CAYE CAULKER, Belize -- A small, brown shark slipped through the placid Caribbean waters of the cove. Moments later, a ray whisked beneath my kayak like some underwater prehistoric bird.

Schools of juvenile fish surged and stopped, surged and stopped. Young barracuda, nearly transparent but for their black eyes, lurked in the sea grasses.If asked to choose a favorite moment on Caye Caulker, it was in that calm uninhabited inlet on the western side of the island, immersed in wildlife. My girlfriend, Sabrina, and I sat in our kayaks, floated and stared.

We came to Caye Caulker, a diving and snorkeling paradise set amid the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, in search of warm water and relaxation. We also longed for some place cheap and relatively undeveloped to spend a quick vacation.

Five nights of lodging, the flight from the United States and shuttle flight from Belize City to Caye Caulker cost $600 apiece, so the price was right, although a student backpacker could stay for weeks with that amount of cash.

We realized it would be a low-key vacation immediately upon landing on the small airstrip, the only pavement on the island. An old woman approached as we stepped from the rattling single-engine airplane, grabbed our bags and got our first look around.

The airport terminal consisted of a small plywood shack. Coconut trees twisted in the distance. Most notable was the lack of people: There were no haggling taxi drivers vying for our fare, no other tourists. Just us and the old woman.

Often upon landing in low-rent, foreign destinations, I've had to fight through gaggles of locals selling overpriced tourist junk. It was calming to land unannounced and anonymous.

The woman pointed us down a sand road toward town, population 1,000. We removed our shoes and set out in search of the Trends Hotel, where we were expected. Or so we hoped.

We soon found the Trends office.

Like nearly every structure on the island, the hotel was made of brightly painted plywood elevated several feet by stilts. When the seas get rough or the big winds blow everything away, they just rebuild atop the stilts. There's something refreshing about a place where none of the structures are permanent.

After walking the town, which consists of two parallel streets with small stores, a couple of groceries, and local and tourist restaurants, we sized up the shops offering snorkeling excursions. We signed up for several half-day snorkeling trips that cost $20 to $25, gear included.

During one of these ventures our guide-boat captain-cook took us through a manatee preserve about an hour's ride away on another caye (the word is synonymous with island here). He cut the engines and pushed the boat by pole. Since the coral reefs break the waves farther out to sea, the water around this island and Caye Caulker was gentle.

We gawked at the lugubrious, bottom-feeding manatees -- hippos with flippers. Mayans hunted them for ages and used their tough hides to cover shields. Unfortunately, motor boats, hunting and habitat loss have killed off most of the gentle herbivores.

We then proceeded to Goff's Caye, an island about 100 yards across with a dozen coconut trees, white sand and coral reefs. As we snorkeled, our captain lit a fire and cooked foil-wrapped packets of snapper, onions and potatoes and a pot of coconut rice.

Our second snorkeling excursion brought us to the Hol-Chan marine preserve, an underwater park of extensive reefs where the colorful fish, rays and grouper were most plentiful because no fishing is allowed. A park ranger in a motor boat collected our admission and handed us tickets to this underwater park.

According to our guide, a native of El Salvador with vacuum cleaner bag-size lungs that allowed him to hold his breath for long periods, Hol-Chan means deep channel. We soon found out why.

As we flippered through the shallows, dazzled by the parrot fish nipping at the coral, we suddenly came to the edge of a shelf that dropped into a 30-foot channel. Feeling bold, I followed the guide as he plunged to the bottom and swam through a small cave -- a major no-no among safety-conscious divers, but what the heck.

Later, we motored to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the best-known of Belize's islands and also the most developed. Compared to better-known and overbuilt Caribbean resort islands, San Pedro is still small. Nevertheless, it held none of the charm of Caye Caulker. College kids looking for an exotic Spring Break drinking destination would probably love it.

Which brings up a note of warning to folks considering a trip to Caye Caulker: Don't expect white sandy beaches. The island has none. Swimmers jump off the numerous docks and piers, but travelers who want to oil up and flop on a beach during their vacation should go elsewhere.

