I am an island girl at heart. Nothing makes me happier than being on an island. It has little to do with sand sun and surf, although those are all bonus. There is just something magical about an island. It can be quiet and reflective, calm and peaceful — or it can be wild and crazy; that’s up to you. Life takes on a different pace here. You can be on island just a mile away from the mainland, and it’s a whole different world. I have visited some beautiful islands — Penang, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Bali, Phuket (arguably a peninsula and not a “true” island), Gran Canaria, the Phillipines and Guam. There are so many more to visit, including the one on my bucket list: Cuba. I could be wrong on this, but I have a feeling that our favorite standby will always remain Ambergris Caye, Belize.
Ambergris Caye (pronounced “Key”) is the largest Belizean island (there are approximately 450), and is located 17 minutes northeast of Belize City (by plane). It is named after the clumps of ambergris that wash ashore, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. (Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color produced in the digestive system of, and regurgitated or secreted by, sperm whales — you can look up the rest.) The main and only town is San Pedro, although there are villages inland and scores of resorts line up along the coastline.
The biggest draw to this island is the world’s second-longest barrier reef, second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. What makes it unique is that the reef is only about a mile offshore, easily kayak-able, and very likely swimmable if it weren’t for all the water taxis. All water-related activities are present here — snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, windsurfing, fishing.
This was our fourth trip to the island, and our first trip with friends. You never know how well you get along with people, no matter how much you may like them, until you actually travel with them. The other “first” was that we stayed at a resort that was not our usual home resort — more on that later. Our friends Bonnie and Julie were about to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, so I know this was a big deal for them to travel with us as well, and to a foreign country, no less.
<This next part is for Airport Made Simple>
From San Francisco, California, we took the 6:00 a.m. flight to Houston. Julie’s thoughts were that we should spend the night in Millbrae (just south of the airport) since we could just leave the car at the hotel and they would provide us free shuttle service to the airport. It sounded brilliant at the time, and we all applauded Julie on her strategic advance planning skills. But when they knocked on our door at 3:00 a.m., we all started cursing. I am very crabby when I don’t get enough sleep. Michelle started harassing the waitress at the airport coffeeshop for some vegetables to go with her eggs. “Spinach?” “Something green?” “Any vegetables?” The waitress muttered something about potatoes and left.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is fairly straightforward to navigate, but it is a big airport. (Keep this in mind for later.) We had plenty of time to grab some coffee and food, and Michelle and Julie managed to get in some Duty Free shopping.
Belize City Airport (BZE) is quite small in comparison. It took us no time for the plane to land and taxi up. The passengers unload on the runway and trekked in. Here we filed our entrance papers and waited for our luggage. We cleared Customs pretty quickly, despite a bit of scrutiny with Bonnie and Julie’s scuba diving apparatus.
There are two small plane operators in Belize, Tropic Air and Maya Island Air, and they cover most domestic flights (and some to Cancun, Mexico.) We have always flown Tropic Air and have never had any problems. Round trip tickets (advance purchase recommended by our resort concierge) from Belize City to San Pedro (SPR) was around $120 per person.
If you have never been on a small (I mean, tiny) plane before, the flight can be a little unnerving. These puddle jumpers can bounce all over the place if there’s any air turbulence at all. But what fun when you are flying low enough to see everything, including that beautiful great turquoise blue ocean!
If Belize City Airport was small, San Pedro is miniscule. As we arrived, we saw paving equipment on the runway. Yup, they are putting in a second runway so they can handle all the air traffic. Even the one-room airport ticket counter/waiting area got upgraded! And there’s air-conditioning now!