Cigar Aficionado

Cayo Espanto, Belize

Rosita quietly grooms my toes while I sit beneath the filtered shade of a palm tree sipping my new favorite drink; freshly squeezed lime juice. Speaking very little English, Rosita prefers to work in silence, but I decide to break it with a game of "name that word in Spanish."

"Rojo," I say when she asks which polish color I'd like to top off my pedicure. "Si," she responds, and plucks a bright red bottle from her basket, looking up only long enough to flash a quick smile. She's on to my game, so I practice rolling my Rs with a popular children's rhyme. "R con R cigarro, R con R barril," I blurt out and she finishes it for me with a laugh.

I glance over at the dock where my husband has spent the afternoon. In the 16 years I've known him, I've never seen John nap except when he was sick. But there he was, stretched out in the sun, on a blue-cushioned wooden Adirondack-style lounge chair at the end of our private dock overlooking the sea foam green Gulf of Mexico, snoozing away at 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

With three kids, a house and two extremely busy careers between us, we decided to ditch it all for a long-awaited vacation, and Cayo Espanto, a private island in Belize seemed the perfect spot to totally relax.

We'd both visited Cayo Espanto over and over again in our minds, but when we finally arrived at the perfectly groomed three-acre island, just a seven-minute boat ride from San Pedro, the biggest city on the Ambergris Caye, we found it met all of our expectations and more.

This I must attribute to Jonathan, our soft-spoken and unobtrusive houseman who tended to our every need. When it was time to go snorkeling, Jonathan would come and get us. When it was time to eat, Jonathan would bring us our meals. After serving us, he would, without fail, stand back with one arm behind his back and say, "Would you care for anything else?" What else could we possibly need that he hasn't already thought about, I wondered? Jonathan had an almost surreal way of anticipating our every need before we even realized we needed something.

He set up the Hobie Cat one afternoon for a day trip into the sheltered waters around the island, arranged for massages and snorkeling trips, and even greeted us at the island's main pier with cool drinks and warm towels to wash the salt away upon our return.

It is this kind of personalized and pampering service that is the hallmark of this private island resort and the main reason my husband and I were able to completely relax. It was the first time in many years that we didn't have to think about five or more schedules at one time. We didn't even have to think about our own schedules here -- Jonathan did it for us.

Cayo Espanto is the brainchild of Jeff and Susan Gram, an Atlanta-based couple who wanted to create a perfect island getaway with top-notch service.

It took four years to haul in enough crushed shell and sand fill to build five oceanfront villas, each with a private splash pool, dock, alfresco shower and a panoramic view of the western Caribbean. The pearly white-sand grounds are raked daily and an array of stocky palms, hibiscus and other tropical plants are tended with care around every path and villa, contributing to the sense of well being that guests feel at all times.

Our home for the few days we were on the island was Casa Estrella, the largest of the guesthouses. John was delighted to find the butler's pantry stocked with local beers, water and soda and a list of compact discs and videos. "Let's have some fun," he said, popping in a disc with a sultry Latin beat and grabbing my hand for a dance.

With 1,500 square feet of space and two bedrooms appointed with tropical wood furnishings, we had our choice of two separate sleeping and bathing quarters. What is most remarkable about the two-story wooden structure is the way its multitudes of bright-blue louvered doors and windows can be configured to obtain the perfect breeze and view. Reading a book on the king-sized bed with Egyptian cotton linens and a cozy but feather-light down comforter one afternoon, John flung doors and windows on three sides of the room open wide, and the first-floor bedroom was transformed into what felt like an outdoor sleeping room -- one with a spectacular view of the clear water and lush green islands beyond it.

Dining at Cayo is an indulgence in its own right. Jonathan set an elegant white linen-clad table dressed with candle-lit lanterns and tropical flowers on the front porch for our dinner each night. With a full moon still hanging low in the sky, four lights placed at different points on the deck cast shadows on our faces as we enjoyed a robust 1999 Cotes du Rhone, curried vegetable-lentil soup with a raspberry boursin cheese crouton. Grilled prawns with a tamarind-mango and soy glaze, and Cuban black bean cake and cumin-lime crème fraiche on gingered carrot salad rounded out the meal.

