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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.

We found the rest of our crew, Rick and Betty from Ottawa, Ecosummer guides George and Sarah, and spent the evening waterproofing our gear for 10 days of open-cockpit sailing. Walter, local skipper, navigator, and all-around resource person, was busy with last minute rigging on his 12-metre, two-masted Sandliter. A tall dignified gentleman in his 70s, Walter had spent his life fishing among the Cayes and was the only one among us who had a clue how to pull off this junket.

Delayed by unexpected motor problems it was already dark when Walter docked the sand lighter at a rickety wharf on English Caye, about 15 km south of Belize City. Not much more than a plot of sand with a few palm trees, the tiny island is where large ships stop to pick up pilots before entering the harbour. The old cabin used by the sea pilots was empty so the seven of us piled inside and spread out our sleeping bags on the floor.

Next morning we got an early start on the 80-km, open ocean crossing to Sandbore Caye at the northern tip of Lighthouse Reef. Boosted by a strong following wind the old sand lighter pitched and plowed through heavy seas leaving everyone but Walter in a nauseous state of denial. It was a relief to finally step out onto solid ground but the illusion of motion lasted for several hours – tricking our senses into feeling the whole island heave and sway.

Sandbore Caye has a battered old lighthouse and a small collection of shacks that are home to the light keepers. The industrial base of the island is coconut oil. But the supply of coconuts vastly exceeds the capacity of the plant – a hand-fed, gas-powered grater and a tub of water over a coconut husk fire. The operator dumped a pail of grated coconut pulp into the tub and proudly skimmed off a bottle of clear oil, which Sarah added to her kitchen supplies.

Lighthouse Reef surrounds an elliptical, island-studded lagoon about 50 km long and 12 km wide. Water inside the lagoon is shallow, in places less than a metre deep, and this is where Walter's old flat-bottomed, Sandliter came into her own. The keel-less, shallow-draft boat, her two sails filled by a light breeze, skimmed silently over the sandy bottom while Walter, sitting on an overturned bucket at the stern, one hand on the tiller and the other on a fishing line, calmly avoided coral heads and sandbars as we headed south from Sandbore Caye. By the time we dropped anchor on the rim of the Blue Hole he had snagged a one metre barracuda and busied himself cleaning it while the rest of us went snorkeling.

The Great Blue Hole, in the middle of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, is a perfectly circular limestone sinkhole about 300 metres across and 120 metres deep. Exploring it with his mini-subs in the 1970s Jacques Cousteau determined that it was the collapsed roof of a gigantic cave. The huge, stalactite-hung galleries could only have formed in air, when sea level was hundreds of feet lower than present. Its rim is draped with a variety of fan and brain coral but lack of sunlight prevents any growth on its steep inner walls. We saw only a few fish and a couple of sharks swimming far below us – it takes more than a snorkel and mask to fully appreciate the Blue Hole.

I hauled in the anchor and propped myself up in the bow for the rest of our trip to Half Moon Caye on the southern rim of Lighthouse Reef. Watching the sandy bottom slip beneath me was like flying in a dream. Through water so clear it was almost invisible every detail of the coral-studded bottom was visible. Half buried stingrays surfaced in a flurry of sand and flapped off to one side. Queen conches stopped dragging themselves across the sand and retreated into their massive shells. A school of porpoises played in the bow wave, leaping clear of the water only a few feet from my perch beside the anchor.

On Half Moon Caye, careful to stay clear of overhanging coconuts, we pitched our tents on the sand of a long white beach, built a fire and helped Sarah and George prepare dinner – freshly filleted barracuda pan-fried to a golden brown in Sandbore Caye coconut oil. It was one of the most memorable meals of the trip.

For scores of other mariners arriving here was not a happy event. The outer reef of the atoll is the final resting place for dozens of boats that were swept onto the coral and battered into oblivion by the pounding surf. Most of them have long ago crumbled back into the sea but the rusted hulks of six grounded freighters still tower above the coral, dwarfing the tiny, low-lying islands in the lagoon.

We pumped up our fleet of inflatable kayaks and spent a day exploring the wreck of the Ermlund, a 4,000 gross ton freighter which lost power in a storm and was swept onto the reef in 1971. Alternately paddling or leading the kayaks behind us while snorkeling we made our way out to the wreck, reminded of the awesome power of hurricanes that periodically sweep across this island paradise.

For the next week we continued our island hopping, stopping periodically to snorkel or explore. From the postcard-perfect Cayes of Glovers Reef we made our way to Northeast Caye in the Pelican Islands, and finally back to the mainland at Placentia. The tiny town boasts a main street of cement and conch shells, just wide enough for two people to pass on foot. We followed it up to Omar's Cafe, ordered a beer and filled out our trip-assessment forms for Ecosummer – 10 out of 10 on all counts. And best of all there would still be good spring skiing at Whistler – just an 8 hour flight from one paradise to another.

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