Elain Genser in the Vancouver Sun:

Seeing the Caribbean from a Polynesian Sailboat

The following article appeared in the travel section of the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver, B.C., Canada:

In this installment of our weekly feature, Elain Genser of Nananimo recalls a blissful sailing vacation in the Caribbean.

After spending a month studying Spanish in the cold and spare highlands of northwest Guatemala I was desperate for sun and sea. In a magazine I found The Caribbean Experience on a sailboat — a 46-foot (14-meter) Polynesian (contact info@sailing-diving-guatemala.com for details on the trip).

I will go to amazing lengths to find a sailing experience in whatever country I may be visiting, and this was too good to resist. The price was more than reasonable at about $50 US a day.

I headed for the tiny town of Fronteras on the shores of the Rio Dulce River. I overnited in the Backpacker Hotel, a hostel run by teens raised in an orphanage called Casa Guatemala, which operates a home, school and farm down river from Fronteras. They run the hostel both to raise money and to train their youth in the tourism industry. The orphanage relies on volunteers from around the world to provide medical, dental, construction and child-care services.

After storing most of my belongings in a locker, I was picked up the next day by a small boat and transported to Las Sirenas where I met the crew and my new travel mates. The catamaran is owned and operated by a John Clark, an expatriate Texan, assisted by a mate and cook. The boat is equipped with snorkeling gear, paddle boards and a Zodiac. Our days usually began at five, as we crawled out of our berths to see the sun rise. Coffee and banana bread would appear to keep us happy while the cook prepared a five- star breakfast, which we ate, sitting on the deck. Then maybe we'd take a nap in the hammocks slung between the prow pontoons as we slowly sailed down river to the sea.

The Rio Dulce is a primeval river bordered by jungle and traveled by locals in dugout canoes. As well, canopied motor boats transport day tourist from the bridge at Fronteras to the community of Livingston, which sits on the ocean's edge. On the river we passed islands covered with birds-cormorants, pelicans and many others I could not begin to name.

Stopping briefly in Livingston for our exit papers, we sailed smoothly and easily on perfect turquoise waters toward the barrier reefs of Belize. Once we entered the Caribbean, the crew went diving daily to spear fish and lobsters for dinner while we just lazed about.

We visited tiny isolated islands inhabited by one or two fisherman. They seemed happy to have company and offered us coconuts, slicing off the tops so we could drink the fresh coconut liquid. We read books; we snorkeled and paddled around on the surfboards. At night, we lay on the deck and looked at a sky filled with impossible stars after seeing yet another impossible sunset. It was like a dream.

While the boat could hold eight, we had only four passengers. My shipmates were Terry from Calgary, Rod from Ottawa and a Guatemalteca, Sara, who spoke only Spanish. We three Canadians had all been studying Spanish, so we had lots of time to practice with Sara and the crew.

The trip ended too soon. The boat was scheduled to sail next into Lake Izabel, with a new group to visit some hot waterfalls, so I signed on for another two days. With much regret, I finally left the boat to continue my trip north by chicken bus to Tikal and Belize, and eventually home.