11 miles north of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
Located at the very tip of the island hosting most visitors to Belize, El Secreto resort combines casual luxury with Belizean hospitality and bevy of excursions out on the open ocean.
Eleven kilometers from the nearest town and only reachable by boat taxi, El Secreto resort is a secluded tropical getaway where everything is on island time — and that's the way the owners want to keep it.
You know you are in island paradise when an orange–clad waiter brings you a glass of coconut water and a cold towel as you step off a boat where you just watched two dolphins synchronize swim in circles around you. "Our concept is barefoot luxury," says owner Abraham Roffe, as we sit down to conch ceviche and fried fish tacos. "We want people to feel totally at home and yet far away from everything."
The day we arrive is crystal clear and a balmy 80 degrees. An ocean breeze lifts the muslin cloth draped above the mini lounging pools alongside El Secreto's open–air dining room. Guests wander to and from the sand–floor bar and the staff in their crisp orange and white uniforms are all smiles.
The hotel is the project of Roffe and his partner, two Mexican entrepreneurs who fell in love with Belize during a series of scuba diving trips in the early 2000s. It took them four years to build the resort from the bottom up including carving a man–made lake out of the sand in the middle of the property where five lakefront rooms now sit, all with HD TVs, massive Jacuzzi bathtubs and outdoor showers big enough for an eight–person barbeque. Three sea villas sit beachside and four tropical villas are nestled beneath the canopy of trees. The spa villa is a large suite with a separate two–bed massage room and the option of butler service.
We have plans to snorkel in the morning but a mild tropical rain rolls it and keeps us lingering over our breakfast: fresh fruit, local coffee and fried jacks (a Belizean specialty reminiscent of tiny, savory elephant ears).
When the sky finally clears we head out to the open waters to swim with the tropical fish that live and feed off of Belize's coral reef — the second largest one in the world next to Australia's great barrier reef. Victor and Luis, our guides for the afternoon, calm the nerves of the snorkeling novices, adjust our masks for us, and with lifejackets bobbing behind them lead us through an underwater zoo. We see queen trigger fish, blue–striped grunt fish, and grey snappers along with sea eels and the beautiful purple sea fan. We paddle around for about 45 minutes with the sea turtles and sting rays and get back into the boat to a cooler of cold beer and soda.
As the sun starts to set we head to shark alley, an area of the reef where fishermen used to clean their catch of the day, creating a kind of nurse shark/sting ray petting zoo with all those fish scraps. The sharks and rays come right up to us expecting food and Victor dives deep below our boat and brings up a six–foot nurse shark in his arms for us to pet. It's thrilling to run your hand along its thick skin, snake–like to protect it from being torn on the coral.
Back at the hotel a beachside picnic is on with grilled lobster, Belizean barbeque and roasted pineapple, all the labor of Chef Lucia and her devoted kitchen crew. Exhausted, I am determined to try out the hotel's pillow menu tonight and even take a quick dip in the pool, lit by multicolored lights that give it an eery green glow in the beachside darkness. The night ends with a few mojitos — the mint grows 20 feet from the bar — and some local musicians playing reggae on the beach.
With only a year in operation. El Secreto still has a few bugs to work out — literally. At night I return to my room to find it sprinkled with dead mosquitos, a phenomenon which the staff says is new. In addition, their super high–tech rooms — all operated by an ipod you are provided at check–in — don't always function the way they're supposed to (several members of our group experienced malfunctions that were quickly attended by the staff but nevertheless annoying). Regardless of the glitches, big picture windows and a personal plunge pool steps from my room's front door were reason enough to while away a few hours in its air–conditioned loveliness.
San Pedro, the caye's capital, is still a sleepy town of 13,000. Every day El Secreto runs a complimentary shuttle to and from the main city dock and boat taxis can be arranged at any time, day or night. Most of the town's inhabitants ride bikes or drive golf carts and the Caribbean vibe will get under your skin immediately.
Several resorts line the coast of the caye, but El Secreto is in its own beachside bubble. With the spear fishing (the kitchen offered to let me catch and cook my own dinner if I wanted). snorkeling, scuba diving, spa relaxing, and just general lazing about, you're likely to not want to go anywhere else and to keep the place as your own little secret.
Web Address: elsecretobelize.com
Total Number of Rooms: 12 regular villas and 1 spa villa
Published rates: $450 to $1,150 (includes transfers and daily shuttle service to San Pedro)
Review and photos by Lydia Carey except top aerial shot.