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Travel Story - Escape from paradise

Exploring the reefs and atolls of Belize

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With 80-odd days of winter skiing behind us and at least another month of spring skiing to go we decided it was time for a mid-season break. Trouble is we hadn't made any plans beyond the next chairlift. But that evening the phone rang. It was Catherine from Ecosummer.

"Sorry for the short notice. We're scouting out a new trip to Belize. Leaving next week. Can you and Betty come along?"

Mental telepathy? Coincidence? Or blind stupid luck? Whatever the reason it’s how we came to be in Belize City on the ninth of March, with spring festival in full swing.

The reality of actually arriving didn't sink in until we stepped out onto the wrap-around balcony of our room at the Chateau Caribbean. In front of us the incredibly blue water of the Caribbean Sea was dotted with brightly coloured sailboats competing in the Baron Bliss Day regatta. Beside us, in Memorial Park, crowds of holiday revellers gathered around a bandstand throbbing to the beat of reggae music. The slopes of Whistler suddenly seemed very far away.

The Chateau Caribbean was once a colonial hospital. Its creaky wooden floors, worn stairs and railings bear the mark of time but the freshly painted exterior still reflects the elegant grandeur of British Colonialism. For much of its history Belize was an enclave of British influence in the vast New World claimed by Spain. What began as a lair for British pirates in the mid-1600s became a frontier settlement for British timber cutters and their African slaves. For more than 150 years brutal conflicts flared between the British settlers and the Spanish until finally, in 1798, the battle of St. Georges Caye ended Spanish claims to Belize. But it would be almost another 200 years before Belize, then British Honduras, gained its independence in 1981.

We wandered over to Memorial Park, where people of all ages and colours were grooving to the amplified beat of the band. Kids skittered on and off the makeshift stage, alternately dancing or standing with backs pressed against the giant speakers, feeling the thump of the powerful woofers against their bodies. Most of the adults, like ourselves, were content to just soak up the music and festive atmosphere, a few groups danced, and a lone Rastafarian with waist-long dreadlocks performed an athletic solo dance.

The official language of Belize is English, but the true legacy of British colonialism is the mix of cultures and races that have blended into the handsome, lively people who speak the melodious English-Creole dialect of the Caribbean. Most of those who call themselves Creoles have some African ancestry dating back to the time of slavery, but their ethnic origins are as diverse as the once far-flung British Empire and skin colour, which ranges from ebony to ivory, is not an issue.

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