The Last Lost Islands of the Caribbean

"The cayes are the best places to see stars," Glen Eiley said with nostalgia. "When I was growing up, there were no lights at all in Placencia. You could see the whole sky- satellites, galaxies, all kinds of things. Where you guys are going, you should have a couple of good nights to look up."

Eiley, 45, is a tall and thoughtful Belizean with expressive hands and sparkles of gray in his close-cropped hair. His family has lived in Belize for more than 150 years, claiming a heritage rooted in pirates from Scotland and Portugal, mixed with blood from escaped African slaves.

He is also the mayor of Placencia, a seaside town at the tip of a thin spit of land along the central coast. A figure everyone seems to know, Eiley was at the dock as we cast off. He promised to meet up with us later in the week and reveal some of his favorite dive sites.

My friend Elliot and I had come to Belize to explore what we had heard were some of the most untouched islands left in the Caribbean. More than 300 islands, or cayes, and shallow reefs scatter out from the coast like interstellar dust, forming protected anchorages and spectacular diving. The best way to reach the outer islands is by private yacht, so we arranged for a week aboard Ananda, a roomy and comfortable 47-foot catamaran from The Moorings, with a captain and a gourmet chef who would spoil us rotten for the week.

The morning of our departure, the skies were deceptively calm as Scott Atkinson, our captain, guided the yacht from Placencia into the Gulf of Honduras. Scott is a native New Zealander and a lifelong boatman. Compact and nearly bald, with the cool eyes and professional distance of Star Trek's Captain Picard, Scott seemed a bit edgy on land. But as we motored away from the luxurious suites where we stayed at Robert's Grove, a look of calm took over his features. He stood at the bridge as Mary Waller, our first mate and expert chef, leaned over his chair. Mary-who once worked for the U.K.'s National Weights and Measures Laboratory-was wearing a striped apron, her dusky blond hair up in a bun. A tightly bound, efficient couple, they were accustomed to intense encounters with people they were unlikely to see again.

No sooner were we on the open sea than the sky darkened. The approaching squall was an alabaster wall in the distance. In minutes, the storm was no longer so distant-and then it was upon us and we were tossing about, and the sky went slate gray. "Big wave!" cried Scott, as a huge one crashed onto the port bow.

The first days of our journey the rain was as large a presence as the ocean itself. I fell asleep to the rhythm of drops on the skylight above my bed, and ate breakfast to the sound of rain on the broad blue tarpaulin that Scott hung above the dining table on deck.

Still, there was nothing oppressive about the weather and we were rarely beneath solid cloud cover. Every once in a while the sun poked through and illuminated the sea with a direct bolt of light, like a jeweler's lamp through an emerald. For a glorious moment the coconut palms on Laughing Bird Caye were as vivid as cartoons against the backdrop of clouds, and the rain pillars were combed with rainbows. Then the colors would fade, the sun swallowed again, and the percussion of drops on Ananda's deck would build like applause, gaining in intensity as the parade of clouds approached.

Our third evening the weather broke. The sunset was streaked with flame, the sea darkened, and the skies above Belize pulsed with stars. As the Ananda rested in the lee of Ranguana Caye, "Kind of Blue" evaporated from the weatherproof speakers. Elliot and I lounged on the trampoline and surveyed the cosmos.

Stargazing under island skies is one of life's most overlooked pleasures. Most city dwellers have gotten so used to light pollution that they no longer think of looking up; half the scenery of their vacations remains unseen.

The Andromeda Galaxy looks as if it is five times the diameter of the full moon, but few travelers can pick it out of the sky. It's easy to find on a dark night: a chalky smudge, just below the tilted W of Cassiopeia. The most distant object visible to the naked eye, Andromeda has a flat, spiral shape, just like our own Milky Way. Looking at it through binoculars, we were literally looking back in time: The light we saw left Andromeda two million years ago.

If there was going to be a perfect moment on this cruise, it was that night, sprawled on Ananda's trampoline under a dome of stars, listening to Miles Davis, and sipping Glenlivet as our boat rocked lazily on the swell.

