Shortly after the Fox network's "Temptation Island" premiered this month, the sleepy Central American resort where the sexy singles lived and cavorted was besieged with reservation requests.
It mattered not that Captain Morgan's Retreat is on Ambergris Island, Belize - many miles west of the Caribbean tourist mainstream. Viewers liked what they saw on the tube: rustic cabins on an idyllic beach, clear Caribbean waters and, yes, the underlying promise of romance.
I laughed aloud when I heard about the program and the setting, for suddenly, one television program had done what years of earnest tourist-board efforts had failed to do.
The spotlight finally had fallen on one of the Caribbean's most deserving regions. Yes, its deserted beaches and quaint hotels are romantic, but there's so much more - world-class diving and rafting, Mayan ruins and pristine jungles where jaguars and howler monkeys create nightly serenades.
Tucked into the elbow of land where Mexico joins Guatemala, Belize once was part of the extensive Mayan empire and has a wealth of archaeological treasures shrouded in jungle. The more dollars tourism generates, the more ruins its financially strapped government can open to tourists, so the country just keeps getting better for history buffs.
Belize's barrier reef, the longest reef in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most pristine, has been a tourism boon, but for many years, the country's reputation as a dive destination eclipsed its other attractions. Savvy travelers now realize that the "other" Belize, the part above the waterline, holds a treasure-trove of beaches, rain forests, ancient ruins and back-to-nature experiences and offers a wide range of adventures.
Belize has the allure of an exotic destination but in reality is easy to reach - 21-2 hours from Washington to Miami, then two more to Belize City.
On my last trip to Belize, shortly before "Temptation Island" aired, my traveling companion and I caught a Maya Island Air hopper at Belize International Airport for the short flight to Ambergris Cay, a 25-mile-long island on the northeastern coast of Belize. San Pedro, the island's only town (and the country's acknowledged party central), bustles day and night in a `60s-era time warp of bare feet and midriffs, long hair and loud music.
We reach Captain Morgan's Retreat by water taxi and find the laid-back island attitude prevails here as well, but with more style and comfort. The entire resort is on the beach, a wide stretch of soft white sand. Our beachfront villa has traditional wood-slab walls and a high thatched roof. Air conditioning takes the edge off the midday heat, but the shady balcony is our favorite place when the sun starts to drop. Scattered among palm trees a coconut's throw from the water's edge are 18 rustic casitas, either air-conditioned or with louvered windows and ceiling fans.
We are content to have all of our meals at an umbrella-shaded table on the resort pool deck, but a variety of highly recommended ethnic restaurants lie within walking distance of the resort. Captain Morgan's is a great place to recuperate on the wide beach after a night partying in San Pedro, but the ocean offers too much fun to pass up.
One day we paddle a bright yellow kayak out to the reef for a bit of snorkeling, but the best underwater experience comes on our half-day guided snorkeling trip to the Hol Chan Marine Preserve and Shark-Ray Alley, both teeming with fish life.
Hol Chan has a don't-touch policy, but at Shark-Ray Alley, where boaters feed the fish, we drop over the side into a swarm of awaiting stingrays, fish and 4-foot-long nurse sharks that seem to enjoy tummy rubs.
Having dived the area on previous trips, I know the reef offers endless possibilities for deeper underwater exploration. Captain Morgan's is a good spot for a dive vacation, but it also is very popular with visitors interested in reef, flat or deep-sea fishing. …