Half Moon Caye, Belize
Hiking, Snorkeling and Birding Await Cruisers
By Susan J. Young
As our tender neared the atoll that is the 45-acre Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, Belize, the island paradise came into focus, appearing as a storybook enchanted isle – with clear aqua and blue waters, swaying coconut palms, sandy beaches and blessed quiet.
A magnificent coral reef and lagoon surround the isle, located 50 miles by sea southeast of Belize City.
Settled by English speaking pirates and seamen as early as the 1630s, Belize – the former British Honduras -- is the only English-speaking country of Central America. Belize, a Mayan word, was adopted as the nation's name in 1973.
The country became independent from Britain in 1981. Belize is a country with stunning natural beauty both on its mainland and Caribbean islands (including Half Moon Caye).
Our tender from the Silversea Expeditions’ 6,072-ton Prince Albert II docked at a small pier (shown above*). For a few hours, we were pampered castaways.
The world itself seemed oceans away. Alas, there was no Blackberry or cell service here.
Located at the southeast corner of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument was created by the Natural Parks System Act of 1981.
It was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. (See the entry sign at left.*)
The park fee, paid by Silversea Expeditions as part of the cruise fare or by other lines as part of your shore trip purchase, is collected by the Belize Audubon Society (www.belizeaudubon.org). The organization uses the funds to maintain and protect the island.
The monument provides refuge for the Red-Footed Booby, an unusual white bodied bird with red feet.
While several types of boobies are found in several places in the world, only at Half Moon Caye and on an island near Tobago do the red-footed birds have predominantly white, rather than brown, bodies.
As we disembarked our tender, we entered the eastern part of the island, dotted with coconut palms.
Here you'll find picnic tables and restrooms, as well as gorgeous stretches of beaches for snorkeling and swimming.
A small visitors center (shown at right*) had a sign warning tourists not to feed the sharks.
The entire island at its highest point is just eight feet above sea level.
Prince Albert II’s expedition staff organized two activities. Or, one could just soak up the relaxing atmosphere and do nothing.
The first activity was snorkeling with instructors available to assist beginners. Swimmers also headed for the water.
Cruisers on Silversea Expeditions receive snorkeling gear onboard to use for the duration of their cruise. On this trip, the line also provided beach towels, cold water and iced tea for guests during their time on the island.
The other activity option was a guided nature hike to the other side of the island. I opted for this choice for my initial time ashore.We split into several small groups for the hike.
The Prince Albert II expedition staff also created a separate group for those needing a little extra time to do the hike.
Expeditions, as I learned on this cruise, are not just for the young, but also for the young at heart. Several people with canes and ski poles headed out eagerly on the less fast-paced hike.
The weather in early September is brutally hot, but we were relatively comfortable, thanks to light trade breezes.
Natural shade was also provided by palms and trees along the walking trails.
Hiking through Paradise
Our eager group of six set off at 3 p.m. It was a bright day with blue skies and fluffy Cumulus clouds. (Our group traversed a small beach above.*)
Coconut palms swayed in the breeze. Dead coral – likely broken from the ocean floor during a hurricane – lies on the beach and along the island's sand trails.
The caye features such vegetation as Ziricote, the red-barked Gumbo Limbo, fig trees and hundreds of coconut palms.
Along the fringes between forest and ocean, we encountered silvery Tournefortia bushes and white-flowered Spider Lilies.
On our walk, our excellent guide Ignacio Rojas (shown at left with a fellow cruiser*), from Silversea Expeditions, pointed out the flora and fauna along the way.
Above Ignacio holds a small and slightly feisty hermit crab. Each hermit crabs inhabits a different sized and type of shell; hermit crabs are nomads. They have no permanent home. They simply abandon their shell when they outgrow it and find another.
As we strolled along the nature path, a loud crash was heard. It was a coconut falling 50-60 feet to the soft island floor. I was glad I wasn't standing under it!
(See one pile of fallen coconuts at right*)
Small lizards, akin to geckos, hugged trunks of trees, and huge termite mounds rose three feet from the island floor.
While we didn’t see iguanas, they call the caye home. Loggerhead Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles also arrive annually at Half Moon Caye to lay their eggs.
A Birder's Heaven
Overhead, we spotted Magnificent Frigatebirds (see photo at left*) soaring high with their seven-foot wing spans.
A Brown Pelican made a low-level pass over the beach.
