Story by Chloe Mayor
Photography by Henry Georgi
I keep a list of things I want to do with the rest of my life. High on this list is a deserted tropical island getaway where palm trees sway on a white sandy beach and an indigo-blue sky melts into crystalline waters. But the problem is, I’m not the type of girl who can sit around the beach all day doing nothing. What I want is a place that offers a smorgasbord of activities. I want to swim, explore, scuba dive, kayak, and windsurf. And I want expert guides to teach me how to do the hard stuff. But in-between, I wouldn’t mind a bit of hammock time.
After some research, I discover that multi-sport vacations in desirable locations are becoming one of the most popular segments of the travel industry. I narrow my search by looking for a reputable adventure company that offers trips in the most desirable of settings: a private Caribbean island. A few months later, I’m one in a group of 14 thrill-seekers about to embark on Slickrock Adventures’ all-inclusive package in Belize – one that promises to balance sweat, scenery, and serenity.
We’re headed to Long Caye, one of five slivers of islands in an atoll and national marine reserve called Glover’s Reef, 35 miles off the coast of Belize. To get here, you fly into Belize City, then take a three-hour boat ride. After deplaning, we gather our bags and settle in for a jostling ride across the water. We slow down as an island comes into focus. Conversations stop, iPods turn off, and we all stick our heads out the windows to get a better look. “It doesn’t seem real,” someone whispers. While many private islands make a lot of noise about forgetting the outside world, this one means it.
Long Caye has a wild and magical vibe – much like a setting on the shows Lost and Survivor. Forget AC, room service, and email. Instead, eco-friendly and undeveloped is the modus operandi.
We zigzag on seashell-lined pathways through coconut palms. The trails lead to 12 rustic beachfront cabanas perched on stilts above the surf and outfitted with air mattresses and a solar-powered light for night reading. The cabanas, widely scattered for privacy, feature conch-decorated porches with hammocks and lounge chairs.
After dropping our bags in the cabanas, we waste little time getting in the water. I am instantly surrounded by a school of rainbow parrotfish, who dash away as quickly as they appear. Our snorkeling guide grabs my arm and directs my attention to a spot on the ocean floor. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at until I notice bulging eyes that appear to be sticking out of the sand. Our guide dives to the bottom, where he carefully moves the sand away. A stingray emerges and swims off.
Back on terra firma, he lectures us on proper sand-walking techniques. “Stingrays don’t want to sting you any more than you want to be stung,” he says. “If you shuffle your feet on the sand, they’ll hear you coming and swim off.”
I take my first shower that afternoon alfresco. The well-water is a perfect 70 degrees, and it feels wonderful. Back in my cabana, I sip a chilled cerveza while the sun slowly sets in typical Caribbean Technicolor.
The next morning, over a breakfast of Belizean fry jacks and eggs with Creole potatoes, Victor Myers, one of our zealous island guides, goes over the plan for the day. During the sea-kayak orientation we learn paddle strokes, rescue techniques, and how to enter and exit the kayak while in the water. That afternoon we split into groups; the certified divers go on their first die and a smaller group takes a windsurfing orientation class.
Meanwhile, the rest of us paddle to a nearby patch reef where we hook our bowlines to a piece of dead coral and practice exiting the kayak without tipping it. I carefully slip out of my seat and slide into the water, where I struggle to don my mask and fins in between mouthfuls of seawater. “Next time, you might try putting on your snorkel gear before jumping out of your kayak,” laughs Myers as I choke.
Every day before sunset, guests and staff get together for some friendly beach volleyball. Then it’s time to eat. Meals are served in a sand-floored dining hall featuring three long communal tables, a propane stove, and a refrigerator stocked with Fanta soft drinks and Belikin, the national beer of Belize. In the dining hall, we can also check out the marine life guidebooks from the extensive library and look up the fish we encountered in the reef we explored. “If you think you saw some cool fish when snorkeling today, wait until you go diving,” says our dive master.
Avid scuba divers swoon at the mention of Belize, a tiny nation with the world’s second-longest barrier reef (behind Australia). The reef is named after John Glover, and English pirate who used this secluded ring of islands and reefs as the base from which to raid treasure-laden Spanish galleons. Glover’s Reef is the country’s most remote atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to “the Wall,” an incredible coral-covered face on the continental shelf where the sea floor drops to 3,000 feet in less than a mile. A small group of us are so thrilled after our scuba exploration of the Wall – we spot green moray eels, spotted eagle rays, and tiger grouper swimming around purple sea fans and elkhorn coral – that we end up diving again days later and complete a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification course.
As our island getaway approaches an end, many of us try to prolong the adventure till the last moment. In the distance, I see four brave souls paddling kayaks into pounding surf on the south side of the island, each looking for a perfect wave to ride back to shore. On the windier lagoon side, another couple is windsurfing while Myers, perched in a yellow kayak, bestows handy tips and takes pictures with his waterproof digital camera. Me? I kick back on a hammock while a gentle breeze and the sound of the waves lapping the shore lull me to sleep – as it turns out, my adrenaline needs a break.
On the boat ride back to the mainland, I think back to my must-do list and mentally check off about half a dozen items. Swimming with exotic fish. Check. Getting scuba certified. Check. Spending the day on the beach doing nothing at all was never on my list, though it should have been. Suddenly it occurs to me that if fantasy mirrors desire, then Belize reshapes it.
GETTING STARTED: Slickrock Adventures is the oldest outfitter in Belize and the only one with a private island. The Adventure Island at Glover's Reef package includes accommodations; use of top-notch gear; lessons on windsurfers, surf kayaks, kayaks, and surfboards; and all meals and beverages. Prices vary depending on length of trip. slickrock.com
WHAT TO PACK: If you plan to snorkel, you must bring your own mask, snorkel, and fins. You'll also need a pair of closed-toe hydro shoes that provide full-foot coverage (perfect for wearing to and from snorkeling spots and while kayaking and windsurfing). Quick-drying shorts and a long-sleeve rash guard are must-haves. And consider bringing a waterproof digital camera.