Port and Shore Excursions
We have been to Belize several times and do not feel comfortable in the city. We did the Belize River Cruise, very enjoyable, and the zoo, which is an educational facility featuring indigenous animals. We had an overview of the city, and it was sufficient. For the past two years we've taken and reef snorkel and Bannister Cay beach break excursion.
Last year we did the excursion with Coral Breeze Tours. We were tendered to port then participated in a mob scene that funneled many passengers to separate boats for separate tours. We enjoyed the snorkel and the island is very pretty, although the food is overpriced and mediocre. You can get food and beverage service at the beach or in an al fresco bar. There are bathrooms, gift shop, chaises, free snorkel equipment, floats, kayaks for guests. We stopped for a manatee watch on the way back, which was a waste on us because we live in Florida and see them all the time. We just made it back in time for the last tender, which made us very nervous! But we loved the snorkel and beach island so much, that we wanted to go back.
This year we paid $20 per person more and booked it through Carnival. The big advantage was that their tour boat picked us up at the ship with no need to tender into port. There were a lot of people; and when we first got into the water we were all bumping into each other; and I thought, "This is awful." But we spread out soon and there was plenty of space. In spite of early morning showers, visibility was great and the reef was gorgeous. I saw barracuda, an octopus, and zillions of beautiful "fish tank fish" along with lovely coral, sponges and sea fans. The crew had a 2 or 3 kayaks surrounding the swimmers, a guide with rescue ring in the water, crew on the boat watching all of us. And they were all in radio contact with each other. So, in spite of a large crowd, we were well supervised. The staff were also extremely helpful to all guests' needs and offered snorkeling instruction to those who needed it. There were a rum punch, soft drinks and water on board. After about an hour in the water, we were taken to Bannister Cay. The only disappointment with the excursion was that we only had an hour and a quarter at the beach island. There really was not enough time to order and eat lunch, peruse the gift shop and enjoy beach and calm water. The ship wasn't scheduled to sail away from Belize until 5 pm, yet we were back on board at 1:30. I guess some guests wanted to take the tender to port and shop; although, having been to the port, the desire to do that is beyond my comprehension! We really would have liked the option to have more beach time. We'd have paid extra if a shuttle could have come back later for those of us who wanted the option to stay at Bannister Cay longer. Some day we'll find a balance between getting back just in time for the last tender and getting back 3 1/2 hours before lifting anchor!!
If you don't mind a quick beach break, I highly recommend this excursion. Going on the Carnival arranged excursion, right from the ship, was very convenient. I'd suggest just playing in the water and soaking up some sun during the short stay at the island, then get lunch when you get back on board.
We've been going to Nachi Cocum for quite a few years. It's quiet, only 100 guests admitted with advance reservations. There is a clean pool with swim up bar, palapas and chaises along the beach and around the pool. Wonderful food and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are all included. Bathrooms are clean. There is a small gift shop. The beach is narrow, and sometimes has a steep drop off, depending on recent storms. There are none of the water slides and trampolines, so there aren't a lot of kids. Food and beverage service is either on the beach, at the pool, or in an al fresco restaurant. Service this year for drinks on the beach was a little slow to start, but after speaking with the waiter and giving him an advance tip with a request to "keep 'em coming," it greatly improved!
We did most of the sightseeing and tourist stuff on Cozumel when we first went, then switched to beach breaks. We always enjoy Nachi Cocum and will continue to come back. I did book the concomitant optional snorkel tour, and that was a disaster, reviewed separately.
Nachi Cocum requires a private cab from the cruise port. Look at the posted chart with the rates. You will pay the posted rate going, but the drivers will try to charge you more on the return. Pay only the posted amount, plus tip. Don't negotiate it at the beach, because you may be left behind; just pay the right amount when you arrive at the port. You can usually find other people to share the cab back. Some of the cabs are cars and some are vans. The rate this year was $15 for 1-3 people and $20 for 4-6 people. So we shared the return ride with another couple for $10 per couple instead of $15.
