Belize is a warm, unpretentious tropical destination for lovers of water sports, those looking to relax, and Americans from the South. The service is outstanding. The locals are friendly, helpful, and rightly proud of their fairly young country, having achieved independence from the UK only a year before I was born. I say fairly young because I just turned thirty and have entered that borderline decade where one starts becoming old.
In terms of food and beverage, Belize unexpectedly left much to be desired. The only beer choices are Belikin and Lighthouse. They are both locally brewed and virtually indistinguishable. Belikin tastes like Blue Ribbon and is proudly compared to Miller Light by the locals. The fish selection is also limited (grouper and snapper), and the only fruit we were able to find was pineapple, banana, coconut (grows all over the beaches), and melons.
Despite these minor shortcomings, keep an open mind, and you are bound to have a good time.
Richelle and I arrived in Belize City on Labor Day. Immigration and Customs were a breeze, and we got to a taxi in no time. The trip to downtown Belize City is about $25 USD, and our taxi driver made it quite entertaining. When we planned our vacation we decided to spend our first night on the mainland to avoid being stranded in case our flight was delayed and we missed the last boat. When our driver heard we were staying in Belize City and leaving for the cayes the next day, he exclaimed: “but there are still three boats left! You should leave today!” We explained our rationale and he sort of bought it, but when we asked what we should do in the city he said it would be best to just remain in the hotel. There is nothing to see. And that was coming from a resident of Belize City!
So, as we listened to the funny radio commercials, we wondered whether we might have made mistake. But the Dutch Lady milk one made us laugh so hard, we quickly forgot. It was a “got milk?” ad on steroids. Watch the video and watch out for the rap breakdown in the middle.
We stayed at the best hotel in Belize City, which really isn't saying much. The Radisson was decent but deserted on account of it being low season. It featured two swimming pools, and a stone grill hotel that had a mention in our guidebook, but it really was not anything fancy. After a quick shower and change of clothes, we went down to try it out.
There was only one other couple by the bar, and a live musician came out to play as we got our drinks and waited for our food. After only about five or six songs he exhausted his Eric Clapton repertoire and ended the show, leaving us to chat with our young and friendly bartender, who happened to be an Xbox enthusiast. He lamented over how expensive games are in Belize and told us his uncle had a business that greased the gates of Belize Customs and made a killing importing video games.
His sense of adventure seemed tied to the virtual world, however. The other tourists asked him for tips on local fishing and diving. He grinned timidly and said he would not know — they are too dangerous! The farthest our faint-hearted bartender had traveled was the Mexican border, which was only a few hours north. The jungle? No way.
As we said good night, we asked if we could get another round of beers to have on the wharf. He said: “sure..., but let me give them to you in plastic cup. I don't want you to get arrested!” And we laughed because that certainly was not what we wanted to happen to us on our first day in Belize!
The next morning we searched for the breakfast area, which proved rather elusive. We figured it would be in the main restaurant (the hotel has four!), but it was completely empty save for our favorite bartender, who seemed glad to see us not behind bars and immediately apologized: “I'm really sorry, but the bar is not open yet...” We explained we were actually looking for breakfast (it wasn't even 10am), and he helpfully pointed us just around the corner. Once we sat down with a plate full of food, we spotted a lady from our flight to Belize who had a lot of difficulty turning off her phone, well after the cabin door had been closed. At breakfast, she was still jabbering on it, in a language we had trouble identifying, and could not put the phone down despite the stunning morning view of the wharf.
Fed and caffeinated, we checked out of the Radisson and walked out into the muggy outdoors dragging our rollerboards on the cobblestone streets on the way to the water taxi terminal. Only a short 5 minute walk from the hotel, the San Pedro Belize Express terminal was a bit confusing to reach with all the downtown construction. Along the way eager taxi drivers tried to hail us down, but when we declined, instead of ignoring us, they actually helpfully pointed us in the direction of the water taxi.