"They said it was going to rain today," I remarked, gazing at the clouds that were gathering above Pompion Caye.

"They didn't say where," Glen Eiley replied.

Along with his official duties, Mayor Eiley is a passionate scuba instructor and the treasurer of Friends of Nature, an organization dedicated to the protection of mangroves, reefs, whale sharks, and manatees-in short, the entire ecosystem of the fragile southern cayes. Eiley had offered to help us explore one of the southern cayes-below the waterline. His motorboat met Ananda at 10 A.M., and we suited up quickly. Minutes later we were descending into an undersea oasis filled with Dr. Seuss-like foliage, just a five-minute ride from the prosaic palms and pelicans of Laughing Bird Caye.

Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world (Australia's, of course, ranks first). It parallels the coast for more than 180 miles, beginning just south of Mexico's Yucat¿n Peninsula, and stretches almost to the waters of Honduras. The reef is home to more than 70 types of hard corals, soft gorgonian fans, and sponges of every sort: Barrel, basket, lavender tube, and rope sponges cling to the towering coral heads that separate long undersea sand channels. There are nearly 400 species of fish. Jacques Cousteau, who spent much of his time in Belize in the late 1970s, placed these reefs among the best diving destinations in the world.

This was one of Mayor Eiley's favorite spots. Huge coral bulbs loomed above a sandy floor, so crowded with exotic plants and soft corals that they looked like miniature Jurassic forests. The water wasn't very clear, but that only added to a sense of mystery as the towering coral heads appeared out of nowhere, their bonsai-like vegetation home to rainbow-hued fish of every ilk. Eiley was a terrific dive buddy; sharp-eyed and knowledgeable, he pointed out a slew of creatures that nearly eluded my vision: a reclusive lobster; a languorous moon jellyfish; and two black-and-white drumfish, looking for all the world like escaped crib toys.

Some of Belize's southern cayes, with their tiny beaches, sparse foliage, and eccentric residents, remind me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's storybook asteroid, B-612, the distant home of The Little Prince. As we sailed by these little dots, I could easily imagine a life of endless sunsets, battles with baobabs (i.e., civilization), and tending a single, fragile rose.

Not far from Laughing Bird, Little Water is an odd-looking caye covered with dead-headed palms, snapped like matchsticks by the fingers of Hurricane Iris. Once a beautiful island, it has been laid low by high winds. There is only one house on it: a stilted dwelling, occupied by a lone caretaker named Cyril Young.

Young, 68, has been on Little Water for five months-since Friends of Nature installed him here. He has ivory hair, a pink baseball cap, and brown eyes ringed with pale blue cataracts from years of deep-sea skin diving. He seems amused by everything, at that phase where life's hardships have been replayed so often they're familiar tunes. Young used to work in the Sapodilla Cayes, skin diving for lobster and conch, fishing for snapper and yellowfin and barracuda, he told us. This surprised me, as I'd thought barracuda were poisonous. "Never sicked me yet," Young declared. "But I got tired of fishing, so I decided to come out here for a while. I watch 'round here, see that nobody steals nothin'."

On an island of one, what is there to steal?

We sailed north to the Tobacco Range, and on the morning of November 19, the sky lightened over the mangroves of South Water Caye. At 5 A.M. I heard a cough on the deck, and poked my head out the hatch. Elliot was on the trampoline, waiting for the sunrise. I was surprised to see him; we'd been up until midnight watching the last sizzling stragglers of the annual Leonids meteor shower.

It was on this very day in 1832 that the Garifuna-escaped African slaves who had intermarried with local Caribs-entered these waters in dugout canoes. Led by Elijio Beni, they landed near Stann Creek and spread out from there, eventually settling the entire coast of Belize. In the coastal capital of Dangriga, 12 miles northwest of our anchorage, a wild night of singing, drumming, and dancing would climax with a dawn reenactment of the arrival of the boats from St. Vincent.

