Belize has always been high on my preferred list of destinations. So, when presented with an opportunity to visit its most remote coral atolls via an expedition style ship, the decision was easy. Few, if any, other small ship cruise lines are designed to reach these island studded outposts, but Blount Cruise Line’s Grande Caribe is not only built for the job, it is at home in these shallow waters.
Arriving in Belize City, the ship’s transfer agent quickly loaded our baggage and we were on our way to the dock. While in transit, it was suggested that the driver stop at a local grocery store such that the van’s passengers could purchase liquor for our twelve-day passage. This was something new per our cruising experience. The ship does offer two different brands of wine onboard by the bottle, but everyone in our group wanted a larger selection or the option to also purchase liquor or beer for our voyage. Following this successful acquisition of essential provisions, we were off to the Radisson’s docks to board our ship.
Check in was informal and quick. Our luggage was transported from the street to the ship, passports were collected and moments later we were escorted to our cabin. Soon after, the Cruise Director and Captain greeted us in the salon. Following a brief indoctrination about the ship and our cruise, guests were treated to a selection of snacks. A fact I found quite interesting was that when guests were asked for a show of hands, 80% of passengers acknowledged that they were returning Blount cruisers. Impressive!
With the 6:30 dining hour upon us, all guests made their way down one deck to the dining room. Following dinner, we received an overview of what to expect during our snorkeling adventures this coming week. Luz, the onboard naturalist, gave a very detailed instructional presentation on the proper use of snorkeling gear.
After a long day, everyone was ready to retire. However, prior to departing for our cabins, we were forewarned that the ship’s engines would most likely awaken us at 4am for our departure to Southwater Cay.
Awakening in the morning, several hours after the aforementioned departure, we now peered out our cabin’s window upon a beautiful palm studded island. On our way to breakfast, we observed the first of many day’s activities posted near the ship’s stairs. This activity board would prove to be a reliable way to plan ones day. Today’s activities would be all about snorkeling and exploring this remote island.
An announcement for the first shuttle soon followed breakfast, as twenty or so guests boarded these easy to access crafts off the stern of the ship. Upon arriving via a dock on the lee side of Southwater Cay, passengers had only to walk a short distance to the island’s snowy white sand beach. Directly off the beach was a protected lagoon where everyone was able to get accustomed to their snorkeling gear. The coral here was not the best, but there were some interesting tropicals along with a few lobsters and an octopus.
On our second snorkel trek, the ship’s guides took us out to an area of the reef where there was more live coral and an abundance of snappers and French grunt. Other guides stood by on surfboards should anyone need assistance.
Later that evening, the ship’s staff offered an open bar and a sizeable presentation of hors d’oeuvres. Following the Captain’s welcoming event, the dinner bell was rung and guests enjoyed a delectable meal of fresh red snapper prepared in an exquisite beurre blanc sauce. All meals during this cruise were open seating in the ship’s dining room. During this ten-day cruise, we were able to dine with nearly everyone onboard at least once. We happened to dine with Jen, our effervescent Cruise Director on this evening. I could not help but ask why she thought there was such a loyal group of returning guests. Her answer was quite profound. She said, “We want guests to feel not that they are on our boat, but that they are on their boat.”
Day three proved to be a day of options and variety. On smaller ships, a Captain’s ability to change itineraries due to weather or special events is much more likely. Today was just such a day as this was Super bowl Sunday. On top of this, there was a weather front heading south, which would make for a bumpy night at our scheduled anchorage. But, not to worry, the ship would head back north to Goff’s Cay for a mid-day snorkel, and then return to the dock in Belize City, so we could watch the game via cable. Amazingly, it all happened. We had a great snorkel off a postage stamp size island, and then partied down at our impromptu Super Bowl party… with a respectable open bar and outstanding game day snacks.
As predicted, the wind blew that night, but due to the flexibility of our captain and crew, we were snug and secure at our Belize City dock. Unfortunately, we missed a stop on our itinerary, this being Glovers Reef. Although this was a disappointment, in hindsight it was the right call by our Captain.
In the morning, with the wind still strong out of the north, the Grande Caribe pulled away from the dock for our southerly trip to Placencia. Following breakfast, the onboard photo-pro Joe Sharp put on a seminar focusing on how to improve your travel images. This would be one of three presentations by Joe, and each was interesting and educational.
