trip planner

Thinking about a vacation and wondering where to start? The internet is obvious, but what about going old-school and buying a guidebook? Which is the best trip planner?

Happily, there’s the Frugal Traveler column in the New York Times to help us sort it all out. Last month, on Christmas Eve Day writer Seth Kugel published a great investigative article on the Best Trip Planner question. He conducted an experiment: he bought a brand new guidebook, then tried to replicate that experience on the internet. So, what was the result? Well, if you were hoping for a simple answer, prepare to be disappointed. Like with many many important questions, there is no simple answer.

Just to illustrate the complexity of the problem, google the phrase “Trip Planner” and you will get over 59 million results. Some of those references are for city or region-specific information, of course. Others refer you to a Trip Planner for niche markets (e.g. surfing, historical, luxury, etc.). And there are sites that try to cover all bases. How to know which ones are worth a look? The problem with the web is that it is so voluminous. That can be intimidating and then the idea of using a guidebook becomes tempting. But the problem with guide books are that they are partially out-of-date by the time they are published . Plus, they are not searchable in the way the internet is nor can they be customized for your specific trip.

Internet as Trip Planner

Kugel found that in general, the internet is best for people who enjoy the process of planning a trip but books were best for people who like the decisions made for them. The internet excelled as a trip planner if you want to build your own custom itinerary, in which case he found the site Stay.com to be the best. But the internet also took more work and more time.

Guidebooks as Trip Planner

And there were three ways in which guidebooks were hands down better than the internet:

  • Maps
  • Things you would not think to search for on the internet such as warnings about scams in a specific destination
  • Convenience

To sum it up, Kugel said, “If the web is a fully stocked kitchen where an experienced chef given enough time can produce a brilliant meal, guidebooks are an energy bar, packing all the nutrients you need into a handy package that can be tossed into your bag.”

Or How We Learned to Love Belize

Silk Cayes Belize
An early Slickrock expedition approaches Silk Caye Belize

mapAbout 40 miles southwest of Glover’s Reef, where our eco-resort is located on Long Caye, is a small group of tiny islands called the Silk Cayes of Belize. These islands figured prominently in how we first got started running sea kayak expeditions in the Caribbean. Cully, Slickrock’s founder, wrote a great post in 2011 about those early beginnings on Silk Caye Belize.

A recent coincidence caused us to revisit the topic. One of our guests, Blake Spellman, sent us a few photos from a trip he and his partner, Mary Holland, took with us back in those “good ol’ days.”

Blake and Mary are currently signed up for their second trip with us next April. Their first trip with us was years ago, before we started renting (and then bought) an island, which allowed us to build permanent facilities including guest cabanas, a large kitchen palapa and dining facility, solar heated showers and composting toilets, kite surfing center and a variety of shade palapas that today comprise our Adventure Island resort on Long Caye. Blake and Mary will be in for a much more cushy experience on Long Caye compared to what they had with us on Silk Caye Belize. We like to describe what our guests experience on Adventure Island as “five star camping.”

Back in the old days, our guests launched in sea kayaks from a beach at the small town of Placencia and paddled with us out to the Silk Caye Belize area. There, we camped on different tiny islands of coral sand that were dotted with a few coconut palms. It was all very “Gilligan’s Island.” See the photos from Blake and Mary below.

Silk Caye Belize: Now

silk caye Belize with bathroomAs you can see in these photos, the once pristine little island, Silk Caye Belize, now sports a bathroom building because it has become the focus of steady visitation, most of which is geared toward watching the whale sharks that frequent the area. Placencia, the closest village, has become a center for whale shark tours.

 

 

silk caye belize today

Happily, despite all the development, the area has also received increase protection. In 2001, Belize created the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve which has since become co-managed by Friends of Nature (now SEA) in consultation with a national group of whale shark stakeholders.

 

Silk Caye Belize: Then

Link back to top of page

Mary in hammock
Mary on island time with the local dog, Johnny cake | Silk Caye Belize
group of three Silk Caye Belize
Erne with dinner on our last night out
Conch shell jacuzzi on Silk Caye Belize
Conch Shell tub – remnants of the Conch Industry
Pre-Glovers departure point for a week of adventure
Pre-Glovers departure point for a week of adventure
two palms
Sunset view from inside tent on Silk Caye Belize

sea turtle video

Encounters with sea turtles while snorkeling or scuba diving are always at the top of everybody’s list for their visit to Adventure Island on Long Caye. So, when we saw this sea turtle video we had to share it.

