When you hear the phrase “private yacht charter,” what does it conjure up in your mind? Probably a dash of opulence, a sense of exclusivity, maybe a skipper with boat shoes. That’s what I pictured, at least. So I wasn’t surprised when my recent foray into the world of private yachting started with the pop of a Prosecco cork. What did surprise me was how versatile the experience could be, molded to fit the preferences of just about any kind of traveler. That’s how I—a lover of mountains more than beaches, and certainly not someone prone to taking selfies on the bow in a bikini à la Beyonce—fell in love with a private yacht over four days off the coast of Belize.
Why we chose Belize
Some say the British Virgin Islands are the crème de la crème for yachting in the Caribbean—but that archipelago is so chock-a-block with boats in high season that you may have to anchor by midday just to get the spot you want. In Belize, by contrast, I could count on two hands the number of boats we passed.
Tucked under Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and just a hair larger than New Jersey, Belize has all the elements sailors love—turquoise waters, steady breezes, palm-shaded beaches, a healthy barrier reef—plus the freedom to wander at will among islands strung like pearls along the country’s Caribbean coast. In fact, the underwater ecosystem was the most impressive I’ve seen anywhere (besting Fiji, the Galapagos, even the Great Barrier Reef).
My captain and first mate were both Belizean—many of the crews elsewhere in the Caribbean hail from the U.S. and Europe—and the country’s official language is English, so I managed to learn a fair bit about Belize even when all I could see of the mainland was a distant line of green on the horizon.
And without the caché of a name-brand island, the value of the all-inclusive experience was impressive: Four ensuite cabins; delicious meals and snacks; an open bar; round-the-clock services of a captain and chef/first mate; and use of snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing equipment comes to less than $400 per person per night when the boat is filled to its eight-guest capacity.
How we spent our days on the water
We hopscotched among Belize’s southern cayes, known for their solitude and swaying palms. We didn’t even bother to put shoes on when we stepped onto Tobacco Caye for a piña colada; home to forty-some residents, it’s one of the busier islands in the neighborhood. I watched the sun sink below the horizon one evening from the seat of a kayak, the water lapping at the shores of tiny palm-fringed islets; the only sign of civilization in sight was the catamaran where the chef/first mate was preparing my dinner, the aroma of garlic and coconut oil gently carried to me by the breeze.
And what a dinner it was. When I planned this trip with Trusted Travel Expert Patricia Johnson, she sent me a questionnaire with clever prompts aimed to suss out exactly the experience I would most enjoy. I checked a box indicating that I “love fresh, healthy and clean cuisine with an emphasis on health and wellness” and mentioned the handful of foods my family disliked. From the very first meal onboard to the last, our chef served the kinds of delicious, produce-forward dishes that I wish I had the skill and time to prepare at home—plus the occasional pizza or hot dog to keep my eight-year-old son happy. Not only that, each course was presented beautifully, but without the fussiness that can make all the back-to-back restaurant meals tiresome while traveling.
What made this the epitome of custom-tailored travel
Had I been in the mood for a bit of shopping and nightlife, our captain would have set us on a course for the busier northern cayes: Ambergris and Caulker. And that was the plan—until I tore up our itinerary on Day 2, deciding to take advantage of the spontaneity a yacht charter affords and save Ambergris’ “Little Miami” for another trip. My new mantra was: Why sail to a place that you can get to on a commercial flight? Instead, I opted to have the views all to myself for just a little longer.
This was the epitome of custom-tailored travel: When the captain saw that my son, Zeke, was uncomfortable snorkeling in shallow water, he pulled up anchor and motored less than a mile away to a coral wall off which the seabed plunged 40 feet. It was a magical spot, teeming with peacock flounder and parrotfish and sergeant majors flashing bright yellows and iridescent blues in the tropical sunlight, and coral shaped like pincushions, cabbage leaves, and intricate mazes. (I’m holding Captain Ruben to his promise that he’ll forever refer to this place as “Zeke’s Reef.”)
For others, the ultimate luxury may be an ornate hotel suite with Louis XIV decor, exclusivity a trendy bar with a bouncer holding a guest list. For me, it was the Tranquilo, a 47-foot catamaran with no dress code (indeed, shoes were discouraged, lest they mar the shiny white deck). We had these picture-postcard vistas all to ourselves not because of a velvet rope, but because few travelers have been clued in to this gorgeous gem of a coastline, with its mesmerizing aquamarine water and its Vantablack night skies. That’s my kind of luxury. When dolphins started arcing out of the water, racing alongside our pontoons on our last morning, and our captain spotted a pair of rare manatees, I nearly pinched myself to see if it was a dream. It wasn’t—just a WOW-worthy trip.
Belize Sailing Tips From A Yachting Newbie
* Although it’s a “sailing vacation,” expect some motor noise.
Relying only on sails greatly reduces the distances you can cover so, for much of our daytime itinerary, we were actually under motor power, and at night we didn’t want to do without the generator’s air conditioning and flush toilets. When choosing cabins, I didn’t pay proper attention to the captain’s mention of which was the loudest. After the noise and vibration coming from the generator under my bed kept me up much of the first night, I moved into my son’s cabin. I slept soundly from then on—and the noise in my original cabin didn’t bother my insomniac husband a bit—but the voyage won’t always be as quiet as you might imagine.
* Be forthright and liberal with your food preferences.
Restocking the galley isn’t easy, especially for a vegetarian like me. So be honest when detailing your food likes and dislikes, as the chef is cooking only for you, and there is no menu.
*Don’t worry about motion sickness inside the reef.
My husband, prone to motion sickness, donned Sea-Bands the minute we stepped on board. But he needn’t have done so: Inside the reef, our catamaran was so stable that I could leave a toothbrush beside the sink in the morning and find it in exactly the same place that evening. Only once did we venture into open ocean outside the reef. My husband kept his eyes firmly on the horizon, but my son joyfully rode the tip of the starboard hull like a bucking bronco, yelling “This…is…AWE-SOME”!
Full Disclosure: Belize Sailing Vacations provided this reporter with a complimentary yacht charter. WendyPerrin.com did not promise any editorial coverage, and there was no quid pro quo. Our policy when accepting discounted or complimentary trips is to use the opportunity to test out experiences; if they meet our standards and we feel there is value for our readers, we will cover them. For further input about Belize trips arranged by local expert Patricia Johnson, read these reviews of Patricia’s trips written by WOW List travelers.