Three miles out to sea from the Belizean coastal city of San Pedro, Cayo Espanto offers the kind of peace and quiet you only find in the most exclusive island hideaway – which is precisely what this hyper-luxurious boutique resort is. Seven brightly, tastefully decorated wooden villas are dotted among the tiny island’s palm trees, with private pools to plunge in, hammocks to snooze in, and a dedicated ‘houseman’ on hand to ensure that you’re treated to whatever you want, whenever you want it. From the ingredients in the kitchen to the music playing on the in-room iPod, everything is designed as you like it.
10am (but flexible by an hour or two); check-in, 4pm.
Double rooms from £1806.59 ($2,350), including tax at 24 per cent.
Rates include airport transfer, butler service, all meals, snacks and drinks (except champagne, wines and cordials).
Almost any activity featuring water can be enjoyed at Cayo Espanto. Kayaks, pedal boats, fishing rods and other non-motorised sports equipment can be freely plundered, and there’s a vast range of excursions, including diving, snorkelling and golf.
At the hotel
Spa treatments, small gym, library, CD/DVD selection, free WiFi throughout the island. In villas: flatscreen TV, CD/DVD player, iPod dock, Yves Delorme linen, Lady Primrose toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
Two-floored, two-bedroomed Casa Estrella captures the feeling of staying in a glamour-drenched tree house, with open-plan living areas, cream-cushioned wicker furniture and a panoramic ocean view. Floor-length turquoise shutters line three of the house’s four walls, allowing you to configure the balance of inside/outside space as you see fit. Casa Aurora has the largest pool, and smaller, more private Casa Ventana is set out to sea on its own wooden pontoon.
All villas have heated private plunge pools – perfect for cocktail hour(s) – except Casa Ventanas, which is encircled by the sea.
None – even if you forget your Heidi Klein swimwear, the hotel’s staff will whip you out a designer bikini without problem or complaint.
There’s a four-night minimum stay – seven nights between 17 December and 6 January and 14 over Christmas and New Years – although exceptions can be made depending on availability.
Infants under one year old stay free and cots are available, although Cayo Espanto is much more suited to canoodling twosomes than frolicking families.
Your personal butler (or houseman, in the hotel's parlance) will bring you food wherever you choose. Ask him to arrange a private picnic – you’ll be taken to a deserted beach to find your meal prepared, then be left alone until you wish to return.
As you like it – dress to the nines, or lounge in a Hefner-esque dressing gown all day.
The hotel sends you a questionnaire before your arrival to get a picture of your culinary tastes, then award-laden chef Patrick Houghton constructs a bespoke daily menu of dishes, which you can savour anywhere on the island you wish.
From the blue-hued Espanto Wave cocktail you receive on arrival to the premium cognac nightcap, all drinks are brought to you where and when you want. Sip a sundowner in a hammock or perched on a pier, or even have your drinks brought out to sea.
The hotel’s food and drink schedule is entirely in your hands, with a ‘what you want, whenever you want it’ policy.
Belize International is the closest major airport, with flights operated by Atlantic Airlines, American Airlines, United, Delta, Maya Island, Tropic Air and US Airways all landing here. It takes another 17-minute flight to reach San Pedro.
The hotel is on an island, so getting your own wagon here will prove tricky.
A boat service goes from a marina in Belize City to the island in just under an hour.
Worth getting out of bed for
A two-hour boat ride from San Pedro is the Blue Hole, a collapsed underwater limestone cave with an unbeatable view into its unfathomable depths. Experienced divers can drop below the rim at 40 metres to explore the eerie stalactites and gawp at Caribbean reef sharks. Snorkel or scuba dive with professionally-run Amigos del Mar.
A short hop away by boat on Belize's Ambergris Caye, award-winning chef Amy Knox runs Wild Mangoes, a popular open-air spot on the San Pedro seafront that deftly combines Mexican and Caribbean cuisine. Booking is essential (+11 501 226 2859). The Blue Water Grill at the Sunbreeze Hotel does tasty things with lobster and mixes mean mojitos (+11 501 226 3347).Colourful, laid-back Mambo at Matachica resort is the place to go for Mexican-style seafood, a short taxi ride from the town (+11 501) 220 5010), whereas PalmillaRestaurant at Victoria House serves delightful international fodder in classic colonial surroundings (+11 501 226 2067). Rojo Lounge at Azul Hotel mingles Caribbean, Mexian, Cuban and Asian influences with finesse (+11 501 226 4012).
‘Forget how the other half live, this is the other one per cent do it’, I exclaim in awe as we saunter around our very generously proportioned, extremely well-kitted villa. Our retreat is hidden amid palm trees, on our own private Belizean island. Everything about Cayo Espanto screams ‘exclusive – at the top of its lungs. Well, figuratively. The funny thing about the place is that how super laid-back and low-key it is too. Take the way we arrived, for example. En route, these slaves to diving fancied getting in some of the sport as soon as possible. ‘No problem,’ comes the expression of choice from the team at Cayo Espanto. ‘The person picking you up is a qualified divemaster and he can take you for a private session. After an hour of some of the best diving we’ve ever experienced, we arrive at Cayo’s dock. Every one of the island’s 30 staff is impeccably turned out in starched white uniforms and lined up along the jetty – we wonder if they mistakenly think the Queen is coming to visit. Even the resident dog is sitting to attention. Hot towels and cocktails are carefully presented and not one of team casts a strange look at these guests with wetsuits half hanging off them, hair salty and hobo-style.