The youtube poster, glencon1, labeled it “Elbow” which is most likely a dive site at the southern tip of the Turneffe Islands called the Elbow. The only other explanation on glencon1’s youtube channel is “The videos from Belize Aggressor III are by Scott and Glen. They were taken with GoPro cameras and a Liquid Image Video mask.” In any case, thanks, glencon1 for the nice sea turtle video.

Sea Turtle Video

http://youtu.be/Xa5PD62eggg

According to the National Meterological Service of Belize, the 2013 Belize hurricane season was slightly below average, but you wouldn’t know it to look at some of the photos!

Belize hurricane season below average
Belize hurricane season below average? Photo by Roger Racut

Given the location of our island, Long Caye, 35 miles off the coast of Belize, we are always highly aware of the weather in the region.

So we breathed a little sigh of relief when Belize hurricane season officially came to a close on November 30. The country (and our island) was spared any major storms. Even so, stationary thunderstorms did create severe flooding at times around the country as reported in various local papers and blogs.

Belize hurricane season a breeze
Belize hurricane season a breeze

The 2013 Belize hurricane season had been predicted to be around average, with 20 storms forecast to form in the Atlantic over the the summer. Only 13 tropical storms actually happened, and of those, only two grew into official hurricanes – Humberto and Ingrid. The eleven “almost” hurricanes were Andrea, Barry, Chantal, Dorian, Erin, Fernand, Gabrielle, Jerry, Karen, Lorenzo and Manuel.

Humberto was the first official storm of the season to grow into a hurricane on September 1 but then it quickly petered out leaving heavy rains on the Cape Verde Islands that caused some flooding. Two weeks later on Sept 14 Hurricane Ingrid was born in the middle of Gulf of Mexico but was downgraded before hitting Mexico at La Pesca. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Manuel also hit Mexico at the same time so it might as well have been a hurricane for all the mudslides and flooding the combined storms caused across Mexico.

Low Belize hurricane season result of wind shears, dry air, cool seas

Dennis Gonguez, Chief Meteorologist of the NMSB said the relatively inactive Belize hurricane season was the result of generally lower than average humidity, lower than average water temperatures and above average wind speeds aloft.

“Although the season was just below average, the Meteorology Department warns residents not to become complacent, as next year may bring that big storm we fear,” said Gonguez. “The best way to be prepared during the hurricane season is to stay in tune to local weather forecasts, adhere to National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) alerts and store nonperishable and basic living necessities from early in the season.”

We’re always happy whenever we make a list of top vacation spots, and that happens a lot (here, here, here and here), but we get extra happy about being singled out for our surfing.

 Family friendly surfing vacations

Matt Thompson, founder of surf site Wavecation, wrote a great article for The Inertia listing us second in his top five all-time favorite family friendly surfing vacations.

The reasons we made his family friendly surfing vacations list:

  1. Contrary to the widely held perception that Belize has zero surfing spots, it in fact does have at least one – the Long Caye Break on Glover’s Reef.
  2. The island is ideal for families wanting to live their own version of Castaway while catching a few waves on the side.
  3. The surf wave is located close to the shore so it’s quick to get out and back in and you can keep any eye on the kids.
  4. Our eco resort is off the grid powered by solar and wind.
  5. Guests get their own cabana with no distracting TV or telephones.
  6. When not surfing there are plenty of other water sports to do: kiteboarding, windsurfing, surfing, SUP, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, kayaking.
  7. The virgin reefs easily accessible.

We could add a few more reasons why we’re on his family friendly surf vacations list:

  • We offer special rates for kids 11 and under
  • Kids also get additional discounts when combined with our Belize holiday packages for an extended stay.
  • The memory of a vacation a special as this will live with kids their whole lives.
  • For the really young members of your family, we have babysitters available if you make arrangements ahead of time.
  • Kids have many activities they can participate in, even scuba diving (Kids ages 8 and 9 may take the Bubblemaker course which has a 6-foot depth limit and takes one-half day. Kids ages 10 and 11 may be able to dive as a regular diver, this age limit is under the discretion of our Dive Instructor. Kids ages 12 and over may get certified to dive, or take the one-half day Discover Scuba course if they wish. Scuba activities are limited based on age).

