Fantome in Belize
Dean Dey AKA Dean in Southern Delaware
This report covers our 11th week with Windjammer/Barefoot Cruises. This trip was on the S/V Fantome, sailing out of Belize City, September 28 to October 4. This itinerary is new to Fantome, since she moved here in the late spring. Fantome will be in the area until November 1997, then return to the area (Belize or Honduras) in June of 1998.
This report will be a little longer than most, because I like writing and there have been few trip reports from this area.
Belize is not well known as a tourist destination, outside of the Scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman fanatics. Belize has the second longest barrier reef in the world, after Australia. Its clear waters and sea life make it an increasingly popular destination more many heading to sea. The government appears intent on protecting the reef, and promoting Eco-Tourism of the reef, and its inland jungle wilderness areas. Belize has yet to be discovered by the average tourist, which makes it an ideal Windjammer homeport!
The language of Belize is English, since it was a colony until 1981. The borders with Guatemala are in dispute. According to a Peace Corp volunteer I sat with, official Guatemalan maps show Belize to be a department (state) of Guatemala. Shades of Iraq/Kuwait??? I hope not.
Sunday, Sept. 28th
As always for us, getting to the ship for rum swizzles on Stowaway Night began early in the morning. We left home at 5am in order to reach the airport 2 hours before our international flight. We made it to Baltimore without adventure and in record time (I was driving), and checked in at the Continental counter. The flight was uneventful, other than a long taxi to the Houston terminal, and a 15-minute delay waiting for a gate. Once there, we had 35 minutes to find our next plane, and were able to do so with 20 minutes to spare. We arrived just in time to board for the flight to Belize!! Leaving Houston, we headed SSE, across the Caribbean and Yucatan to Belize. As we crossed Mexico, the land looked flat and jungle covered. Wild and uninhabited. My kind of place!
We came into Belize airport, and as we stepped off the plane, two things struck me. First the land was impossibly flat, flatter than Delaware. The next thing was that it was hot — blast furnace hot. I have been on many of the Caribbean islands, and this was hot. The only place I experienced similar heat was inside the St. Lucia Airport terminal building.
There were about 22 of us on the flight, and once we had cleared Immigration and Customs, we were met by a representative of Melmish Tours, who got our luggage and us into vans. As we drove into Belize City, I was again struck by the flatness. The buildings are mostly square and stucco, quite different from the islands. There is lots of standing water around, and I later learn that Belize City averages 1.5 feet above sea level. No wonder the capital was moved to an inland town!! The other thing I noticed, that many the houses living quarters were built up on the second story, on stilts and pilings. I was beginning to wonder when high tide was. The individual buildings were also spread out a good deal, which is also different. The roads were quite good, and in town, there was quite a bit of work going on to upgrade them.
After 20 minutes or so, we arrived at dockside at the Fiesta Inn (formally a Ramada as everyone says!). We were told we had use of the pool and bar at the Fiesta, until time to catch the shuttle to the Fantome. As we unloaded from the van, and I did a double-take as one of our shipmates, Nanci , from last years Flying Cloud adventure was there to greet us. We knew she and Bruce would be aboard, so we were able to get started reliving old adventures immediately! We went into the air-conditioned bar, and ordered up a couple of drinks. What a relief! There we were –cool, a tropical drink in hand, and looking out at the vista of the Caribbean Sea, and the off-shore islands on the barrier reef. There was a big-screen TV in one corner of the bar, showing a football game. Satellite TV always makes for some strange contrasts in foreign lands!
We chatted about old times and past trips, and waited for the boat to the Fantome. Windjammer had hired a local dive boat to ferry passengers to the ship, which anchored a little way offshore because of the shallow water. At 4pm we boarded the dive boat for the 20 minute trip to Fantome. My practiced sea eyes noticed how much mud we churned up as we left the dock. It was indeed shallow.
We were met at the gangway by Captain Guyan, and handed a Rum Swizzle. My shoes were off, and I was ‘Jammin!!!!!
We checked in rapidly with Purser Annie, her sister (Purser trainee Lori), and Activities Mate Kristine and Trainee Erika. Kristine will be moving to Legacy, and Annie was going on vacation the next week.
After Check in, we were shown to our cabin, #49. It was on the lower deck, below the waterline, and typical WJ standard. It was all the way forward on the starboard side. The lower bunk could have slept two, but I chose the top bunk.
