The dream is real: you float in a warm, turquoise sea as schools of patterned fish meander past. Corals reach out. A turtle lifts its beak from snacking on a sponge to notice your bubbles and returns to eating. Diving is an exquisite experience and the Caribbean as well as the east and west coasts of Mexico host many of the best dive sites in the world. If you’ve caught the diving bug, the question is only where to make the dream come true.
What kind of diving experience do you long for? As a new diver, or once certified but out of practice, a resort dive to freshen skills with attentive dive masters will turn you into a relaxed and happy bubble blower. If you’re experienced, confident and looking to add colorful or rare species to your log book, finding a dive operator with deep local knowledge makes all the difference between a so-so trip and a satisfying sojourn.
If you only have a few days off, consider how close dive sites are to your resort or home. Spending hours getting to dive spots and returning cuts into water and vacation time. A live-aboard boat, or hiring a bare-boat charter with crew, also assures that you spend maximum time in the sea. Not only that, but settling permanent in a location well-suited for divers means you’ll never have to factor in travel time ever again.
Options abound throughout the Caribbean and Mexican waters. Here are several locations to make your dive dreams come true and the best places to live if you’re a diver.
There are five protected islands within the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park with volcanic dive sites, finger reefs, and massive, underwater rock formations. All of them teem with sea life. Dive legend Jacques Cousteau had good reason to call the Sea of Cortez the “Aquarium of the World.”
Within two hours from Los Angeles, the stark Sierra Giganta mountains tower above a bright blue sea, dotted with red volcanic islands. The trim Loreto airport is no stranger to divers and fishermen hauling bags and coolers in and out of the boarding areas. Dive expeditions leave from town, from resorts or from various moorings nearby.
The Villa del Palmar Beach Resort is statuesque on a private bay about ten miles south of town. A dedicated dive staff with gear and small boats wait a few steps from the bathing beach. PADI training for dive certification is also available and the curious can sample diving in one of the pools. The spacious suites in the Villa del Palmar face the bay, and hiking trails, fine and casual dining and the Sabila Spa and Wellness Center are near. The Loreto region has long been an expat destination, so the city and area is dotted with many luxurious accommodations and mooring facilities.
A world-class dive destination, La Paz is a three-hour flight from Mexico City or Los Angeles. The drive north of the vacation capital of Los Cabos takes just as long—but be prepared to share the road with buses, trucks and cows. There are at least a dozen dive operators in the area. While famous for large pelagic species such as hammerheads and whale sharks, divers can swim through bait balls, play with sea lions and night divers encounter schools of Mobula rays. Consider the location of your accommodations and dive operation as most of the dive sites are a 30 minute to hour-long boat ride from the closest resorts.
Hotel Cantamar, the furthest northern dive resort, has an impressive squadron of new dive boats with Spartan resort rooms and vacation rental facilities. Shuttles run from downtown accommodations to the dive launch, about 20 minutes away. While close to diving, the Cantamar dining offerings don’t compete with the cafes and finer options along the Malecon or tucked within the main village.
La Concha Resort, ten minutes from downtown, is the home of the PADI 5 Star Cortez Club dive operation. The rooms have a ‘rustic chic’ style with gated condominiums adjacent to the hotel.
A pair of luxurious villas are available close to the Cortez Club dive operators in the Playa de La Paz gated community, but you could also live in Los Cabos and make frequent trips up.
The island of Cozumel, home to a wide variety of cherished dive spots, is close to the coastal playground of Playa del Carmen – a fifteen-minute ferry ride separates the two. Cozumel is well known as a sheltered underwater playground. Cruise ships dock close and the waterfront is dotted with boutique to moderate hotels, which are closest to the dive sites. Further out the road, major resorts dot the leeward side of the island.
The Sabor Cozumel Resort, formerly a Wyndham property, stretches along the longest beach on the island, about ten miles from town. The adult only, all-inclusive resort hosts a dozen lounges, bars and restaurant choices. Sand Dollar Sports has their own pier and PADI dive operation on-site. Scuba-to-advanced diving certifications are available. If you’re traveling with non-divers, helmet diving, snuba and snorkel tours are offered as well.
A short boat ride from the Yucatan playground of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is warmed by the sunrise as the easternmost point in Mexico. Mayan ruins and pioneer artifacts, marine parks and an underwater sculpture garden tempt visitors but the small island is famous as an ocean-focused destination for water lovers. There are diving options but many visit for the chance to snorkel with Whale Sharks who feed nearby during late fall and winter.
Everything is close on the petite island. The sleek, Euro-luxe Privilege Auxles Hotel is a few steps across from guide boats to the shark sites. Divers can delight in the underwater MUSA Sculpture Museum off the southern tip of the island. Glass bottom boats and snorkel tours are available. The project was opened in 2010 as a man-made reef for coral and marine life which are transforming the pieces.