The $30 USD roundtrip ride on the taxi is well organized. It looks shady at first blush, but check-in luggage is handled professionally with a tag that is used to claim it at your destination. The taxi takes you first to Caye Caulker and then on to San Pedro. The whole ride takes about 90 minutes on a blazing fast, albeit bumpy, speedboat.
When we arrived in San Pedro, the taxi driver at the boat dock was impressed when he heard we were staying at the Victoria House. We noticed his minivan was equipped with a navigation system, so I asked him: “do you really need it on such a small island?” And he said he likes to use it when he has had one too many Belikins. Thank goodness the ride to the hotel is a short one, we thought.
The Victoria House is probably one of the most prestigious hotels on the island. Situated about two miles south of town, its mission is to provide visitors with complete and utter relaxation. The rooms have no TV, no clock, and no phone. The only distraction really is free Wi-Fi, which did not ever work reliably and was unworthy of Skype calls.
In many ways, the hotel reminded us of the movie Couples Retreat (2009). Every activity, even simple ones, like walking from one chair to another, have to be done together, preferably while holding hands. Otherwise, the staff starts to get suspicious. In the afternoon, when I went for an hour-long beach run, Richelle was asked several times: “is everything OK? Where is your man?” Regardless, it was a very pleasant place to relax. Waiters come to check on you periodically to make sure you are well marinated on coconut mojitos and well fed on the wide array of food choices from the kitchen, which stays open from 7am to 10pm.
The next day we got upgraded to a room with an almost private balcony and a view onto the main pool and ocean, and we thought life was good. After breakfast, we filled our day with a lot of lounging from one pool to another, some kayaking, and a beach run for me. When picking up the kayak, which are complimentary at the Victoria House, a couple introduced themselves as having just arrived. We found this overly friendly but played along. “Where are you from?” we asked. “Vermont,” was the reply, and the conversation abruptly ended. Not reciprocating the question just did not fit the friendly profile they presented, which left us puzzled, and as we crossed paths with them over the next few days, Richelle and I found them to be very odd indeed.
In the evening we chose to take a taxi to town for a more authentic taste of the local cuisine. We went to Fido's Courtyard, which is a sports bar right on the beach with live music after 9pm. The service, like everywhere else was great, and the setting was decent, but it was mostly deserted. I had the grouper, which is probably the most commonly served fish in Belize that tastes as bad as it looks. Thankfully, a hungry stray cat was around to pick up my unwanted leftovers. We asked the waiter if there was any other beer to drink besides Belikin and Lighthouse, and he said they had Guinness, brewed locally. “Give us the Guinness!” we demanded happily and wondered why it had taken us so long to discover it.
Back at the hotel, we stopped by the Admiral Nelson's Bar for desert and a nightcap. “Hey maan, Let's get dis party started,” Carlos, our favorite server, greeted us. When we told him someone had informed us earlier that the hotel only carried Belikin and Lighthouse, he said sympathetically: “who told you dat maan? Of course we got Guinness!”
We ordered the chocolate brownie, and when we finished that and asked for another chocolate desert with port, Carlos did not even blink. Stuffed like two turkeys on Thanksgiving, we went out to the dock to catch the moonrise, taking in the rush of the strong, warm, easterly Caribbean wind.
The next day we chose to be one of complete relaxation, spent entirely on the resort, not that there was anything particularly exhausting about the previous days' activities. Richelle booked a massage for later in the morning and received a surprise reaction from the front desk: “Just for one?!” Again, activities not done in unison with one's partner were frowned upon.
We had dinner at the Admiral's bar that day. We found the Vermont couple at the table next to us, bragging to the waiter about their new tattoos from San Pedro. And after they left, another couple kept us entertained as they slowly left the land of sobriety.
On the way to our room, we both saw a really long-lasting shooting star. Up until then I seemed to be the only one catching them, so this seemed like the cherry on top of our dessert.
