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Detroit News - Greg Tasker. Let Belize become your paradise found

We're excited to share this article which appeared in the Detroit News on April 3, 2015.  Travel writer Greg Tasker went on our Paradise Islands lodge to lodge paddling and snorkeling trip last spring and writes about his Belize adventure.

Let Belize become your paradise found
Greg Tasker, The Detroit News 8:42 p.m. EDT April 3, 2015

A kayaker paddles his way to the first overnight destination on Tobacco Caye.
(Photo: Greg Tasker / The Detroit News)

"You are really going to tip over," Karm says, his voice steady as he waits a few feet away, his paddle straddling his kayak. Around us stretch miles of aquamarine water, gentle waves rippling in every horizon. We are on the edge of the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve, just off the coast of Belize. It's day one of a five-day guided kayaking and snorkeling trip along the world's second largest barrier reef.

This is my first trip to Belize, and I am drawn here by the chance to spend time at sea, exploring isolated islands, lounging under windswept coconut palms and swimming in turquoise waters. It's also an inexpensive and quick escape from the snow-battered Midwest. Although I have kayaked several times before, no one has ever insisted I rollover. Ever. It's a proposition that causes me uneasiness despite placid seas. I am not alone.

We are floating just off the shore of Coco Plum Cay, a tiny island about 45 minutes by boat from the mainland, where we have spent most of the afternoon. While Karm prepares a spread of pastrami, salami, tomato and cucumber slices, pineapple and bread under the shade of a thatched, open-air hut, fellow guide Venancio shows us the basics of kayaking, how to hold an oar, proper stroke techniques and how to get in and out of the water craft while at sea — all from the steady sands of the beach.

At this moment, our group of nine — two American couples, two other solo travelers, Lucy, a project manager for a British hiring consultant, and Ralf, a former investment banker and adventure traveler who is also from the United Kingdom, and our guides — seem to be the only people drifting on this expanse of water, the Caribbean sun beating down on us, urging us to take a dip.

I'm perched in the rear of a tandem sea kayak, a nylon skirt tucked around my waist, seemingly securing me to the vessel. My kayaking partner, Lucy, is up front, and together, we're supposed to lean far to the right, flip the kayak upside down, undo the sea skirt, free ourselves, and resurface. As we bob on the water, waiting for the go-ahead, nervous chatter drifts among us.

"Everyone gets apprehensive about rolling over, but there's nothing to it. Just relax," urges Karm, a slight, athletic man with an engaging manner who has been hired by Island Expeditions, a Canadian-based adventure company, to lead this excursion along the barrier reef that stretches nearly unbroken along the coast of this Central American country.

In a matter of seconds, Lucy and I manage to flip the kayak — that is, rollover — and reemerge, refreshed from the plunge in the sea. The others take turns and giddiness replaces apprehension. Relieved it's behind us and with our gear for the week stashed in dry bags in the hatches, we paddle toward our first overnight destination, Tobacco Caye, a four-and-half mile trek over submerged coral reefs.

Like a private beach

Looking around, it's hard to believe we are gliding along Belize's most popular tourist attraction. Stretching from Mexico's Yucaton Peninsula to Honduras, the Mesoamerican Reef, second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, attracts thousands of scuba divers, snorklers and adventure enthusiasts every year. But since we left the mainland, we haven't seen a single soul. It's like we set sail on our own private sea, a sensation that will linger over the next few days.

The reef, which runs parallel to the mainland, serves as a breakwater, protecting dozens of tiny islands — called cayes (pronounced 'keys' here) — that dot its length. Some 400 cayes can be found off the coast of Belize. The largest is Ambergris, farther to the north and the most popular destination. Our group is in the south, where the distance from Belize City (a 2.5-hour drive and a 45-minute boat ride) has kept casual tourists at bay, helping protect the reef from constant human impact.

