bonding Beachside in Belize

With the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, Belize's numerous cayes ("keys") are a perfect jumping-off point for the country's world-class diving and snorkeling sites. Photos by Michael Mundt

  ( Continued from Part 1, Guatemala )

     The fun would continue as we shifted from rainforest adventure to beachside relaxation at Coppola’s Turtle Inn in Placencia, Belize, a popular beach destination in the country’s southern region. Last spring break, we all had spent a glorious week there, so we were anxious to return.

     Not five minutes after arriving, the kids were begging to visit the children’s gelato bar, a vivid, yearlong memory in their hedonistic, young brains.

     “Mommy, we get free gelato!” said Colin.

     Kid, that gelato is anything but free. But if it keeps you two happy, I’m all in.

     In the boys’ defense, we adults couldn’t wait to hit the beachside Laughing Fish Bar to revisit our vivid memory: coconut mojitos, made fresh from coconuts the bartenders chop before your travel-weary eyes. Served from said coconut and adorned with a luscious, pink hibiscus flower—even more brilliant than I’d remembered.

     “I’m not sure what’s better: watching the coconut being fashioned into a drinking bowl while lounging on the beach or the mojito itself,” Lora said.

     Although we giggled in agreement that mojitos taste all the better when delivered by one of the affable, attentive and handsome poolside attendants. (Oh, come on! A girl can look!)

     In addition to such beachfront amenities, the Turtle Inn offers 25 cottages with private, screened-in porches and, an added bonus for kids, outdoor showers. (There’s a bath/shower inside as well.) Not only are the cottages spread out among the white-sand beach, but there’s also a large, centralized, kid-friendly pool.

     In short, after three days of worrying that my children were disturbing fellow La Lancha guests, I was relieved they now had lots of room to run off their boundless energy. That and the fact that the ocean would help muffle their childish trill.

     During our trip last year in Placencia, we’d sampled a variety of area highlights, from snorkeling to touring a small Mayan ruin. We had even spent a full, exhausting day of zip-lining and visiting the Belize Zoo in Belmopan (about 2 ½ hours northwest of Placencia).

      But this time around, we were all about the beach. Boasting the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, Belize attracts divers from around the world and is one of our all-time favorite snorkeling destinations.

     “But Mom! I don’t want to snorkel!” I rolled my eyes as both kids complained because, of course, they wanted just to swim in the pool. (I know this is lost on no one that they can do that at home!) 

     As I’d predicted, however, they were game as soon as we’d arrived at Silk Cayes (pronounced “keys”) Marine Preserve, about 20 miles east of Placencia. A snorkeling spot where you’re likely to see spotted eagle rays, stingrays, nurse sharks, and ample tropical fish from blue tangs to parrot fish and barracuda, it wasn’t surprising to see numerous other boats docked at the tiny island paradise.

     What was surprising, though, was the rudeness of a boatload of tourists who were yelling at my kids to get out of the way as they maneuvered toward the shore. Keep in mind, Michael and I were helping them walk backwards in the water, the easiest method while wearing flippers—especially for kids—to negotiate from shallow to deeper water.

     “Children! Children! Move! Coming through!” Condescended one of the guests on board.

     “Understood!” I yelled. “We’re all moving as moving as fast as we can!”  

      I won’t repeat Michael’s comments. But I was worried enough about him confronting the loudmouth later on that I enlisted Kevin to keep my fiery husband in check.

      But someone even better settled the score: karma. After an enjoyable, 45-minute snorkel in which we saw all of the aforementioned marine life and more—including dolphins later at a nearby area unofficially called Shark, Ray and Turtle Alley—we and the other visitors ate lunch at the island’s picnic area.

     Then without warning, a nearby table heaped with food and people toppled on its side. No one was hurt, but everyone and everything went flying.

     We were glad to see the table’s occupants recover just fine, laughing while bathed in salsa and fruit salad. And, though I hate to admit it, we were also glad to realize it was the very travelers who’d hollered at my boys.

     “I don’t usually take pleasure in seeing others’ misfortune,” I told Brody later, who’d heard us discussing (and laughing about, if I’m being honest) the event.

     “But those people weren’t very nice to us,” I said, shrugging. “Karma is a real thing, but you don’t always get to see it firsthand. That’s all.”

     The incident was so representative of what can happen when you travel with kids. Back home, we’re typically around family-oriented grownups, thus, my boys are naturally drawn to them. So it was a good lesson for them that a) not every adult is nice to children and b) not everyone is happy on vacation. And c) their mom can sometimes be childish.

