The day before the presentation of the 2015 BTB Awards at the Holiday Hotel in San Pedro, Belize, it seems fitting to write about Miss Celi McCorkle. The woman who opened and ran the very first tourist hotel in all of Belize. Who brought tourism to Belize – 50 years ago.
Earlier this year, we sat down together for lunch, with her daughter Lisa, and I got what she called “her very first interview”.
Picture this if you can. The bustling tourist town of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize about 60 years ago. The island that now is estimated at 20,000 residents +, was inhabited by less than 500. And there wasn’t a motorized vehicle in sight – no motor boats and definitely no cars or golf carts.
A young San Pedrana girl sat in her skirt (NO SHORTS in those days) on a coconut log on the beach in front of what is today’s Holiday Hotel.
Back then, there was no hotel. There really wasn’t much of a town – San Pedro was a tiny village. In fact, Ambergris Caye, had no running water, no plumbing, no TV, no electricity at all…
In this spot, there was a house and a lot where boats were built and then, in front, 35 additional feet of beach extending out to the sea. A beach that, when the tide went out, was studded with live conch and lobster. Shellfish so plentiful that residents would wade out and collect food for dinner.
The girl had never left the small island. Neither had her friends or most of her family. Only the town’s fishermen went off island. But she was a dreamer. This girl would sit out on the coconut log and watch the daily international flights fly far overhead. Wondering what was out there…
This same girl would later become the first female from the island to graduate high school, to wear shorts and to get her pilot’s license. She would live in Belize City and then in the US, she would return to open the very first tourist hotel in Belize, she would help bring SCUBA diving to the country and travel the world – one of the first to promote tourism in Belize.
Pretty incredible, Miss Celi Nunez McCorkle. Who, 50 years ago this past June, opened the Holiday Hotel in now downtown San Pedro – when Cancun was a speck on the map with a handful of coconut farmers…when couples in the US were honeymooning at Niagara Fall or the Poconos and the more adventurous headed to Acapulco, Mexico.
Miss Celi pioneered the tourist industry with her hotel, her restaurant and deli and epic Holiday Hotel parties.
And sitting down with her and peppering her (and her daughter Lisa) with questions about her life, life in San Pedro decades ago and how it has changed had me thinking about writing a book. The story is that good and that inspiring.
A huge imagination, a great sense of self and guts…Miss Celi has them all. And her life so far has been incredible.
I might just beg her to let me write that book some day so let me give you just a handful of the amazing high lights and just interesting facts that I learned about Miss Celi’s life.
As a child and an early reader, the primary school in San Pedro used the classic Dick, Jane & Spot books. Dick and Jane always had a picket fence (and a refrigerator)…and it represented the perfect house to Miss Celi.
Ever since she opened the Holiday Hotel in 1965, there has been a white picket fence on the property AND there has always been a coconut log (like the one she used to sit on to daydream and watch the planes) in front of the hotel.
Encouraged by her teacher, Miss Signa Yorke, Miss Celi Nunez applied for a scholarship and was the first female to attend high school from the island. It required going to school in Belize City (and boarding with two single women there) since San Pedro High School didn’t open until 1971.
After high school, Miss Celi worked at a lumber company in Belize City and would return to the island on holidays. On one visit, John Grief landed the very first sea plane just off the coast…and as he later said, he saw Miss Celi and it was love at first sight.
They were soon married.
John and his bride relocated to Paducah, Kentucky where John worked at Modine Manufacturing and Celi had two children, CJ and John. Paducah was an active summer tourist area called “the land between the lakes” and Celi watched people come for water sports, especially water skiing (on less than Caribbean clear waters) but dreamed of returning to Belize.
The seed was planted in her head. Eight years passed and by selling Tupperware (some which is still used in Celi’s Deli in San Pedro today!), she saved up $61, packed a suitcase and decided to find her way back home.
That plan fell through but she talked her husband into visiting San Pedro and then after that…into moving back home.
Miss Celi didn’t just bring her Tupperware and her ideas for a potential tourism industry to Belize. She also brought the classic US recipe for coleslaw. She made the first batches of coleslaw (in 5lb pig tail buckets) on the island from the Lions’ Club when she returned. Now it is a standard with just about every plate of food you get in San Pedro.
She and her husband purchased a lot for the hotel, and still without electricity or water, opened a 5 room hotel. Their first guest was a man named Jim Woodman, a travel writer for (now defunct) TAN Airlines.
He sailed over on a boat called the Elsa P from Belize City – asked Miss Celi the price and she said…”I don’t know…$10bzd?” That price included meals and laundry.
He returned and wrote an article about his trip for the Chicago Tribune. You can see the article below. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?
Please read the article…it’s excellent…and shows what a small village San Pedro was. In mid-60s, the RT price from Chicago to Belize City was $229.20. (I used an inflation adjuster calculator and that price is $1600+ in 2015 prices! – no more complaining about high airfares!)
The original 5 rooms are still there but the entire Holiday Hotel, still with the white picket fence, has kept up with the times…constantly evolving.
Miss Celi, along with Jerry McDermott, who opened a hotel later up the beach (you can read about him in this article: “The Man Who Brought SCUBA Diving To Belize”) traveled to trade shows and events promoting tourism and starting to answer the question from the classic t-shirts:
In the beginning, she was often the only woman at these events.
The Holiday’s Caprice Restaurant has a gorgeous lounge and deck with THE VIEW…
They now host THE BIGGEST Halloween party (and New Year’s Party) each year…
Here’s a picture of Miss Celi’s daughter Lisa (and friends), the grand mistress of the 2014 Halloween party.
And the Holiday Hotel is still one of the most popular spots in town – hosting new guests and those that have been returning for decades.
Please note that the very first hotel was the Ft George in Belize City – but it was primarily a spot for businessmen and government officials. It opened in the then capital city in 1953.
Congratulations Holiday Hotel. 50 YEARS! And to Miss Celi for being an amazing innovator and inspiration to the entire community.
What a lady. OH! And I did ask her how she looks so young! She said that as a kid and young lady, they would moisturize with “coconut trash”…after grinding the coconuts for milk and oil. The left overs would be used on your face and body.
Hmmm….coconut oil is a magical elixir!
For more information on the Holiday Hotel, please check out their website. Great place, great location and KILLER banana cheesecake.
AND if you have stayed at the Holiday Hotel and know Miss Celi, please feel free to comment…tell me your experiences…I’m sure many of you consider here family.