As a newly certified scuba diver, I was looking for a getaway where I could try out my new skills -- then kick back on a rope hammock and watch the boats go by. Mexico? Hawaii? My choices seemed endless, but then a diver friend told me about Belize.
My first thought? Way too far. Still, his enthusiasm spurred me to check the map and the flight schedules ... and that was when I realized that Belize was only a four-hour flight from Newark or two short hours from Houston.
I was on a plane quicker than you could say "Mask and fins."
The hardest thing about heading to Belize was deciding just where in this small country I wanted to dive (and where I wanted to relax on the two days before my flight when I couldn't swim with the fishes). But because the country was so small -- only about 180 miles long -- I worked with United Vacations to plan an eight-day adventure in several different spots.
I was itching to hit the water, so fresh off the plane, I caught an "island hopper," a water taxi, and a golf cart to Ambergris Caye, recognized by many to be home to one of the world's premiere coral reefs, plus a marine reserve full of turtles and rays. My hotel, Las Terrazas, shared a white sand beach with White Sands Dive Shop, an outfitter accustomed to showing new divers the ropes.
Seriously, for those heading to this part of Belize for the first time, you couldn't do better than the Las Terrazas/White Sands combo. The hotel is casual and comfortable, with condo style accommodations and an outdoor restaurant. (Don't miss the fryjacks, a sopapilla-like Belizean specialty, and the butter chicken is as good as the menu claims). For both the hotel and the dive shop, service comes first: The chef made homemade French fries just because I was craving something salty, and Elbert, the owner of White Sands, rearranged the staffing for my second dive because I'd liked my first guide so much.
My very first dive. Just typing those words -- it's kind of wild! Let's just say I took the plunge. I rode out with White Sands to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a shallow five-square-mile underwater park where rays, barracudas, eels and dozens of varieties of fish glide by, oblivious to the tourists who come to share their space. I've been into turtles ever since I saw Finding Nemo with my kids. Sitting on the ocean floor while a sea turtle grazed and snacked? It was one of those moments when you just wished the kids were there to see it. And while I liked the Shark and Ray Alley, where dozens of marine animals scoot around your knees, the Marine Reserve was something special: peaceful and still, gentle but for the moray eels opening and closing their jaws behind the coral.
After my first day of diving (and encountering sharks in their natural habitat), a drink sounded like just the thing -- and Hidden Treasures, an airy restaurant in San Pedro, was just the place. My cantaloupe martini was frosty and sweet, perfect with fried plantains and Caribbean shrimp. And my bed back at Las Terrazas? Let's just say that while a rock slab would have offered a good night's sleep -- that's how exhausted I was -- the comfy bed and overhead fan hit the spot when I hit the hay.
Three days of diving and eating fryjacks at Las Terrazas, and it was time to move on. Two puddle jumpers -- so small that they actually do U-turns on the runway -- and an hour later, we were half-way across the country, in Placencia, a town on the country's southern coast. Let me tell you: Francis Ford Coppola's Turtle Inn is the place to be for rest and relaxation, great food and peace and quiet -- and luxury like I've rarely seen in my travels around the world.
Yes, the staff left homemade chocolate chip cookies in the jar in my room, and no, I was not able to stop eating until they were ALL. GONE. Yes, the Inn offered bikes to ride out and about in Placencia, and, no, I doubt anyone could find a better massage, ceviche or Belize lime pie than at the Secret Garden, a tiny spot in town that lived up to its name. And yes, the Turtle Inn had countless hammocks on the beach, and, no, I wasn't able to stay awake after the massage and chocolate chip cookies, so I slept by the ocean under palm trees for a good portion of my stay. Oh, and then there was the diving. I was starting to understand why my diver friend had insisted I head to Belize.
I had only two days left, and I could not dive for the 24 hours or so before flying back to Philadelphia. Cave tubing and ziplining, though? No risk of the bends from those. On my way to the Cayo District, an inland portion of Belize known for its Mayan ruins and beautiful landscapes, I tried a whole new kind of adventure, at Cave Branches Outpost, an all-inclusive outdoor park where I flew over the jungle attached a steel cable and then floated through caves sitting on an inner tube. Best of all, educated guides described the rock formations, art and jungle life as we went along -- an afternoon well spent.
Although I had been waiting all week to get to the Lodge at Chaa Creek, a luxury eco-ranch in the middle of the Belize jungle, I thought I had to stop at the Saturday morning market in San Ignacio, the biggest town in Cayo. I'd heard that I'd find native Belizeans and Mennonites (both of whom have settled in Cayo in large numbers) selling folk art, produce and street food. As a toy lover, I was excited to pick up some tiny embroidered animals made of colorful cloth; as a food lover, the custard apples (a kind of soupy fruit eaten with a spoon) and the hot grilled pupusas (dough with beans and cheese folded in) put me in gastronomic heaven. Even better, the market made for some of the best photo ops in Belize. The peppers were bright, the children were adorable and the spices! I've never seen spices like that.
And then, finally, I was there ... the Lodge at Chaa Creek. The Lodge -- committed to sustainable tourism -- spreads out through the jungle and boasts numerous individual cottages (most with Jacuzzis, all with native art and luxe bathrooms), plus a river camp where those on a budget can enjoy the property's amenities. And amenities they are, from an outdoor pool to an early morning bird watching walk (where we saw toucans) to horseback riding tours through the jungle (where we saw Mayan ruins) to a butterfly farm (where we walked among Belizean blue butterflies) to nature hikes (where we learned about holistic medicine). Almost everything is included in the price. While spa treatments are extra, they are special, incorporating native ingredients and offered with Belizean hospitality. No wonder this is the spot where Prince Harry and Bill Gates have both spent time in the past few months.
When it was time to leave Belize, I was so sorry to go that I booked my next trip back, this time to Chaa Creek's River Camp for Maya 2012, the celebration of the end of the Mayan calendar in December. I'll be taking my younger daughter along. Time to sign her up for scuba class.