Once back on deck, we wandered around for a while, the joined in a dinner buffet. After dinner, a band came aboard, and played until 10:30ish. The band was very good, and the shipmates got right into party mode and danced every song. Many of the passengers turned in by 11:30. I stayed up late, talked and chatted with friends until late.
The morning was sunny with scattered clouds. The morning began with pastries and juice& Bloody Marys at sunrise. Breakfast at 7:30 was omelets. We had a mandatory safety drill at 8:45, followed by the first StoryTime. Captain Guyan introduced the crew, and told us a little about the City and Belize. We were also told about the tours for the week, most of which would be on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. There was also Scuba trips available almost every day. Tours for Monday were arranged. They included: The Zoo, The ruins of Altun Ha, Scuba, snorkeling, a tour of the city, and others.The Cave river rafting was cancelled due to high water from rains. We chose to go snorkeling ($23). We were met by a speedboat that took us to tiny Sergeants Caye, out on the reef. The island is about 1000 square feet, with 3 palm trees. The water was shallow all around, and within the protected areas of the reef. The government requires that a guide accompany us to these areas, and our guide for the week was Vance, from the tourist board. He led a group around the island, pointing out sights and looking for interesting critters. There were very nice corals, some types I had not seen before. There were a good number of fish, including my favorite, the Royal Gramma (or Fairy Basslet), which I had only seen once before in the wild.
The coral is in especially good shape because the last hurricane had reached Belize in 1979, and the last bad one way back in 1961. We swam, dived and sunned until time to return to the ship. We made it back in time for the 3pm sailing.
We set sail to the music of Amazing Grace. It is always a moving experience for me as we sail for the first time. Since were inside the reef, the water was dead calm, with no swell at all. Nevertheless, there was enough wind to ripple the water and fill the sails. As we sailed south into the evening, we watched the distant lightning show over the mountains.
In a break from what we had seen before, we had StoryTime at night (8pm) for Tuesday, since one of the popular tours to Monkey River would be leaving at 6:30 am. There were other tours available, and were told to make sure we had signed up for the tours we wanted for the week. We were also told that the costume party wold be on Tuesday evening, the theme being anything beginning with B, L or T.
The morning found us anchored just offshore the sleepy Caribbean town of Placencia, Belize. The sunrise was beautiful. It had rained overnight, and the place was still and quiet. Placencia is built on the tip of a long peninsula, and has very few vehicles. In fact, the town is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the narrowest main street. The street is actually a sidewalk built on the sand, a mile or so long, and indeed it is a “Main Street”, with many of the widely spaced businesses located along the sidewalk. The handful of vehicles we saw were limited to the central parking lot, or along a dirt track behind the buildings on one side.
The town is L-shaped, along the banks of the sea, and the other direction is unpaved. Down the other way is Brenda’s, where some of the passengers spent the afternoon eating lobster and partying. From the reports, they had a great time!
The Monkey River Tour was a popular tour, focusing on the wildlife along a stretch of the Monkey River. There was lots of wildlife reported, including a fresh Jaguar print.
We took the Snorkel Safari ($28) to Laughing Bird Caye, which is in the National Park. It was a ½ -hour speedboat ride straight out to sea, to arrive at the barrier reef island. This time the island was longer, with a few dozen palm trees, and various other bushes. Vance, the government guide, pointed out the only ways on and off the island, that was safe to us and the coral. There was only a way out on the seaward side of the island, and a landing area on the lee of the island. We went on the longer swim, which was slow enough for most anyone.
This dive was REALLY special. There were the BEST , most fantastic coral formations I have seen in the Caribbean. There were again types of coral I had not seen, and the size, color and spread were breathtaking. The visibility was over 100 feet, the water warm, even hot in places. The dive took us about an hour, swimming about a mile around the north end of the island. I have seen more fish at Norman’s Island, but for the true corals, this was wonderful!! I am not able to describe just how fantastic this area was. It was the type of area one imagines when you dream of coral reefs. Just take my professional marine biologist’s word for it!! If you get the chance, GO!