     For the next day’s activities, we chose the one tour we’d regretted missing last year, the Monkey River cruise. A relaxing boat tour along the river that winds through mangroves and ends at a jungle walk, the excursion allowed some of the best wildlife-viewing opportunities in the Placencia area, including crocodiles, egrets, bats, iguanas and, eventually, howler monkeys.

     Along with us were Sarah and Shane, a couple from Los Angeles we’d met the day before, and their two young boys, Finn, 4, and Smith, 2.

     I had just returned to the pool yesterday afternoon from grabbing something in our villa when Brody announced, “Mom, my friend Finn says he wants me to play Legos.”  

     That’s how it goes with kids: Hey, you’re a kid? You like Legos? Cool! We’re friends!

     The same goes for the parents: Hey, you’re parents of young children? They’re driving you crazy too? Excellent! We’re friends!

     On the way back from the jungle walk, we stopped in the Monkey River Village at Miss Alice’s restaurant for a traditional Creole lunch of rice, beans, and fish or chicken. But all four kids were too distracted to eat, focusing instead on petting the local dog, Viper, who was anything but vicious.

     After lunch, the last part of our tour was searching for manatee in the shallow, muddy waters where they like to graze on sea grass. We soon spotted two, a mother and calf surfacing between our boat and another one nearby, on which the boys’ eyes were now trained. The other boat’s captain was missing an arm up to his elbow, which was way more exciting to a boy than any wildlife sighting.

     “Dad, that man is missing an arm,” I heard Finn say to his dad. “Dad! How does he get his t-shirt on?”

     Then he directed his interrogation to the subject in question.

     “Hey!” Finn shouted across the water. “What happened to your arm?”

     I smiled at Sarah, who’d clapped her hand in over her mouth in horror at her son’s loud inquiry. Shane just shook his head.

     “Finn! That’s not polite!” Shane admonished.

     The rest of us giggled, amused at Finn’s guileless curiosity, and relieved that neither Brody nor Colin was the offending child—this time.

     The thing is, as parents we know it’s only a matter of time before our child embarrasses us in public. At some point we’ve all gotten the, “Mommy, why does that girl look like a boy?” question, or some version of it, and recoiled with embarrassment. (For you parents who haven’t yet experienced this, your time will come. Trust me.) So this was a classic case of, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

     It turned that out our captain, Terry, knew the man had lost his arm in a childhood accident.

     “Couldn’t he have just told the boys that a shark bit off his arm?” Sarah later joked.

     The next day was the last of our trip, and we opted for an easy, half-day snorkel excursion to Laughingbird Caye National Park, another nearby strip of sand named after the laughingbird gulls that nest there.

     Although I enjoyed the uneventful outing, it was clearly time for our crew to go home. Our boys didn’t want to snorkel any farther than right off the shore and couldn’t wait to spend one more afternoon at, you guessed it, the pool.

     We hung out one more afternoon with the Californians and were still laughing about yesterday’s Monkey River episode.

     “We pay thousands of dollars to be here, and all they’ll remember is the gelato bar and the guy with one arm they saw driving a boat.” Shane said. “We could have just gone to South Central L.A.”

      I second that sentiment. But part of the fun of taking kids on vacation is experiencing new things through their unfiltered eyes. And I don’t regret any of the money we’ve spent along the way to give them those experiences.

     The flip side, though, is that kids also can’t appreciate the amount of money and effort required to go on vacation. They don’t realize yet that not every child in the world gets to see squirrel monkeys in the wild, view world-famous Mayan ruins, or be in a land where finding scorpions and tarantula in your room is commonplace. (Yes, I found both.)

     And I can almost guarantee they won’t go home and relay endless stories of seeing manatee or riding on horseback at sunset. And you know what? That’s okay. My hope is that they will appreciate it some day, even if it’s not for 20 years.

     In the meantime, I’ll take it for what it is: precious, fun time with my young kids without the worry of homework, chores and yelling (mostly me). And I’ll enjoy the few stories they’re likely to tell when they return home to friends and family.

     “There was a kids’ gelato bar!” or “We got to play with Legos!” And the one I’m putting my money on, “We saw a one-armed pirate!”

Finishing off our stay in Placencia with a sunset cruise out of Turtle Inn.

Finishing off our stay in Placencia with a sunset cruise out of Turtle Inn.