Tired of sitting around, we took advantage of the hotel's complimentary bikes and rode into town the next morning to try out Cafe Cubano. Our guide book gave it high marks, but it was really not a very pleasant spot. The Cuban host was borderline rude and the food was just mediocre. To make matters worse, there were a pair of angry iguanas that chased each other around our table, and if they were intended to delight customers, they only freaked out Richelle, whose carrot, apple, pineapple banana smoothie was mistaken for a landing strip by a kamikaze bee. We did, however, enjoy the Cubano coffee, which was certainly better than anything we had at the hotel, but it also made us wonder whether we were consuming it illegally as US citizens.
Next, we hopped back on our bikes and rode north along the beach to the very edge of San Pedro, where the island essentially splits in two. There lay the most colorful basketball court we had seen. It was marvelously Caribbean.
As we passed again through downtown San Pedro, a kind local alerted us to the fact that we were riding the wrong way on a one-way street: “hey maan, you guys cahnot ride dis way. Traffic cop up ahead he gonna give you ticket maan. Just follow da carts...” We thanked him for the tip and corrected our course.
Just before leaving town, we stopped at a grocery store that looked like something out of the Twilight Zone. Even at high-noon, it was devoid of customers and quieter than a library. Besides the cashier and the security guard there was not a soul. And after browsing around for a bit we realized why. The refrigerators were melting and the meat inside had expired over a month ago. We had wanted to pick up some wine and beer to avoid the surcharge at the Victoria House, and despite the wretched state of the produce, we figured alcohol would be safe, so we bought two bottles of wine and some Jamaican beer. At checkout, we noticed the cashier had a laptop for a cash register, which was probably intended as a way to pass the time in the absence of customers. In any case, the bottle of 2007 South African chardonnay ended up being the color of urine and had turned into sherry probably from being kept exposed for years to the unforgiving rays of the Belizean sun. The other bottle was even worse, and we realized we would have been better off with coconut mojitos from the Admiral's instead.
Back at the hotel, Management was pleased to inform us they had upgraded us to a killer room with our very own infinity pool and hammock in the yard. Ah, this was the life, and a very good reason to explore a place during low season. Marlin, the porter, told us the hotel actually closes down completely over the month of October for renovation, and it is one of the few to do so on the island. It ends up being a major employer during the economic lull of low season.
We wasted no time in taking full advantage of the amenities, and as we sipped our Belikins we quickly entered the high-end lifestyle, pretending we were a wealthy couple from Monaco. It was easy to assume this identity, and our new found sense of entitlement came out naturally as we regarded with contempt an unsightly construction barge drift painfully slowly and impertinently across our million dollar view.
In the afternoon after hopping from pool to ocean to hammock to beach chair, a groundskeeper came to ask if it would be ok to lower the umbrellas. “Why, certainly,” we responded. Being the friendly local, he asked us how we were doing, and we started chatting about our origins. We learned he was from the far corners of the Belizean jungle bordering Guatemala, about a 7 hour journey by boat and plane. Sadly, his father had died from a shooting incident in the army, and he was looking for a change, hoping to see America some day. He was another instance of the kind, honest, warm, friendly people in this country.
For dinner, we took a taxi to Wild Mango's. Richelle really liked it, as did the guidebook, and indeed it has great reviews online, but I was less than impressed with it. The food was palatable but came in oversized servings, and sadly, the world famous chef, Amy, oversalted everything. Nevertheless, it provided a good opportunity for people watching, the clientele being entirely American.
In need of several gallons of water to counteract the salt, we headed home. Every trip to and from town, regardless of mode of transportation (bike, golf cart, or minivan), was a huge ordeal that left your buns feeling tender as though pulverized by a cleaver from all the bumps, humps, and uneven pavement. I almost wanted a massage myself by this point.
We woke up ridiculously early the next day to see what a Belize sunrise looks like. Armed with our cameras, we yawned as the sun peeked over the horizon and lit up the sky with its golden rays.