It was so wonderful that as soon as we reached the beach, Vance offered to lead another passage around the south, through an area he called Barracuda Alley. We had only seen one barracuda in the distance on the previous dive, so I was skeptical. Yet, almost as soon as we turned south, I saw the first one, and old snaggle-tooth about 4-feet long. But that was just the first. Every couple of minutes we spotted another individual, just hanging in the coral. As we moved around the backside of the island, the barracuda got smaller, and more active, not really holding to one spot. It seemed every 20 feet there was another!!! There was even a school of four 2-3 footers patrolling the edge of the coral. Had I not know more about the fish, I might have been spooked. My best estimate is that we saw 50 individuals on that dive!
Reluctantly, it was time to head back to Fantome. As we left the island, we all took plenty of pictures to remember our visit to Laughing Bird Caye.
Back on the ship, we had a bite to eat, then headed into Placencia to take a look around. Again, it was HOT!!! After a walk along Main Sidewalk, we spent the rest of the afternoon sunning on deck and swimming off the side of the ship. It was a great way to spend the afternoon!
About swizzle time, the Captain arranged for a photo launch so we could get pictures of the ship with all the sails up. I must have shot 3 rolls of film! As we passed around the side of the ship, we came under cannon fire from the bridge!! A nice touch by the Captain, and Great Fun!!!
The rum swizzles were strong, because the evening would be busy. After swizzles got started, we had the Wacky Olympics, which pits 3 teams in a series of unusual events. It was great fun, and had everyone in stitches!
Also, as I mentioned earlier, that evening was the Costume Party, with the theme being Anything Beginning with B-L-T. Since I never plan in advance, I decided to come as a Beach Towel. It worked!! It was great fun watching the normally staid passengers get into the fun. After the competition, there were several hours of dancing, and watching the lightning show. Again, it was a most enjoyable evening. It did quiet down, since 35 of use were leaving a 5:30 am for Cop< n.
Wednesday Morning found us anchored just off the Honduran port of Omoa. This is a sleepy fishing village, but has a massive fort that was built 200 years ago to defend against pirates.
We were up at 5 am for a quick bite before our 5:30 am departure for the Maya Ruins at Cop< n. We boarded comfortable tour busses for what would be a 4-hour trip into the Honduran mountains.
After a ½ hour on some terrible roads washed out by a hurricane (20 years ago!), we turned inland near Puerto Cortez, and joined the best 4 lane highway I have seen in the Caribbean. It was smooth and straight, all the way up the valley toward San Pedro Sula.
This part of the trip went rapidly, although we did notice a few things. First was lack of private cars. The other was the abundance of yellow school busses. We saw hundreds!!!! When I was on the school board, I had wondered where all the old busses went, since they had to be retired after 10 years or 150,00 miles. This left lots of service in them. Now I know where they go. Honduras uses them for public transportation. Some have the names painted out, but about half look like they just came off the street at home. I saw busses from Los Angeles, Florida, Illinois, just to name a few. They were all over the place!!! I kept expecting to see one from my school district. I may just have to go back and keep looking!!!!
We passed through San Pedro Sula, which seemed like a standard prosperous city, at least by the standards of Latin America. The road continued up in to the mountains from the city. We had traveled about half-way across Central America. We passed through a pass at 1300 meters, then dropped back down into a valley that was about 500 meters. The weather was clear, and not as hot as I expected. We finally arrived at the gate to the ruins. We still couldn’t see anything, but I was impressed by the park-like lay-out and entrance. One of the guides from the tour company took over, and boy was he good! He talked continuously for the 2 1/2 hours we among the ruins, and he knew his stuff. He obviously came there often to study the ruins and glyphs, and talk with the researchers that are still excavating Cop< n. I had read an article in Scientific American about the reading of the glyphs, and he was right on top of it. As we walked around and over the ceremonial pyramids, walls and carvings, he explained the subtle details that had great symbolic meanings to the Maya. We walked down into the Grand Plaza, surrounded by steps, and examined the famous steps, where every tier is a chapter in the Mayan history. There is a ball courtyard there where teams played a life-and-death contest to decide critical issues, and a stone nearby where the losing captain was sacrificed. In the plaza are the Stella, telling the story of people like 18Rabbit, the last ruler of the city. National Geographic is planning a story on the ruins… I can’t wait! I shot 3-4 rolls of film here, including a full roll on a panoramic camera. The trip to Cop< n was worth the price of the trip!!!! I could have spent days here!! Just imagine the 30,000 people that lived in the surrounding countryside!! WOW!!! You just HAVE to go there!!
