Once upon a time, not so long ago, we planned our honeymoon, that once-in-a-lifetime romantic journey that you dream about. I had that classic fantasy of our own private island retreat, far from the vacationing crowds. I imagined a small coral atoll with palm trees, azure seas and sharply dressed cabana boys arriving with perspiring bottles of champagne, fruit plates and chilled chocolate desserts, and vanishing as quickly as they'd come. A king and queen on a deserted-but luxurious island.
We were green travelers back then and our globe spun in a merry blur. We tossed the dart and picked an island resort. And it was great. But it was like watching a Broadway show in Des Moines. The cast was first-rate, but the setting? Well, it just wasn't Broadway.
Which is why, when our Maya Island Air flight dipped sharply to the left and began its final approach to Ambergris Cay off Belize, I was thinking about second chances. After all, it's never too late to have a second honeymoon.
"That's got to be it," Thom said as the plane was descending. He was pointing out the window at a small island, an emerald solitaire fringed with tawny coral sand. "That's Cayo Espanto."
We had long wanted to explore the islands off Belize. This small former British Colony in Central America not only boasts the second longest barrier reef in the world, but it is also only a two-hour direct flight from Houston. English speaking and still somewhat of a sleepy backwater, Belize offers all sorts of adventures from Mayan ruins, to rainforests and reefs. We had picked the reef.
Stepping off the plane at San Pedro, we cached our bags and walked across the runway to BC's, a beach hangout alive with just the sort of friendly local color you'd expect to find on a remote and rustic island. The guy behind the bar gladly hung one of our WhereToStay.com t-shirts from the rafters.
A short while later, a six-minute boat ride from Ambergris brought us to Cayo Espanto. I was delighted to see the entire staff, from the resident manager, Rosita, to the housemen, chef and even the dive master, greeting us on the dock with a friendly wave. They were all dressed sharply in khaki shorts and shirts the color of the sea. The resort only has five cabanas for 14 guests, but a staff ratio of two-to-one, with attentive and polished service.
Back when we made our reservations, the resort had even sent us a questionnaire to fill out on our likes and dislikes?what level of attentiveness we wanted from our housemen, what sorts of menus we preferred, and favorite drinks. It was clear from seeing the staff lined up on the dock that the resort prided itself in sophisticated service. And from the smiles and waves, I noted, it was friendly service.
"The Cayo Espanto Wave," Elio, our houseman, bowed slightly and held a tray of chilled drinks as we stepped onto the dock. "Our specialty."
"I thought that's what we saw from the boat," I smiled and took a sip.
"Ah, that," he smiled. "That is just our little welcome."
If that was just a little welcome, then our villa, Casa Manana, was just a little room. It was the room I'd imagined when Thom and I honeymooned. Clean white plaster walls, wide open louvered doors and a beautiful teak bed coned with the twisted mosquito net canopy. I sat down on the plush bed and looked around. The walls-which were mostly patio doors-were wide open embracing the palm trees and the quiet lapping of the waves. I told Thom it felt like the trees were a part of the room. "Like that children's book, 'Where the Wild Things Are.'"
He winked. "Sounds like a great theme for a second honeymoon."
Elio, our houseman, dropped off our bags and showed us a remote control that misted the outside grounds with mosquito repellant. On the morning of our departure, I would later read with bemusement a woman's scripted hand in the guestbook. "I loved it here so much, I decided to donate half of my blood to the local mosquito population."
Thom and I lazed the days away on Cayo Espanto. The resort was built by Mazda Miata legend Jeff Gram, who dredged it out of the sea practically from scratch. The name means "Phantom Cay" in Spanish, because the local fishermen believed it was haunted.
Our only ghost, and a friendly one at that, was Elio. Every morning, no matter how early or quietly we awakened, our teak deck chairs were oriented to the sun and plumped with fresh cushions and a soft towel. Our sand was raked into swirling designs.
Elio was quick to make sure we had what we needed, and just as quick to vanish. No wish went unnoticed. For the first breakfast I asked for a second delicious glass of fresh orange juice. Every subsequent breakfast tray had a pair of full glasses. And always, the chilled towels whenever we returned to the villa. I have never felt like someone waited on me so well. While the housemen treated us like you we were a king and queen and owned the world, they were never overbearing.
On the second day, we started with some massages. My deep-tissue massage and reflexology treatment were among the best I've ever received. Not surprisingly, Ceci Lara (Cecilia), our masseuse, has healing hands that can be traced back several generations. The former Belizean beauty queen is a direct descendant of Victor Lara, a traditional bone healer from San Pedro.
There's not much mixing with other couples at Cayo Espanto. We had all our dinners on our private patio, or surrounded by glowing luminaries out on our private dock or the large dock on the other end of the island. The cuisine was mouth-watering.
Lunches boasted menus that included crisp flour tortilla fish tacos with Belizean cabbage slaw and romaine lettuce topped with island-made pico de gallo. The dinners were even more delightful-appetizers like lime bique and butter-poached lobster with mirepoix and mustard seed mouseeline, and entrees including avocado and feta crusted grouper filet on black bean cake with grilled green and yellow squash in a saffron reduction. My favorite was the stone crab claws with drawn butter, and cilantro and lime infused brown rice with saut?ed chayote, bell pepper and red onion salad.
If savoring the fare leaves you feeling the need for exercise, the resort does offer some excursions. For guests who want it, there are one-on-one diving and snorkeling trips-just you and your guide, no other guests. We took one daytrip snorkeling the barrier reef and then off to a remote shore on Ambergris Cay where we had a beach picnic and kayaked among the warm waves.
Second chances, I mused one morning a few days into our stay. Elio had come and gone and Thom and I were air-drying from a dip in the plunge pool. The sun felt warm on my body and I could feel the soft shade of a cloud pass overhead.
They say love is better the second time around. I did just fine the first time. But as far as honeymoons go, Thom and I are in agreement. The second time is the charm.