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I was due a week of vacation after our big opening at the restaurant but hadn’t had the time to really plan how to spend it. The web seemed my only choice to quickly find an interesting place spend my time. I’ve seen those Cancunesque spots first hand, mostly in another lifetime as a child with my folks, and mostly before they had neon and swim-up bars. I was looking for something homey and comforting without the trappings of a spring-break resort. Late in the evening, squinting into my screen, it appeared. “Belle Ease” it rolled off my tongue as I scrolled through the distant seaside paradise, nothing could have been more musical to my ears. Beautiful and easy, I thought. Perfect. The more I clicked the more I caught myself dreaming of my two passions, scuba diving and eating, and from what I was viewing, Belize offered up an excess of both. Mayan ruins and enough flora and fauna to intrigue the adventurous and frighten the rest were to be thrown in to seal the deal. I closed my eyes, almost feeling the sun on my back, and punched my credit card number on the keyboard securing an $800 flight and a truly unbelievable $12 a night beach bungalow. Belize had taken me in her hand and insured me all was well. The strain of Guastavino’s would soon be relieved. My beloved 700 seat monster would be many miles away with only a fuzzy cell phone to keep us connected, and they haven’t made one of those that you can take under water yet!

As I let word out of my plans, I found that Belize is a place everyone has heard of, most want to go, but few have been able to get there. Paradise mostly unfound. I also discovered that there is a price one pays for opening the door to Eden, but you’ll have to take me to Billy’s around the corner and buy me a couple of tequilas to get that story out of me. Let it suffice to say I won’t be flying TACA airlines any time soon and that upon my return to NYC I quickly shot off a letter suggesting they change their name from TACA to TACO because both crumble when they fall from the sky. Or maybe from TACA to CACA for obvious reasons. Excuse my Spanish. Nerves now totally shot, I was where I wanted to be and nothing was going to keep me from quickly settling into my island rhythm. I had been misguildingly sent to Honduras, spent an unwanted night on the mainland (where I actually had one of the best grilled spiny lobsters of the trip at the Colonial House in Belize City, but that’s not the point). I was forced to make extra connections I had no advance notice of... and the whole TACO thing, but hey, I made it.

From then on in I gave myself over to Ambergris Caye and allowed my layer upon layer of stress peel away and tried to keep my sunburned skin from doing the same.
I could go on, to line after line, about how Belize was once British Honduras and how pirates used the Cayes (read keys) to hide treasure and the like, but you can find all that at “” so I’ll just go on about My history with her. San Pedro Town, as much of the country, is perfect in it’s imperfections, much like many Caribbean resort towns 20-30 years ago or more. I half expected to run into Hemingway in some of the sand floored beachside bars, smoking local cigarettes, and drinking the vanilla perfumed country rum. I was in “the land that time forgot” rolling along at a pace that was easy to keep.

You can also find an abundant amount said of the wildlife, marine life, and even nightlife, just click and go, so I’ll stick mostly to Belize life around the table. With natural resources from the rainforest and the seaside, the prospects seemed promising, but to explain you’ll have to leave a few of your 1st World ideas at the door. Basically, what I’m saying is that one shouldn’t go to Central America looking for everything to fit into the same little Styrofoam boxes we put things in back home. Eggs are left out at room temperature, many of the dining rooms have dirt or sand floors, much is out of date and you are a visitor. You will also find that there are incredible raw products, a cuisine that is perfect for its locale, prices that are more than reasonable and people who treat you well as long as you know the boundaries. That's pretty much perfection in my book. Being in the restaurant business I, too, feel that many people forget how important boundaries are. And as far as the sanitation Nazis that run a restaurateur’s life, no matter how much I agree with their importance, I also agree with a quite worldly Englishman friend of mine who once said “What’s really missing form the modern diet is a speck of dirt.” So I put my knowledge learned in my New York Health and Sanitation course away and tucked into a week of glorious eating with no ground rules. Except for the drinking water. All the literature says it's safe, but even the locals don’t drink the stuff.

