Perfect Trip: Ambergris Caye
Day 1 A warm drizzle falls from the night sky as my water taxi surges up the east coast of Belize's Ambergris Caye. "Sorry 'bout the water," shrugs the driver, his dreads secure beneath a knit cap. I shrug back, damp but smiling. It's a good 15-minute ride back to Matachica, one of the island's northernmost hotels. The mist cools my skin, still sweaty from Jaguar's, a disco in San Pedro, the island's only town. There, locals danced to punta in steady movements. Intimidated, I drank Belikins and watched the surreal parade: All around me moved people with the regal, ancient faces of the Maya, shaking their tails, drinks in hand.
Day 2 In the morning I ask the receptionists what lies behind Matachica's beachfront enclave. I'm met by raised eyebrows. No, no, no. It's all swamp: crocs, mosquitoes and a shoddy road. "Go to the beach," they urge. So I do, lying in front of a red casita with a hammock strung across its porch. That evening I catch the resort's boat back to town, passing the sign for the long-running "World Famous Chicken Drop" on Wednesdays, a bingo-type game that exists, to be sure, only for shits and giggles. But it's not Wednesday, so I just walk the sandy streets of San Pedro a humble-jumbled few blocks of shops, houses, bars and restaurants to Elvi's Kitchen, where I eat Maya-style fish grilled in banana leaves.
Day 3 I spend a playful morning snorkeling with parrotfish, damselfish and rays at Hol Chan, a marine reserve off Ambergris' southeast coast. Hol Chan means "little channel" in Mayan, and it is the Maya and the ruins of their mysterious civilizations that intrigue me. So I decide to visit Lamanai, on Belize's mainland. After a 15-minute flight from Ambergris to Belize City and a 45-minute drive to a boat launch, I'm met by the small boat that will carry me an hour up the New River to Lamanai Outpost Lodge. Into Belize's interior I go, through narrow passages lined with orchids and epiphytes. With every twist of the river, with every low-hanging bough and every howler monkey's roar, I feel more like a character in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Day 4 Even from the very top of this Maya High Temple, I can barely distinguish Lamanai's unexcavated ruins, which sleep beneath a blanket of jungle; only seven of over 700 buildings here have been unearthed. "Oh, look," breathes my guide Mauricio, a veritable encyclopedia of a man. (He told me the temple had 73 stairs only after we'd climbed them.) A large bird dips a shoulder, arcing around us. "A king vulture," he says, and gives me this look. "We never see them here." kelly lack
Venice of the Caribbean
Easternmost of the English-speaking Bay Islands of Honduras, Guanaja roadless and carrot-shaped was once a sanctuary for English and French pirates who raided passing Spanish galleons. These days, untouched coral reefs and warm, translucent waters are the treasures that lure the few visitors who take a 20-minute flight from La Ceiba on the mainland. Topside, miles of hiking trails through hilly forests connect a series of waterfalls perfect for an afternoon cool-down. Bo Bush's Island House, a wood-plank lodge on Guanaja's north shore, is run by Bo (who claims pirate ancestry). The main town, Bonacca, on an offshore cay, is called the "Little Venice of the Caribbean." One glimpse of locals paddling canoes down canals and ducking under raised walkways and you'll understand why. For a dose of night life beyond sipping Salva Vida beers and anticipating the green flash at sunset, call a water taxi: Barhopping here is done by boat. Weekly rates from $1,000. bosislandhouse.com; letsgohonduras.com jad davenport
Salakos and Santoises
Admire the lush hills and moored sailboats of Les Saintes, a cluster of eight sunny isles just south of Guadeloupe, and you'll wonder just what the British were thinking in 1763 when they traded them to the French for Canada. (No hard feelings, eh?) The 3,000 inhabitants are mostly descendants of Breton and Norman fishermen. Some still wear traditional saucer-like salako hats and fish these waters in brightly painted, handmade sailboats known as santoises. Overnight at Hotel Auberge les Petits Saints, an eclectic inn packed with international antiques. Chill in their restaurant with a ti-punch rum, lime and sugar cane juice and sample a favorite creole plate of crabes farcis (stuffed land crabs). Rates from $123. petitssaints.com; lesilesdeguadeloupe.com jd
The end of the lucrative Turks and Caicos salt trade in the mid 1900s almost erased once-booming Salt Cay from the map. Today time passes gently over this wedge of trackless beaches that hangs above Hispaniola like an apostrophe. Salt Cay, speckled with the overgrown ruins of salt-baron manors and dimpled with empty salinas (salt ponds), feels like the country's most remote outpost. Except for the humpback whales that migrate past from late January through April, you'll pretty much have the island to yourself. Check into The Windmills Plantation for luxury on the wild north shore. Mellow snorkeling awaits off the northwest beaches. Serious divers should head south to the unsalvaged wreck of the Endymion, a British man-of-war that sank in 1790. A deep relaxation will settle over you here: Awaken to the braying of a wild donkey or fall asleep to the dusky kri-kri of an osprey perched like a weather vane atop an old windmill. Rates from $655, including all meals. windmillsplantation.com; turksandcaicostourism.com jd