Adventure Island is all about family friendly surfing vacationsWe love having kids and families on the island. And the kids love being there. However there are certain limitations family need to be aware of before booking family friendly surfing vacations on Long Caye. There is plenty for kids to do right on shore if they are too young to paddle. Kids love exploring the new environment and playing on the beach. However, we do not have guided activities or sport equipment specifically for kids, and each staff member has a full roster of duties on each trip. Our client to guide ratio is between 2 to 1 and 7 to 1, depending on the group size. This does not allow for guides to assist in the supervision that children require. Although Slickrock accepts children at a discount on trips, parents must be fully responsible for all aspects of monitoring their children. Due to safety concerns, we have set supervision procedures that parents are required to follow.

hanging basket palm weaving ideaOn Long Caye (our private island on Glover’s Reef, Belize) we have so many water sports to choose from it might seem incredible that we would ever have time for pursuing crafts. And yet, we do (can’t spend all our time in the water). Witness the latest crafting craze to hit the island – palm weaving.

Our new kite instructor, Laia from Spain, recently took some time along with some of our other guests to explore some palm weaving ideas from our new book on the subject which Lucy brought back from Hawaii. Laia and Annelies wove some interesting hanging baskets which are fashioned from a single palm frond.

These would make excellent Christmas gifts, if you prefer giving something more personal than a gift ordered from an online store.

palm weaving hanging baskets

Other palm weaving projects that would make great Christmas gifts

snorkel shallow

Once in a while we get this question: Is there a good eco friendly sunscreen that doesn’t harm the coral reef ecology? The answer isn’t as simple as we’d like.

Here’s how we replied to a recent inquiry about eco friendly sunscreen. This person had been asking us about recent problems in Cancun:

Because many people buy their sunscreen in Belize, and Belize does not offer environmentally-sensitive products, we do not have a specific recommendation. The reason sunscreen is a problem in places like Cancun is because there the coral is literally overrun with people. Glover’s Reef is pristine and seldom visited. We have not seen damage to coral from  sunscreen or other man-made products.

So, part of the answer has to do with which coral reef you’re referring to. Where are you swimming? If you are swimming with 5,000 other tourists, odds are, the reef is going to be getting hammered in a number of ways, sunscreen being one.

Another part of the answer has to do with where are you shopping? If you’re shopping for any environmentally-benign product — whether eco friendly sunscreen or biodegradable paper plates — odds are long on finding them in many developing countries like Belize.

Eco friendly sunscreenBut here in the US and Canada, eco friendly sunscreen is easily purchased at many retailers. But before you buy, take a moment to learn a little more about what qualifies something to earn that eco friendly sunscreen name?

Whenever looking for info on the environmental impact of a product, a good starting point is Earth 911, a compendium of short, helpful articles on everything from It’s Time for an All-Natural Watch to 7 Ways to Reuse an Aluminum Pie Pan. I don’t think they sell things. It’s mostly a blog with articles by a number of different authors. Most of them have to do with “upcycling” – taking things that are headed for the dump and turning them into a new, useful product.

In our case, they happen to have a great article about eco friendly sunscreen.

Eco-Friendly Sunscreens for Summer

Sunscreen is essential for all that summer fun outdoors, but some SPF products may contain chemical additives that can be harmful not only for you, but also for the environment you enjoy on summer travels.

When sunscreen washes off in oceans, lakes and rivers, it can leave chemical residues behind that may be harmful to marine life, particularly coral reefs – a concept supported by a 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

So, with a little help from the Environmental Working Group’sSkinDeep database, Earth911 rounded up eight safe, nontoxic and eco-friendly sunscreens that are as easy on your skin as they are on the environment. Read on to find your new fave.

Topping their list was Honest Sunscreen from The Honest Company.

This biodegradable, reef-friendly sunscreen boasts EWG’s lowest toxicity score – meaning it’s free of any chemical ingredients that may be harmful to you or the planet.

Offering non-greasy application and broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection, this pick is also water-resistant and safe for use on children under six months, making it a perfect beach formula for the whole family.