The lack of a big beach is likely why Caye Caulker has kept its charm, although it's just a matter of time before a developer brings in some barges of sand and builds a beach, as has been done on some of the other cayes.

Most of the small cayes have no beaches because of the way they were formed, by mangrove trees. Mangroves knot the shorelines and spread by dropping 6-inch pods that float until they strike ground in shallow water. Then they set out roots and begin the process all over. Over the ages, islands form.

The mangrove forests are viewed as swamplands by resort developers, who have chopped away great swaths of the trees in parts of Belize to create golf courses and hotels for the rich and famous. But without the mangroves, there would be no islands, no manatees, fish or wildlife.

On the north side of Caye Caulker is a 105-acre forest preserve, a littoral forest that was a coconut grove before Hurricane Hattie in 1961. Here can be found abundant wildlife, some species rarely seen elsewhere.

Throughout Belize can be spotted the keel-billed toucan, called the "bill bird" locally, noted for its enormous beak and bright coloration. It is the national bird of Belize.

Locals say an occasional crocodile can still be spotted among the mangrove thickets. It sounded dubious. As proof, they said dogs occasionally disappear in the night. Dogs don't swim for the mainland, so they must provide an occasional midnight snack for crocs.

How could I dispute this?

The islanders are a mix of Mayans, expatriate Americans and Europeans, and others of Afro-Caribbean descent. The food is part Central American -- beans, tortillas -- and part Caribbean, with coconut appearing in many dishes. We ate fish every day and, after some snooping, found which restaurants cooked local food and which served tourist junk.

Lobster, shrimp, barracuda, snapper (curried, barbecued or fried and served with piles of coconut rice) could all be had for $5 to $10.

For our money, the best food on Caye Caulker was served at Wish Willy. Wayne introduced me to Wish Willy, a mellow, dread-locked, expatriate American.

Wish Willy's real name is Maurice -- I didn't ask -- and he lived for 25 years in Chicago before moving back to his native Belize to escape the American hustle.

For lunch, he says he had prepared himself Boil Up, unappetizingly pronounced "Bile Up."

Good enough for the chef, good enough for me. I told him we would be by at 7 p.m.

Bile Up consisted of poached snapper, plantain and dense, potato-like root vegetables such as yucca and some others I had never heard of. We washed it down with several Belikin beers and lingered in the warm night listening to jazz under the coconut-frond roof that covered Wish Willy's outdoor restaurant.

The next morning I bought a ripe papaya the size of a football, sliced it and squeezed a fresh lime over it and feasted on the hotel porch with Sabrina. Nothing like a papaya to clean the system.

Of all the beverages I consumed, the homemade ginger ale in a restaurant called Martinez was one of the must-do gustatory experiences on Caye Caulker.

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But of all the activities, food or people, the kayaks provided the most fun on the island. We rented them for four hours for $15 apiece and paddled along the town's waterfront of coconut trees, fishing piers and plywood hotels.

We planned to slip through to the other side of Caye Caulker by floating through a channel that sliced through the narrowest section of the island. We emerged on the landward side of the island and paddled into a wide inlet to the north. The inlet was sheltered from waves and wind, and the water was clear and gentler than a lazy lake.

Initially, we "oohed and aahed" at the fish but soon stopped speaking because our voices were the only human sounds. We explored several narrow channels crowded with overhanging mangrove trees, then tied our kayaks to a fishing shanty on stilts about 100 feet from shore and ate lunch. Cormorants so well-fed they had time to relax and digest lazed in the mangrove trees, whose fingerlike roots knotted the shoreline. Pelicans, the belly floppers of the diving shorebirds, plopped into the shallows and gulped fish by the gullet-load. Eventually, the blazing sun began to cook our Yankee flesh, and we decided to paddle home. A young Australian couple sat on a storm wall near the channel and asked where we had rented the kayaks.

Still dazzled by the wildlife, I shouted across the water to them: "Do not leave the island until you go over there. It's beautiful." Then I wondered whether it was a mistake to share that information.

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