Unless you’re using a nautical chart, you might have a hard time finding Hatchet Caye on a map. Go on, try Google Maps. Nothing? Now type in Hatchet Cay (without the e). That’ll put you in the general vicinity, 15 miles or so east of Placencia.
What was putting us in the general vicinity just over a week ago was a guy in an open boat, about fourteen-feet or so of fiberglass and not much else. The problem was, it was dark. And the running lights weren’t working. And the LED display in the GPS had quit. And the engine had stalled once on the ride. So there we were bobbing along somewhere in the Caribbean — three couples, Captain James and two other employees of Hatchet Caye resort — and I’m thinking the best case scenario is we bob around all night until someone finds us in the morning. Worst case is once the boat gets going again we run it right into a reef.
I was muttering to myself and trying not to push the guy sitting next to me overboard — it’s OK, he was an Alabama fan; I’d have saved him the pain and humiliation of that Auburn game. Cara, though she was thinking about establishing a personal relationship with God at the moment, told me to calm down, that the Captain had run this route so many times, he’d find it.
He did. And when we pulled up to the dock at Hatchet Caye Resort, the staff was descended upon us, gave us drinks and menus, took our dinner orders and situated us in our rooms, followed shortly by our meals.
This isn’t going to be a food post, but let’s talk about your first meal after a 45-minute-boat ride that turned into a two-hour one. Lionfish cakes, grilled fresh lobster, conch fritters and lion fish crepes. It looked something like this.
And it lasted all of ten minutes.
Getting to Hatchet Caye is half the fun. Well, part of getting there is half the fun. No one really wants to fly from LaGuardia to Miami to Belize City. But the Mayan Airlines flight from Belize City to Placencia was my first time on a puddle jumper and was a smooth ride at 2,500 feet over beautiful country. It took maybe an hour, and that included stops at landing strips in Dangriga and Savannah.
In Placencia, we dropped our bags at Hatchet Caye’s mainland office. Since the boat would be waiting for the final couple to arrive, we had four hours to explore. On Sundays, a lot of the businesses in Placencia close down, but luckily The Purple Space Monkey was open. We posted up there and ordered a bit of food and a couple of beers.
Then we stopped for gelato before walking the path between the main road and the beach. Eventually we ended up at the Tipsy Tuna, where we showed remarkable restraint by not getting tipsy (or eating tuna, for that matter).
Placencia was just a stop-over on this trip, but immediately upon setting foot on the dirt road, I had that feeling that some Americans get on vacation: “I’m going about life all wrong.” Seriously, some food, a beer in the afternoon, a walk down to the beach, spending time with Cara — and not giving a good goddamn about emails or social media or Drudge Report or trying to find a turkey of appropriate size or picking out the appropriate defensive gear for Black Friday shopping.
But Placencia was not our final destination. So into the boat and across the sea we went.
Monday morning we woke up to the sound of rain. I whipped open the blinds and shook my fist at the sky. For once, the sky listened. By the time we’d walked down to the restaurant and had breakfast — I had fried lionfish and fryjacks — then did a quick tour of the island and got back to the room, it had started to clear. And I was so distracted, I forgot that it was actually Monday the 25th, which just happened to be Cara’s birthday. DOH! I’d already bought her a gift. And I’d gotten cards, but was supposed to write them the night before and … well, you know the drill. Luckily we were in paradise and the sun was coming out, so she mostly let it go and she’ll probably only hold it against me for a year or two.
With the sun out, we took another spin around the island. This doesn’t take long. The resort consists of the Lionfish Grill, the adventure center, staff housing, support buildings and a handful of bungalows — 9 total, split between five buildings.
After the trip, my mom was asking questions like, “Did yall go hiking?” and “Were there bikes to ride?” Nope and nope. The island’s not big enough. Hell, the couple of people who went jogging looked silly. Seven acres is not much. It’s smaller than the subdivision my mom lives in. It’s a postage stamp in the ocean. It’s a pretty good size, I think. This is what it looks like from the air.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE HOTEL
I’ve been trying to find the appropriate way to describe Hatchet Caye’s approach to guests. The best I can come up with is “Five Star Resort for People Who Don’t Need Someone Else to Wipe Their Ass for Them.” But that’s my personal opinion. The sort of people who insist on “five star resorts” might not like it — the boat ride might be too adventurous, there is only one restaurant/bar, there is no infinity pool, the staff doesn’t hover over you every five seconds asking you what you need.
That said, the staff is extremely attentive. They know your names by the time you arrive and remember them throughout. This is a nice touch and fairly easy since the maximum number of hotel guests at any one time is somewhere between 18 and 26. Anytime we needed something, it took all of two minutes to get it. Because the island is small and because the staff is keeping an eye out, they tend to anticipate needs. For example, while we were doing some scuba work off the South Dock, Rasta–sort of the main guy in terms of taking care of guests–noticed that Cara was standing out there by herself (the dive instructor and I were underwater), so he went to check on her to make sure everything was okay. And don’t even get me started on Sean, the dive instructor. At one point, he referred to himself as militant. I guess in comparison to other Belizeans, maybe. But the man had the patience of a saint in dealing with us. If you want to get certified, I highly recommend taking your classes online and doing practical skills and certification dives with Sean (or Daniel, who’s working his way up to dive master). Just maybe don’t do it in November (more on that later).
