Somewhere out there is a little slice of paradise with your name written in the sand. Whether you want to kiteboard across an archipelago or dive off a luxe live-aboard, these ten island base camps--from Bora-Bora to the British Virgin Islands--will satisfy the explorer and escapist in you
Story by Kimberly Brown Seely
Photography by Keith Fialcowitz
BELIZE ADVENTURE VACATION: Play castaway on Long Caye at Glover's Reef, Slickrock's private island 35 miles off the coast of Belize.
No time to overland it to your place in the sun? Slickrock's Adventure Island on Glover's Reef Atoll is just two hours by boat from Belize City. Adventure Island (www.slickrock.com) is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Story by Jon Bowermaster
Photography by Barry Tessman
Resting the paddle across the cockpit of my kayak afloat on the Caribbean 30 miles off the coast of Central America, I tilted my head back and relaxed. Evening was coming on and the blue-black sky and sea were melding into one until it was impossible to distinguish the horizon. I could hear the sea pounding nearby, but here all was serene thanks to the protection provided by the thin, barely submerged line of coral rimming Glover Reef, the least known of Belize’s three atolls.
I’d been based for a week on Long Cay, one of the five tiny Caribbean islands on the atoll. People scour the globe looking for places like this - a few acres of sand and palm trees spotted by some palapas and kayaks. But never mind Thailand- or French Polynesia or Bali. Their beaches are all far away, and may well be more crowded, too. Glover Reef, in contrast, is a lightly traveled, marine preserve just a two-hour flight- plus a rollicking three-hour ride across the open sea- from Houston.
Belize has been an adventure destination for years, yet development rests lightly on its islands- even on Cay Corker and Ambergris Cay, which receive the most visitors. Most of the waters were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The barrier reef is well-known: At 180 miles, it’s second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in length.
Yet east of the reef are three immense atolls, covering more than 400 square miles. An atoll, any atoll, is a magical place. It’s a reef encircling a now sunken island, often dotted with cays that are little more than specks of sand and shell, occupied by dreamers and seabirds. Thanks to atolls, you can find calm pieces of flat water in the middle of the world’s oceans. There are only four in the Western Hemisphere, and three lie off Belize: Glover Reef, Lighthouse, and Turneffe. (The fourth, Banco Chinchorro, is off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.)
Connoisseurs can sniff out the unique character of each atoll. Turneffe is famous among divers for Black Beauty’s ebony coral blankets and for the Elbow, where huge fish waft up and down a hundred-foot wall. It boasts a relatively luxurious cabana camp called the Blackbird Caye Resort and a fishing lodge. Lighthouse Reef, to the east, is home to the Blue Hole; 1,000 feet across and 400 feet deep, it was explored and made famous in the 1970’s by Jacques Cousteau. One guidebook calls the atoll’s swanky Lighthouse Reef Resort a “tropical illusion.”
But Glover Reef is the one nobody’s heard of, the atoll for casual adventurers- kayakers, windsurfers, hammock swingers, and snorkelers. Glover is the remotest atoll in Belize. It’s a hundred square miles of sea filled with patch reefs and wild-colored fish, strewn with just five small islands, all strung along its southeastern edge, smack against the Caribbean. Glover has been called the biologically richest site in the Caribbean; in 1994, it was declared a marine reserve by the Belizean government.
The white sand, the palm trees, the breeze- they all made it hard to stand, let alone ooze down the beach and into the water. Yet, between naps, I managed to fit in sessions of surf kayaking on the waves rolling in from the east, bonefishing off Middle Cay, and diving the Crack, the Emerald Forest, and Shark Point- where immense whale sharks can be spotted. And I spent long minutes watching schools of bar jack chase minnows toward the shore, where seabirds joined the feast.
The equipment for most of this activity (and I include the hammocks) was provided by Slickrock Adventures, a river-running and sea-kayaking outfit that came to Long Cay four years ago. There are other places to stay on Glover Reef, but the Slickrock formula- primitive lodgings scattered widely enough for privacy, combined with really good water toys- was the one that appealed to me.
“What we want,” says Lucy Wallingford, a Slickrock owner, “is a facility that feels non-developed. Obviously if you build a building, that’s some level of development. But throughout the Caribbean there are very few facilities that are this rustic by design.” On Long Cay, development means ten small cabins, a half dozen tent palapas, solar-powered water pumps, a composting toilet, three dozen sea kayaks, a bunch of sailboards and surf kayaks, and a dive shop (the only thing not owned by Slickrock). There is no maid service; there are no air conditioners or flush toilets. But there is a fridge permanently loaded with Fantas and Belikin beers. It all represents the soft side of small group adventure travel -right down to the excellent Garifuna chefs who cook and then sit down at the table with you to dine.
