Moments after I touch down in Belize City, I hop on a quick Tropic Air flight to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. It’s only a 15-minute flight, and there’s a ferry that could also take me to this picturesque island, commonly referred to as the Amber Coast. But I’m itching to get in that turquoise water and don my mask and tanks, so speed is my buzzword.
Belizean Sergio Torres, my tour guide for my time in Central America, meets me at the airport. I pluck my bag from the plane-side luggage claim, and we take off in a taxi, destined for the Belize Yacht Club, my address for the two days I’ll spend in San Pedro.
Sergio epitomizes professional cool. He has a calm, laid-back demeanor; knows a wealth of information; and is on a first-name basis with what seems like everyone on the entire island. After I drop my bags off in my spacious, tastefully decorated room, and after I pry myself from my private balcony that has an untrammeled view of the tranquil Caribbean Sea, I meet Sergio poolside to establish a game plan.
“Belize has a whole side to it that many tourists do not know about,” Sergio says as we sip locally brewed Belikin beers. “Most people think of Belize as a diving destination. It is certainly that, but there’s much more than diving here on the islands and on the mainland.”
“Actually, I’m dying to take a crack at the Blue Hole,” I reply, triggering a raucous laugh from my guide.
“Yeah, you and every other amateur who comes to town,” he says. “Tell you what: We’ll discuss this more over dinner at the Victoria House resort, which has one of the best and oldest restaurants in San Pedro.”
Quite literally an old, nicely maintained Victorian house, the resort’s Palmilla Restaurant has tremendous atmosphere and character. As we dine on freshly caught seafood, Sergio lays out the trip he has planned for me. Tomorrow, we will snorkel. The rule of thumb in the scuba community is don’t dive within a 24-hour window of flying because during that period of time, the residual nitrogen in your bloodstream could still be at harmful levels, and flying puts a diver at risk for suffering an embolism or the bends. Snorkeling, on the other hand, is perfectly safe, since you never dive down any farther than you would in, say, the deep end of the public pool.
Plus, you can still drink a few Belikins the night before and be bright-eyed the next morning. After dinner, we have a drink at Fido’s Restaurant & Bar, a beachfront bar at Fido’s courtyard that draws as many local patrons as it does tourists. The tavern is recognizable from the street because of its enormous thatch palapa (roof made of palm leaves), the largest in Belize. Sergio maneuvers our golf cart (the primary mode of transportation in San Pedro) up to the front porch, and we listen to live music, courtesy of a couple from Chicago on their honeymoon who asked if they could stand in with the house band. It’s the storybook tropical setting: good music in a straw-roofed lean-to flanked by white-sand beaches and a lonely palm tree wrapped in Christmas-tree lights. I relax tonight for the first time in a long time. And I sleep more soundly than I have since my prechildren days, drifting off with the sound of the Caribbean lapping against the dock outside my hotel room.