By Denise Mattia
Need a warm, Caribbean vacation? Thinking of devoting the whole holiday to the beach, just basking in the sun?? That’s OK for the first day; still, there are activities from which to choose, and here are ten Caribbean islands that offer a wide range of fun things to do, including scuba diving.
Anguilla: Although known primarily for its beaches and pricy menus, the island’s seaward edge is a natural buttress for the surf, making the fringing reef – corals that have grown on the rocky surfaces of coves – a haven for fish. Turtles are often seen resting beneath overhangs in the reef. Cuts in the barrier allow divers to experience the wall beyond – a colorful backdrop for shipwrecks. Shoal Bay Scuba, a full service PADI facility at the west end of the island, offers three- to seven-day dive packages. And don’t forget to buy the best bar-b-que chicken-, ribs- and fish dishes from local stalls in town.
The Bay Islands: Coral- and sponge-coated volcanic walls, fissures and pinnacles hold sufficient excitement to bring travelers back to the three major islands of Roatán, Utila and Guanaja and to Cayos Cochinos, one of the largest islets that form the Honduran Bay Archipelago. The largest black coral forest can be found off the coast of Utila as are migratory whale sharks. The activities these islands offer range from hiking, kayaking, fishing, mangrove tours to massage and spa services.
Belize: From jungle adventures and Mayan ruins (Caracol, Cerros and Lamanai) to water sports, Belize offers vacationers more than they could possibly want. Considered both Central American and Caribbean, Belize faces a reef system that starts at the tip of the Yucatan and continues to Honduras. South of Dangriga at Hopkins, the barrier parallels the coast in a series of vertical and sloping walls, some of which plummet to 3,000 feet. Fringing reefs, shallow ridges, hundreds of cays, incomparable coral atolls and even a flooded sinkhole, lie inside the underwater palisades. Big fish abound. The Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort receives accolades from publications and guests yearly.
Bonaire: Renowned as a dive destination, this island boasts a sanctuary preserve, historical landmarks, museums and a sunny clime year round. Markers on the shore indicate the easiest access to the reefs, and divers have only to wade a short distance through calm water to the terrace, where the reef slants gently down. Sea horses, frogfish and innumerable brilliant-hued species swim among pagoda-like coral structures. In addition to scuba training and certifications, sports centers offer daily boat excursions to the reefs, where only one boat is permitted per mooring.
The Cayman Islands: For vacationers who want to enjoy their holiday retreat diving and socializing, Grand Cayman’s resorts’ bars line the famous Seven Mile Beach. Sandbar and Stingray City are special dives where divers can feed stingrays. Off the beaten track, the Cobalt Coast on the Northwest coast provides affordable spectacular diving from shore. Notable sites are North Wall and Turtle Reef at Lighthouse Point. (Visit www.cobaltcoast.com.) There’s little else to do but dive on Little Cayman the smaller kin of the three islands, and on the Brac (bluff in Gaelic) a slow-paced, peaceful and quiet island with old world charm.
Cozumel and the Riviera Maya: It’s easy to see why Cozumel and the Riviera Maya in the western Caribbean are expected to attract 50 million visitors during 2012. Acknowledged as a world-class dive destination, Cozumel’s dramatic reefs continue to awe novice and experienced divers. On the Yucatan coast, the Riviera Maya boasts dive sites, a breathtaking underwater cave system, Mayan archaeological ruins (Tulum, Coba and Chitzen Iza), a nature reserve and a theme park with weekly shows (Xcalac). Airline and ferry service to Cozumel is available from Cancun and Playa del Carmen. (In Cancun visit www.scubacancun.com.mx, in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen visit www.intercontinentalcozumel.com, www.prodivemex.com www.scubadu.com and www.realresorts.com.)
Dominican Republic: Plenty of history was created after Columbus stopped here in 1493. The birthplace of Spanish culture in the New World, Dominican Republic has a colonial district, historic churches, a figure of Christ on a mountain, baseball, mountain hiking, river rafting, cavern and cave diving, wreck, reef and wall diving and humpback whale watching. The resorts at La Romana and Bayahibe have dive centers that offer PADI training and guides. Sightings of the indigenous Antillean Manatee are rare, but it’s not unusual to see eagle rays, nurse sharks and hundreds of fish while diving here.
St. Kitts and Nevis: Unspoiled ecosystems span virgin coral reefs, rare oceanic rain forests, dormant volcanoes and unique flora, fauna and birds populate these little island gems. Development is slow and yet the islands are easily accessible from most cities via American and US Airways. The water is turquoise clear and deepest closer to shore making game fish common. Hot water vent holes make for unusual dives – lobsters like a good hot tub. Ships sunk over the centuries and more currently on purpose are a haven for every marine life imaginable. (Visit www.marriott.com/StKitts and prodiversstkitts.com and www.fourseasons.com/Nevis and www.scubanevis.com.)
Turks & Caicos Islands: The appeal of Providenciales (Provo), one of the 40-odd islands some 600 miles from Miami, are investment opportunities, accessibility to the island by air, lively resorts and restaurants and a picture-perfect sea, which attracts divers year-round. Ocean Vibes is a full-service PADI facility (visit oceanvibes.com and thesandsresort.com.) Dive operations moor at South Caicos (one resort and one dive shop), Grand Turk (inns and guesthouses predominate this quiet island) and Salt Cay (visit www.saltcaydivers.tc.) From January to April Humpback Whales are seen around the islands of Grand Turk and Salt Cay.
The British and U.S. Virgin Islands: Like Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke (BVI), the USVIs attract divers to underwater caves and tunnels, shipwrecks, ocean pinnacles and seamounts, all of which are located between 15 and 45 minutes from the islands’ shores. Additionally, you can walk into the water and encounter southern stingrays and tarpon swimming among crimson colored gorgonian fans. For those who’ve never been underwater, the Sea Trekkin’ course in St. Thomas is a fun beginning. (In St. Thomas visit Bolongo Bay Beach Club and Villas (www.bolongobay.com). In St. Croix visit Anchor Dive Center (Salt River) www.anchordivestcroix.com. In St. John visit The Westin Resort, www.westinresortstjohn.com.)
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.