Last March, we needed to be warm — tropically warm — but we wanted to speak English and go someplace to suit our Vineyard tastes (perhaps where there were no Cadillac Escalades.)
My companion is part mermaid and I was raised by sloths, so she needed to swim with the sunrise and I just wanted a hammock nearby.
We didn’t want condos, Wayne Newton, or miniature golf, nor would we be filled by mediocre food cleverly hidden among overloads of spice. Our destination didn’t have to be an island but had to feel like one. We had both heard wonderful things about Belize but had never been. Thus the research began and Belize began racking up points.
It’s not an island but rather a peninsula. Belize is bordered on the north by Mexico, to the south and west by Guatemala, and the rest by the Caribbean Sea. It’s also a manageable if not cozy size; the mainland is about 180 miles long and 68 miles wide. Its non-vastness includes 8,800 square miles (roughly the size of Massachusetts yet just a bit larger than Connecticut) and a population of 340,844. English is the official language of Belize. (Belizean Creole and Spanish are also spoken but English is rampant).
So that was our chosen destination. We were sold on the town of Placencia in that region but we were cautioned to avoid Belize City, as just another poor, over-run city. We were also warned not to drive. The roads, while passable, were generally reminiscent of lanes to many an up-Island beach, and not recommended.
Thus, we flew to the main airport in Belize City and hopped a bug-smasher which took two stops before depositing us in Placencia. A van carried us to our destination, the Robert’s Grove Beach Resort (robertsgrove.com). We had chosen it for its location between a 16-mile beach and yacht basin, its middle price range and reported casual splendor. We wanted as all-inclusive as possible without feeling like we were on a gambling ship with most of mayonnaise America, and we didn’t really need to leave the property. But we did, in golf carts.
Robert’s Grove describes itself as “Hacienda-styled” in architecture and whatever that means, it had the comfort of the tropics with all the joys of the First World we had grown used to. Our cabana-like unit, lined with tropical hardwoods and magnificent tile, had a large bedroom with terrace facing the sprawling beach, then Europe, a comfortable rattan living room with ample dining area. There was a pool, and I had a hammock.
Our first stop was a swim, then nap, then food. We went to the resort’s own Mexican restaurant — the Habanero Mexican Cafe & Bar — across the road on the ambling lagoon which lingers into the sea.
Thus began our nightly tradition. We had that day’s seafood there and after that whenever we could. Besides the obvious snapper and grouper entrees, there were copious ceviche courses, drenched in fresh lime and utterly fresh fish.
The calamari was crisp yet tender but the limes were showpieces, along with all the fruit.
Unique to the small commonwealth among so many other similar spots in the Caribbean, Belize produces much if not most of its own food, making the prices and quality better. While the theme was Mexican, it was more tilted to the adjoining country than to a North American rendition and while the help was utterly courteous, one particular face won out.
Liston Leslie, the manager at Habanero, was totally gracious and extremely proud of his country and its history. He wanted to show it off and wasn’t craving to be suffering in some U.S. city.
The Belizean people had no intention of going anywhere. They were content, friendly and easy. And Liston had good reason to be our ambassador — he is either a cousin, brother, and/or nephew to half the town. When we asked about a nice place to have lunch in the village, he suggested De Tatch, the sort of beach restaurant where you expect Sydney Greenstreet to come in wearing a white linen suit and order a cryptic drink.
We didn’t want or need to rent a car. Our own sightseeing would be at the controls of rented golf carts. They are open-air, slow enough to genuinely sightsee and rarely crowded on the roads, as cars and trucks are rare.
The next day we went to De Tatch — which it turned out was Liston’s uncle’s place — and had world class conch fritters and again the day’s catch and ceviche, overlooking the beach. We had found what we wanted in atmosphere, ambiance and beach, and ate there nearly every day.
There are decidedly few settings better suited to slurping fresh fruits — mangoes, papapas, pineapple — with abundant and Jamaica-worthy coffee, than at the breakfast buffet at Roberts Resort.
Belize imports some of the world’s best chocolate. We ran into a couple of hippie-meets-Silicon-Valley chocolate entrepreneurs from the Pacific Northwest who were roaming the beach after attending a nearby cocoa workshop and virtual convention. They told us that historically some of the big names in chocolate had a difficult time staffing the plantations and just up and abandoned some of the vast growing facilities. Now, the discarded plantations house a myriad of these cacao startups and chocolate events abound in Belize (chocolatefestivalofbelize.com, cottontreelodge.com/belize-tours/chocolate-tours.htm).
We rarely strayed from our direct region and passed many a cozy cafe and bar but found ourselves largely at the Robert’s Grove property, which includes a private islet, Ranguana Caye, 18 miles off shore. Ranguana is the size of Cronig’s parking lot, with a scattering of three tiny huts. As part of our package — and I hate to use that word — we were entitled to a diving and snorkeling trip there. We shared the open boat with three generations of a magnificent family from Atlanta. We wanted privacy, this is after all a romantic destination, but the beaming Smiths were good company and our only other Gilligan population on Ranguana.
We didn’t see them and they didn’t see us as we snorkeled with a guide who materialized as if summoned by Herve Villechaize and led us face-down out to reef fish and breathtaking undersea life, until we were drawn ashore for basking.
Our guide vanished, our hunger arrived and soon the smell of shrimp and pasta filled the air. As equally mysterious in her appearance as the guide, a cook from the main dining room prepared a sumptuous sea lunch for the Smiths and us. We ate in a thatched but extremely clean, covered lanai.
Cleared plates vanished as did the staff, and the afternoon was well underway. After another swim, we left and the Smiths remained to stay in the jewels of cabanas facing the sea.
We returned to our splendid digs for more ceviche, fish and conch fritters and hopefully, shall again.