SANDY CAY, Honduras - It takes a while to sink in.
A few hours pass, and it still feels surreal, as if you're merely house-sitting, borrowing someone else's wealthy lifestyle until they return and relieve you of your time in paradise.
But after a day or so, the fantasy becomes reality: You're on an island all your own, the days and nights and sand and sea are all yours, and there's no one to feel beholden to - not even the family of pelicans guarding the wooden dock in the turquoise water.
This is life on Sandy Cay, one of two unbelievably affordable private islands for rent off the coast of Utila, itself a tiny island less than 20 miles from mainland Honduras. And though "affordable" is relative, it's hard to argue with a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house shrouded from civilization by a thicket of palm trees, perched on a patch of white sand out in the Caribbean Sea for $100 a night.
Purchased by an area family in 1968 and developed (if you can call it that) a few decades later, the entire island is about the size of a football field, with the house at the lopsided west end, perfectly situated for watching the sun drop into the sea each evening. The east end comes to a point and is littered with driftwood, surrounded by coral reefs flanking the gently sloping sandbar, creating easy access for backyard snorkeling.
Backyard snorkeling on a private island. It really doesn't get much better than that.
Why, then, isn't Sandy Cay booked solid year round? And why does it cost less than half the price of an average hotel stay in Manhattan and a fraction of the price of one on a typical private isle? In part, perhaps, because it's still family-owned and -operated, which means that frills are few, their importance debatable on a plot of land this serene.
Situated about half a mile west of Utila and a short boat ride from the Utila cays - tiny freckles of islands that have been populated by the same handful of families for centuries - Sandy Cay is paradise on a budget. There are no clocks and no telephones, just a shortwave radio for emergencies that doubles as a kind of Caribbean room service: Guests are allowed one radio call per day to island proprietor George Jackson, who will fetch sundries, fresh fish, firewood and the like from his home on nearby Pigeon Cay and bring it over by boat to his rental island.
Jackson and his son, Barry (who helps with the business), have the easy, friendly disposition of people born and raised in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. They introduce visitors to Sandy Cay as if it were their woodland cabin. At the outset of my three-day visit earlier this year, Jackson offered a "little tour" - the gas stove and matches; the fridge and shortwave radio; the barbecue decorated with conch shells; the toilets that operate on hand-filled tanks.
"It's a big island," Jackson joked. "You could be gone for days!" And then he bade us farewell and headed to his boat, its motor rumbling, steadying and then fading in the distance.
All that was left in his wake were two giddy city slickers and, now settling back onto their dock, the family of pelicans. And, of course, the house.
Built in 1990 in a modern Asian style, with sliding doors that open to catch Caribbean breezes and close to protect against tropical storms, Sandy Cay's rental house is perfectly planned though modest (to the point, at times, of being frustrating).
Living and sleeping quarters are divided among two structures separated by wraparound wooden decks. One larger master bedroom and a smaller one with twin beds share a half-bathroom in one structure. Across the deck is another structure consisting of a small kitchen, its window opening up, cabana-style, to serve an outdoor seating area; another small bathroom; and a roomy living room sporting worn rattan furniture and half-empty bookshelves strewn with discarded best-sellers from vacations past (Clive Cussler takes the prize with five books, barely beating out Stephen King and Dean Koontz, with four each).
The shower is carved into a cement corner at the back of the second structure, open to the elements with a pleasant view of the sea.
All of the basics are there. But they're basic. Really basic.
On our first night, thrilled with the idea of an al fresco meal of fresh-caught snapper consumed at sunset, we got to work cooking. Or tried. Armed with a few matchbooks each - me for the gas stove on which to sauté plantains and rice, my beau at the barbecue - our swearing at the humidity-drenched matches quickly filled the quiet air.
It took 15 damp matches to light the stove, and who knows how many more to get the barbecue going. Eventually we ate, sipping almost cold beer brought over from the cays. Everything was bought and brought on Jackson's boat, from drinking water to salt and pepper.
When we left, we took everything with us. The contents of the open kitchen don't stand a chance against the blackbirds, which swoop in at night to pluck away at bags of rice and cereal.
So cooking was hard. But relaxing was easy.
The skies stocked with balmy weather and the shallow sandbar flushed with clear water radiating heat from the sun, we alternated sitting, snorkeling, catnapping and exchanging knowing smiles that spoke to our surroundings.