South Water Caye lies on Tobacco Reef and forms the outer barrier reef. On a tip from Eiley, Elliot and I motored ashore to meet Jen Hall and her husband, John McDougall, who manage the comfortable Leslie Cottages. South Water Caye has been the site of a Marine Reserve since 1993, with ties to both the Smithsonian Institution and International Zoological Expeditions. Many of Jen's guests are university students, participating in IZE's marine ecology programs.

"No matter what happens to the rest of Belize," she said, "the southern cayes will have a remote flavor to them. When I first came, in 1991, there were just kerosene lanterns and outhouses. Now we have high-speed Internet access and cold beer. We have all the amenities, but we're still remote. You still have to work to get here."

Jen encouraged us to sail about six miles north and visit Tobacco Caye itself, a place she described as "a piece of Dangriga, sitting out on the reef." There, we met the reef's matriarch: Philippa Vernon, a craftswoman who has lived on Tobacco Caye since she was a child.

"When people ask about my family," Philippa chortled, "I show them two dolls-a white pirate and a black lady. 'That's where I come from,' I tell them. 'Now don't ask any more questions!' "

Philippa is a doll maker who turns out ragtag figures on her foot-treadle sewing machine: Creole dolls, Mayan dolls, pirate dolls, African dolls, and Caucasian dolls, artful mirrors of Belize's quilted bloodlines.

Philippa introduced us to her elder sister, Dorothy Medina. The big-boned Creole goddesses sat us down at an outdoor table filled with empty liquor bottles and told us about their long lives on the island.

"There were only four families when we moved to the caye," says Dorothy. "It was a little fishing village. Our father lived and died out here, on the spot where we are."

They filled our ears with anecdotes about pirate treasure (eternally undiscovered), shark attacks (really just one, in 1957), and how tourism has changed-but only slightly-the consummately laid-back air of Tobacco Caye. Speaking sometimes in unison, they talked in hushed tones of how Hurricane Hattie devastated the island in 1961, sweeping the place clear of their clothes and photographs, of all the memories of their youth. "We were on the mainland, and the house we were in fell in on us," said Dorothy. "I was 12; if I had not known how to swim, I would have died. But I was safe, holding on to a mangrove tree."

Next to Philippa's studio we found Benedict Lopez, a trim 37-year-old who claims to have been one of Belize's top soccer stars. He invited us into his cabin, richly redolent with a crockpot of stewfish, a traditional Garifuna concoction of pasta, potatoes, mackerel, carrots, and conch heaped over coconut rice.

We sampled the stewfish, which was exquisite, but politely declined a dose of Lopez's cure-all home remedy: shark liver oil, which he kept in a long-necked bottle on a shelf near his library of Dean Koontz novels. "It cleans your blood and keeps you powerful," he declared, jotting down the helpful recipe: 1 pint honey, 2 cloves garlic, 1 quart shark oil. Marinate for three days. Take 3 to 4 teaspoons a day.

I asked what kind of shark he uses. "It's got to be a bull, tiger, hammerhead, or black-tipped shark," he said solemnly. "You don't use nurse sharks?" "No!" Lopez looked at me like I was crazy. "If we kill the nurse shark, when we get sick, who's gonna take care of us?"

Our final morning the sea was calm, reflecting coal-red clouds. A pelican, one of the first creatures awake, took a noisy plunge near the mangroves, whose labyrinthine roots play a crucial role in island ecology.

"The reef cannot survive without the mangroves," Eiley had told us. "When reef creatures are born, they head for the mangroves. When they get bigger, they move back to the reefs. If you hurt the swamps, you hurt the reef."

After a pancake breakfast we took the dinghy into the mangroves, looking for manatees-the gentle, slow-moving cows of the sea, a mascot of the southern cayes. I expected to see manatees by the dozen, frolicking in the shallows like cancan dancers in a Busby Berkeley spectacle. But it was a sleepy business, this manatee hunting. Elliot spotted a snout; we crawled ahead, and cut the motor. A needlefish raced across the water; a ray leapt with a flash. Ten minutes later, another snout appeared, but by the time I turned my head, it was gone. Time passed. A shadow appeared in the water, moving slowly past the skiff. Languidly, the manatee broke the surface. A bit of brown back, the blade of the tail, and it was gone.

