more than we can bear. On the way back from dinner, we stop in the Sand Box and find Wayne.
"If we book now, could you give us a discount for next year?" we ask.
"Sorry," he says. "I'm happy to book you, but I can't give a discount. Business has been good this year. I'm gonna be full up next year. Your countrymen are discovering me."
Bill Heavey last wrote about Milwaukee for Travel.
GETTING THERE: American, Continental and Northwest are among the airlines offering connecting service from the Washington area to Belize City; round-trip fares start at about $586, with restrictions. From Belize City, you don't need a reservation to hop on the nearly hourly puddle jumpers operated by Maya Island Air and Tropic Air to Cay Caulker. Fares are about $25 each way.
GETTING AROUND: You can rent bikes, but the place is so small there's not really much point. Golf cart taxis can get you to and from the airport to your hotel. The Cay Caulker Water Taxi can run you up to Ambergris Cay in half an hour or Belize City in 45 minutes. This is how the locals get around, but a windbreaker is a good idea as these babies really move.
WHERE TO STAY: We found a (now expired) package deal through Capricorn Leisure Corp. (1-800-426-6544) that included air fare and five nights at the Trends Beachfront Hotel (telephone O11-501-22-2094) for $566 per person. Trends Beachfront has two different properties; you want to be on the one close to the beach. Doubles are $30 per night during high season (Nov. 15-May 15), $25 off-season. Other good bets include the Rainbow Hotel (011-501-22-2123), where you can get air conditioning and cable TV for $50 a night; and the even more upscale Iguana Reef Inn (011-501-22-2213). For something morebasic, try one of the 10 rooms at Shirley's Guest House (011-501-22-2145).
WHERE TO EAT: It's hard to find a bad meal on Cay Caulker. Glenda's is a great place for homemade breads, fresh juice and eggs at breakfast. The Sand Box, Syd's and Tropical Paradise Restaurant all offer fresh lobster, shrimp, fish and chicken. One of the best meals we had was the lobster curry at Chan's Garden, the only Chinese restaurant on the island. Just ask anybody on the street to direct you to any of these.
SNORKELING/DIVING: There are any number of shops along the beach road offering trips to the reef and, farther out, diving destinations such as the Turneffe Islands, the Blue Hole and Half Moon Cay. Prices are reasonable (four-hour trips start around $20; all-day trips with lunch run $35 and up). But make sure to check out the boat and operator before you put your money down.
INFORMATION: Belize Tourist Board, 1-800-624-0686, www.travelbelize.org. Check out www.gocayecaulker.com for info on everything from hotels and snorkeling to Laundromats and kayak rental.