The trip back was routine, although we hit rush hour in San Pedro Sula. Like anywhere else, except ALL the cars were Toyotas!!!!
We got back to Omoa a little before 7pm we went back to the ship to get cleaned up, and then went ashore, where dinner was to be at a beach bar, with a live band playing. We went ashore, and had dinner, and listened to the band for a while. It had been a long day, so we went back to the ship. I spent a quiet and pleasant evening aboard, watching the lightning shows. As on several other nights it did sprinkle a little. Sailing was about midnight.
We headed out to sea, for a run outside the reef, our first passage in water with any swell. Overnight it stormed some, and I later learned, one of the sails ripped. Then next day, one of the crew was detailed to sewing on a patch, just like seaman for centuries. This is a true working sailing ship.
We arrived off Glovers Reef in the rain and choppy seas. A number of people were feeling the effects of their first exposure to rough water. In reality is wasn’t bad, but sailing so far had been smoother than in Drakes Channel on Flying Cloud — Mill Pond smooth. So this morning was a big contrast!
Because of the rain, we had StoryTime in the Salon. There were several diving trips arranged. Glovers Reef is atop the barrier reef, along a wall. The water depth goes from 2000 feet to less than 20 feet in the space about 50 feet. If you get a fathometer reading at all, you are in deep (actually shallow!) trouble!!!! Fantome was not allowed to anchor, so to drop us off, she moved closer to the beach and we boarded the launch to go ashore. Fantome would then circle out to sea, and be back in time for the next launch.
We watched the Kristine take a very wild ride into the beach to arrange diving early in the morning, and few of the passengers wanted to repeat that!! So we waited around, visited with friends, and by 10:30 the weather had cleared some, and the waves had calmed down to a point where is was safe to board the launch and go ashore. I was, as usual, in the first launch ashore. I headed back into the palm trees, as is my practice. WHAT A MISTAKE!! As I got ready to dive, I notice lots of little black specks on my ankles. I realized these were the sand fleas had heard about all my life, but never seen. Well I had now! I smeared on the repellant, but I later found it was too late. I had lots of reddish spots on my ankles, back and arms — over 100. People on that beach the previous week hadn’t gotten them. Later my wife came ashore, and never got a bite. Of course, she stayed in the sun, so maybe is a lesson there!! The spots didn’t itch at all—until two days later! I will know next time…
Snorkeling at the beach there was across some turtle grass beds. There was a little current remaining from the earlier wind, so some of the diving was work, but it got easier later in the day. The coral heads were nice, and shallow, and we worked around them. There were some interesting fish around, including a BIG puffer. Vance, the dive guide, found a 3-foot Nurse shark under a rock.. It flushed out, right at the group! I think I got a good picture!
Since it had been raining (ever heard the sound of rain from UNDER water? J ), we went back to the ship for lunch, and after a brief delay, right back to the beach. I spent the afternoon snorkeling, and then was back on the ship for a 4 pm sailing. As always, Amazing Grace set just the right tone!!!
That evening, after swizzles was, the Ascot Races. I should learn about betting on the ponies!!! I stayed up real late that evening, enjoying the ocean and sailing. It was quiet that night, and I felt as if the ship were mine!
The morning found us anchored just outside the main channel through the reef into Belize City, obviously not a very busy area. We were anchored between a small island with a lighthouse, and a smaller island with a thatched gazebo and 9 palm trees.. That was our destination, Goff’s Caye. Like the previous morning, it was raining some, so we had the StoryTime in the salon. The rain looked like it would clear up quickly, and the wind wasn’t blowing, so we were able to get over to the island by about 10:30. As usual, we were on the first launch ashore. The Gazebo provided a nice place to get out of the weather if necessary. Later it was used as a classroom for a Scuba Discovery course. There was a dock, and a nice sandspit for sunning. And no pesky sandfleas!!! J Vance, the government guide, pointed out where the reef was, and where the only two places to get into and out of the water were. We donned our masks and fins and went in.. The water was fairly clear, and the corals were very good. We swam for a while. Karen was stung by a seawasp, the little 3-inch amber jellyfish, so she went back to the beach. I kept on. There were also lots of 1-foot Moon Jellyfish, which don’t sting strongly enough to notice. If you looked closely in the bell of the Moon Jellyfish, you may see a little ½-inch silvery fish that inhabits what would normally be a fatal environment for most fish.