Oh, yeah, the rooms. Huge. Clean. Nicely appointed. Air-conditioned. Each has a huge deck with great views. We were in No. 2 and, maybe I’m biased, but I think it might be the best one. It’s got a clear view of the South Dock and it’s so close to the water that when the tide is up you can pretend it’s one of those over-water bungalows. (There are also TV, DVD player and Wii if you’re the sort of person who likes to go to another country and then pretend you’re at home.)
The pool? There is a pool. It’s small. But who the hell needs a pool when you’ve got some of the most beautiful waters in the world on your doorstep.
The restaurant? The Lionfish Grill is an outdoor restaurant and bar sitting on the west end of the island, commanding some of the best views and offering some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever put in your face. Yes, this fresh.
The menu isn’t huge and consists mostly of seafood. But you’re not there to eat chicken and beef, are you? We didn’t have a bad meal. We didn’t have a small meal. We brought snacks for our room and never opened them because we ate so well at the restaurant.
It’s named after the lionfish, obviously. The lionfish is an invasive species that is apparently spreading through the Caribbean and eating all the baby reef fish. So in Belize and other areas, they’re trying to eradicate them. Luckily for all involved, the lionfish is also extremely tasty. I had lionfish every day. Hell, I came close to eating lionfish at every meal. With the exception of Thanksgiving dinner, I started off every night with lionfish cakes. I tried the egg dishes, even the pancakes, for breakfast, but kept coming back to the lionfish. It reminded me of being at mom’s house the morning after a fish fry — except my fish was served hot and I wasn’t standing in the refrigerator just pulling fish fillets out of a Ziploc bag before someone woke up and caught me. For lunch, the lionfish tacos and fish and chips basket were ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. I WANT SOME RIGHT NOW! Oh, the lobster was amazing as well. As was — well, as was every damn thing. Including the Marie Sharp’s hot sauce, which is the best hot sauce in the world (sorry, Tabasco, not even close).
There is a type of person who will see one restaurant and one menu and worry he’ll get bored by the week’s end. Unless this person is a spoiled, unreasonable jerk, he need not worry.
Also, it should be pointed out that the beer is only $3 or so U.S.–comparable to most places in the U.S. and a bargain for New Yorkers. The lethal fruity cocktails come in around $10 but are totally worth it. They do offer bourbon and scotch, but c’mon, you’re in the tropics, get over yourself and order a drink with an umbrella in it. Whatever hangups you have will disappear halfway through.
ACTIVITIES, ACTIVITIES, ACTIVITIES
So what does one do on a seven-acre island for seven days. You get off of it, obviously. Jump in the water for a snorkel. Take one of the kayaks out for a paddle. Or one of the paddle boats out for a pedal. Or one of the Hobie Cats out for a sail. During less windy seasons, they even have ultralights to fly around on.
The snorkeling off the South Dock was pretty amazing. We went to Fiji a few years ago and stayed at an Outrigger resort. Beautiful place, but 90% of the coral out front was dead or dying. Here, 90% or more is still alive and thriving. Spotted off the South Dock: parrot fish, a four-foot barracuda, a similar size tarpon, a katrillion minnows or sardines, needle fish, box fish, angel fish, damsel fish, a green moray, numerous small rays, lobsters, moon jellyfish (but not enough to scare you out of the water) and much, much more. At night, a number of large spotted eagle rays circle the dock and guests are welcome to jump in and swim with them — the rays don’t seem to mind if you don’t.
We didn’t do the night swim with the rays, mostly because we took a snorkeling excursion to Silk Cayes where we snorkled with spotted eagle rays, southern sting rays and a massive loggerhead turtle.
I’d swum with turtles before, in Hawaii, so I was sort of blase about the prospect. Until we swam over the damn thing. It was so big, it almost didn’t register as a turtle. Hey, that massive boulder down there is eating something and swimming around.
And the fishes and other creatures.
Belize also has some of the best scuba diving in the world, but I limited myself to the 50-foot, 40-minute dive off the South Dock that was part of my refresher course. Why? Cue dramatic music:
After a couple of blisteringly beautiful days, we woke up to the sound of howling winds. We’re talking tropical-storm-force winds, I’d say. Definitely in the 30s. This lasted for the entire day on Wednesday. But it didn’t rain. And I’ll take a windy day on a secluded island over a windy day sitting in an office staring at a computer screen.
Rather than sit in the room and mope, we walked around the island a few times and sat on the dock just relaxing and watching the chartered catamaran moored south of the island foolishly attempt to head for the mainland then give up and turn back to the mooring spot. Also, we drank. But we waited until 11 a.m. before starting because we are sophisticated and classy like that.
The wind died down some by Thursday, but it never really went away for the rest of the trip. And the sun was scarce after that. It made for less-than-ideal visibility in the water, but we could still see plenty. All of the below were taken on overcast days.
Thursday night was the only night we didn’t have lionfish and that’s because it was Thanksgiving. It’s really hard to remember it’s Thanksgiving when you’re snorkeling and goofing around all day rather than dividing time between cooking, watching TV, stuffing your face and trying not to murder extended family.
But it was a hell of a way to spend Thanksgiving and a great way to celebrate our November birthdays.
The trip back was mostly uneventful. Aside from the misery of customs at Miami International, not much to report. And we returned just in time to watch the last five minutes of the Auburn-Alabama game. We didn’t want to come back. We definitely didn’t want to be paying a premium for hamburgers at Shula’s in the airport. But watching Nick Saban’s head explode was pretty much the perfect way to end the vacation.