Ambergris Cay: Beach Bum Central

Ambergris Cay in Belize has some of the Caribbean's top diving--then again, the scruffy island is also one of the world's best spots for doing nothing at all

'Wanna pet the shark?'

The offer comes from a 21-year-old snorkel guide named Tony, who is bearing sardines. Two beige nurse sharks piggyback one another at our port side, almost begging as smaller fish pick off the chum before it even hits the water.

But I've owned cats more likely to tear into flesh than the four-foot nurse sharks at Hol Chan Marine Reserve. A protected three-square-mile area off Ambergris Cay, Hol Chan (Mayan for "little channel," named for a cut in the 140-mile reef) abounds with sharks, fish, and stingrays. They feel the thrum of an approaching boat, swim over when the engine stops, partake of the buffet, and then chill out at the bottom of the Caribbean until summoned by another outboard dinner bell.

Throw in a hammock and a rum-based cocktail of your choice, and that's also pretty much what life is like for humans at Belize's top vacation destination.

Welcome to paradise!" the baggage handler hails as I unfold from the 13-seat plane that has brought us from the mainland to San Pedro, the island's only town. I've been told by a few travelers (and one Belizean) that the former fishing village is too touristy, but hey, there's something to be said for Internet cafés and water you can brush your teeth with.

Ambergris Cay has grown since its days as the off-the-radar sunshine playground that Madonna sang about 20 years ago in "La Isla Bonita" (an odd title, come to think of it, given that English is Belize's official language). The locals include a fair share of expat businesspeople, but leaving your type A personality on the mainland is apparently a requirement.

Upon my arrival at The Tides Beach Resort, a shirtless bartender named Butch greets me by first name and directs me to a spacious, no-frills room with an ocean view, A/C, a minifridge, and 60 channels of American TV. I never do get asked to sign a piece of paper or produce a credit card. "It's Belize, go with the flow," owner Sabrina Paz says when I finally meet her.

Sabrina's husband, Elmer "Patojo" Paz, has run Patojo's Dive Shop here for 17 years. With three atolls, the world's second-largest barrier reef, and (just a few hours offshore) the Blue Hole, Ambergris Cay attracts both experienced divers and novices getting certified on vacation. In 1998, the couple tore down their beachfront home and replaced it with a three-floor, 12-room Spanish colonial, including living quarters for themselves and their six kids, who are often around the pool or on the pier doing their homework. (Or not doing it: Megan, their 12-year old, wonders why she has to finish high school when she plans to be a dive master like Dad.) The arrangement gives The Tides a family bed-and-breakfast vibe without the actual feeling that you're sleeping over at a stranger's house.

The roads on Ambergris seem to range from unpaved to nonexistent. Cars are scarce, the north side of the island is accessible only by golf cart or boat, and the beach is something of a thoroughfare for single-gear bikes with back-pedal brakes. On my first stroll around town, I decide that renting a golf cart or a bike won't be necessary. San Pedro is small, the streets are safe, and cab rides rarely cost more than $5. The only reason not to walk is the humidity, which is unavoidable in any case.

For dinner that night I choose Elvi's, which began as a takeout window more than 30 years ago and still has a sand floor. It's priced for tourists, but my $14 is well spent on Mayan-style fish cooked to a nice char in a banana leaf with roasted peppers, onions, and tomatoes, plus a heavenly scoop of coconut rice. It's served by the cook himself, who offers a friendly shoulder tap and instructs me (ha, ha) not to eat the leaf.

The next afternoon, Tony, a family friend of Patojo's who has been guiding formally for one year and informally since he was around 13, takes me out to Hol Chan. Six or seven other vessels are already there--a number that can easily quadruple during high season (December to May), since most guides run a daily trip at 2 P.M. (Groups of six or eight might want to spend a little more for a private morning excursion with Grumpy and Happy.) Some divers prefer to avoid Hol Chan, going instead to the Mexico Rocks coral and the Bacalar Chico Marine and Wildlife Reserve up north, or some spot along the reef (every guide has his own "secret" location). For an amateur like me, the real-life Finding Nemo oceanscape is dazzling: blue tangs and parrot fish; silvery, thin barracudas; and flat flounder. Moray eels and a little octopus are hidden in the coral but are spotted easily by Tony. "I come here every day," he shrugs.

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