After spending about an hour in the water, I went back to the island. We looked at the sky, and it was dark out to sea, another shower coming in! Since lunch was aboard ship because of the threat of rain, we decided to take the noon launch back to the ship, have lunch, avoid the brief shower, then come back to the beach. Good Plan!!! HOWEVER, the Captain was also looking at the clouds, and decided that everyone needed to be back on the ship. He radioed ashore just as we were pushing off. We returned to the beach, and loaded everyone else into the launch. About half-way back to the ship, the squall line hit, and needless to say, we got soaked. We had anticipated this, we were dressed to get wet, and our beach towel was sealed in a zip-lock bag. ( HINT: We take lots of zip-locks!!!). As one of my friends said, we looked like drowned sea-dogs. Awww, this is just life in the tropics!!
We dried out a little, had lunch and watched the sky. After a short interlude, it was time to head back ashore. Karen decided to stay aboard, so I joined up with friends Nanci, Connie, Mark and Big Mark. I went back in the water, and worked my way around the island. I had a great time in watching a 3-foot barracuda move along the bottom, trying to set up an ambush in 20 feet of water. He paid no attention to me, as I stayed at a distance. I spent about 20 minutes watching him. I was hoping to see him do a classic rush and get a fish. He was tempted a couple of times, but never did. Maybe next time!
Back on the beach after an hour or so, the 5 of us decided to win the Sand Castle Contest. So, with the help of Nanci, we created the “Drunken Mermaid” that swept the competition!!! A bottle of Bubbly for that!!! J
We got back to the ship with the last launch. That night was the Captains Dinner, always a high point closing out the week! Sam did his usual wonderful job with the Caesar’s Salad, and dinner was great!! It was raining again, and the peach Flambé was done in the well deck, and wonderful. There was dancing that night on the top deck, as new friends began taking leave. Many had to get up early. L
Saturday came in with an attitude, a little rain, and a brisk wind. Maybe I was meant to stay? There was a good chop on the water as the passengers began showing up wearing (horrors) shoes! Anyway, since we were packed, we waited and talked until time for the 10:30 ferry ashore. I waited until the last moment to put my shoes on, and visited and talked to my lasting friends as long as I could. Finally, the crew brought our 2 bags up, loaded them on the boat, and it was time to go. With a heavy heart I waved goodbye to Fantome. (Actually, it was Aufwiedersehen, since I would be returning in a month).
One final little adventure. We got to the dock at the Fiesta Hotel, and Melmish Tours was arranging vans to the airport. The crew carried the luggage and loaded the vans, but as we looked just out the sea, we saw a heavy squall line coming! At the last moment, the driver decided we should run into the bar to wait out the storm, since the driving wouldn’t be good. As the downpour started, the Fantome’s Crew struggled to get the last of the luggage under cover. Poor guys, they would have been drier if they had simply dove into the harbour!!
Finally, as the rain abated a bit, we reluctantly left the dock and made out way to the airport, and awaited the plane back to the real world.
The Belize itinerary is a good one for Windjammer. The trip is a little different from other Windjammer/Barefoot cruises in that the ship does not always sidle up to the island you are going too. The area is really remote, and in no way touristy. They areas visited are set up for the locals, and for the occasional diver or fisherman. Most days have a large number of activities. I could easily take this trip again, and not do the same things again. If I were a Scuba Diver, there would be an even larger selection of trips. I could have dove each day, and should I go back, I will re-certify my dive cards, and definitely go Scuba Diving. Because of the weather, and the distance to a couple of snorkel spots, I have this feeling I didn’t get the lying in the sun time I usually get, but then again, I did spend more time in the water. Costs for the total trip might be a little higher that some are used to, because of the higher airfare and tours.
This was a great trip, and well worth the time. Windjammer will be moving Fantome to the Eastern Caribbean for the winter, and then bringing her back about June 1, 1998. There will be a repositioning cruise beginning May 10, 1998. At the time of writing, the exact home port is not known. Windjammer Barefoot Cruises is working hard to put the ship in the Bay Islands, Honduras. Stay tuned for further details.
If you have any questions, please feel to write me. I love answering WJ questions!!!!
And will I sail WJ again? Yes indeed!!!!. I will be on Fantome for the Repositioning Cruise, November 2-22!
Dean in Southern Delaware