It only took one visit to a large hotel’s dining room to learn that the good stuff was to be found on one of the 2 back streets. There are only 3 dirt roads in town (all with proper names but known as Front, Center and Back) and I spent the week walking and biking through them. Mornings began with thick, strong coffee, juice, and a variety of just picked fruit including papaya, mango, pineapple, citrus which are all in season during the summer and, of course, taste better than the best we find at Dean and Deluca’s or even from purveyors at the restaurant. The rest of the day was split up between physical activities, snacking and real eating. Snacking could be as simple as sliced green mangos dipped in a salt and habanero pepper mixture served by young girls on the beach with honey brown skin and sun bleached teeth or as substantial as the multi-layered, foil wrapped corn salbutes. That's a stuffed corn cake filled with fish or chicken, topped with a “salsa” of shredded white cabbage, habaneros, sugar and vinegar, and flaked fish or chicken. Also available at the shuttered, wooden snack shops, (mostly covered with peeling sky blue paint and resting sun-baked upon cinderblocks) were cooked-to-order tostatas, burritos, garnachas, empanadas, and the breakfast of champions; rice and beans. All the street snacks I had were excellent. So fresh, (the ladies were even scraping corn from the cob to make their corn batters), and clean tasting, it was easy to overlook what may have been lacking in the eyes of a Sanitation Nazi. I usually took these goodies back to one of the thatch umbrellas protecting the deserted tables lining the beach. There I would greedily consume my findings with only gull shadows staining the sand spying on my indulgences.

Lunch was a late afternoon affair that was usually spent at Los Coco’s. I took the advice of Thomas, my innkeeper, tried it my second day, and ended up being a lunchtime regular. This screen box of a restaurant, with a separate kitchen sitting between the family’s home and the dining room with a soft sand floor, serves stunningly simply cooked meals that are so full of flavor I was addicted from my first bite. I was not disappointed once in the next 5 meals I enjoyed at one of the 6 wooden tables sitting uncomfortably on a plastic chair or wooden stool. And although one of the two ceiling fans was often not working, the kitchen always was. While folks wait, a neighbor supplies blaring Latin music for the crowd of locals who have made Coco’s their home when it is too hot to cook at home. As for my lobster tail roasted with lime, garlic butter, and a fiery sauce (of pureed carrots, peppers, onions, and spices) that was as complex in perfumes as it was intense in its heat, that lobster beat out the one at the Colonial House and blew away anything on the beachfront. Other lunch meals there were less lavish but just as good. I usually had black snapper that was intelligently spiced and quickly seared on both sides, served with that wonderful traditional cabbage and cilantro “salsa” and rice and beans. Other choices from the chalkboard included stewed chicken, grilled shrimp or some type of pork dish usually served with a potato salad with peas, carrots, chopped eggs onions and mayonnaise that cooled the burn of the spiciness of the dish. If you want a beer try to remember to bring your own, but if Papa is around he will usually run out and get you one if you tip his daughters well. Most sip brightly colored Fanta from one of those over sized glass bottles that disappeared years ago in the US.
As the dusk settled in I would head to the beach front to watch the fishermen return and clean the catch, throwing the scraps into the sea only to be retrieved and loudly fought over by the gulls. Of course the skinny cats, too, waited their turns to grab a fish head and to run into the bushes. I sat on the porch at Lily’s and ate grouper strips in a spongy yet crisp pepper batter that danced around my head and into mouth. Sunburned and happily drinking fresh lime Margaritas, which are so refreshing they should demand their Yankee sisters drop the family name and call themselves Sweet Marge, I watched the sideshow, happy to be away from the freak show I usually see on my hometown streets.

As night truly sets in, the streets are sprayed down returning the dust home. Children carry baskets of mamma’s coconut rolls wrapped in blazingly white dishtowels. Next a stream of bicycle venders passes with tortillas from hot boxes served with various fillings. Another seller may have a local drink made of seaweed and vanilla, and of course there are the sweet ice creams and frozen treats that bring the children back to the streets after dinner.
Other nights as the sun set, I’d find myself watching one of the soccer games that seemed to spontaneously break out on the sand between Front Street and the water. The voices of happy children were the only sounds rising above the natural music of the crashing waves on distant barrier reef. Then suddenly, as if a bell had rung, everything halted for an hour between 7-8 when the musquitos passed through. Belizean mothers didn’t have to call the kids home for dinner, they were chased home! Then as quickly as the insects had come, they were indeed gone. That left the rest of the dark and quiet island night to spend safely drinking rum, listening and laughing to made-up stories from foreigners who had become locals many years ago and now make comprised the drinking crowd in bars. Real locals have long since tucked themselves into bed to be ready for the next lengthy day in the sun.

On my last day I dreamily revisited my favorite places feeling quite like a local but sticking out in my linen shirt and my suitcase-pressed shorts. I enjoyed the singsong voices with their mix of Spanish, English and Rasta. It reminded me of New York, so I knew it was almost time to go home. There is that moment between paradise and homesickness that is perfect for boarding a plane. No matter how bad the harrowing trip to Eden may have been, I ended up biting the apple and returning to the real world.


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