Sitting on most Caribbean holiday islands I often wonder what it must have been like 20 or 30 years ago.
But not here on Belize’s Caye Caulker, a rare combination of rustic, laid-back charm and comfortable amenities that has very little resemblance to the more hustle and bustle Caribbean hot spots.
While the beaten track is ever so slowly finding its way to Caye Caulker, this pretty little island retains much of the same ambience that attracted early visitors in the 1970s.
Once known for boatbuilding and fishing, it was used as a convenient anchorage and storm refuge by local fishermen working Belize’s barrier reef and the coast.
Its sandy beaches and sea breezes kept mosquitoes off and attracted more visitors from the mainland and as people trickled in Caye Caulker tourism, such as it is, began.
Set out in the Caribbean Sea 21 miles northeast of Belize City and protected by the Belize Great Barrier Reef hugging its shores, Caye Caulker is the second largest of the 200 or so small islands, or cayes dotting the coast of Belize.
Less than five miles long and a half mile wide, it supports some 1,200 people and a small steady flow of visitors.
For many locals, fishing is being replaced by low key tourism, and Caye Caulker’s restaurants, hotels, bars, gift and dive shops retain a cheery, folksy charm while providing everything one needs for a perfect Caribbean holiday.
Caye Caulker’s beaches and the crystal clear, turquoise-hued Caribbean lapping at them are picture perfect, uncrowded and inviting.
You can spend days swimming or enjoying absolutely world class snorkelling right from the beach, and there are plenty of opportunities for very affordable scuba diving, fishing, sea kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, reef excursions and anything else involving sun, sea and fun.
Island hopping is an inexpensive treat, including the regular water transport to San Pedro onAmbergris Caye, the larger, more resourced island 11 miles to the north.
Getting to Caye Caulker is easy, with regular water taxis, commuter planes and private boats servicing the island. This means you can be on the beach in the morning, visiting impressive Maya temples on the mainland that afternoon, and still be back on the beach enjoying a cold drink before sunset.
In addition to the breathtaking underwater scenery of the Caye Caulker Marine reserve, the nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve and spectacular Shark Ray Alley are also easy to reach.
And while Belize reef snorkelling is fantastic, the scuba diving is equally impressive, with deep canyons and a huge variety of marine life teeming up along the reef shelves and coral forests.
If you’re not already a scuba diver, what better place to learn than in the warm crystal clear waters of Belize? Caye Caulker dive shops offer PADI and NAUI certification courses at beautiful sites right on the reef. There are also regular excursions to the Turneffe islands, Half Moon Caye, Long Caye, Lighthouse Reef and other spots such as the Great Blue Hole.
But at the end of the day there’s no pressing need to leave Caye Caulker. With the Belize reef literally outside your door, plenty of shops and friendly places to stop for a casual drink or bite, just ambling along is also world class.
Barefoot is the preferred means of travel on Caye Caulker’s three roads – the front, back and middle - and you can hire a golf cart for extra ease of shuttling between some 25 eateries and a couple dozen colourful shops.
Belizean Caribbean food is a treat, and there’s always a variety of fresh seafood and tropical fruits on the menu.
Caye Caulker’s nightlife is wonderfully casual and lively. The island stills move to a reggae beat, with lots of other sounds in a variety of clubs and bars.
People are very friendly, and why not? This is a Caribbean island paradise. It becomes very easy to feel right at home quickly. Singles, couples and families seem to have an equally good time, and most places are kids friendly, so whole families are out enjoying themselves and moving to the island beat.
Because of Belize’s small size and the incredible variety, it’s easy to combine a Belizean reef and rainforest experience in a short amount of time. Resorts such as the Lodge at Chaa Creek offer surf and turf packages that make it easy to go from an inland jungle adventure to a an island dream holiday all in one vacation, and for surprisingly little money and no hassle.
So if you enjoy the more high roller, flashy Caribbean experience with big casinos and thousand dollar bikinis, there is always St Barts or the Bahamas.
But if you’re looking for something a bit more laid-back, and for my money, special, take a few steps off the beaten track to Belize’s Caye Caulker.
But please, don’t tell too many people – I’m going back next year!
Miguel Choco, Adventure Connoisseur