Written by Anita
January 1, 2015
“Last night I dreamt of San Pedro…” So begins Madonna’s ode to the town on the small Belizean island of Ambergris Caye, dubbed La Isla Bonita. Reached easily by water taxi (San Pedro Belize Express) or puddle-jumper (Tropic Air) from Belize City, San Pedro offers a wealth of riches to those seeking sun, sand, and serenity. And because English is the official language, it is easy to communicate with Belize’s exceedingly friendly people. We recently returned from a week on the island, where we enjoyed much of San Pedro’s beauty and bounty.
Start your day with a visit to The Baker. Owned and operated by Irish transplants Ken and Emily Moore, this cozy bakery produces fresh pastries, cookies, sandwiches, and breads that are sure to satisfy. We enjoyed coconut tarts (perfumed with a liberal dash of nutmeg), delectably gooey cinnamon rolls, nutty peanut butter cookies, and ham, cheddar cheese, and jalapeños nestled together in the bakery’s pillowy white bread. Wash it down with some fresh-squeezed, unpasteurized orange juice—brought in daily by a local juicer.
After breakfast, it’s time to hit the beach! The Caribbean Villas Hotel sits on the prettiest stretch of San Pedro’s beachfront, which is meticulously maintained to remain free of seagrass. It offers easy access to watersports, massage, and excursions. We rented a Hobie Wave and windsurfer from Sailsports Belize and set sail across the warm Caribbean waters. Anna Varela of La Bella Mar is skilled in administering luxurious beachside deep tissue and Swedish massages that are sure to completely de-stress you (with rates so reasonable you can afford at least a couple during your stay!) Excursions are easily made from Caribbean Villas’ onsite pier. We spent an afternoon with Ivor from Seaduced by Belize snorkeling at Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Rey Alley (part of the second largest reef in the world). There we saw several dives-worth of sealife, including a variety of tropical fish, sea turtles (Green and Loggerhead), nurse sharks, stingrays (Southern and Spotted Eagle), and a gigantic green moray eel.
You’re likely to work up an appetite, so enjoy lunch in downtown San Pedro (a short walk or golf-cart ride away). El Fogon (which means “the fire hearth”) cooks up a variety of Belizean specialties over an open wood fire. The restaurant’s outdoor palapa provides respite from the afternoon sun and a stellar view of the grill. Adventurous eaters can try the Paca, or Gibnut as it is known in Belize, which is a large nocturnal rodent (dubbed “the Royal Rat” since it was purportedly served to Queen Elizabeth II during her 1985 visit.) We started our meal with Yucatan salbutes (corn dough fritters topped with shredded stewed chicken, superfine chopped cabbage, tomato, and a thick slice of jalapeño) and refreshing ceviche (shrimp and conch tossed with tomato, papaya, cilantro, and lime). Our mains included a fragrant stewed chicken with coconut rice, coleslaw, and plantains and a flaky whole grilled red snapper, topped simply with grilled green peppers, onions, and lime juice.
If your stay in San Pedro includes a Sunday, then make sure to catch the Sunday beach BBQ at Amber Beach Bar & Grill. We swooned over the succulent barbeque ribs and the fall-off-the-bone barbeque chicken. Our sides included creamy macaroni and cheese, golden French fries, and sweet cornbread (more like a corn pudding). Top it off with a fresh papaya colada, courtesy of bartender Leon.
We relished another day’s lunch at Elvi’s Kitchen, a Belizean mainstay for almost 40 years. Owned by Elvia Staines, known as Doña Elvia, it is helmed by chef Jennie Pinelo, one of Doña Elvia’s six children. We savored the chipotle shrimp tacos—house-made corn tortillas topped with butter-grilled shrimp that are smothered in chipotle sauce and crowned with cabbage relish. They are served with guacamole and two dipping sauces, including a habanero tartar sauce and a tomato-based one made with Ms. Elvi’s own hot pepper sauce. We also downed the Belizean tacos, spice-rubbed grilled chicken over a puffy fry jack topped with carrots, tomatoes, and basil mayo slaw. Everything was washed down with a frosty glass of housemade watermelon juice. Alas, we weren’t able to experience Elvi’s Friday night All-You-Can-Eat Mayan Feast—maybe next time?
Afternoon calls for a siesta! For those with more energy to burn, the Saga Humane Society allows tourists to walk dogs awaiting adoption. (Although be forewarned, many a tourist has subsequently returned home with an extra souvenir!) If you’re looking for a mellow compromise, then take the Coastal Xpress ferry to Rojo Beach Bar on the Northern part of the island. As long as you buy food and drinks at the bar, you have full access to its property—which includes hammocks, infinity pools, and comfy lounge seating. Presided over by bar manager Findley (a.k.a. Fin Kardashian), the bar’s friendly vibe and spectacular setting had already won us over—the food and drink were just the icing on the cake! We slurped down several of the bar’s specialty cocktails (big enough for two!) including the Dirty Monkey (a rich, chocolaty dessert drink), the Mexican (made with jalapeño-infused tequila), and the Frozen Lime Pie (which tasted just as its name suggests). We relished the raw kale salad (cucumber, red onion, tomato, avocado, bread crumbs, parmesan, and homemade Caesar dressing made hearty by its generous topping of housemade bacon) and the conch sausage white pizza ( one of the items sampled by Andrew Zimmern during his 2009 visit here!). Our visit to Rojo Beach was inspired by a post on The San Pedro Scoop, a Belizean travel blog by NYC-transplant Rebecca that we followed during our stay on the island.
Make your way back to San Pedro in time for Happy Hour at Hurricane’s Ceviche Bar & Grill. This over-the-water spot offers three Belikin beers for $10 BZ ($5 US), which is sure to put you in an island state of mind. Need an evening snack? Then grab a tortilla at one of the many local streetside stands.
Ready for dinner? You’ll have plenty of options. One night, we enjoyed the Jamaican jerk chicken served with coconut rice and beans, coleslaw, and homemade jerk sauce at Robin’s Kitchen while being serenaded by a guitarist singing “Shame & Scandal.” This outdoor spot has no menu, just a grill, a couple of tables, and friendly proprietors who cook up whatever is good that day. Another evening found us a Waruguma where we chowed down on the lobster tail special—two spiny lobster tails with sides for $35 BZ ($17.50 US). On a third night, we visited Pupuseria Salvadoreno San Pedro and enjoyed a variety of pupusas (zucchini, lobster, pork, shrimp, and cheese) made streetside by Ms. Sara.
Need something sweet? Then make sure to swing by DandE’s Frozen Custard and Sorbet, owned and operated by Dan and Eileen Jamison. These Pennsylvania natives import custard base from the U.S. to ensure that their custards are rich and creamy. We kept coming back for the coconut custard studded with coconut shavings. Those looking for something unusual should try the Soursop custard; its tart flavor is reminiscent of Starburst candy.
Want a nightcap? Then get a bottle of Jankunu rum cream (coconut, coffee, or chocolate—the coconut flavor was our favorite), a cigar, or a coffee at (drumroll please) the Rum, Cigar, & Coffee House. Owner Saul Nunez has been in this spot for almost 25 years, and will let you know which coffees are best.
Our final night on the island fell on New Year’s Eve, allowing us to view a stunning fireworks display from the end of Fido’s Pier.
Finally, a word of thanks to the people of Belize—we were so impressed by everyone’s genuine friendliness and hospitality. A special shoutout to Victor, Chefy, Jason, Eric, Luis, Leon, and Mitch (the hardest working kid in San Pedro) at the Carribean Villas Hotel. Hope to see you again soon!