The Melbourne daily newspaper, Herald Sun, lists kayaking Glover’s Reef Atoll number one in a list of the top Belize experiences, and this from a country that has the largest barrier reef in the world:

Kayaking Glover’s Reef Atoll

Kayaking Glover's Reef Atoll

“Lying like a string of white-sand pearls, Glover’s Reef Atoll consists of half a dozen small islands surrounded by blue sea as far as the eye can see. Its unique position, atop a submerged mountain ridge on the edge of the continental shelf, makes it an ideal place for sea kayaking, both between the islands and around the shallow central lagoon. Get a kayak with a clear bottom and you’re likely to see spotted eagle rays, southern stingrays, turtles and countless tropical fish swimming beneath as you paddle.”

Kayking Glover’s Reef Atoll lead the list that also included:

Diving the blue hole

The sheer walls of the Blue Hole Natural Monument drop more than 125 metres into the blue ocean. Although it is half filled with silt and natural debris, the depth still creates a perfect circle of startling azure that is visible from above. The wall of the Blue Hole is decorated with a dense forest of stalactites and stalagmites from times past. A school of reef sharks – as well as plenty of invertebrates and sponges – keeps divers company as they descend into the mysterious ocean depths.

Garifuna drumming

Dangriga and Punta Gorda both provide opportunities to study drumming and drum-making with Garifuna drum masters, but for something really special head to the Garifuna village of Hopkins to take part in a drumming ceremony at Lebeha education and cultural centre. The ceremony is led by local drummer Jabbar Lambey, whose drum jams draw drummers and other musicians from around the village, the country, and even the world. For a really swinging time, come on down when the moon is full.

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary

Belize is for the birds. Nowhere is that statement truer than at Crooked Tree, a fishing and farming village centred on a picturesque lagoon. The wetlands attract hundreds of bird species (276 to be exact), including dozens of migrants who stop on their way north or south. Bird-watching is best during the drier months (February to May), when the lagoon dries up and the birds congregate around the remaining puddles. Expert guides will lead you by boat or on foot to spot and identify your feathered friends.

Lamanai

Spanning all phases of ancient Maya civilisation, the ruins at Lamanai are known for their stone reliefs, impressive architecture, and their marvellous setting that overlooks the New River Lagoon and is surrounded by some of Northern Belize’s densest jungle. Arrive at this outpost by boat, allowing up-close observation of birds and wildlife along the New River. While on site, hear the roar of the howler monkeys while climbing the steep facade of the High Temple and admiring the deformed face on the Mask Temple.

Christmas Bird Counts in Belize: everyone is welcome regardless of experience.

Christmas Bird Count BelizeIf you’re a birder, then you may already know: the objective of the Christmas Bird Count is to count (by sight or sound) as many birds as possible in one calendar day within an area encompassed by a circle 15 miles in diameter. The results of some 2,000 such Christmas Bird Counts are published annually by the National Audubon Society. And Belize has five:

  • Belize City
  • Gallon Jug
  • Belmopan
  • Cockscomb Basin
  • Punta Gorda

To find out details about joining any of them, this map shows every Christmas Bird Count scheduled in North and Central America. Zoom in on Belize and click on the circle of your choice. There’s also this article that gives you the overview and how to connect up. Here are details on Belize’s most popular Christmas Bird Count in Punta Gorda. It’s also the only one with open registration (the others simply require making contact with the coordinator).

Christmas Bird Count ala Punta Gorda

The Punta Gorda Christmas bird count circle includes all of Punta Gorda and extends north to Big Falls,east to the Rio Grande, west to Santa Anna and south to the Moho River.

Each year anywhere from six to ten groups, depending on the turnout, are assigned specific areas to cover within this circle. Every team is led by at least one expert, so this is a great opportunity for those of you who are a little rusty, or perhaps just getting started in the world of birding, to learn from the experts. The group meets every year at 7:00 p.m. the evening before the count at Nature’s Way Guest House to get acquainted, assign teams and figure out the transportation and other logistics.

At the end of the count day around dusk they again congregate at Nature’s Way to tally the results. Spouses, siblings, children and friends are also welcome, as long as they have an interest in birds and don’t mind getting their feet wet. If you have any questions, you can e‐mail questions to bzbirdman@gmail.com.

tom_owens_caye
Photo credit: bookyourdive.com

Just last week we wrote about a really cool scuba work-vacation opportunity. Now I’ve stumbled across a second such opportunity that’s focused on protecting the coral reef ecosystem. This one is being offered by Reef Conservation International. They operate out of Tom Owens Island, Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve at the southern tip of the Belize Fringe Reef. If you want a great first-hand trip report read this from Book Your Dive. Prices are $1,200 a week. It is all-inclusive meaning gear and everything except your flight and ground transportation.

