The Mayan coffee that is served at a smattering of restaurants on Ambergris Caye in Belize is an aromatic blend of fresh, locally-grown coffee beans, cardamom, cinnamon and a swirl of agave syrup. It is more elixir than everyday beverage, the experience of it lingering long after it's over. This is the same sentiment you’re left with after visiting Belize, and one that was immortalized by Madonna in her 1987 song "La Isla Bonita.”
Ambergris Caye is something of an undiscovered jewel in the Western Caribbean, a destination that is cheerful without being raucous, its resorts luxurious without the pretension, and its tourism active yet not aggressive. There is something that happens once you land on the island, a slumping of the shoulders, the rather sudden disappearance of stress. Against what is an almost impossibly pure combination of sea-sun-sand, the sentiment of island living takes hold.
I flew in to Ambergris Caye from Los Angeles en route to Las Terrazas resort, the week before what was expected to be a bustling Thanksgiving season. Non-stop flights from the West Coast are almost non-existent, although there are plenty of short, direct flights from Houston and Miami. Once in Belize City you'll board a 17-minute, 10-seater flight on Maya Island Air to San Pedro. From there, the hotel's resident driver will drive you five minutes away to the small jetty where a private speed boat transports you to the hotel. The property boasts a white, contemporary façade and is nestled within a landscape of thatched roofed houses and half-built condos. A rum cocktail and quick welcome massage are proffered to all guests before they are shown to their villas.
Las Terrazas is among the more prestigious and luxe resorts on the island, one that general manager David Hesse describes as barefoot luxury. It has been around since 2008, and is an enduring favorite among wedding parties (there is at least one every month), as well as an idyllic getaway for honeymooners and the sort of place that incentive groups and corporate retreats love to book. This is a place that draws people who love the outdoors, or, as Hesse described it, those who consider themselves adventure travelers but like returning to five-star luxury at the end of the day. The first thing you’ll want to do when you check in, is head straight back to the reception desk, and book adventure tours. Be sure to pack good walking shoes and potent mosquito spray.
The rectangular modern outdoor pool is the center point of the resort, the feature that dramatically greets arrivals, the O Restaurant at its rear. Many of the 39 villas are arrayed around the pool and restaurant, offering one to three-bedroom options, each one with tons of room to spread out. Guestrooms include spacious living areas and dining rooms, a kitchen (that would be the envy of any home cook) and a walk-in closet, all rendered in soothing neutral shades accented with Belizean teak. The villas are individually owned, their owners for the most part rent them out as hotel rooms, a rather easy and lucrative investment. Most are purchased, but there are still a few up for grabs.
Guests can also partake in a bit of fishing, and can bring their catch in to the hotel's executive chef, the perpetually cheerful Jeff Papendick (known to all as chef Papy), who will take a guest's fresh haul and structure that night's dinner around it. Papendick honed his skills in Napa Valley and his menu at the O Restaurant reflects his diverse tastes with fare such as Caribbean sweet pepper and mango salad, and a ceviche of fresh shrimp, cilantro and lime. Ask him for a dollop of his special homemade habanero sauce. Leroy, the resort's ‘chief fun officer,' can often be seen shimmying up the bark of a tree to fetch a fresh coconut, piercing its shell for thirsty guests, or arranging the use of kayaks and bicycles, which are complimentary to guests. Book a massage on the beach through the spa, or take a golf cart into town where stores like 12 Belize thrive. This lifestyle boutique carries only finely-curated, locally-made products that include coffee, woven weekend totes and honeysuckle body scrubs.
My first full day in Ambergris Caye was spent on one of the island's most popular excursion, a trip to the Lamanai Mayan Ruins. This revered archaeological site in the middle of the forest is a series of stone pyramids, one of which, the High Temple, stretches 108 feet above the ground. To get there from Las Terrazas requires an early wake-up call, as you’ll be picked up by boat around 7 a.m. and transported to the mainland through lagoons and up the swampy Northern River. Through the foliage, the guides pointed out Orange Walk Town which serves as home to the influential Mennonite community, their bonnets and long dresses and horse-and-carriages striking in a land where the typical wardrobe is shorts and a T-shirt. Then it's a long bus ride from the tiny village of Bomba to another boat before finally arriving at the ruins.
For a more languid day, ask the hotel to arrange a snorkeling excursion to Hol Chan Reef to swim with sharks and sting rays before heading to a stretch of isolated beach where a full lunch can be set up atop blankets spread out on the white sand. The water is the reason people love the destination, and return over and over. It is impossibly calm, warm and pristine, its vastness not in the least bit threatening.
With more airlines offering new routes to Belize City from various destinations (Southwest Airlines among the latest), and more developments underway, Hesse says that Las Terrazas will expand over the next few years to include another 40 villas plus a pool with swim-up bar and full gym. Ambergris Caye is on track to become an even more popular tourist destination, and an altogether attractive place to have a second home. The best time to visit is pretty much anytime other than hurricane season (September and October, when many resorts are shut). Don't worry about the showers, the island is one of those rare places in the world that looks almost as pretty in the rain as it does the sun.