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San Pedro at Ambergris Caye, Belize – A tropical paradise

“Last night I dreamt of San Pedro…”

There’s a reason Madonna dreamt about, then sang about it in the opening lyric of "La Isla Bonita;" San Pedro Belize is a tropical paradise surrounded by beautiful water, cooling breezes, palm trees and windswept beaches. Sun-drenched days are filled with plenty of activities or just lounging in a hammock, a beach bar or poolside with great food served with fruity (and occasional rum-filled) drinks.

Located on Ambergris Caye, the largest and most northern of Belize’s islands, is a 25-mile long limestone-coral island with cool tropical breezes and is literally within a clear ocean view of the Barrier Reef in some places.

There are plenty of simple pleasures from a walk on the beach under the shade of coconut trees to snorkeling and other water sports in crystal clear waters. Ambergris Caye continues to defy the odds by somehow balancing the amenities of tourism development with a fun, laid back straight-out-of-a Jimmy Buffet-song atmosphere.

To those who are intimidated by vacationing in foreign countries, a Belize vacation may be for you. First, though located south of Mexico’s Caribbean side and technically in Central America, the main language is English. Apprehensive about money conversion rates such as the 17 to one ratio for the peso or the 1.13 to 1 for the Euro? Belize is simple at two to one with an easy formula that allows one to just cut posted prices in half for an accurate figure. (U.S. Currency is freely accepted also). Flights are reasonable with a round trip to Belize City on most airlines priced less than $400.

San Pedro is the heart of Ambergris Caye, a puddle-jump flight from Belize City. The town is lined with souvenir shops, plenty of beach bars, a wide range of restaurants and an avid night life. The island’s airstrip is basically located in the town, and most resorts and hotels are just a golf cart drive away – the preferred method of travel on the island. There are no traffic lights, no freeways or highways, and no high-rise buildings.

While there this April, I stayed at the Victoria House, a waterfront plantation, Colonial-style resort that overlooks the Belize Barrier Reef. There are plenty of affordable places on the island and even though hotels are being erected up and down the coast, the Ambergris Caye outer reaches are still practically uninhabited and that has me now going through the tropic paradise withdrawal process as I write this piece.

Because of its tourism, Ambergris Caye has the biggest selection of eateries of any destination in Belize – among them are some of the country’s finest. They range from simple beach bars and barbecue joints to upscale, sophisticated, affordable restaurants where a couple won’t have to pay over $100 U.S. for their meal, including drinks or wine. There’s a wide choice of kinds of food on Ambergris: seafood, of course, but also steak and Central American local faire. There are even Chinese, Italian, Thai, Mexican, and French restaurants for those that don’t want to venture to local cuisine. In addition, street vendors set up barbecue grills along Front Street and on the beachfront and cook chicken, fish, shrimp, and lobster.

Some of the highlights for me were the chef’s table at Pirate’s Treasure. A thatched-roof establishment, it’s one of the only restaurants specializing in lionfish. For the evening experience, guests are seated around Chef Maresha as she prepares all her recipes with fresh ingredients which are in plain view. The self-taught chef smoothly maneuvers her way across the open kitchen and prepares the gourmet meal with ease, interacting with guests and explaining the local ingredients as they hit the pan. Every night brings about a new three- course menu complete with appetizer, entrée, and main course.

Another must-do is the recently opened Stella’s Smile when they pair with the local owner/cook of Robin’s Kitchen for a memorable dining event. Located on the north end of the island (or what the locals call, “across the bridge”) away from the hustle and bustle of the San Pedro core, Stella’s open air bar and patio seating overlooks the shielded side of Ambergris Caye. Stella’s has a distinctive selection of wines, a bottomless house-made sangria, spritzers and other wine-based drinks. On Thursday nights, John Harvey, the Jamaican/Belizean proprietor of Robin’s Kitchen – a little, but well-known palapa café south of town with killer BBQ – joins Stella’s and prepares his famous jerk chicken and their grilled snapper served with rice and beans.

Water activities are available with catamaran tours that (along with endless rum punch) go out to the reef where visitors can snorkel with some of the most beautiful sea life including sea turtles, sting-rays, and sharks. A jet-ski tour can take you around the island in three hours with visits to Secret Beach, Blackadore Caye now owned by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cayo Espanto.

Taking in the island and reef can really make you work up an appetite and thirst. Beach Bars are aplenty and not only serve the coldest beer – Belikin and Lighthouse Ale are island staples – but are great hits for lunch and to kill a few hours as you experience “Island Time.” Anywhere on the island, there are certainly a number of nice places to kick back and enjoy a couple drinks.

For over 20 years, the Palapa Bar has been one of the most popular spots in La Isla Bonita. Their over-the-water location offers some of the best views, and is a great place to interact with a nice mix of locals and other vacationers. Patrons can settle into a relaxed lifestyle by jumping in the inner tubes below and enjoy a bucket of Belikins as the perfect way to pass an afternoon.

Some of the ones I enjoyed while there: Crazy Cannucks located in the south portion of town, is one of the most well-known beach bars in San Pedro with live music, and daily events including live hermit crab races on Tuesday nights.

Three shipping containers and a beach bar make up The Truck Stop, one of the newest, hippest and only outdoor food court and beer garden in Ambergris Caye. It serves Belizean food, Asian food along with an ice cream truck and bar. Sundays it hosts a pig roast and corn hole tournament.

The Dive Bar offers a truly relaxing atmosphere where you can sit back and take in the ocean views along with great food shattering the perception of what “dive bars” are all about. Their menu offers a variety of delicious dishes that include fresh grilled meats and fish, sushi, and delicious small plates.

So if you go to visit, be sure to leave your fancy clothes and high heel shoes at home. Island life consists of shorts, a pair of flip-flops and T-shirts.