Like the idea of a multi-day, tropical sea kayaking adventure that includes snorkeling from your kayak, catching fresh fish and sipping drinks out of fresh coconuts – but don’t want to camp in the sand? Reward yourself after surviving another Colorado winter with an inn-to-inn sea kayaking trip in Belize with Island Expeditions, where you’ll paddle alongside the second largest barrier reef in the world during the day while overnighting in quaint cabanas with hammock-lined decks extending over the emerald water.
Sounding too good to be true, we – my family of four, including daughters Casey, 13, and Brooke, 17; and another similar family of four — arrived at the Belize International Airport and began our trip with a shuttle to the Tropical Education Center next to the Belize Zoo. After a night tour brought out jaguars Junior and Lucky Boy, a 400-pound crocodile named Brutus and the Jurassic Park screech of howler monkeys, we drove the darting Hummingbird Highway through the Mayan Mountains to Dangriga, the northernmost territory of the non-slave Garifuna people. There we met our Belizean guides, Omar and Kimike, for a 45-minute motorboat to Tobacco Cay, our seaside accommodations for the first two nights. A 5-acre Eden appeared as we rounded the island’s northeast corner.
“Whoa, that’s where we’re staying?” gushed Brooke. “Awesome.”
Six cabanas rested on stilts, with hammocks swaying on porches over the water — our sea kayak basecamp for the next two nights. Conch-lined pathways led through the sand to each hut, where we settled in before a horn-like shell blare signaled a lunch of fresh fish, fruit and banana cake.
Later, we met under a coconut tree for a safety talk from a shirtless Kimike, whose muscly arms exposed two, time-worn tattoos, “Shack,” his father’s nickname, and “Shaw,” for his mother. Another ran across his six-pack.
Rule number one, he said, looking up: Don’t sit under coconut trees. Two: Wear sandals to avoid toe-stubbing. Three: Drink plenty of water. Then it was off to the palm-lined beach where we outfitted our sea kayaks. After a quick wet exit practice, we set out for the reef a mile away, to paddle along a portion of its 1,200 miles that extend from Mexico to Honduras.
Huge spotted eagle rays soared beneath our hulls every stroke of the way. Turning around at the northern end of the South Cay Marine Preserve, the largest of nine in the country, we rode swells back to the island, sitting like an oasis in the setting sun.
Our over-the-water hammock session was interrupted by the blowing of the conch again, this time signaling a dinner of garlic-infused fresh shrimp and snapper. A few Belikin beers later, the lap of water, breeze through our windows and crashing waves of the reef let slumber take its hold.
Over a breakfast of fresh banana pancakes and papaya, the next morning I thumbed through Paul Humann’s quintessential “Reef Fish” to polish up for the day’s sea kayak snorkel. Most of the fish we’d see could be categorized into one of 12 families, from manta rays, sea turtles and nurse sharks to angels and surgeons, which pop switchblades from their sides to stab predators. We’d also see hermaphroditic bluefish and parrot fish, which give up their bling to become male; tiny gobi fish, darting damsels and “gang of tangs,” that ride herd like the mafia; and butterflies, spotted by the fake eyes on their rears, and bluehead wrasses, which pride themselves on getting groomed by smaller fish.
Paddling out through patches of different-colored water — dark swaths indicating sea grass and aquamarine signaling sand — we paralleled the reef before anchoring, donning our snorkels and cannonballing out. Instantly, we saw everything in the book and more, even the carwash fish cleaning the tonsils of a larger predator.
That night, we dined on four lion fish Kimike hooked while snorkeling. It’s an invasive species, brought over from Asia, prompting locals to wear T-shirts reading: “Save a reef, eat a lionfish.” Then we chilled with dockside libations at sunset, small-talking a family from Dangriga getting ready to motorboat home after a Sunday picnic.
In the morning, we got a sailing lesson from buff-chested Omar. We’d unfurl them around the tip of the island, he said, and then run a broad reach parallel to the reef to South Water Cay, eight miles away. We’d also “barnacle,” grabbing onto each other for stability, like a human outrigger.
With that, our next cabanas beckoned and we hoisted our sails, happily whiling away the miles sans paddle. Slowly South Water Cay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and largest marine reserve in the country, came into view over the peak of our sail. Rounding its leeward side, we dropped sail and paddled in to a palm-lined, emerald-watered beach — the hamlet of International Zoological Expeditions (IZE), our home for the next three nights.
Lugging our gear past a volleyball net strung between palms, we found our rooms, connected by a communal deck facing east through a maze of red mangroves toward the breeze and waves crashing on the reef. At our dockside lunch, bonefish prowled the waters below, gobbling fishermen’s scraps, while pelicans dove for bait fish. At sunset, I solo paddled around the island, only to be thwarted by the reef on the far end.
Tiki torches lined the path to the dining room, where a feast of fresh snapper and spicy onions marinated by Kimike’s aunt awaited. There, we also learned the lodge’s wi-fi password: “lionfish.” Later, Omar macheted palm fronds for a beachside bonfire, where our guitar strums played to the cadence of waves.
In the morning, we took a break from paddling take a motorboat out to go scuba diving. Corals resembling giant Mayan urns rose up from the ocean floor, while Star Wars-sized manta rays soared above fleets of nurse sharks. I felt like Matt Damon in The Martian.
Later, we took stand-up paddleboards out, gaining a better vantage of the bonefish and paddling up to the dockside bar for a round of Belikins. In the afternoon, Omar led an “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Coconuts” talk, explaining how to climb for them, husk them and tap their milk. He ground their meat in a hand grinder for sunset hors d’oeuvres while watching dolphins from the dock.
The winds died just in time the next day for us to paddle five miles to Billy Hawk Cay, stopping to snorkel a mangrove-lined channel en route, harboring a Whoville-like community of marine life in their twisted, submerged roots. After fresh conch soup on Billy Hawk, where we tested four side-by-side hammocks under a dockside palapa, it was off to Bread and Butter cays for the trip’s best snorkeling — a world as full of marine life as our stomachs were seafood. Later, we landed at Carrie Bow, a tiny, acre-sized island harboring a marine research station operated by the Smithsonian.
That evening, we put our newfound marine knowledge to use on a night snorkel, highlighted by a cartoonish puffer fish bloating up into a face-swelling bluff. Snorkeling back to shore, feeling James Bondish through the beams of our waterproof flashlights, I noticed sand particles suspended in the channel’s current. They’re helping flora on the islands set down roots, I mused, just like our family was on our inn-to-inn sea kayaking trip.
If You Go: Island Expeditions offers several inn-to-inn and basecamp sea kayaking packages in Belize (trips can also be booked with stand-up paddleboards). It can also facilitate rentals and itineraries for private expeditions. Book your final night’s stay at the 12-room Bocawina Lodge (www.bocawina.com), where you can hike to and swim at Bocawina and Antelope Falls, dine at its Wild Fig restaurant and soar through the jungle on the longest zip-line in the country. Info: www.islandexpeditions.com