Castaway By Choice: Exploring the Private Island Resort of Cayo Espanto, Belize

Castaway By Choice: Exploring the Private Island Resort of Cayo Espanto, Belize

Home to just 18 guests at any time, this barefoot chic retreat is paradise for those looking for total relaxation

The tale behind the origin of Cayo Espanto, the now legendary luxe private island resort-to-the-stars, goes something like this. About 20 years ago, an adventurous and entrepreneurial young former army brat, Jeff Gram, picked up a stomach bug (he calls it “gringo fever”) while traveling in Guatemala. As soon as he recovered, he was off to nearby Belize, reputedly a divers’ paradise, and almost as soon as he arrived, as Jeff puts it, he was hooked on the country and its residents. Even more importantly, he had at last found the site to build his childhood castaway fantasy, a private tropical island for family and friends. (And as it turned out later, for Hollywood A-listers).

The object of that eureka moment, call it love at first sight, was a scrubby, swampy few acres of not quite island in the brilliantly blue Caribbean. There was nothing on the small piece of land. In fact, there was barely a tree. While most other people, even those with similar childhood dreams and as eager to make those dreams a reality, would not have given Cayo Espanto a second thought. Jeff Gram, however, had a vivid imagination. 

Jeff bought the tiny spit of land off the coast of Ambergris Caye. People called him crazy, but he was characteristically unfazed. With the help of his team back in Fayetteville, North Carolina (the base of operations of his successful auto accessories business) and with coordination from his right-hand man and longtime pal, David Benzaquen, Jeff set out to create his fantasy island. He dredged and hauled, and filled boats with sand, gravel, soil, trees, and flowers. Every single thing that it would take to create a tropical paradise island was built from scratch except, of course, the radiant sun and cerulean sea which were abundant. Now Cayo Espanto’s CEO, David laughingly remembers those days, “Jeff calls from Belize and says, ‘We’re going to get a team together and build a resort. Send me a boat in a suitcase…an inflatable boat in a suitcase.’ David Benzaquen says he was astonished. “I didn’t even think you could do that, but Jeff said he needed it to get around.” He sent the boat.

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Two decades later Cayo Espanto, located off the coast of Belize, just a seven-minute ride from the village of San Pedro on chi-chi Ambergris Caye, is a fabled treasure of private island living. The tiny, verdant island hosts seven individual villas constructed of local plantation hardwoods that sit adjacent to, or even over, the water. The names of the inviting small villas, such as Casa Estrella and Casa Brisa, evoke dreams of night stars, warm breezes, and romance. Highlights of each of the one- and two-bedroom villas include amenities such as infinity edge plunge pools, outdoor showers, private docks, wraparound verandas and an array of sliding and folding louvered doors that offer panoramic views of the sea. A further six of these simple but ultra-chic villas are hidden away in a forest of several hundred coconut palms, sea almond trees, mangroves and bursts of hibiscus and red and pink bougainvillea.

The most recently built home—Casa Ventanas—enjoys its seclusion another way. It is at the end of a 150 foot dock that extends out over the water and boasts not only 360-degree views of the Caribbean but with its glass floor, provides glimpses of parrotfish, green razor fish, and bright yellow butterfly fish in the water below.

Jeff’s idea for secluded cabana-like structures was made a reality by Boulder, Colorado architect, Garth Braun, while the interior spaces were the work of Southern California designer Darrell Schmitt, who is known for his elegantly casual resorts and private residences around the world including the Peninsula Beverly Hills. The atmosphere Gram wanted for the hideaways was one of “barefoot elegance”, says David Benzaquen. That rustic simplicity but luxurious ambience is created with custom made hardwood, bamboo, rattan and wicker furnishings, a palette of whites, creams and pops of color and king size beds draped romantically (and practically) with mosquito netting.

Cayo Espantos’ blend of pampering, service, and attention to the individual guest (there are no more than 18 guests at a time) actually begins before arrival. Soon-to-be members of the island retreat’s family are asked long in advance for their preferences in food, drink and preferred level of privacy. When guests actually do arrive, each villa is assigned is own butler and personal chef. Guest’s needs are magically fulfilled. Want to eat a gourmet vegetarian meal on your veranda by candlelight? No problem. Want to propose to your own true love underwater or in a helicopter? Done! In need of some quality time? Slide your veranda door closed and the only whispers you will hear are the sounds of katydids and the wind in the coconut palms.

With a staff to guest ratio that is 2:1, a stay at Cayo Espanto is like being the spoiled only child in an ultra-wealthy two-parent family. To say the staff is attentive is an understatement. Sometimes so attentive that one might think the towel on the dock waiting for you after a kayak paddle or the drink that appears on your veranda was the result of some David Copperfield sleight of hand.

David Benzaquen admits many of the guests over the years have been “special”, and by special he means that while all are treated with great care, many of Cayo Espanto’s guests (among whom are folks like Bill Gates, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo Di Caprio) are used to a certain level of attention. “They don’t wait for flights. They actually don’t wait for anything,” he says laughing. But all visitors, even those who don’t have a paparazzi flown drone hovering over the island looking for tabloid-worthy photos of them, he says, are special. Every guest of the hideaway island gets the same treatment.

Who would want to leave this personal paradise even for a moment? If a guest does hanker for a few adventures, there are underwater reefs to explore, bonefish to be snagged, and cultural expeditions to Mayan ruins to take part in. Just say the word. But says David, “To be honest, our guests don’t go to town much. Cayo Espanto is where you come to get away from it all.”

Find out more about Cayo Espanto