Feb 10 2009

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Top 10 dive sites for your Caribbean vacation

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Caribbean vacation By Ted Alan Stedman

Who hasn’t wondered about the excitement and beauty of scuba diving? If you’ve traveled to tropical locations where the sun, sand and water take center stage, you’ve at least flirted with the idea of taking the plunge. And if you already dive, you don’t need to be convinced. Either way, a Caribbean vacation is an easy proposition as more resorts welcome divers with special packages and amenities that make it safe and easy to blow bubbles in the big blue. Here are my Top 10 that won’t disappoint.

1. Grand Cayman — This British overseas territory gets my vote for some of the best underwater visibility anywhere, not to mention incredible dive-from-shore sites to fish-filled grottos. With over 200 cataloged dive sites, this central Caribbean island nation is as dive-centric as they come. And so are its many resorts. What makes The Reef Resort a standout is its location away from the bustling Seven Mile Beach, on the more mellow East End of Grand Cayman Island. Every unit of this family-run, 110-suite, all-inclusive resort has sweeping views of the sea. Guests are privy to its exclusive 1,600-foot stretch of private primo beach, where the turquoise Caribbean gently laps the sugar-white shore. Diving? The resort’s on-site dive shop, Ocean Frontiers, makes it easy to visit any of  the East End’s 55 named sites, distinguished by unspoiled mid-reef dives and tarpon-filled coral canyons right offshore.

Cozumel-Vacation 2. Cozumel — For me, a Cozumel vacation is the perfect getaway where spicy culture, world-class diving and the laid-back Caribbean vibe come together. Dive brochures list over 30 popular dive sites, such as Palancar Reef, a headliner known for canyons and an abrupt wall where divers scoot like gliders as they ride Cozumel’s famed current. The new 5-star Fiesta Americana Resort puts divers within easy striking distance of Palancar and other famed sites. Located a few clicks south of San Miguel and tucked in a leafy tropical forest, this 224-room resort is a tropical haven with its private beach and lovely shoreside snorkeling. The multiple swimming pools, a jogging trail and other top-shelf amenities make for quality terra firma time. And when the reefs call, divers can suit up on the resort’s private pier, from where multiple daily dive boats head out to sites just minutes away.

3. Bahamas — If convenience and quality are part of a dive equation, you can’t beat a close-to-home Bahamas vacation. This sovereign commonwealth has serious bragging rights that entice divers, and one of the best places to go overboard is from Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros Island. Family-owned Small Hope is the granddaddy of water-oriented Bahaman resorts, being the first in the region to offer resort course diving instruction and one-on-one dive tours. The informal resort blends perfectly with the Andros — said to be the largest unexplored island in the greater Caribbean — with 21 one- and two-bedroom hand-built cottages right on the beach in full view of the sea and perched beneath lazy, shady palms. Offshore, divers could spend weeks exploring the Andros Barrier Reef’s chasms known as Blue Holes, and the walls descending into the famous underwater canyon known at the Tongue of the Ocean.

Dominican-Republic-vacation 4. Dominican Republic — The thing about the DR that impresses divers is its enormity: two oceans, a system of inland freshwater caves, offshore wall dives, a smattering of satellite islands, protective coral reefs, deep harbors, 437 cataloged shipwrecks, a coastline of over 800 miles and the largest annual migration of humpback whales on earth. There are dozens of good resort choices where divers and non-divers alike will both enjoy their Caribbean vacations. Among those would be the Occidental Grand Punta Cana on the island’s eastern extremity that thrusts into the turquoise Atlantic with powdered sugar beaches. This Spanish style, all-inclusive resort has it all, from 865 luxe rooms, seven bars and lagoon-style pool, to picturesque coconut palms dotting the beach and an impressive list of daily activities, including diving. Daily dives with PADI- and SSI-certified instructors are just minutes away to sites known for manta rays, scores of reef fish species, manatees and more.

5. Bonaire — Get a group of seasoned Caribbean divers together, ask them their favorite spots, and it’s guaranteed Boniare will be at or near the top. In the Dutch Caribbean, Bonaire is famous for over 50 easily accessible shore dives, along with offshore drop zones that put the tally to 86 named sites. Another plus is the variety of dives for rank beginners through highly advanced divers. If you do dive you know what it takes to become a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Gold Palm Resort, which is why Plaza Resort Bonaire is dive-central for so many bubble blowers here. Between dives guests enjoy sizeable suites or villas, spacious pool, classy dining and bars, and nightly dining specials like Lobster and Salsa nights, and an elaborate beach BBQ. When it’s dive time, the resort’s dive staff and five-boat fleet whisk you away to some of the Caribbean’s best reef dives.

