Belize Sun Dancer II
If your travel plans dictate that you go from the Belize International Airport straight to the Sun Dancer II and back again, then believe me, you've missed the boat. I guarantee that the crew of the famously luxurious live-aboard fleet will tell you the same thing, because if there is any destination as fascinating above the sea as it is below, it's Belize.
Due south of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula is a country in which more than 40 percent of the land is protected as national park, where elusive jaguars roam dense jungle still enshrouding thousands of ancient Maya structures. The relatively few sites that have been excavated such as those at Lamanai, Altun Ha and Caracol are vivid portals into a fascinating culture that thrived some 2,000 years ago. Cruise down the New River and you'll see the tapered point of Lamanai's tallest temple rising high above the jungle canopy. Pay attention to the bird life along the forested river banks and you'll quickly realize that there are more species of birds in Belize (some 543, but who's counting?) than there are fish species on its protected reefs.
For such a small country, Belize certainly packs a punch when it comes to activities; choices range from cave-tubing to nighttime croc-spotting definitely not your typical eco-adventures. Jungle lodges have the safari experience down to an art, and there are plenty that cater to every budget, from Howler Monkey Lodge to Lamanai Outpost. Not only are these the coolest deco stops you may ever experience, they're also the perfect end to a week of live-aboard diving up, down, inside and around some of the Caribbean's largest atolls. The Sundancer II's schedule is designed for up to five dives (and meals) each day, so your logbook (and waist) will quickly fill out.
Lighthouse Reef dominates the itinerary and is home to the Blue Hole, a renowned must-dive. Divers descend to between 110 and 130 feet to see the massive stalactites that stand testament to an era when this geologic formation stood above water. Day boats bring divers to this spot, too, but at the end of the day only the live-aboards remain to journey on to destinations more remote.
It would take weeks just to dive the sites around Lighthouse Reef and Turneffe Atoll. Thankfully, the experienced crew is astute at judging conditions and selecting the best from the best for each given dive. Pristine walls are thick with colorful sponges and healthy coral. In the shallows, the confetti sparkles of juvenile fish fascinate anyone who lingers long enough to begin cataloging the astonishing variety of species, many no larger than a thumbnail.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, divers may see squadrons of spotted eagle rays and graceful sea turtles, impressive numbers of barracuda grabbing hold in the current and thick schools of swirling jacks.
Quebrada, off Long Cay on Lighthouse Reef, is brilliant day and night. Because the enormous boat swings dramatically on the mooring, you never know if you're entering the blue beyond the wall or right above an endless field of shallow coral heads. The wall is like an old-growth forest, with yellow pipe sponges reaching 20 feet in length so much like an alphorn that you half expect the Ricola commercial to blast out the end. Up top, massive tarpon cruise the shallows; at night they're like a pack of ill-behaved dogs, bumping into you as they surreptitiously use your light beam to help them hunt.
Any diver who has been on one of the boats in Peter Hughes' fleet waxes poetic about being wrapped in warm towels the moment they emerge from a dive and about the memory of hot chocolate (your choice: virgin or with a splash of a warm-you-up additive) after the last night dive.