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At ease in Belize

By Susan C. Kim
Coastal Living
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(Coastal Livingexternal link) -- Time is an abstract concept on Ranguana Cay. It's useless anyway on a 2-acre sand spit in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Central America. Here, salt-baked sands bleach under a constant white sun; if not for its movement from one side of the hammock to the other, you might never know the day has passed until it's just you, the moon and the faint lights of Honduras to the south.

Eighteen miles off Belize's Placencia Peninsula, this island sustains three turquoise shacks, two thatched palapas and a handful of coconut trees. Sparse, yes, but these essentials make it possible to live the dreamy life of a shipwreck survivor (albeit a privileged one).

If time did exist on Ranguana, it would be measured by naps, between which you'd watch clouds swirl in a cerulean bowl that meets the horizon in every direction. You might also wade into the translucent water and snorkel the reef that surrounds the island. Or swim to coves that shelter nurse sharks, or summon a dive boat to whisk you to the world's second-largest reef.

The gracious staff, an ever-changing cast of caretakers, spends much of its time cooking local favorites for island guests: coconut rice crafted from the flesh of nuts dropped five feet away, and just-caught conch and sea lobsters. While the lobsters grill, Steve Rowland uses his machete to crack open a coconut for you to sip, then shares stories of pirates roaming nearby waters, and of ancient Mayan artifacts uncovered nearby.

Be forewarned, however, that your private utopia may be invaded from time to time, when dive and snorkel boats emerge from the horizon and swarm the reef like bees. Passing catamarans drop anchor for caretaker Andria Villanueva's homemade snacks and Steve's rum punch served on picnic tables under the palapa. Play nice: The interlopers eventually leave.

But you can stay -- in your simple cabin with two beds, a rustic toilet and shower, and, most important, a hammock. A generator the size of a car battery powers a dim light bulb, and passing rainstorms often drop liquid boulders onto the tin roof at night (it's not a bad idea to bring earplugs). Sometimes the shower water runs, sometimes not. But these are luxuries out here on the wild blue frontier.

If you can pull yourself back to the Placencia Peninsula, The Inn at Robert's Grove, which operates Ranguana for private owners, makes a wonderful place to reenter society. Most likely, after Ranguana's minimal facilities and seafood smorgasbord, you'll take a hot shower and wander into the dining room looking for a thick steak.

At the inn, a lighted path leads to a welcoming lobby. Standard tropical ceiling fans, slatted windows, and rattan seating -- fused with handpicked African decor -- outfit the 52 units in plantation-style buildings. Roof-top hot tubs invite a dip with a treetop view, and wireless Internet radiates around the Mexican-tile pools.

Not to be missed, Placencia village lies just five miles and a 20-minute cab ride down the pothole-riddled dirt road. Try the local eats, and peek at what some claim is the world's narrowest street, where businesses cluster in bright shacks on stilts. While sun-seeking masses have discovered several Belize hot spots since the country's 1981 independence from Britain (the coastal nation once was known as British Honduras), Placencia is still a rural village. Dusty iguanas walk the street alongside ex-pats and English-speaking locals of mixed ethnicities, from Creole and Maya to Garifuna and Taiwanese.

Though not as silent as the cay, evenings in Placencia remain low-key. A few laid-back bars pour Belikin beer, and loudspeakers pump jazz selections on The Galley restaurant patio. Locals come here for seasonal fresh conch and lobster served four ways -- grilled, Creole-style, curried, or with garlic. It's the place to kick back with a strong seaweed punch and watch a pickup soccer game in the adjacent field. Slowly, you, too, will fall into a truly blithe state of being, the kind of carefree sedation that can exist only in a place without a keen sense of time.

Copyright 2007 COASTAL LIVING Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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