USVI-Vacation6. U.S. Virgin Islands — I credit my first U.S. Virgin Islands vacation with turning me into a diver. Every time I return I’m reminded of why I love “America’s Caribbean.” Of the sister islands (St. Croix and St. Thomas), St. John has the most peaceful quality. Two-thirds of SJ is protected park land, not including nearly 13,000 submerged acres in Coral Reef National Monument. If the idea of diving and staying in eco-style digs is appealing, head to Maho Bay Camps, the brainchild of an eco-resort pioneer who wanted to emphasize low-impact accommodations. Maho’s 114 tent cottages with private balconies are wonderful places, perched in the trees and connected by walkways. A full restaurant and other services are on-site as well, including the Maho Bay Water Sports Center, which offers PADI-certified instructors who lead dives to extraordinary reefs where tarpon, Spanish mackerel and parrotfish are as predictable as they are plentiful.

Caribbean vacation 7. Utila — Touch down on Utila’s dirt airstrip and you’ll think you’ve entered a time warp. High-rises, shopping malls and golf courses? No, no and no. Indeed, part of the charm of little Utila, among the Bay Islands of Honduras, is that it’s a throwback to simpler days. And it so happens that diving here borders the epic, its gin-clear water flourishing with whale sharks and 95 percent of all marine species occurring throughout the Caribbean. I speak from experience saying the best dive resort is the Laguna Beach Resort, located on an offshore islet huge on the Gilligan factor and similarly big in its quaint, comfortable approach to resort life. Guest count is limited to just 40, who stay in woodsy two- and three-bedroom bungalows with modern conveniences. Meanwhile, the dive shop, its super staff and three large dive boats ensure trips to the world’s second largest fringe coral reef are nothing short of spectacular.

8. Curacao — Curacao — the name alone conjures the elements of island perfection. Another Dutch Caribbean island, this tropical jewel is famous in dive circles for its shipwreck dives and amazingly healthy reefs teeming with coral, sponges and butterfly, French angle and parrotfish. If you aren’t a diver when you arrive, chances are you’ll become certified before your Curacao vacation is over. That’s one of the reasons behind the PADI 5-Star Gold Palm and National Geographic Dive Center at the Hilton Curacao in Willemstad. Besides its well-appointed rooms, suites, two private beaches, sprawling pool, casino, tennis courts, golf and other amenities, the Hilton has a dedicated dive center aimed at recreational divers, and offers a multitude of certification courses to improve dive skills. Dive sites are rarely more than a few minutes offshore, and outings run the gamut from beginner to advanced dives, along with playful encounters with dolphins and stingrays.

9. Turks & Caicos — Lately, this 40-island British Crown Colony has become a playground of the rich and famous. Not surprising with its pristine white beaches, perfectly arched palms, multi-hued water and tony resorts. But these same attributes are there for the rest of us. And if you’re a diver, all the better. Guests at Ocean Club Resort, located at Grace Bay on Providenciales, or “Provo,” can have the best of both words here. Plunked on an immaculate beach, the resort’s simple elegance and casual atmosphere have a way of making guests feel special. Spas, restaurants, a collection of studio and spacious three-bedroom condos and other prim amenities make sure of it. And catering to divers is the resort’s affiliation with Provo Turtle Divers, the most experienced here. Ask about Ocean Club’s “Seven Nights in Diver’s Heaven” package that showcases the islands underwater diversity and offers options for add-on excursions.

Belize vacation 10. Belize — If you dive but haven’t yet visited Belize…well, it’s just a matter of time. This compact, English-speaking Central American nation boasts an 185-mile barrier reef dotted by some 200 cayes spanning 3,000 square miles of protected waters. There are hundreds of world-class dives, virtually all with 100-foot visibility. Marine life is just as epic with some 400 fish species. You can sample a good chunk of it from the Sunbreeze Hotel, an oceanfront property in the heart of lively San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. There are 42 non-smoking seaside rooms, as well as 21 deluxe and five premium rooms with different in-room amenity levels. Spend your days diving though the hotel’s PADI dive shop, Aqua Belize Divers, which shuttles you to dozens of sites along the 25-mile reef just a half-mile offshore. Come evenings, explore the town’s many bars, restaurants and shops that will never cease to entertain.

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By ski, bike, kayak, safari vehicle and on foot, Ted Alan Stedman has journeyed in six continents and hopes to soon close in on number seven: Antarctica. The Dever-based writer is a former ski journalist for the Rocky Mountain News, and these days is a regular contributor to Sport Diver, Islands, Sunset, Outside and Outdoor Photographer magazines.

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