The first speck of land we cross on our easterly trek is the Man of War Caye, a nesting site for the brown booby and the magnificent frigatebird. As we coast closer, the large seabirds swoop from perched nests, their squeaky cries echoing across the water. They dive to the surface and then soar upward, clutching small fish.

By late afternoon, we arrive at Tobacco Caye, an island about the size of three football fields, where we beach our kayaks. We are are greeted by Louise, James, and the staff at Tobacco Caye Paradise Cabins, who are lined up under coconut palms. "Welcome to Paradise," says Louise, squeezing her husband, James's, hand and letting our guides assign us to our cabanas — tiny, wood-frame bungalows painted white and edged along the shallow waters surrounding the island. Conch shells outline paths between the cabanas and the main dining hall, where we have our meals. Stands of coconut palms grace this idyllic spot, but come with a warning: Be careful standing under the palms, lest coconuts fall. On more than one occasion, we'll hear a coconut bomb the tin roof of a cabin during the night.

Over the next four days, we spend most of our time at sea, kayaking and snorkeling. Paddling becomes surprisingly routine, too; it's a genteel affair. Lucy and I fall into a pattern, only occasionally out of sync with one another when we glimpse a sting ray or a speck of land on the horizon.

Our lives are a series of short snorkels in the mornings and afternoons, whether we bunk overnight at Tobacco Caye or our second destination, South Water Caye, a 14-acre island blanketed in white coral sand and about six miles farther south. We venture to prime spots along the reef by boat or kayak, or sometimes by swimming from shore. We kayak pass uninhabited cayes, some with pristine beaches, and through labrynth-like mangrove channels. Snorkeling ofers an impressive glimpse into nature. Every underwater outing offers a treasure trove of marine life, including turtles, eagle rays, lobsters, star fish and tons of small fish, so many that it's difficult to keep track of their names.

Capsizing not life-threatening

"The wind is right for sailing," Karm observes on our final morning, as we load our gear into our hatches and ready for the day ahead.

Until now, except for a stretch of choppy water off Tobacco Caye, the seas have been serene, and kayaking has required little effort, helping create the sense that we've been paddling through paradise, without a care in the world. But now waves are rippling across the horizon.

Kayak sailing is a new experience for all of us. Sails are hoisted in the center of the vessel, and Karm pairs the kayaks up in twos. Ralf joins Lucy and me, barnacling to our kayak by simply holding onto the side. For the first time since we practiced a rollover, we use sea skirts.

Seated in the rear cockpit, I hold the sail outward by rope to capture wind and tack due west to a mangrove, visible on the horizon, about five miles away. The sea is choppy and waves crash over the bow, drenching Lucy, and occasionally me. I hold tightly to the rope, maneuvering the sail so we continue westward, and I'm anxious that at any minute I could let go and capsize all three of us. It'd be more embarrassing than life-threatening; the water is warm, and we're wearing life jackets. I just don't want it to happen.

Fortunately, we arrive — just behind the other kayaks — at the mangrove, and I am relieved to drop the sail.

Favorite moments are many

On our last evening, we gather like we have most nights at the island bar, where a sign reads, "If you're drinking to forget please pay in advance."

We down a few Belikins (brewed in Belize) and recount the day's events. Most nights, as the sun slip below the sea, it's our cue to head to our cabanas, exhausted from the elements. But on this night, someone suggests we share our favorite moments of the trip. I'm hard-pressed to pinpoint a single event. Finally, I simply offer this: Sipping coffee on the beach while watching the sun rise every morning.

And as we head to our rooms, I think we all realize that when Louise greeted us at Tobacco Caye, "Welcome to Paradise," the sentiment was more than metaphorical. This was truly paradise, if only for a few days.

If you go
Island Expeditions -This British Columbia-based adventure company offers multi-day adventures in kayaking, snorkeling, rafting and stand up paddle boarding. Trips are generally offered November through May.  Prices range from about $1,800 to $2,600 (includes meals, accommodations and guided tours; excludes airfare).  1-800-667-1630  islandexpeditions.com