Below is a great article on Reef CI’s work to protect the coral reef ecosystem that we found in a recent Toledo Howler. (We love the Howler! It’s one of our favorite ways to keep up on interesting things happening in southern Belize.)

Protecting the Coral Reef Ecosystem, one vacation at a time

coral reef ecosystemReef Conservation International was founded by Polly Wood ten years ago when she left her corporate life in Britain to pursue her passion for diving and marine conservation. A diving trip to Roatan in 1999 first sparked Polly’s interest in marine conservation but she quickly found that there were few short‐term opportunities.

Most coral reef conservation projects and placements were for gap‐year students or other longer‐term commitments. Realizing that there were others who felt as she did and who could help contribute meaningful data to scientists, she started to explore the idea of a marine conservation organisation which could offer opportunities to a much wider group of people.

Polly told us, “I wanted to create something unique, where anyone of any age could come and help contribute towards data collection, whether it was for one week or three months and for any level of diving experience, from beginners to experts.”

She attended numerous seminars on citizen science and marine conservation, explored various locations, talked to scientists and developed her business plan. One of the major factors was financial sustainability and, having looked at operations that relied on funding, she wanted to use what was at that time a fairly new concept, the voluntourism approach.

Many scientists rely on a limited pool of funding and grants, and their ability to collect data is often limited to short visits. With ReefCI being funded on a non‐profit basis by the volunteers themselves, they are able to operate year‐round and conduct regular monitoring to contribute meaningful data to the scientific community without taking funds away from existing studies.

ReefCI has a number of programs, including the Queen Conch study, lobster surveys and turtle nesting monitoring. They have also developed their own ReefCI Check, a coral reef monitoring protocol focussing on the unique marine ecosystem of Southern Belize. This includes the monitoring of indicator species and the mapping of the condition of the reef.

But, perhaps one of the biggest draws is Polly’s growing reputation as something of a whale shark “whisperer”. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean (up to 46 feet long and weighing up to 15 tons for those of you interested in statistics) and the Belize Barrier Reef attracts one of the largest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. The Sapodilla Cayes lie along one of their migration routes, meaning that they are often seen for up to nine months of the year.

Polly is modest about her ability and says they are easy to spot if you know the signs. These include boobies and terns feeding on the small fry in the water which are aided by the usually calm conditions at the Sapodillas. She also says that her secret  weapon is Roland, her husband who grew up fishing the southern Belize waters and “has eyes like a hawk”.

ReefCI provides all whale shark data to the Belize Fisheries Department. Guests also feed data into the Project AWARE Whale Shark Project, reporting whale shark sightings and providing pictures for a public photo identification database – whale sharks each have a unique pattern on their left‐hand side about the pectoral fin akin to a human fingerprint.

The Sapodilla range consists of eight cayes forming a hook shape at the southern-most end of the Belize Reef. Hunting Caye – reputed to have the most beautiful beach in Belize – is a base for the Fisheries Department and Coast Guard and also has an immigration post. Other cayes include Nicholas Caye, the Garbutt family’s Lime Caye, Franks Caye and Tom Owen’s Caye where ReefCI is based. The cayes are right on the continental shelf so they offer amazing wall dives with sheer drops and other dives with a gradual slope. These provide an amazingly varied environment with sponges and corals, pelagic fish, rays, turtles and sharks.

ReefCI has between 15 and 20 dive sites that they regularly visit. As well as finding new sites, divers will revel in the fact that there are no other dive boats in the area. Tom Owen’s Caye is many people’s idea of a perfect cast away island and is great for novice divers offering diving from the shore, warm water with few if any currents and good visibility. Polly is a certified dive instructor, having trained over 300 divers and more than 5000 dives under her belt.

The island is an acre of sand and palm trees with eleven guest rooms in cabanas and a main building which also serves as the restaurant, training centre and meeting place. ReefCI offers diving conservation trips staying on Tom Owen’s Caye from Monday to Friday, including all diving (typically two to four dives a day), diving equipment, training in survey techniques and methodology, accommodation and meals. For more information, visit www.reefCI.com and ReefCI on Facebook.