Imagine heading back to shore after a day of snorkeling, the white prow of your boat pointing toward billowing clouds, the sky's base darkening to deep lilac, spray from the green water like warm rain. To the left, San Pedro's pastel buildings huddle among the palm trees like a detail from a Paul Klee canvas. To the right, the surf breaks in a white seam along the reef.
You can experience such adventures off the coast of Belize, where more than 400 cayes dot the Caribbean Sea like punctuation marks in a long, liquid sentence. A caye, sometimes spelled "cay" but in either case pronounced "key," is simply an island. It can be a small spit of sand, a tangled watery web of mangroves, or, as in the case of Ambergris Caye, a 25-mile-long (41-km-long) island about half the size of Barbados. (Ambergris is locally pronounced Am-BUR-griss.)
Besides being Belize's largest island, Ambergris Caye is also Belize's top visitor destination. Around half of all visitors to Belize make at least a stop at Ambergris, and many visit only this island.
Ambergris Caye is easy to get to from Belize City by water taxi or a quick commuter flight. It has the largest concentration of hotels, from budget to the ultradeluxe, and the most (and some of the best) restaurants in Belize. Although the island's beaches may not compare to classically beautiful sands of the Yucatan or the main Caribbean, Ambergris has miles and miles of beachfront on the east or Caribbean side, and the amazing Belize Barrier Reef is just a few hundred yards offshore.
Some cayes have a population of one or two dozen, but also have exclusive villas and glamorous resorts. Cayo Espanto and Caye Chapel are slated for Four Seasons developments, among the first hotel chains in Belize.
Farther out to sea, between 30 miles and 45 miles (48 km and 74 km) off the coast, are Belize's atolls, Glovers (or Glover's), Lighthouse, and Turneffe, impossibly beautiful when viewed from the air. There are only four true Pacific-style atolls in the Americas, and Belize has three of them (the fourth is Chinchorro, off Mexico). At their center the water is mint green: the white sandy bottom reflects the light upward and is flecked with patches of mangrove and rust-color sediment. Around the atoll's fringe the surf breaks in a white circle before the color changes abruptly to ultramarine as the water plunges to 3,000 feet.