It was good but not worth getting up that early for. After another full day of lounging around, we attempted to complement our early sunrise with a sunset catamaran sail to the southern point of the caye. Our captain and crew were Primo and Horatio. The jolly and somewhat comical duo showed tremendous hospitality, feeding us chips with homemade salsa and plenty of beers.
They took us close to the reef, where the water depth changes erratically from only a couple of feet to twelve and anywhere in between. In a few spots, the reef is like an underwater cliff, over a hundred feet tall. As the sun neared the horizon Primo offered to take our picture and struggled to keep the camera steady as the choppy water bounced him around. I had prepared the flash, but his hat kept pushing it down, a complication he was completely oblivious to despite our best efforts to explain the problem.
With the sun off to do its rising in the opposite corner of our planet, the sky darkened quickly. The warm easterly winds pushed us back to the Victoria House at a zippy 12 knots, and as we pointed our empty beer bottles at it, they whistled in a deep pitch, like a cruise ship's horn.
Back at the Admiral's, we had another lovely dinner, and as nice as the menu was, we knew we needed a different cuisine for our next and last night in Belize.
The inviting rays of the morning sun coming straight through our french doors woke us gently just before 10:00, moments before the breakfast menu expires. We hurried over to the dining area relieved to catch the last batch of eggs. Richelle had wanted to go to town for a yoga class but missed it, and I suggested she do her routine on our veranda instead. She was glad she did. The setting couldn't have been better.
We had an especially relaxing last day at the Victoria. Apart from the hammock sessions and enjoying the last few moments at our private pool, we did a few photo shoots on the beach.
This inspired other couples to do the same. As if trying to outcompete us, the Vermont couple invaded our scene taking self portraits of monkey acrobatics, climbing and hanging from the ocean-leaning palm tree.
We ignored them politely and managed to get out some picture perfect timer shots. Later in the afternoon, two southerners tied the knot further down the beach. With so many couples either engaged, about to be married, or just married, Richelle and I agreed to pretend we had just met a couple of weeks ago to the next curious couple who asked us.
We made up for all that relaxation with an adventurous evening. We took the Portofino Hotel's water taxi to their fine restaurant, Le Bistro. We had the lobster tail and crab claws with a bottle of champagne. It was an excellent meal topped off with a Bananas Foster and their famous key lime pie, which were delicious and washed down with a Remy and Courvoisier.
We stayed until close and shared a water taxi ride back to San Pedro with the cook and waitress. As we sped along the coastline we were dazzled by the starry sky and panoramic view of the Milky Way. On the distant horizon the occasional lightning strike winked at us, and even a shooting star appeared as if on cue. We felt utterly happy.
The waitress misled us to believe there would be fireworks at midnight to celebrate their public holiday of the battle of St George, so we decided to stop by for a nightcap at our trusted Fido's. There was a live musician singing covers, and he somehow knew to perform our song. The night seemed too perfect to be real, but as the local saying goes: “you better Belize it!” Afterwards we checked out a bar called Jaguar's, which was actually quite unremarkable. When the fireworks didn't come, we taxied the bumpy way back to our hotel in the wee hours of the morning.
Somehow, perhaps it was intuition, Richelle woke me up a few hours later and suggested we should maybe watch the sunrise again. “What? No way,” was my immediate reaction, but just as my head was about to hit the pillow again, I saw out of the corner of my eye a pink glow outside. It triggered my superchiasmatic nucleus, and I was instantly awake. We rushed outside as though our room was on fire.
The dawning sky was simply breathtaking. The colors changed from violet to pink to golden in a matter of minutes. Now, this was a sunrise worth getting up for. So moving was the view that we could not go back to sleep and took our breakfast as soon as the kitchen opened.
As we ate, Jah Cure came on on the radio, singing Unconditional Love, and we knew we would really miss this magical place.