Beneath the shade of a thatch-roofed palapa perched over the Caribbean Sea on Ambergris Caye, Belize, I listen to nature’s soft symphony of rustling palms and gentle waves. A cool sea breeze blows through the wooden open-air structure, fanning my husband and me during a blissfully relaxing couple’s massage at Victoria House Resort and Spa.
We’ve just checked into this private Caribbean paradise on the shores of Ambergris Caye, the most northern and largest of around 450 cayes (pronounced keys) found off the coast of Belize, which is located on Central America’s northeastern coast just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala.
As I breathe in the intoxicating combination of essential oils and salty sea air, I can literally feel my tension and stress drift away with the tide. In this moment of much-needed Zen, I’m finding it hard to believe we almost canceled this trip.
The day before our Belize anniversary vacation we’d been looking forward to for months, I fell hard enough during my morning run to land myself in urgent care. Thankfully, no bones were broken, but a severely sprained left ankle and a sutured-up right knee turned my 7-minute mile pace into a painfully slow hobble that made walking across my house –– not to mention multiple airports –– an excruciating chore.
I had been mentally mapping out our adventures for weeks, which included everything from diving the Belize Barrier Reef (the world’s second largest barrier reef at 185 miles long) to underground cave tubing (Belize is home to the largest cave system in Central America). Both would be difficult, if not impossible, with a boot on one leg and compression bandaging on the other.
But, as my husband eagerly argued, this might just be our one rare chance to relax and recuperate in Caribbean paradise –– the kind of vacation he always dreams about but my jam-packed, see-and-do-everything itineraries never allow us to do. And after the strand of stressful months we’ve had, I couldn’t argue with his logic: Resting up and healing by the sea sounded like the best possible medicine.
So early on the morning of our 18th anniversary, we sent our kids off to grandparent camp and we headed to the airport, my husband rolling our carry-ons containing nothing but beach attire and books in one hand and lending me his other arm for a make-shift crutch.
Sometimes life has a way of slowing us down and forcing us to reset, and I couldn’t have dreamed up a more idyllic spot for doing just that than our week spent at Victoria House Resort and Spa.
After landing in Belize City, we joined a dozen other passengers and boarded a Tropic Air flight – a tiny commuter plane that looks and feels more like flying in a minivan than an aircraft. Before taking off, a friendly Tropic Air attendant encouraged us to go sit down, relax and drink a Belikin (the most famous Belizean beer) while he made arrangements for our hotel to pick us up upon arrival.
After a smooth, scenic and short (less than 15 minutes) flight, we landed in sun-drenched San Pedro, the main settlement on the 25-mile-long and narrow Ambergris Caye, affectionately known to Belizeans as “La Isla Bonita.” Ambergris Caye stretches along Belize Barrier Reef and serves as the country’s diving and snorkeling epicenter where you’ll discover a blend of large-scale tourism and raw island charm.
Located on the southeastern shore of Ambergris Caye just two miles south of San Pedro, Victoria House Resort and Spa is a long-standing, elegant oceanfront paradise where romantic thatched roof casitas and luxurious villas dot lushly landscaped grounds sitting before a broad sugar-sand, palm-shaded beach studded with plush lounge chairs and hammocks strung between trees. We spent most mornings and evenings on the beautiful beach, reading books, taking naps or sipping rum drinks served oceanside.
The resort also boasts two palatial pools, including a more secluded and shaded infinity edge pool set back from the property where we spent most afternoons. The resort has a fitness center, which I never set a sprained foot in, as well as a sprawling 3,500-square-foot full-service spa offering three dozen treatments ranging from massages and acupuncture to pedicures and facials, which I entered on several occasions and was highly impressed by each time.
Home to the five-star Palmilla Restaurant as well as Admiral Nelson’s Bar, Victoria House Resort and Spa guests never have to leave the property to indulge in chef-driven, locally-sourced, Belizean-inspired breakfasts, lunches and dinners. While I’ll admit I don’t typically like to eat at the same resort day after day, we were blown away at every meal served to us by the friendliest staff, and we never repeated a single dish the entire week. A few favorites included the mouthwatering ceviche yucateco and cassava chips; smoked snapper tamale with caramelized plantain and creamy avocado sauce; and the savory herb/cashew/jalapeno-crusted grouper topped with blackened shrimp and set atop a cauliflower puree.
This was the first trip I can remember taking where I never set an alarm, slipped my feet into running shoes or followed a detailed itinerary, and I have to admit, it was such a reprieve to succumb to island time and heal to the soothing rhythms of the waves. And while we had to pass on the more arduous adventures on offer, we still found a lot of fun in the easily accessible ones.
One day we rented a golf cart from the resort –– the primary mode of transportation throughout Ambergris Caye –– and set out to explore the sights and shops of San Pedro. On busy days, an endless parade of golf carts fills the sandy streets of San Pedro, which are lined with colorful wooden houses, fresh fruit stands, oceanside restaurants and shops. We spent the day stopping off and shopping for sweet and scented souvenirs for our kids at popular shops like the Belize Chocolate Company, which makes craft chocolate from Belizean cacao beans grown on small family farms in southern Belize, and Belizean Breezes, a hand-poured soap company boasting creatively named products like fruity-smelling “Monkey Farts” soap bars and bath bombs. Shops and restaurants accept U.S. and Belize dollars, and the typical exchange rate is two Belize dollars for every U.S. dollar. When we were thirsty, we’d drink a cold Belikin beer at an oceanside bar. When we were hungry, we stopped off for seafood snacks washed down with fruity rum drinks at Palapa Bar and Grill, a laid-back over-the-water hangout.
