"You two for Caye Caulker?" After watching several prop planes leave the Belize City airport for Ambergris Caye--Belize's most popular tourist destination--it was finally our turn. A friend and I had opted for Caye Caulker, the lesser-known of the two most-developed Belizean Cayes (pronounced "keys"), because it was cheaper and less touristy. And since we were the only ones going there last Christmas Day, Belize's Island Air rolled out an ancient four-seater just for us. I had the choice, white-knuckles seat next to the pilot.
Fifteen minutes later, we touched down on Caye Caulker's tiny, weed-festooned runway, grabbed our belongings, and hiked the half-mile or so to our hotel--the pleasant but spartan Tropical Paradise Hotel ($50 a night for two). Along the way, passersby hailed us with the typical Belizean late-afternoon greeting, "good night." With no cars on the island, taxis weren't an option, though you can rent golf carts. It's not needed, though, since only about one mile of the four-mile-long island is inhabited. The rest is mainly swamp and mangrove, home to crocodiles, snakes, and hundreds of species of birds.
NO DISCOS. If you're looking for pulsing all-night discos, don't bother with Caye Caulker. The same goes for anyone wanting to spend a luxurious week of seaweed wraps and waiters bearing frozen drinks. Unlike most Caribbean outposts, Caye Caulker has few beaches, although there is a small one to the north. What you will find is relaxation and great seafood in a friendly but no-frills environment, plus unparalleled snorkeling and diving at the Belize Barrier Reef, just one mile east. At 185 miles, it's the longest reef in the Western Hemisphere and home to some of the planet's most varied marine life. (For help in planning a trip, contact the Belize Tourist Board at 800 624-0686 or www.turq.com/belize.html. Another useful Web site is www.belizeit.com.)
Known as British Honduras until independence in 1981, Belize offers a curious mixture of Caribbean, Mayan, Latin, and Anglo cultures, as evidenced by the food, music, and ethnic backgrounds of the locals. Located below Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, next to Guatemala, Belize is the only Central American country where English is the first language.
On tiny Caye Caulker, water activities require boats, but that presents no problem. Many residents have a boat ready to take tourists diving and snorkeling, not to mention manatee watching, sailing, and fishing. Just stroll down sandy Front Street to the town center, where at least 15 dive and snorkel shops bid for attention. You'll pass roadside stands and outdoor restaurants offering lobster kabobs, conch, and jerk chicken.
Don't take the plethora of advertised tours as a sign of true competition: Prices are almost uniform, at about $25 for a day of snorkeling (including equipment) or manatee watching and about $50 for a two-tank dive trip. Other travelers informed us that the outings were much cheaper than on Ambergris Caye, even though guides visit the same sites.
DOCILE RAYS. The all-day snorkeling trip we took with some 15 people carried us to three glorious sites: Shark Ray Alley, Hol Chan Marine Reserve, and a shipwreck. Our guide Carlos, of Anwar Tours, beckoned a few snorkelers at a time closer as he used a morsel of fish to lure a moray eel from its lair. We swam among schools of brilliantly hued fish, touched a small shark and a huge, docile ray, and hunted bounty in an old freighter.
We also spent a morning bonefishing from a small motorboat. Bonefish are among the strongest, most elusive fish out there. Getting one to take the bait means you're in for the fight of your life. Although neither of us had caught so much as an old shoe in years, we gave it a try. While we didn't attract anything but mosquitoes, we were the only boat in sight--and the only people to see the bottle-nosed dolphin diving playfully nearby. If that kind of unspoiled moment appeals to you, brave the four-seater--and leave the hordes of tourists 300 miles to the north in Cancun.