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Originally published December 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 4, 2007 at 5:10 PM

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Belize's Caye Caulker, where everybody knows your name

Caye Caulker is more small town than foreign island. Meet someone, and you're likely to know his whole story after a single conversation.

Detroit Free Press

If you go

Where to stay

Seaside Cabanas, where I stayed, has rooms ranging from $85 to $150, depending on the room and date: www.seasidecabanas.com. Other hotels and hostels run much cheaper. For details, see www.gocayecaulker.com.

Activities

For more action, try windsurfing, manatee tours, scuba diving, sailing trips, bird watching and Mayan ruin tours. Many of those trips go from Belize City, which is 40 minutes by speedboat. For more information: www.travelbelize.org.

CAYE CAULKER, Belize — As I stepped inside the Barrier Reef bar, I heard the last thing I ever would have expected while on a tiny island off Belize: My name.

"Amber!" yelled Mike the Bartender. "Here comes trouble!" It's the kind of greeting you might expect when you've been a regular for years. This, however, was just my second visit to the oceanfront pub on Caye Caulker, a Central American island boasting about 1,200 people — tourists included.

Mike had worked the previous night, too. Now he knew my name.

Normally, this might have been off-putting. After all, when you're some 2,000 miles away from home and you're a woman traveling solo, you can take comfort in anonymity. Slide under the radar, and you feel less likely to land in trouble.

But Caye Caulker is more small town than foreign island. Meet someone, and you're likely to know his whole story after a single conversation.

And he's just as likely to know yours.

How about Belize?

I'd decided on a whim that I wanted to take a tropical trip. I asked a well-traveled colleague to rattle off some ideas. He insisted Belize would fit my loose criteria: beachy, tropical and safe.

Enter serendipity: The same week I decided on my country, I met a couple who had traveled to and from Belize since the 1970s to identify Mayan remains.

Among their suggestions: Caye Caulker (pronounced Key KAW-kerr), a 10-minute plane ride from Belize City. It seemed the most versatile, offering beach life with the option of island hopping — or mainland visits — as desired.

I decided on a week's stay and took the puddle-jumper from Belize City. It skipped to a stop on a dirt landing strip; at the end stood a hand-painted wooden sign: "Welcome to Caye Caulker."

Of the dozen or so people on the plane, I was the only one getting off. The rest flew on to nearby San Pedro, a bigger island, with cobblestone streets instead of dirt ones and far more bars and beachfront than Caye Caulker.

A man named Lulu grabbed my bags and tossed them into the back of a golf cart. This is the island's idea of a taxicab.

Lulu gave me the rundown as we clunked along the pocked road toward Seaside Cabanas, my destination. "You have three streets," Lulu said. "Front Street, Back Street and Middle Street."

I thought he was joking. He wasn't. The island is all of 1 ½ miles wide and 5 miles long — and a chunk of it is undeveloped marine reserve.

As we drove, Lulu pointed out some attractions: the elementary school, a quaint pastel-colored building with an aging playground; the sun-drenched church, away from the main drag of restaurants and bars.

We turned a corner, and he pointed at the I&I Bar, a half-indoor, half-outdoor hangout where he said the young people go.

We reached my hotel, a series of linked cabanas. Mine cost $100 a night for an air-conditioned room with a semiprivate rooftop patio overlooking the ocean and a pool.

By American standards, this was a nice room for a great price. In Belize, I was living the high life.

The quiet life

Within an hour of arriving, I wandered down Front Street, eyeing the weather-worn storefronts and dreadlocked locals.

Some people milled in and out of the stores — designed as much for tourists as for islanders — and there was the occasional 20-something with a backpack, but the island was quiet and peaceful.

A man slept on the sand between two palm trees, his bicycle a few feet away. It was about 90 degrees and sunny. A light breeze swept through laundry as it line-dried in the backyards of modest wooden homes.

Occasionally I'd make way for a passing golf cart. There were just a handful of cars on the whole island — and they belonged to bigwigs such as the island's banker. The rest walked, bicycled or drove golf carts to get around.

It took less than 20 minutes to reach the end of the island, where I stumbled into the Lazy Lizard, an open-air bar and grill. People slept in hammocks on the restaurant's dock and ate at oceanside picnic tables.

Here is where I met my first of many recurring island characters: Zumandu. (He'd be Bartender No. 2.)

Zumandu could tell I was new to Caye Caulker. I assumed I must have looked like a blank-eyed tourist. Turns out, he knew simply because he hadn't met me yet — and he meets everyone.

"Here, everybody knows everybody," he told me in a thick Caribbean accent.

Case in point: Despite the island's scarce crime, a visiting couple recently was robbed of some money and their passports. Word spread about the incident, and within the day their goods were returned.

Fitting in

When I visited Hawaii, I felt a definite islanders-vs.-mainlanders mentality. No one was rude, but you sensed that no matter how long you stayed on the island, you'd always be looked at as a tourist.

Not so on Caye Caulker. Visitors sometimes account for half of the population, so you feel embraced as part of the culture. You're not a pesky tourist; you're a consumer and a guest, and islanders happily strike up conversations to learn what brought you there.

Especially if you're a woman. If you're female and you need an ego boost, go to Caye Caulker. You're complimented so much it actually starts to get annoying. (Who knew that was even possible?)

That means, too, that you can't be meek: Sometimes you need to be firm but friendly as you insist you're not interested — not entirely surprising when visiting an island whose most popular drink is the rum-based Panty Ripper.

I'd meant to take advantage of some off-island activities, such as a sunset jaunt to the barrier reef to go snorkeling, or a day trip to Belize City to visit Mayan ruins and zipglide over the jungle.

Unfortunately, I put those mini-adventures off, and the last two days intermittent rains caused the water to rise too high, so the organized trips were canceled.

It was just as well. Staying on the island meant I met more people. Like TV Tom, the good-natured boozehound who owned the island's only electronics store — featuring the best 1992 had to offer. And Gringo Jack, a Florida transplant who bragged about his popular, streetside shrimp-on-a-stick enterprise.

I learned the most about Mike the Bartender, who had moved from Guatemala after nearly dying in a car wreck. Born in London, he'd decided to take a year off. That year had come and gone, and now he was planning to become a Belize citizen.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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