by Annette Lucido, Cruise and Spa Editor

Remember British Honduras? It's now Belize, and better than ever if . . .

Belize has a lot going for it. Interesting Mayan ruins brought my husband here as an archeologist back in the late 1950s. Karst topography, with its limestone caves and sacrifical cenotes, and jungle rivers add their own pleasures. The second largest barrier reef in the world offers world-class diving and wonderful light tackle fishing.

The country, formerly British Honduras, is even English-speaking after a fashion. Unfortunately, it's not as safe as it was in the old days, but then neither is New York City. So I'll leave it to our new Belize editor to figure out what you need to do to be safe on shore, and our Fine Fishing Caribbean Travel Editor, Larry Larsen to sort out the dive boats and fishing resorts. Fortunately, there's a new solution available this year, and that's the well-known M/V Temptress Voyager just moved here from Costa Rica's West Coast where it was replaced by a bigger vessel.

Small ships can equal big memories.


So you have an ideal situation -- a well-seasoned ship and crew and protected first shot at the attractions of Belize. With only 65 passengers, this tidy 163-foot, shallow draft ship can slip into spots off-limits to apartment house size liners. I like to think of these craft as a way to sample both cruising, and charters. Even better you move slowly inshore in protected waters so we wake to new and nifty sights and attractions without the dubious joys of packing and unpacking.

Two maid services a day with laundry and turn downs included mean service for the lucky passengers. Single and double all-outside cabins are all air conditioned, all with private bath and, most wonderful on a moonlit Caribbean night when the romantic trades blow, all with BIG windows you can open.

Food runs to local fruit, fresh fish, wonderful pastry and a decent selection of well-prepared entrees usual for cruises. You don't because of the size of the ship and its gallery, have the choices you might expect on today's huge vessels. You also won't, unless you try very, very hard, pay the usual ten pound price of cruising, for this is a cruise for the active voyager who wants to dive, swim, boat, fish or check the local wildlife. It's not for what real estate agents call "lookie lous."

Since so many of the activities aim at the young at heart, it's not surprising that families take advantage of summer's special rates. Kids, assuming minimal attention to sun screen, become semi-aquatic as the activities director makes sure they're busy and parents aren't always bothered. Put a child in the water, add a manatee or a school of bright blue tangs and you've made a big impression.

As on the Costa Rica runs, you enjoy two three-night cruise options -- the Manatee Voyage and the Laughingbird Voyage. Either offers a nice introduction to small ship cruising. Both could work well with a trip to Cancun or Coezmel or a stay at one of the wonderful fishing lodges in Belize. Their combination, the six-night Caribbean Voyage, gives you rather complete coverage.

Manatee Voyage

It's a quick pass through customs Sunday and the cruise staff vans you over to the Temptress dock in air-conditioned comfort for the afternoon departure. You meet the 25 crew members -- it's a small ship -- and head out to Goff's Caye with a briefing on the fly. There's time to enjoy a swim before the welcome aboard dinner at the edge of the barrier reef. Settle in. Check out the library and it's time to hear about the next day's activities.

Monday starts with a breakfast to prepare to meet the mermaids -- in days before eyeglasses, sailors must have had rotten eyesight or been very, very lonely as "mermaids, or manatees, finish last in any beauty contest. Southern Lagoon, also called Manatee Lagoon, offers more manatees that just about anywhere else. Small boats get you there and offer a chance to explore the small cayes --"keys" for the phonetically astute --and their multitude of birds, reptiles and other critters. Then it's time to slip over to Rendezvous Caye, a prototypical palm-shaded tropical isle with what will become the usual wonderful snorkel and Scuba opportunities in warm, clear water. An informal Captain's dinner ends the day. Note: while you can enjoy movies in the Curu Lounge, or hit the Coco Bar up on the Carara deck this isn't really a cruise for the night life types. Everyone's too tired at the end of aquatic days.

Tuesday, it's off the reef and over to a jungle river, the Sittee, in the Stann Creek district where it's into small boats and checking out the jungle river banks for Toucans, monkeys or the rare ocelot. Might keep an eye on the alligators too!

Then there's a short outing to Hopkins, a Garifuna Indian village of fisher folks and lunch at the Sandy Beach Lodge run by the local Indians who make sure you're safe on your beach walk. Check out the crafts too.

Then it's time for a sunset arrival as thousands of frigate birds circle in to roost before dark. Dinner's on the deck after the birds settle down as some of our feathered friends aren't quite toilet trained. "Don't look up Matilda!" Do wear a hat!

Wednesday there's a last chance for the diving die hards at Tobacco Caye before arrival in Placencia, a little tropical village where you catch your plane back to Belize City. The same plane brings in the Laughingbird Voyage add-ons as the smug folks who've signed up for the six night cruise check out the weavings, pottery and other goodies in town. Tip: prices are less expensive here than in Belize City.

Laughingbird Voyage

The trip starts with an exploration of town, time on the beach and general relaxation as the crew loads up for the voyage back to Belize City. There's dinner on deck and a Garifuna Indian dance and song fest.

Thursday morning sends you in local pangas -- a nifty dugout that usually leaks so wear sneakers -- or ship's dinghies up into the Monkey River. Howler Monkeys do just that -- I think of them as mobile, furry "boom boxes." Toucans, Macaws and dozens, even hundreds of other bird species flit about. If you're very, very, very lucky you might spy a spotted ocelot. Alligators wait to welcome any money that falls out of his tree. As the crew will note, "Alligators haven't eaten a tourist --yet!"

Lunch underway to Laughingbird Caye brings you into some of the most remote barrier reef waters. There's a chance to swim and wonderful birding for offshore species. There's even better snorkel or Scuba.

Friday brings Wild King Caye's Mayan ruins and a slow lunch cruise along Snakes Caye and south towards Punta Gorda and a chance to see local Indian cultures. Indians board to make a presentation. Then it's time for the turn north to Belize City

Saturday you arrive early and get to check either the Baboon Sanctuary's wildlife or visit Altun Ha, a decent set of Mayan ruins inhabited from 1,000 BC to 900 AD If you're not going to see Yucatan ruins like Chitzen Itza, go for Altun Ha. Otherwise, spend time with the monkeys.

You can, of course, fly out of Belize City home direct, but it's worth noting that a visit to the archeological zone around Merida varies your trip or, of course, you can head for the high rise hotels in Cancun. We usually fly back home with a stopover in Mexico City that makes a nice contrast to the tropical delights of Central America. But no matter how you go home, one thing seems certain, you'll go home with vivid memories of tropical birds, fish and jungle.

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