I confess. Yes, the thought of visiting Belize in December sounded glamorous and exciting. I was expecting old, British colonial elegance and architecture. Of course, sun and white sand beaches were a given.
Our arrival at Belize City international airport is met with a thunderous downpour. The airport is so small (as in most Central American countries) that we deplane on the tarmac and I make a mad dash down the slippery stairs to seek the relative dryness of the terminal. It's hot and sticky.
After a brief and very cursory rush through Customs, we're rerouted back into the departure area for a short hop flight over to Ambergris Caye, Belize's largest island and home to the world's second largest barrier reef after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The ticket agent hands out numbered cards. This is odd, I think. What kind of boarding system is this? On previous journeys, we've survived the disorganized chaos of boarding a flight in China, where it's women and children last, as everyone scrambles to fit into one of the undersized seats that seem the norm on Chinese airplanes. But numbered cards are a new twist on the time-honoured system of queuing invented by the British. Oh well, Belize is a former British colony.
But then I see the tiny Tropic Air plane that rolls in front of the departure gate and it starts to make sense. There are only 14 seats on that tiny Cessna puddle jumper, and there doesn't seem to be any pre-flight seating arrangement. In fact, even though we have our numbered cards in hand, someone else manages to take two of the seats that should have been ours and we're stopped at the door.
"No worry," says the ticket agent as he scratches someone else's name off the passenger list, "there'll be another one in 5 minutes." Of course, being that this is Central America, 5 minutes turns into 25 Belizean minutes. But eventually anther tiny Cessna pulls up and he calls out our names.
This time, we rush on ahead, determined to make the flight as we have someone waiting to pick us up at the terminal in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. This is an important connection because our resort is way up the coast and not easily accessible on the pot-holed road that runs north from San Pedro. We have a water taxi waiting for us and we're not certain how the whole water taxi system works or even where we're supposed to be going. So getting there on time is critical.
I can barely squeeze between the rows of seats and as I'm first to board, the pilot beckons me into the co-pilot's seat beside him in the open cockpit. It's an even tighter squeeze wedging between the pilot and co-pilot seats and I have trouble swinging my legs over the controls without hitting the throttle to ease into the narrow seat. My camera bag barely fits into the space between my legs and periodically hits some of the pilot's controls.
The pilot introduces himself as Robert and revs up the engines. We wait for a large American Airlines 747 to clear and then we pop up into the darkening stormy sky. I see several large white egrets and Turkey Vultures near the runway and I'm tempted to ask if he's ever hit one, but given my fear of bad karma, I decide to wait until we land.
I'm nervous, but Robert is so calm. He does this all day long, making the 20-minute flight over and over again, back and forth between the two airports. I relax and admire the gorgeous view through the front windscreen. I'm flying over a patchwork of turquoise, blue and green shallow waters of the Caribbean, dotted with coral outcroppings, beige sand flats, and large dark fish.
The runway on Ambergris Caye is a short strip of pavement that doesn't seem long enough from my vantage point at the tip of the plane, but the Cessna doesn't need a lot of space and with a roar we pull up right in front of the open baggage area at the tiny terminal. Our bags are thrown onto a cart and then unceremoniously dumped onto the floor barely 20 feet away.
It doesn't take long to retrieve them - there's no counter or conveyor belt here - but we quickly realize that no one is there to greet us, pick us up or even tell us where to go. Soon we're the last two standing in the rain as all the other passengers board taxis or are shuttled away into the early darkness.
Another flight arrives and the same evacuation of passengers starts again. I ask to borrow the cell phone of one of the baggage handlers and am about to make a call to our resort, when someone points us out to a shuttle bus driver. He missed us on the first run because we missed the first flight but now we're whisked off barely 200 metres down the road to a dock where our water taxi awaits.
In the small town of San Pedro people get around in motorized golf carts, but most of the travel on Ambergris Caye between hotels and even restaurants is done by water taxi. In fact, the recent heavy rains have made the bumpy, main dirt road impassable to anything but a Range Rover so water taxis are the way to go.
Twenty minutes later we arrive at the Belizean Cove Resort dock and Michelle, the marketing manager for the resort, is waiting to greet us and show us our suite. It's gorgeous and large enough to house two whole families. Our private patio area out front has its own bar and the pool is right in front. We face a beach studded with palm trees and a lovely ocean view.
It's late and because all eight suites have their own kitchens, the resort doesn't have a restaurant. Michelle tells us, "Normally, you could walk ten minutes along the beach to a restaurant, but it's dark and you don't know where to go. So I'll call over to the restaurant at our sister resort, the Belizean Shores, to have someone come over in a golf cart to pick you up."
Shortly, Alex picks us up in an electric cart and we soon see why you travel by water taxi on the island. The road is like a war zone with large water filled potholes everywhere. Even the golf cart has a hard time navigating through and around them.
But the Upper Deck restaurant at the Belizean Shores proves to be the perfect spot for us after a long day of travel from Toronto, via Dallas to Belize City, and then San Pedro. It's a raised, open air tree house-like affair with a 360-degree view of the ocean on one side and the bird filled lagoon on the other. The night is warm with a slight breeze and we quickly tuck into an exceptionally fresh Conch ceviche and a chilled bottle of Chilean Chardonnay. A main course of blackened red Snapper with cilantro rice goes down nicely as well.
The service is on Belizean time, but we soon realize we're on vacation and it's time to unwind. After dinner we decide to walk back to the resort along the beach. The path is lit by the moon and lapped at by the surf. The air is warm and soft and soon we get into the rhythm of the island. We'll sleep well our first night in Belize.