story and photos by Susanna Starr
Arriving by one of the many boats that operate between various resorts on the sun-kissed island of Ambergris Caye, off the mainland of Belize, we were deposited at the sunny dock of the Phoenix resort and greeted by a friendly staff member. There, an experience of luxury welcomed us in the person of Mark, one of the principals who operate this magnificently designed resort. The stunning 2nd floor condo we were shown to was surrounded by a sweeping terrace, with one side facing the beach and the Caribbean and the other view of the central pools with their inviting lounges and umbrella tables, bordered by lush grass and flowering plants.
If luxury accommodations were on the agenda, this place had it all. The two-bedroom condo was not only amazingly spacious but the décor was outstanding, reflecting the taste and sensitivity of the owner, Kelly Kanabar nee McDermot, who designed all the furniture built by local Belizean artisans. The extensive array of art, all done by local artists, was a highly sophisticated collection of paintings and carvings. I spent the first half hour just looking at all of the details of the décor. If only I were getting married or just hosting a special party, there would be spaces for everyone to be outdoors at the tables, chairs and recliners generously situated on both the outdoor terraces.
Kelly has a special story…. her dad moved to this relatively undeveloped island in 1978, starting a small hotel on the beach where she lived in their house and went to the small, local school (still there) on the beach. It was sold in 1991 when she moved back to the mainland but bought back by her own consortium in 2004 when she returned from college. She had already started the Blue Water Grill (more about that later) in 2001 when she was just 23 where she has created a restaurant that reflects not only fine food and beautiful service, but the special atmosphere of an open-air restaurant on a Caribbean island with a relaxed, informal but elegant ambiance. As to be expected, the specialties here emphasize sea food dishes and we found the local grouper to be outstanding.
Shortly after creating Blue Water Grill, they began working on the vision of the condo-hotel they hoped to create. From the beginning, “it would be special and upscale” she says. And so it is. With help from her founding team which included her husband and their close friend, Mark, all of whom went to school together in Texas, and years of hard work, the Phoenix definitely is a rebirth of her father’s first small hotel, but on a luxurious scale. The ambiance, however elegant, is not pretentious. Rather they’ve created for their visitors an opportunity to share in their own special vision, with all the caring and consideration for details that went into its creation.
Care and consideration are the working words to describe Kelly. She constantly refers the the “great staff” who have a strong connection to the resort hotel as well as to its owner (some of whom she went to school with when they were all children). In keeping with her philosophy of “leaving the world a little better than you found it”, they offer a scholarship program to families of the staff to go on to higher education. They also have a program in the small town of Ladyville on the mainland of Belize, called Liberty House. Here they take care of and educate, through a Montessori program, babies and children up to the age of 18 who are in need, working on matching funds through donations. More about this program can be found on libertychildrenbelize.org.
In addition to the Phoenix, the family owns a well equipped wine shop in the town of San Pedro as well as the the wonderful beachfront Blue Water Grill. San Pedro is the postcard-like town in the center of the island, warm and colorful with its distinctly Caribbean atmosphere and lovely, lilting speech. The beachfront, which was so important to its history of a small fishing village, is now ringed by restaurants with local craftsmen showing and selling their wares, some of which are magnificent creations of local hardwood, such as special salad bowls as well as more representative carvings.
Here, too, in San Pedro, you can wander its main street lined with intriguing shops and restaurants or explore some of the small side streets. You’ll enjoy the absence of car traffic and take note of, or rent for yourself, a bicycle or electric cart, the more common modes of transportation.
Although this is still a small, intimate island where all the locals know each other, you’ll feel very much a part of it just about immediately. There are places to visit at night with music and dancing and the daytime provides a plethora of activities. These can range from deep sea diving, snorkeling and fishing, boating, kayaking, biking around the island, sampling some of the wonderful food at the variety of restaurants, or visiting some of the destinations like the famous Blue Hole.
The climate is generally sunny and warm during the months when winter in the U.S. and Canada sends folks looking for a respite from its icy grip. As Kelly says, “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” You might not want to live here permanently, but to visit and share in her vision as well as the magic of this small island in the sun might be the respite you need.
IF YOU GO
For more information:
Ambergris Caye, Belize, Central America
Both United and American Airways have flights from the U.S. to Belize, Central America.
By air one can travel from Belize City or Corozal (near the Mexican Border):
From Belize mainland or Chetumal, Mexico one may go by water taxi:
San Pedro Belize Express
San Pedro Water Taxi
While on the island, golf cart is the preferred means of transportation:
San Pedro Golf Cart Rental
Where to stay in luxury:
The Phoenix Resort
Palmilla Restaurant (Victoria House)
Admiral Nelson’s beach bar (Victoria House)
Blue Water Grill
Susanna Starr is a well-traveled and published travel writer, photographer, author, entrepreneur, speaker and artist. She holds a degree in philosophy from Stony Brook State University of New York. Susanna is the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association’s Regional Membership Coordinator for Oaxaca & Mexican Caribbean, Mexico and a Contributing Editor at FWT Magazine: food wine travel. Her books have achieved worldwide acclaim.