Throughout our stay, award-winning chef Todd Unkefer's extraordinary level of culinary expertise was apparent. He served up treats like island-made soursop ice cream on caramelized pineapple with a minted watermelon salsa. Founder of the Belize Culinary Federation, Todd blends a variety of flavor combinations from around the world with the freshest local ingredients to create tantalizing epicurean cuisine.

In perfect Cayo style, it was the details that went into the meals that mattered most. The Tunisian carrot, ginger, pumpkin and pear soup was elegantly topped with honey saffron lime crème fraiche and grilled yellowfin tuna "Timgad" was dressed in a tasty pineapple Chile glaze and served with a colorful chick pea-vegetable "Tagine."

The island maintains a steady stream of Cuban cigars, including Cohiba Esplendidos and Siglo Vs, Partagas Churchills and Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas, at prices ranging from $15 to $25 per cigar. Early in the island's history, Chef Todd traveled to Cuba to ensure the island would be supplied with fine cigars.

The island's wine list includes a range of California, French and Austrian whites, like 2000 Patz & Hall Alder Springs Chardonnay and a sunny 1997 Baron de la Charriere, Puligny-Montrachet. A healthy selection of reds includes some fine 1999 California Cabernets and Merlots mixed in with a 1998 Australian Shiraz, a 1998 Italian Poggiopiano Chianti Classico, and some Pinot Noirs, Roses, and Spanish and French labels. After dinner, cigars are enjoyed with various aperitifs, cordials, Cognacs, single-malt Scotches and fruit liqueurs.

Because it is such a soothing environment, Cayo Espanto attracts an abundance of guests in high-profile and high-stress jobs. A large percentage of visitors rent out the entire island and arrive by private jet. When I asked who typically vacations at Cayo Espanto, I was told that the staff doesn't like to kiss and tell, but the island is a popular vacation spot for actors, musicians, film directors, sports figures, team owners and politicians.

When not relaxing, we spent our days off the island exploring the incredible array of marine life on the world's second largest barrier reef, which is located just 15 minutes from the resort.

Skipping over the waves in the island's 27-foot excursion boat, I began to think that German Alamilla may have the best job in the world. He's the island's dive master and spends his days taking guests to dive and snorkeling sites, bird watching and picnicking on remote islands. With perfect control and serenity, he guides the boat to our destination: Mexico Rocks, a large section of ocean just a few hundred feet offshore that is made up of hundreds of coral formations in about 15 feet of shimmering blue-green water. Located just 10 miles south of the Mexican border, the coral formations look like black blobs disrupting the beautiful water until you get below the surface. Donning fins and snorkeling gear, John and I grab hands and jump from the boat's side into the warm water and are treated to a spectacular show of colorful blue, yellow, red and orange fish, waving purple Elkhorn and Staghorn coral, and white, feathery ray-like peacock flounder skimming along the sandy bottom, disrupting broken bits of shell in their wake.

There wasn't anything we spotted that German, who grew up in San Pedro, couldn't identify for us. "What's that blue fish," I asked him. "Blue tang," he replied instantly.

For our last night of island tranquility before returning to the chaos of our home, we decided to take a sunset boat ride to a nearby bird sanctuary where roseate spoonbills flock for one month a year to hatch their young. Not only did we spot dozens of nesting spoonbills, but frigates, red heron, blue heron, egrets, brown boobies, white ibis and cormorants were abundant.

As the sun set on our casa that final night, we lingered on the second-floor porch, both wishing we could stay longer. Ordinarily two people who have plenty to talk about, neither of us said a word. Instead, the wind blowing through the palm fronds and the gentle waves lapping against the dock below said it all.


Located west of Belize's Ambergris Caye and three miles from the San Pedro Airport, Cayo Espanto lies in the calm waters of the western Caribbean.

Getting there: Flights to Belize are offered from Miami, Dallas and Houston.

Rates range from $795 to $2,150 per couple, per night. Day trips from the island and spa services are extra. Full island rental is also available.

For more information call 1-888-666-4282 or visit