Unusual noises originating from the inner portion of the island led me to quip to my fellow nature lovers: “It sounds like a terodactyl.”
Of course, that was a joke, although whatever made the noise definitely resembled a creature from Jurassic Park. I did glance once behind me just in case!
In total, 98 species of birds (77 of which are migratory) have been spotted on Half Moon Caye.
These include the Red-Footed Boobies (one is shown at right perched high in the forest canopy*), Ospreys, White-Crowned Pigeons, Great-Tailed Grakels, Cinnamon Hummingbirds and Mangrove Warblers, to name a few.
Our guide Ignacio definitely helped us discover all that the island offered in terms of flora and fauna.
His trained eyes were able to spot wildlife I would have never seen.
Others who did the nature walk by themselves later in the day didn't see what we spotted.
At the far end of the island, we emerged onto a narrow beach – a ribbon of sand with natural scrub. Alongside, the forest edged the ocean.
Atop the trees, were several unusual birds (see photo below*), but I can’t recall the names.
When one is engaged with nature, it seems enough to just experience the moment -- rather than finding one's pen to write something down.
I've always been a visual traveler and this day trip was no exception. I prefer to let my recollections of the imagery rather than my notes write the story.
It's a great idea, though, when headed to the Caribbean, to take along a birding book -- so you can easily identify the species you see.
As we stepped out onto the tiny beach area, I immediately spotted perfect conch shells.
These gorgeous specimens seemed to be just sunning and not worrying about anyone taking them! (one is shown at left*).
Visitors are not permitted to remove any natural items including shells from from the reserve. So if you go back next month you're liable to see the same shells.
Soon it was time to head from the beach back down the trail. After reaching a fork in the trail, we headed over a new pathway toward a watch tower.
In the undercover of the forest, we looked up to see Red-Footed Boobies in the treetops. More hermit crabs scampered along in front of our path.
The open-air watch tower has one flight of very steep stairs. I opted not to climb, but the reward is to see the birds from treetop level.
A bird rookery is a very noisy and often spectacular visual experience. That said, one woman scampered down quickly, saying it was so hot up there she felt as though she could get heat stroke.
To his credit, our guide took the time and effort to spot a few more Red Footed Boobies that the non-climbing guests could see from the sandy island floor.(See photo at right*).
More frigate birds too were spotted.
Swimming and Relaxing
Another woman and I opted to head back on the path by ourselves to the main swimming area.
Walking through the forest – cool despite the outside temperature – we listened only to birds and the sounds of nature. It was a relaxing experience.
As we approached the beach part of the trail (shown at left*), another pelican soared by.
Coconut palm fronds blew in the wind. The ocean lapped the beach in tiny waves. It was amazingly quiet and pristine.
Soon, we exited the forested area, and strolled amid palm trees.
The island's restrooms (shown at right*) are basic, non-chemical latrines with an interior odor. But, after all, this is paradise… so "au naturale" rules.
I then strolled through an area of picnic tables and barbecue grills. This would make a great spot for a family or group picnic, but we only spent a few hours on the island.
I hadn't brought my swimsuit on this trip -- never expecting to encounter paradise. So, I just plopped down -- clothes and all -- in the shallow surf. Hey, it was just salt water.
After sitting for a few minutes and cooling off, I found the sand very squishy, making it difficult to get one’s footing. A friend helped me up. But I had my moment in paradise.
This eastern portion of the island also boasts an old lighthouse (shown above*), which looks derelict. Yet, the structure adds to the island's rustic aura.
The lighthouse location was first established in 1820. The facility was rebuilt in 1848 and the current structure dates from 1931.
The old lighthouse is no longer operational. Now, it's job is tackled by the newer, more basic tower behind it.
After several hours enjoying castaway life ashore, 16 of us boarded a Zodiac to make the five-mile journey back to Prince Albert II (see the Zodiac boarding process at left*).
The remainder of the guests waited for the large, locally operated tender to bring them back 45 minutes later.
As the Zodiac pulled away from shore and the coconut palms of Half Moon Caye became smaller, I felt as though we had loosened our bonds with a natural world that had been a treat to explore.
(Several friends are shown at right onboard the Zodiac.)
I would highly recommend a shore excursion to Half Moon Caye Natural Monument in Belize if it's ever an option on your Caribbean cruise.
