How to Live on Ambergris Caye

Having lost her taste for corporate life and then her beloved husband, Lara Lennon found herself at a Sac O' Subs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, asking her sparring partner, "How much money do you really need to live on a tropical island?" His answer — "less than you think" — set her new life in motion. She flew to Belize two weeks later to check it out. And two weeks after that, she was living her dream on Ambergris Caye. Now she runs an island-based business designing beach-wedding-appropriate bikinis. Four years later, do Lara and her island still get along?

Q: What was your first impression of Ambergris Caye?
A: True love. Where other people might have seen dirt roads, I saw an island that watered the streets to keep the dust down. Instead of "traffic," I saw a charming parade of golf carts buzzing around town. I saw lots of water. I checked into my hotel and saw no TV, no phone, no clock. Then I turned around and saw why — the ocean was literally steps from my beachfront door. Why would you want a TV or a clock when you can look at the reef instead?

Q: Your husband, Tom, died in a plane crash. Can you describe how that tragedy combined with professional circumstances to make you living on Ambergris Caye make sense?
A: My final corporate job was with a company that we'd grown from 2,500 to 14,000 people. Then we got a new COO who promptly began tanking our company. I decided the next idiot I'd work for would be me! I opened an antique shop, working with my husband, who was a pilot. After he died, my heart just had nothing in it. I was done. Life had handed me lemons, and I had to ­figure out what to do with them. Then Central America came up. It was as if I said, it would be awesome to go to the moon, and someone said, "You can do that!" I just happened to do it in Belize. I pay $65 a year for property taxes here versus $7,500 in Philadelphia. I pay $50 for golf-cart insur- ance versus $2,500 for car insurance. I didn't have to work anymore. Any objection I've had, Belize has answered. And so when I finally wanted to do something again in the business world, my swimwear company, Lemon Crush Belize, was born. I also started Romantic Travel Association of Belize, which helps market my swimsuits to those coming to Belize for a destination wedding or honeymoon.

Q: So you saw a need for a dressier bikini?
A: We live in bathing suits here. I get up and put on a ­bikini every single day. But when I get invited to a party or a wedding, I want something a little more dressed up. But there was nothing for me. So I started making them myself. Then realizing I'd be out-dressing the brides at these weddings, I knew there was a bigger need. Think of the suits as "Jimmy Choos for your boobs!" (I don't know how Jimmy Choo would feel about that.) If I can make a ­woman feel fabulous about herself while she's mostly naked, I've done what I intended. The single most attractive thing on anyone is confidence.

Q: Suddenly, I feel left out. Is there formal swimwear for men? Can I rent?
A: Every man asks me this! But yes, I'll be expanding the line, adding wraps for the ladies and eventually shoes. And of course, something for men. With the trend being smaller, almost Speedo-style suits — yuck — I need to come up with something classier for you guys to wear.

Q: Besides your business, what's new on the island since 2006?
A: Well, we have a road now. We have a lot more "part-timers" who own condos and come down a couple of times a year. Some prices have gone up, but we can get things now that we couldn't when I moved, like clumping cat litter, soy crumbles, better wines — you know, the necessities. I don't think the vibe has changed much. Ambergris Caye and Belize have such a strong energy; if you try to change it, it shakes you off fast!

Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Belize is who she is, and just like the personalities here, the sooner we ­accept each other for what we are, the better everyone will get along. This ain't Texas, and it ain't Philly. It's ­Belize. Be malleable or Belize will shake you, not the other way around.

Q: How has Ambergris changed you?
A: Molecularly. You don't notice at first, but it definitely changes you. The skills that helped you survive in the States don't apply here. You learn to tune in to the island, the people, what's going on. That's pretty crunchy granola, but it's true. I've become much more sensitive. I go to the States to eat and shop, and I quickly come home so that I can get a hug from my island.

Q: Any advice for someone considering a move to a place like Ambergris Caye?
A: I'd lose my voice answering this one. The biggest thing is to ask yourself what you need. This isn't the States: The power goes out sometimes. You need patience. And it's a very small place. Who you are shows through, so if you can't be your true self, you'll struggle. But the people here accept each other, and that's heartwarming. Even on my very worst day here, I know it's at least 10 percent better because it's here.

Facts of Life

  • Climate: Tropical
  • Population of ­Ambergris Caye: 18,000
  • Main hospital: San Pedro Poly Clinic
  • Price of local beer: $2.50 for a Belikin
  • Languages: English and Spanish
  • Ease of immigration: Easy
  • Ease of buying a home: Easy
  • House starting price: $125,000 for a two-story home with a lagoon view on the southwest coast of the island
  • Website: investinbelize.com