Sunshine is pouring down, providing a sparkle to the impossibly blue Belizean water. The captain and crew scurry about the boat, preparing to take a dozen tourists and a couple of jackpot-winning journalists for a day of exploring the private island Sanctuary Caye. One crew member catches my eye. He’s tall with dark skin and a bright smile, and his arms swing at his sides from pulled-back shoulders. His level of swagger doesn’t seem to fit his role of tying up loose lines and pushing the boat off the dock.
A few minutes later, we’re cruising above a maze of underwater reefs. Our boat, which is outfitted for scuba trips, finally finds open water. While the group around me snaps screensaver-worthy pictures of the small islands all around, I introduce myself to the intriguing dock hand — who turns out not to be a dock hand at all.
His name is John Usher, and he’s a third-generation citrus farmer whose roots can be traced back to the first Belizeans. Usher made his living in the orange business by using the land to turn a profit, and business was good for quite a long time. But like all good things, Belize’s orange industry eventually came to an end because of stiff international competition. Fast-forward 12 years, and Usher’s become one of the principals and developers of Sanctuary Belize, a 14,000-acre property on the country’s east coast, working to grow tourism while at the same time preserving the nation’s natural resources that he admittedly once exploited.
“I was responsible for maintaining thousands of acres to plant citrus, which is what we did for three generations,” says Usher. “That meant displacing some of the best forestland that Belize had to offer.”
For the first time in our conversation, Usher’s jovial smile fades and he peers out to the horizon. “Now that I’ve done enough damage, I’m trying to grow it back. At some point in time you recognize that this beautiful piece of land needs to be protected.”
Usher was just one of the many passionate principals I met on a tour of Sanctuary Belize, a tropical utopia in Belize’s southern region of Stann Creek. Along with its booming real-estate opportunities, it aims to be a major player in conserving the country’s five ecosystems: the Caribbean Sea, mountains, rivers, savanna and jungle, all within close proximity to one another.
At the center of the development is Belize’s first deepwater marina. Featuring 250 slips that can accommodate yachts up to 150 feet in length, it is steps from a hotel, restaurants and a store for provisioning — or at least it is expected to be by 2015. During my visit, there was construction equipment where the pool will sit, mountains of dirt where condos will reside and piles of building supplies where the bars and stores will be.
Fellow principal Luke Chadwick spoke with pride about the marina that, admittedly at the time, was a work in progress.
“For the longest time Belize has been inaccessible for the boating crowd,” says Chadwick. “We have this untouched piece of paradise here. From a development standpoint, there is a lot of opportunity here. For the boating demographic, it represents a new frontier.”
Boating opportunities in Belize are currently so limited that the largest full-time charter companies in the country, Belize Sailing Charters and Belize Sailing Vacations, have fleets of four and five boats, respectively. Only a handful of marinas, each with a dozen or so slips, dot the coast, and locals will tell you that reservations are not needed no matter the time of year. This lack of amenities has long deterred boaters from making the 230-nautical-mile trip south from Cancun, Mexico, or the 500-mile passage southwest from the Cayman Islands.
Creating the marina charged with changing all of that was much more of an undertaking than placing floating docks in a secluded harbor. The expansive piece of water that I visited was completely man-made. Thanks to dozens of pieces of heavy machinery and many man-hours, a former swamp was transformed into a sprawling body of water able to accommodate vessels with a draft of 15 feet.
Proximity to nature is one of the features of the future marina. Hop in an all-terrain vehicle, which will be available to guests, and you’ll be in a jaguar preserve in less than half an hour. Go 20 minutes in the other direction and you’ll be in a savanna, where the flat land will make you think you’re in the Serengeti, minus the elephants. An hour in an SUV and you’ll be hiking mountains and chasing down one of the many hidden waterfalls, attractions not found in many of the more popular Caribbean destinations.
What Belize lacks, interestingly enough, also makes it different from the well-worn islands of the Bahamas and eastern Caribbean. There are no T-shirt-festooned bars, no Jimmy Buffett cover bands and no facades. To feel in touch with the wild side, just walk outside your room. If you can peel your eyes from the swaying palm trees and inviting ocean, you’ll see real jaguar tracks in the dirt and scampering agoutis all along the beach.
“I look at boaters as an adventurous type, and I think for many yachtsmen, the eastern Caribbean has been done before,” Chadwick says. “A lot of those places are overcrowded now, and you lose a little bit of what boating gives you — and that’s freedom.”
As he spoke, he stood in his tiki-hut office some 20 feet offshore from Sanctuary Caye, watching guests pass by in kayaks and atop stand-up paddle boards. He knew all too well what they were just learning: that Sanctuary Caye is one among many deserted islands that visitors can discover.
“Exploring a new island is still possible here [and] is very appealing,” says Chadwick. “There are about 1,800 islands off the coast of Belize, and most of them are uninhabited.”
While mostly everyone on my tour spent an afternoon relishing the R&R, one person failed to sit down. Usher was busy speaking with everyone, answering questions about his homeland and campaigning to have visitors make their vacation permanent. And he was succeeding, as multiple couples put money down on property.
The future of this destination as a yachting hub is yet to be seen, but if I were to put the success of Sanctuary Belize into the hands of anyone, it would be the citrus farmer with deep-seated roots. Surely a lifelong grower like Usher understands the passion needed to take a promising piece of land and shape it into something beautiful.