(Shown above, our Zodiac approaches the Prince Albert II.*)
About Prince Albert II
While we sailed onboard the 132-passenger Prince Albert II from Fort Lauderdale to Belize on a repositioning voyage, this expedition ship is destined to operate cruises primarily in the Antarctic and Tahiti regions.
The ship boasts a strengthened hull with a Lloyd’s Register ice-class notation (1A) for passenger ships.
Carrying eight Zodiac boats, the vessel – the former World Discoverer II of Society Expeditions -- provides expedition cruising, but with a luxury focus not previously available in the cruise arena.
Fine cuisine and wine, eclectic menus and impeccable dining room service await guests.
In addition, on this type of expedition cruise you won't find art auctions, bingo or water volleyball. The onboard atmosphere is quiet and refined, but with a casual - not stuffy - approach to onboard dress. There are no formal nights.
The focus is on creating a "voyage to adventure" for guests. On a typical cruise, you'd find a cruise director and staff.
But on Prince Albert II, you'll instead encounter a skilled Expedition Leader and team of seven or eight experts in photography, ornithology, marine biology and other specialties, depending on the itinerary.
Silversea sizably revamped the vessel as a luxury product – combining two cabins in many cases to create spacious suites.
We stayed in several different accommodations because air conditioning and electrical work was still being completed on the ship during this start-up phase before it begins operating itineraries in Antarctica and Tahiti.
New mattresses are also being added when the ship docks in Los Angeles the end of September.
Suite 323, on Deck 3, features a spacious living area with couch, two chairs, coffee table, flat screen television and a nice writing desk.
Sliding solid doors separate the living room from the bedroom (shown above*), which boasts a queen-size bed (convertible to two twins) as well as lights and nightstands.
Both the living room and bedroom have a large picture window.
The closet is absolutely huge; calling it a walk-in really isn’t a good description as it’s essentially a small room. The nicely appointed marble bath has a single sink, toilet, glass shower and separate tub.
The Grand Suite, number 700, is more akin to a small condominium in its layout. The large living area (only a small portion is shown at left*) has a couch, two chairs, and small coffee table.
Not shown in the photo is a massive living room entertainment center with a large, flat-screen tv; multiple drawers for storing clothes or other items; and glass shelves to display liquor, an ice bucket and binoculars provided for guest use on the cruise.
Placed adjacent to the suite's front door, a wooden dining table conveniently folds in half to save space. The room service staff simply pull it out and open it up when the guests wish to dine en suite.
A hallway leads from the living area to a large walk-in closet and on the opposite side, the bath, with a raised sink and plenty of marble.
I loved Suite 700's rainforest shower, which is behind a glass door and adjacent to the tub.
The bedroom (a portion is shown at right*) features a king bed which could be split into twins. We particularly liked the two forward-facing windows with Roman shades.
Other bedroom appointments include a large vanity area with mirror, tons of drawer space, and a separate writing desk.
A new air conditioning unit in the bedroom (also shown in the above photo on the wall.*) was excellent at keeping the room cool.
I also had the opportunity to view a standard suite, which featured a true French balcony -- one you could actually stand on outside the suite. Silversea added new teakwood decking and replaced sliding glass doors.
I found the standard suite configuration roomy compared with similar accommodations on other ships.
In addition to reconfiguring many cabins throughout the ship to enlarge the suites, the line added a new stairway from the lounge down to the dining room.
Silversea Expeditions also removed the top deck pool. Now that deck has a bar surrounded by tables with large umbrellas for al fresco dining.
Two hot tubs provide a pampering water experience as guests peer over the stern of the ship at the scenery.
Definitely head for the ship’s Observation Lounge; it's a great place to relax with continental breakfast or a cup of coffee each morning.
Lectures are conducted in a brightly colored theater. On our cruise, this involved everything from birding to Mayan culture to photography.
As noted above, the cuisine and wine choices and food preparation were simply superb. The maitre d', Uta Rickert, was exemplary.
Many dining room staffers echoed the exuberance, friendliness and professionalism of this gentleman (at left*).
While this ship will sadly, not sail regularly in Caribbean waters, it's a unique experience. We hope you have the opportunity at times to sail on it from a southern U.S. port perhaps on a repositioning cruise, or on one of its regularly scheduled cruises in Tahiti or Antarctica.
Silversea Expeditions' Prince Albert II delivers a wonderful combination of luxury and adventure.
For More Information
Belize Tourism: www.travelbelize.org
Silversea Cruises: www.silversea.com