For anyone who's ever had the urge to flee the rat race and parachute onto a tropical island with velvety air and a breezy, barefoot lifestyle, Caye Caulker would likely fit the bill. It's the kind of laid-back, sun-saturated spot that's as inoculated to the rat race as a civilized place can be.
Located 1.6km (1 mile) west of the Belize Barrier Reef, this funky fishing village is an 8km-long (5-mile) island that's situated a few miles south of Ambergris Caye . The vegetation is lush and tropical, houses are wooden clapboard, the streets are soft sand, and shoes are optional. The island motto is "Go Slow," and the languid pace might drive Type A folks batty but others appreciate the leisurely, meditative vibe.
Belize is a flavorful stew of cultures, of Creole, Chinese, Mestizo, Indian, Maya, and more -- and Caye Caulker has an authentic Belizean feel. Lodging largely consists of family-run inns, gaily painted guesthouses, and weather-beaten motels on stilts planted in the sand. Dining is local and home-cooked. Look for fish, rice and beans, and curries. In lobster season, which begins in June and ends 9 months later, you can eat local spiny lobster just about every night at modest prices.
In spite of its modest, no-frills demeanor, Caye Caulker has a fairly spectacular draw: the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and one of the last unspoiled coral reefs in the world. It runs for 306km (190 miles) of rich and diverse marine habitat less than half a mile offshore. Just 16km (10 miles) north is the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, one of the most popular diving and snorkeling sites with a spectacular variety of marine life. Many people think the best diving in Belize lies on the outer atolls, just 20 minutes from Caye Caulker. Turneffe, the largest of the atolls, has a beautiful and varied underwater terrain.
Recommended tour operator, Frenchie's Diving (tel. 501/226-0234; www.frenchiesdivingbelize.com), whose divemasters and captains have a combined 70 years of dive experience.
You can enjoy sailing, diving, birding, jungle tours, fishing, and windsurfing in the clear azure waters of the Caribbean here. One thing Caye Caulker does not have is big, wide, white-sand beaches. Sand beaches tend to be squeezed between mangrove forests and ocean, and sea grass grows in the wading shallows. Most people swim off the public piers that extend beyond the sea grass or at the Split, a gathering place to sip the local Belikin beer and watch the sunset. Go slow indeed. -- Alexis Lipsitz Flippin
Information: www.belizetourism.org or www.cayecaulker.org.
Getting There: Belize City to Caye Caulker (Tropic Air; 15 min.).
Nearest Port: Water taxi (45 min.) between Belize City, Caye Caulker, and San Pedro (Ambergris Caye): Caye Caulker Water Taxi Association (tel. 501/223-5752; www.cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com).