Wallingford and her partner Cully Erdman, had worked rivers in the American West and in the Chiapas region of Mexico before moving operations to Belize. Even then, a half decade passed until Glover Reef crossed their radar. “We ran trips to Belize on the barrier reef for years, but we never looked at the atolls,” says Wallingford. Now, she says, “there’s no going back.”
I left Long Cay each day to paddle slowly among the islands. Closer to Long Cay is Middle Cay, which was purchased in 1992 from a private owner by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Since then, Belize’s Department of Fisheries has stationed rangers there to monitor, among other things, the small-scale commercial fishing allowed in the northern part of the atoll.
I went out spearfishing one morning with a man who used to make his living as a full-time fisherman. Nowadays, John Ariola is a Slickrock guide, though he still helps supply the tables on Long Cay. To be clear, Ariola went spearfishing, while I struggled to keep up-in these protected waters, the sport’s legal only for Belizeans. Ariola traces his roots to the Garifuna, or Black Caribs; he explained that they’re descended from African slaves (who escaped following a shipwreck in 1635) and Carib and Arawak Indians.
Ariola spied a good-size Spanish hogfish and swam toward it. He pointed the speargun straight ahead, and fwaap, it was dinner. Reeling in the fish, Ariola smiled through his mask and snorkel, surfaced, and tossed in into a kayak he’d been towing by a rope. We swam for and hour without finding anymore prey. Finally he pulled off his mask, a little dejectedly. “Looks like ham tonight, mon.”
Related blog post: Hurricane Richard Hits Belize
From the cockpit of a kayak, these low-lying islands can seem to disappear in the blink of an eye - blocked by and ocean swell - only to reappear again. Sometimes, though, they really do disappear. The cays are basically rubble, heaps of sand, rock, and shell that have caught on the reef. A single hurricane can destroy a cay, or make a good start toward creating one.
Last October’s Hurricane Keith blew by to the north of Glover Reef. But Hurricane Mitch, in October 1998, hit hard. The storm killed upwards of 11,000 people in Central America. Out at sea, winds of 70-plus miles an hour sent 30-foot waves crashing onto Glover Reef. Despite being partly thwarted by the reef, Mitch wiped out Slickrock’s kitchen and several cabins. It also obliterated a small island that was just north of Long Cay. “A repeat of Mitch is my biggest nightmare,” says Cully Erdman.
The ephemeral nature of the cays adds to their allure somehow. One day, just before sunset, I kayaked north in search of what I’d been told was a new island starting to form. About three miles beyond Northeast Cay, I spotted a spit of sand and shell and pulled into the shallows. On the seaside of the atoll, the surf was a frothing melange of white and chocolate-colored waves. A frigate bird squawked jealously as I came ashore, guarding what she regarded as her turf.
Littered with broken, dead coral, this blooming island didn’t look like much. That could change with the next big storm. Taking a seat on the rough coral, I pondered a name for the island. Cully’s Cay, after my host? Nah, sounded too much like “Gilly” (as in Gilligan). North-by-Northeast Cay? Boring. I’ve got it, I thought: Jon’s Cay. Nice and simple, with a real Eden-like ring to it. I scrambled for and old T-shirt to write on. Every island needs a flag, after all.
Story by Jim Benning
Photography by Keith Fialcowitz
WHERE TO GO NOW
Maybe given a thousand lifetimes you could do it all: trek the Himalaya, sail a square-rigger in the Pacific, meet isolated tribes in Amazonia— all without sweating your schedule. But odds are, you don't have a thousand lifetimes. Odds are, you have just a few weeks a year. Which is all the more reason to make sure you don't miss the planet's greatest experiences. And why, in the current climate of unrest and uncertainty, it's more important than ever to be selective.
The spirit of adventure means carefully balancing the risks against the enormous rewards of living life to the fullest. And that means playing it smart—especially in choosing a destination and finding an outfitter with local savvy. Here are 25 classic trips that are right for today, along with the outfitters who can get you there and back safely—in one lifetime or less.#14 BELIZE Multisport Splash
Mountains, jungles, caves, coral reef--it's a lot to pack into a country the size of Vermont, and that sheer density has made Belize a perennial adventure-travel favorite. But don't spurn the vest-pocket nation because it's popular. On nine-day outings, Slickrock Adventures finds the unspoiled corners and goes biking in the Maya Mountains, rafting and kayaking on Class IV and V rivers, and water-sporting on Slickrock's 13-acre island.
WHY THIS TRIP: Slickrock Adventures is the largest and oldest (since 1986) outfitter in Belize and the only one with a private island. For information on this trip or a three-day trip visiting the Mayan temples of Tikal, contact Slickrock Adventures: (800) 390-5715.