On our way south, the crew put out two trolling rods with lipped plugs. Unfortunately, the fish had lockjaw on this day, but mackerel are commonly caught here, along with an occasional wahoo or tuna.
As lunch was about to be served, we checked out the next day’s meal list in the dining room. The chef posts this ‘future meals’ list for all to see, such that you can make substitutions or special requests if so desired.
After our arrival at Placencia, the Captain made a Blount Cruise signature bow landing on a protected stretch of beach near the village. The ship offered an afternoon excursion to the Jaguar Wildlife Preserve, but we opted to do an independent, pre-planned excursion with Splash Dive Center out to Laughing Bird Cay. This half-day trip was aboard a 38ft-covered vessel, which reached this remote island in less than a half hour. This national heritage ‘no take’ zone island requires a $10 entry fee that goes toward the environmental maintenance of this pristine, coral ringed islet. There are only three entry or exit points on the island, which serves to protect the prolific stands of coral. When snorkeling here, we observed large barracuda, jacks, permit, and mammoth size lobsters. Two park rangers live on the island and rotate on and off every two weeks. Conch lined sandy walkways meander the ground under a canopy of coconut palms. Clearly, if you are into secluded tropical enclaves, then this is a must visit island.
Back on board the Grande Caribe, we chatted with other guests that visited the Jaguar Wildlife Preserve. Unfortunately, all of those we spoke with had a dim view of this outing. There appeared to be “little or no wildlife found along a rather featureless path,” as one guest put it. Now, there seemed to be little question that our trip to Laughing Bird Cay was the right choice. Future passengers that may wish to reach this pristine cay can contact Patricia@SplashBelize.com in advance to arrange this very reasonably priced excursion.
After a peaceful night at anchor in Placencia, the Grand Caribe departed early in the morning for Lime Cay. This remote island, in the southern most reaches of Belize’s off shore cays, was a historical anchorage. The island further served as one of Belize’s earliest colonies. Today, little remains of this secluded settlement. However, with seclusion comes pure beauty, both above and below the waterline. Thus, this was an obvious location for the Grande Caribe to launch their glass bottom boat. Here in crystal clear water, all guests could observe the spur and groove formations of coral on this cay’s windward side. Boarding the ship’s launch and glass bottom boat was quite easy, as each had handrails off their bow for entry from the ship’s stern. With the shuttle departing for the island every 30 minutes, it was easy to do a glass bottom boat trip and still visit the island. One guest decided to fly fish off the cay’s southern tip, and was rewarded with a jack, a bonefish and a permit.
That evening, following another great meal, Luz the onboard naturalist gave a presentation entitled, “Belize in a Nutshell.” This stirring talk explained the geologic and cultural history of Belize, and included the role English privateers played in the country’s early colonization.
Soon it was once again time to retire to our cabins. It should be noted that the accommodations aboard an expedition style ship are typically smaller, and such is the case for the Grande Caribe. Nonetheless, the cabins are well designed and functional. When selecting a cabin on a more compact vessel, one should consider which is the lesser of two evils. If you select a forward cabin, you will need to contend with being awakened when the anchor is pulled, which typically occurs early in the morning. Should you select a cabin in the stern, one may be faced with increased noise from the ship’s engines and generator. So, please consider these factors when booking. Also, it should be noted that this ship was quite clean, but if you need your sheets changed during your stay, simply make this request on an “as needed” basis.
The next morning, after another family style breakfast, we arrived in Punta Gorda for a brief stop, then we were off to Livingston, Guatemala where the ship cleared customs. Here, shuttle tenders departed on the half hour to this quaint backwater community. A visit here is a bit like a step back in time. A central street bisects this hillside town with every imaginable handicraft vendor along its stretches. The waterfront, on the other hand, is a mix of commercial fishermen arriving or departing along with locals awaiting transport up the Rio Dulce River. After procuring a few handicrafts for ourselves, we were back on board and eagerly awaiting our own transit up one of Guatemala’s most historic rivers.
During another casual dinner, where shorts for gentlemen were encouraged, guests shared stories from their adventures in town. Simultaneously, we watched another supply of fresh fish being brought on board prior to our departure. Fresh seafood along with the various delectable treats from the onboard pastry chef served to be the highlights of this cruise’s culinary experience.
Part 2 of this story to follow…
Please click on slideshow to view photos of the various islands featured in this story.