Approximately 450 Belize islands and islets stud the Belize Barrier Reef, the world's second-longest. Belize's islands are known as cayes, pronounced "keys" (like the Florida Keys). The largest Belize cayes, energetic Ambergris Caye and laid-back Caye Caulker, are traveler favorites, while the more isolated cayes and atolls exemplify that deserted island fantasy.
Northern Cayes & Atolls
Ambergris Caye (pronounced either am-BUR-gris key or am-BUR-grease key) is the largest island in Belize, stretching along the Belize Barrier reef all the way to Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. The island's biggest settlement is San Pedro Town, a busy, boisterous village home to the majority of the island's restaurants, bars, stores, and hotels. Other hotels and resorts claim their spots on the northern coast; even the most luxurious maintain a distinctly Belizean flair. Like other Belize cayes, Ambergris Caye is a fantastic destination for water sports, especially snorkeling and Scuba diving. Many travelers also use the island as a base for exploring other Belize islands, and even attractions on the mainland like Altun Ha and the Belize caves.
Caye Caulker is Ambergris Caye's little sister island: a smaller, laid-back version, more popular with backpackers than luxury travelers. Caye Caulker's attractions might be smaller in scale than Ambergris Caye's, but they're just as great. There are no cars on Caye Caulker, only golf carts, bikes and foot traffic – which accounts for the "Go Slow" signs affixed to several of the Belize island's palm trees. There isn't much in the way of luxury resorts – even the largest hotels only have a dozen rooms or so – but there are plenty of mid-range Caye Caulker hotels, condos and backpacker hostels. Lastly, there aren't any prime beaches on Caye Caulker; however, "The Split" north of town is great for swimming and socialization, and incredible diving and snorkeling is a quick boat ride away.
Due east of Belize City, Turneffe Atoll is the largest atoll in Belize. The atoll is famed for its wall dives, often sought by divers on day trips from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. For travelers who wish to linger, there are two high-end resorts on Turneffe Atoll.
St. George's Caye
Believe it or not, in the 18th century, the largest settlement in Belize – then known as British Honduras – used to be on St. George's Caye. In honor of a battle won against the Spanish there in 1798, Belize celebrates St. George's Caye Daye nationwide on September 10th. Today, the island is home to the luxury St. George's Caye Resort (age 15+ only).
Lighthouse Reef and the Great Blue Hole
The Blue Hole is undoubtedly one of Belize's – and all Central America's – most amazing attractions. A part of Lighthouse Reef, the Great Blue Hole is a giant sinkhole made famous by Jacques Cousteau when he named it one of the world's top ten scuba sites. Most people make the dive on day trips from Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker; however, travelers can also stay in basic cabins on Lighthouse Reef's Long Caye.
Southern Cayes & Atolls
Tobacco Caye isn't for travelers looking for lively nightlife, five-star accommodations, or any scene other than warm waters, palm trees, and a star-streaked sky. The tiny Belize island is home to a population of just twenty-five, give or take, plus however many travelers are residing in the island's handful of guesthouses at the time. It takes just a minute or two to walk across Tobacco Caye, and a few minutes more to walk around it. On this remote island, the attractions are simple but super: scuba diving, snorkeling right offshore, dining on the catch of the day, and relaxing in a hammock under the palms.
South Water Caye
Like Tobacco Caye, South Water Caye is a remote Belize island that attracts travelers seeking solace over crowds, and relaxation over resort-style luxury. At fifteen acres, South Water Caye is a bit larger than Tobacco Caye and boasts a rare sandy beach at the island's southern end.
Glover's Reef Atoll
Obviously, diving, snorkeling, and fishing are big in Belize's Islands. However, Glover's Reef Atoll, the southernmost of Belize's atolls, might just be the prime destination for Caribbean explorers. The biodiversity in Glover's Reef Marine Reserve is unmatched; it's been named a World Heritage Site under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Most of Glover's Reef residents work at the Wildlife Conservancy's Marine Research Station, but travelers can stay in dorms, thatched cabins, or camp at the Glover's Reef Resort.