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Plenty of sea, scenery, and simple pleasures

Email|Print| Text size + By Mara Vorhees
Globe Correspondent / August 27, 2006

CAYE CAULKER, Belize -- ``No Shirt, No Shoes . . . No Problem."

So goes the motto at Caye Caulker's favorite restaurant and watering hole, Rasta Pasta. Nothing seems to be a problem at Rasta Pasta or, indeed, anywhere on this tiny Belizean island, where mangy dogs nap in the middle of the dirt road and suntanned cyclists pedal around them. The only traffic sign instructs golf cart drivers and cyclists to ``Go slow," a directive that is taken seriously.

The 1,000 residents have traditionally made their living from the sea, specifically from the spiny lobsters and red snapper that inhabit the warm waters.

In recent years, the primary economy has shifted but it still depends on the sea: Now it attracts tourists, who flock to the island for windsurfing, sea kayaking, and snorkeling.

Caye Caulker offers fewer amenities than a typical Caribbean resort, but that is part of its charm. Of 20 or so guesthouses, all are privately owned and most have fewer than a dozen rooms to let. As such, the island enjoys the friendliness of a village, as opposed to the formality of a resort.

Residents wouldn't have it any other way. ``How you feelin', mon?" a local asks a passerby. He is sitting in a lawn chair along the main drag, a dirt road known as Front Street, with his shirt open and his dreadlocks draping his shoulders. The sunburned, sandals-clad tourist smiles back, giving his new acquaintance a two-handed point, à la Manny Ramírez. ``Alright, my friend, you feelin' fine."

The easygoing attitude is due in part to the thriving Rastafarian culture on the caye, which pulses to a reggae beat. If it's not Bob Marley blaring from a boom box on the beach, it's the latest in punta rock , an eclectic blend of Garifuna drum rhythms. Drumming groups gather on the beach and at local bars to get their Afro-Caribbean groove on. They play for themselves, but anybody is welcome to gather round and soak up the vibes.

The quintessential Caye Caulker bar is the Lazy Lizard, ``a sunny spot for shady people." The simple, tin-roofed structure is located at the northern end of town, overlooking a swift-moving channel called the Split. The Split was formed in 1961, when Hurricane Hattie whipped through here and cut off the northern tip from the rest of the island. Now, it is one of the preferred spots on Caye Caulker for swimming and snorkeling.

It's not much of a beach -- a small patch of sand strewn with rubble. But this is the center of island culture, where sunbathers lounge on a crumbling seawall, kids play with makeshift toys scavenged from the trash, and fishing boats slowly motor past.

From his perch at the Lazy Lizard, a friendly local named Greek surveys the scene. His matted hair hangs down his bare back, while a knit cap -- the symbolic red, yellow, green , and black -- rests on top. He sips the local brew, Belikin beer. ``Hey , Ras," he calls out to a tourist who has dreads to rival his own. ``Stick around. We goin' to have some drinks and check out the sunset." Indeed, there is no better place to watch the fiery ball as it turns the sky an orangey-pink and drops into the clear green sea.

Caye Caulker's top tourist attraction is the barrier reef. About a mile off the island , it is the longest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere, much of it protected by a marine reserve. Carlos Ayala is one of several guides who take small groups out to the reef on his boat Gypsy. Carlos is a trained marine biologist, which you might not guess from his sun-streaked hair and ultra-cool demeanor. But his expertise is apparent when he speaks.

``The reef is fragile," he reminds his clients. ``The coral is composed of individual polyps -- living creatures. If you step on the coral, or even touch it, you destroy their protective cells. The coral becomes susceptible to invasions by algae and other bacteria."

His patrons, equipped with snorkels and masks, jump over the side of the boat and enter a fantasy world of vibrant colors and exotic shapes. The reef itself takes the form of a head of lettuce, or elk horns, or a brain. The life it supports is clear from the first descent underwater. Schools of golden-finned, bluestriped grunts swim by, seemingly inviting snorkelers to join them. The fluorescent pink and green stoplight parrotfish is not so social, but he's not hard to find lurking under rocks. Bright blue tangs , striped angelfish , and domineering bar jacks come and go. Suddenly, the fish disperse, as a slick, silver barracuda zips across , then disappears into deeper waters. A sense of calm resumes on the reef.

A snorkeler frantically summons her guide when she spots the dark shadow of a shark lurking under the boat. Ayala reassures her that the nurse sharks are harmless. Indeed, later in the day, at a location known as Shark Alley, Ayala will catch a nurse shark and allow his clients to touch its soft underbelly.

Not surprisingly, most restaurant menus on Caye Caulker feature a variety of these creatures of the sea, with lobster playing the starring role. Distinguished from their New England brethren by their lack of claws, the Caribbean crustaceans are no less divine, especially when grilled and served with a Belikin beer.

The closest thing to upscale on the island is Habaneros, a thatch-roof cabana with a wide veranda . Guests dine by candlelight, feasting on ``Surf & surf" -- a grilled lobster tail and garlic shrimp served with a spicy papaya dipping sauce. Dessert is creamy, tart ``Caye lime pie" topped with a scoop of rich, homemade frozen yogurt.

End to end, Caye Caulker is only a few miles long and a half mile at its widest . There is plenty to do and see and eat, but the island's great appeal is that it is not necessary to do anything, except relish the sun on your face and the breeze off the sea.

Contact Mara Vorhees, a freelance writer in Somerville, at mvorhees@msn.com.

If You Go

How to get there

US Airways and American Airlines fly from Boston to Belize City. Water taxis make the 45-minute from Belize City to Caye Caulker every two hours for $10 each way.

What to do

Carlos Eco Tours

Front Street

011-501-226-0058

One of several guides offering trips to the reef. All-day tours -- snorkeling at three locations and a visit to nearby Ambergris Caye -- are $45 per person, including equipment and marine reserve fees.

Where to stay

Iguana Reef Inn

011-501-226-0213

www.iguanareefinn.com

This small resort offers a private beach, an excellent open-air restaurant , and fabulous sunset views. A dozen comfortable rooms are decorated in bright colors with rustic furniture and local artwork. Double s , including continental breakfast , are $89- $144, depending on the season and the view.

Treetops Hotel 011-501-226-0240

www.treetopsbelize.com

Fronts the beach on the east side of the island, allowing its rooms to catch a breeze off the sea. Immaculate and efficient; spotless rooms with shared bath $45- $52, rooftop suite $90.

Where to eat

Habaneros

011-501-226-0487

The wide veranda overlooking Caye Caulker's main drag is a romantic spot for dinner. Rotating seafood specials and delicious desserts. Reservations recommended.Meals $20- $30 .

Rasta Pasta

011-501-206-0356

Come for lunch and you may just stay all afternoon at this friendly beachfront restaurant and bar. Specialties include huge seafood burritos and spicy ginger beer.Meals $10-$15 .

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