We flip-flop our way across the bleached white sand, trailing water as we go like we’re expecting to get lost and may need a clearly marked-out route back. Among the carefully pruned shrubbery sits the odd statue or artefact, and here and there the sand has been raked Japanese style into intricate patterns. Never cluttered or ostentatious though, Cayo Espanto is always just-so – this boutique Belize bolthole has all the right ideas in all the right measures.
What are our first impressions of Casa Estrella? Clearly its villas are perfectly appointed, we think, as we drip along one of our two private jetties. With sky-blue shutters and hinged doors on both floors, all welcomingly concertinaed apart. Our des-res is cleverly open to the Caribbean elements and actually in keeping with some of the older colonial buildings of Belize. An infinity plunge pool takes centrestage; it is beautifully lit at night (and heated – mmm), and subtle screening all around the property makes it totally private. Let your imagination wander. We have space at our hideaway all around us and much of it serves several purposes – this comes in handy when you are expected to spend (and probably crave) a lot of time alone in your luxury house and its grounds. So far, pretty steamy hotel porn, right? By day we make the most of the jetty with a delightful area for sun lounging, and the areas occupied by contemporary cool, high-quality furnishings become the ideal settings for evening meals.
Inside our villa is yet more space, and more rooms than a couple really even need use. Our living section is ultra-comfortable and has everything we’ll ever need. A large-screen satellite TV is neatly hidden away. Opening another cupboard and we find the hi-fi system, which has speakers secreted all over the villa and is hooked up to an iPod dock. Cayo Espanto also has a massive library of film and music, which appears to suit most tastes. Backgammon and other entertainments are also on hand, or you can venture further afield by choosing from a menu of tours and excursions from bonefishing to ziplining through the mainland jungle. There is even a walkie-talkie at our disposal – but we’ll get back to this in a moment.
After popping our noses around the door of a spare bedroom, alfresco shower and various pristine nooks and crannies, we mount the hardwood staircase and come upon the rather romantic upper bedroom. This is practically the size of the entire ground floor and has cut-out sections which look down onto the living space. Relaxed modern furniture, lamps for mood lighting, chunky trunks and other furnishings are gathered around the generously sized bed. It’s the sort of size where you might go an entire night without encountering your partner. (That may sound appealing or disastrous depending on the state of your union). It’s impressively draped in stylish white hangings, and with the shutters wide you have a 180-degree view of purest topaz-coloured ocean.
Back downstairs and we pick up the little yellow portable transceiver. Although ostensibly one of more prosaic items in our joint, it is the gateway to a world of decadence – here we have to start using italics and exclamations marks just to help you understand. It is our hotline to our own private butler! His name is Obed! He even has his own assistant! Oh yes, at this point Mr and Mrs can note we have finally arrived. Anything we desire will be hunted down by our team of help, and this ideology is at the heart of Cayo. This is bespoke relaxation in a way unimaginable to most mortals. When members of staff come knocking at your appointed hour, they check breakfast requirements from bewildering list of scrumptious possibilities. All can be tailored at whim and are delivered, silver service at exactly your chosen time. Lunch and dinner are even more impressive, for two reasons; you supply a list of culinary preferences before the trip which influences your menus, and the island’s head chef comes to call to personally explain various specials for the day. If, in the unlikely event you don’t like any of them, he’ll cook up something else especially for you.
Naturally the choice of locations for your meals is up to you. In the living area, upstairs in bed, out on the veranda are all options, but there’s nothing quite like sipping cocktails in the pool while your personal staff set a line of candles along the jetty, ending in a private little table under the stars. As you’d expect the precisely presented food is sensational and wine list up to the standards of top European restaurants.
Not content with living the playboy and girl lifestyle on land, these Smiths decide to enjoy a spot of waterskiing. Our request as usual is met with the customary ‘no problem’. Our private scuba guide is back and with our boat and it turns out he’s also an expert on the deep-sea sport. Since the weather is a little windy, our guide decides we head for shelter and takes us to a mangrove that forms a natural estuary nearby. Mrs Smith lowers her bikinied behind into the warm water and I joke that this the kind of place you’d find crocs. ‘I’m not going to lie to you,’ our man responds with a glint in his eye. ‘We see them here from time to time.’ Mrs Smith isn’t the one who needed to worry though, it turns out. A couple of goes at pulling herself up and she’s skiing like Million Dollar Mermaid, Esther Williams. What happened to Mr Smith is best left unspoken, although an embarrassing thigh strain and much ribbing for never getting up were involved.
As we (well, I) limped away from Cayo Espanto it honestly felt like one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But before you head out to the dock for the last time, where all the staff are ready to wave goodbye, we recommend sneaking a look at the guest book. The roll call is a cross between Hello! and Forbes. We won’t be so vulgar as to mention the names we ohhhed and ahhhed over – after all, Cayo is the model of discretion.
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