Another day, we voyaged out to Secret Beach. While there’s nothing at all secret about this beach, it does require a strong will (and stomach) to brave the bumpy, nearly hour-long golf cart ride to get there. On stunning Secret Beach, beachgoers can lounge in a hammock, lay back in a lounge chair or sit around a picnic table in the water as long as they are ordering drinks from the beach bars that own them. We rented our own private oversized inflatable shaded structure ($10 per hour) floating in the crystal-clear water to soak in the bumping beach scene from the sea. Every so often, one of the servers would motion to us asking if we’d like another round of drinks and then wade out into the water to deliver them to us.
We spent our last full day on the island my very favorite way: on a boat in the ocean. Victoria House boasts an array of excursions that can all be arranged for you and tailored to your specific desires. We opted for a private full-day snorkeling and beach barbecue adventure and sped off bright and early with two local guides, Francisco Verde (known as Pancho) and his first mate, Sergio. I’m pretty sure we spent more time “fishing” for bait –– medium-sized sardines found swimming in schools along the mangroves of the surrounding cayes –– than it took to actually catch the fish. But once we had a bucketful of bait, we headed to a few of Pancho’s lucky spots. Our hooks were baited, our lines were cast, and we received patient instructions on when to set the hook and reel in the fish. As soon as my line was thrown in, I’d reel in a fish (my husband wasn’t as lucky), but we stopped as soon as we had enough for the four of us to eat lunch, plus a few more for our guides to take home for dinner.
While my husband and I searched for shells on a deserted beach and sipped sparkling rose in the shade of the sea grapes, Sergio and Pancho were hard at work on the boat preparing a delicious lunch they then swam to the beach. From the fish we caught just moments before, Pancho whipped up some of the best ceviche I’ve ever tasted –– melt-in-your-mouth, mild snapper swimming in a flavorful bath of key limes grown on his trees tossed with onions, peppers and cilantro. Pancho then lit coconut husks over the coals and grilled the rest of the snapper, prepared with grilled peppers and onions and Belizean spices, and served with warm tortillas and potatoes.
After our delicious sea-to-table feast, we hit up a few snorkeling spots, including the popular Hol Chan Marine Reserve –– a protected 6.5-square-mile diving and snorkeling site which sits at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye and teems with a diverse array of marine life and colorful coral formations flanking the channel walls. We swam above giant sea turtles and sleepy nurse sharks enjoying the lush sea grass beds below, and we spied everything from spotted eagle rays and vibrant parrot fish to barracuda and giant spiny lobster.
As we headed back to land just before sunset, I was filled with gratitude for a week spent in this beautiful slice of Belizean paradise and so thankful we decided to take this trip. Sure, we were forced to forego some of our pre-planned adventures, but we still had plenty of unforgettable experiences –– and as always, we were heading home with reasons to go back.
If You Go
We flew into Belize City (direct flights are available from Dallas and Houston, but not Austin). From there, we took a 14-minute, 14-passenger Tropic Air flight to San Pedro, the capital of Ambergris Caye, which sits less than 10 minutes from Victoria House Resort and Spa. Rent a golf cart directly from the resort to get around the island.
Victoria House Resort and Spa, located on Ambergris Caye, is an award-winning 42-room oceanfront resort with accommodations ranging from romantic thatch roof casitas and luxurious beachfront villas with private pools to plantation-style rooms and ocean-facing villas. It’s also home to a sprawling white sand beach, two sparkling pools, a 5-star restaurant and bar, and a full-service spa.
With its close proximity to the Belize Barrier Reef, Ambergris Caye is a snorkeling and diving mecca. There’s an onsite excursion and PADI-certified Fantasea Dive Shop at Victoria House. Guests can also enjoy bicycling, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding and beach games on site. Rent a golf cart to explore sun-drenched San Pedro or make the bumpy trek to Secret Beach ($70 per day and includes gas). Guests can also arrange excursions through the resort which span from snorkeling, diving and fishing trips to exploring ancient Mayan temples, cave tubing and zip-lining through tropical rainforests.
Eat + Drink
There’s an extensive array of delicious, locally sourced menu items served for breakfast, lunch and dinner at Victoria House. Want to venture outside of the resort? Enjoy casual bites and cocktails perched above the ocean at Palapa Bar & Grill, or indulge in Mexican and Caribbean seafood culinary delights at Caramba! Restaurant and Bar –– both restaurants will cook your fresh catch for you. On your way back from Secret Beach, stop in for happy hour bites and drinks at the taco bar while taking a dip in the plunge pool at the adults-only boutique PUR Boutique Cabanas.
Travelers no longer need to COVID test when entering Belize, as long as they can show proof of vaccination. Vacationing in Belize requires the purchase of Belize Travel Insurance ($18 for a 21-day coverage) https://www.belizetravelinsurance.com/.