After a few hours of this, Scott motored us back to Ananda for the last of Mary's delicious feasts: Jamaican jerk chicken, curried rice with salmon, homemade buns, and kiwi salsa.

It was a beautiful sail back toward Placencia, with Belize's inland mountains silhouetted sharp against the sky. The wind was up and we made good time, the sail blossoming with air. Sunset was a damp Monet, violet and gray tinged pink. As night fell, the planets appeared with dazzling intensity. I sat on the trampoline, gazing upward, listening to David Byrne (Heaven...is a place...a place where nothing...ever happens) and realized how much I would miss these evenings, this sense of navigating a world between two oceans.

Bearings BELIZE

Book the Room Sleepy little Placencia is the beach town in Southern Belize, so make sure you arrive with a room reservation. In Placencia, the Inn at Robert's Grove is a top pick right on the beach, with bright, hacienda-style accommodations and an excellent restaurant ($130 to $350; 011- 501-523-3565, www.robertsgrove.com). North of Placencia near Hopkins, Hamanasi Dive & Adventure Resort is a cozy hideaway with beachfront suites, secluded tree-house rooms, and excellent water sports facilities ($140 to $270; 011- 501-520-7073, www.hamanasi.com). Overnighters in Belize City can check into the Radisson Fort George Hotel, a comfortable and convenient base in the country's main hub ($159 to $199; 011-501-223-3333, w. www.radissonbelize.com).

Board the Yacht A range of luxury vessels can be chartered year-round through The Moorings, which runs its Belize office (011- 501-523-3351) out of Placencia. Yacht packages vary widely from single-day, "bare" (uncrewed) monohull charters to a week on a 47-foot, six-guest catamaran (featured in the story). With a skipper and gourmet chef, the 47-footer costs about $2,000 per day in the high season. Steer clear of September and October when weather conditions can be unpredictable. Reserve ahead through the company's main office in Clearwater, Florida (727-535-1446, www.moorings.com).

Breeze Through the Cayes Drop anchor at Laughing Bird Caye (a favorite nearby dive site on the Inner Reef), the exquisite Silk Cayes (three lovely islets bordered by white sand and fantastic coral), and the more remote Sapodilla Cayes on the southern fringe of the Outer Reef. Tobacco Caye is a lush, five-acre island with several lodging facilities, fine beaches, and a ring of beautiful diving reefs. Farther out, Glover's Reef is a spectacular offshore atoll with 40 miles of diving and snorkeling sites accessible only in calm conditions. Dive trips to the southern cayes are best arranged through local diving and snorkeling companies in and around Placencia. You can prearrange dives with the scuba shop at Robert's Grove (011-501-523- 3565) or nearby SeaHorse Dive Shop ($105 gear included), 011-501-623-166, www.belizescuba.com).

THE BEST WEATHER is usually December to March. Prices generally fall during the summer, but so does the rain. September is peak of the hurricane season.

MAKE A DATE to swim among the world's largest fish. Placid whale sharks (which grow up to 50 feet long) congregate here during full moons, March to June.

GET THERE on American, Continental, or Taca Airlines, which fly direct to Belize City from Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Los Angeles. It's a short hop to Placencia on Maya Island Air (800-225-6732) or Tropic Air (800- 422-3435).

SET THE CLOCK so when it's 7 A.M. in New York, it's 6 A.M. in Belize.

THEY SPEAK Spanish, or, for about 6 percent of the population of African descent, Garifuna.

PAY IN Belizean dollars or U.S.$1 (fixed at BZ$2)- both are accepted.

BRING ALONG bug repellent (lots of it), a hat, and a copy of Adventures in Nature Belize (Avalon Travel Publishing, 1999), by Richard Mahler.

GET MORE INFO from The Belize Tourist Board, www.travelbelize.org, or its U.S. liaison at 866-423-5493; www.belizespecialists.com.

Jordan Rane