Those looking for a secluded experience might favor docking at the private pier of the Mia Reef Isla Mujeres. The resort hides on the northernmost tip of the island above reefs and tidepools. Being a diving hub, there are plenty of first-rate dive resorts, but there are also plenty of private yacht experiences catered to divers.
The British Virgin Islands
Live a trade-wind fantasy while exploring more than 60 unspoiled islands, mooring in private bays, tying up dockside for happy hours only open to sailors and diving on a whim in emerald seas. The BVI’s are home to hundreds of dive sites scattered amongst islands and reefs. Most are only accessible via small sailboat and catamarans within view of cruise ships, whose draw confines them to deeper waters.
American visitors may arrive in the BVI’s through San Juan, Puerto Rico, after a short flight into Tortola. Another option is via inter-island ferry from St. Thomas, in the United States Virgin Islands. Door-to-door express service to Tortola is available via the Dolphin Express.
For the particularly dialed-in, diving from Peter Island is luxurious adventure. Visitors arriving in Tortola are served by ferry, helicopter or the resort’s private yacht. Underwater film maker, Chuck Nicklin, has returned several times after filming ‘The Deep’ in the mid-seventies with Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset. He and the crew stayed in the cottages and none were of a mind to ‘dress for dinner,’ Chuck says, ‘I’m sure the island was happy to see us go.’ Today the dining traditions continue.
No boat or skippers license? No problem, as there are many live-aboard yachts and bare-boat charters available. Divers needing equipment and tanks are serviced at several dockside operations throughout the islands.
Live aboard diving offers great freedom. The dive masters travel with you from site to site. Equipment and tanks are serviced on board. The indulgence of having help getting into gear and at the end of the dive, getting back on board makes diving 3 or 4 times a day easy. Dives can be tailored to the group and most boats carry fewer than two dozen guests.
The BVI’s National Parks Trust has installed more than 200 mooring balls to help preserve popular anchorages. There are nearly 30 mooring sites scattered through the islands. Charts and electronic navigation mapping are required for those skippering their vessels. Yachts and Catamarans can be rented, mostly for minimum of a week through several charter companies. And, if you’re in need of a place to permanently bed down, this house is still on the market.
Divers touch down on Grand Cayman before flying off to the smaller islands of Little Cayman, one of our must-visit locales for 2017, and Cayman Brac. Each is dedicated to diving but there are still diversions for non-divers with lush Caribbean dining, and milky-white beaches bordering crystal blue seas. The Cayman Brac Beach resort is all-inclusive and features first class, ‘valet diving’ services for new and experienced divers. Real estate has been heating up on the big island of Grand Cayman, making it the ideal place to purchase a home while traveling to the smaller islands for frequent dive excursions.
The Bahamas are home to wrecks, reefs, walls and sharks. Divers venture to Nassau and most dive with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas adventures. Stuart Cove has built his dive services in Nassau over thirty years and has received awards for educating the public about sharks in the Bahamas.
If the Hilton British Colonial was good enough for James Bond it works for divers in Nassau as well. Spreading over 8 acres of the Old Fort the hotel defines sophisticated luxury with contemporary touches. It’s located a short walk from markets and nightlife. There are shuttles to the dive boats from the hotel dock. A boutique hotel full of the island’s Junkanoo flavor and culture, Compass Point Beach Resort is ten minutes from the airport with 18 brightly colored huts; the closest accommodations to the Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas facility.
The UNESCO World Heritage site, the Belize Barrier Reef, is the second-largest coral system in the world. With more than seven marine reserves and over 400 cayes, 90% of the Belize Reef has yet to be researched – a tantalizing prospect for divers. International diving hotspot, the Hole, was made famous by Jacques Cousteau. It’s about 1,000 feet across and a little over 400 feet deep with immense stalactites and circling schools of Reef sharks. Visiting bubble blowers can find pampering or simple tropical getaways across the atolls and islands.
Lighthouse Reef, is closest to the Great Blue Hole and home to the Huracan Dive Resort. Staying there comes with the privilege of diving the Hole free from crowds. Private resort boats arrive twice weekly from Belize City and helicopters are available for hire.
Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort is a top vote winner in TripAdvisor polls for service and hugs several hundred feet of beach. Guests may choose to sleep in a private treehouse or a beachfront suite then mingle in the Great House, reminiscent of a plantation home.
Concierge diving experiences are available from Premier divers at Ambergris Caye. Their commitment to environmental best practices is helping preserve the natural beauty of the area through careful diving and supporting conservation projects.
By: Elaine J. Masters