I often recommend Nachi Cocum to passengers (without children) seeking a quiet, stress free beach break.
I was the only one signed up for the snorkel tour, billed as a "two hour tour of Palancar and Columbia reefs in a glass bottom boat with water and soda on board, and scheduled to run from 11 am-1 pm." They were trying to recruit more people along the beach to take the tour, but there were no bites because the water was a bit rough. I would have been satisfied with cancellation and refund of pre-payment, but the manager of the tour refused. Well, we left at 12:15, which did not please me because my husband was waiting for me for lunch on the beach at Nachi Cocum, but my only option was to lose my $32. The
"glass bottom boat" was a rowboat with an outboard motor and two sections on the bottom cut out and replaced with about 1 foot square sections of glass or Lucite for viewing. That was fine since I was the only passenger! There were no beverages on board. I was in the water alone, which made me nervous, but the man who drove the boat was the only staff person there and had to man the boat. He did keep an eye on me and followed my drifting along the reef. He spoke very little English, so communication was an issue. Because the water was rough, he did not go to Palancar reef, but only to the fringe around it. We left the pier at 12:15 and I was back at 1:20. So much for the two hour snorkel. This excursion should have been cancelled, and I do feel ripped off with no recourse as it was a cash only transaction. If you want to snorkel Palancar, go with a larger company. I chose this because it was at the beach where we were scheduled for our beach break day at Nachi Cocum, but I would discourage anyone from doing this. If you have your own equipment, there's a little to see just south of Nachi Cocum beach, right off shore.
The Buccaneer catamaran tour of sting ray city and coral reef and coral gardens was as good as any of the many we've been on. Staff were great, boat was comfortable, instruction and knowledge of staff were thorough. The crew were most helpful to all passengers' needs and the snorkeling was phenomenal. At Coral Gardens the crew fed the fish and created a feeding frenzy, teeming with hundreds of beautiful fish all around us, as if we were swimming in a giant aquarium!
We've been to Grand Cayman many times and have seen all the tourist stuff. The best the island has to offer is underwater! Shopping is typical of all the "duty free ports." Hell is ugly. The turtle farm, San Pedro's Castle, Botanical Gardens all bored us. The above ground cemetery is cool, as are the blow holes on the south side of the island.
Once we went on the Atlantis Submarine, down 1000 feet along the reef wall. It was absolutely incredible! We had light for about 200 feet, then they used spotlights. Expensive, but fabulous. You can book in once you're on the island. No need to do it through the cruise line or private company.
You can snorkel Eden Rocks right off the sidewalk. No need to book it through an excursion company. Just don't bring valuables that you'll leave on shore.
Seven Mile Beach is a $4 cab ride from the port and free beach admission. You should have water shoes. Although the beach is sandy, the water bottom is rough coral and rocks. There is some decent snorkeling right off shore. The reef there is dead, but still supports all the pretty fish life.
We LOVE Sting Ray City. No, we're not afraid of them. I know a lot more people who've been killed in auto accidents than by sting rays, and I still go in cars! It's a sand bar and waist or chest deep, depending on tides and your height. The rays come to feed. The naturalists on all the tours instruct you on how to walk and move in the water, how to feed them, how to hold them, help you get a kiss and back rub from them, etc. We usually have about 30-45 minutes in the water with them, and it's never enough time! Not everyone uses a mask or snorkel, but I recommend it for a better view both from under and above the water surface. And if you have an underwater camera, bring it! Most boats also have pro photographers that take great pictures and will sell you a CD with shots of you and the rays, along with some stock photos, for an exorbitant fee that I always sucker for.
We have gone with Captain Marvin, NativeWay Watersports, and now Captain Bryan. All were excellent in informing us about the rays, providing opportunity to handle them, snorkel instruction, helping all guests on and off boats and will special needs, providing beverages, supervising snorkelers at reef stops. I really choose a tour based on what we want to do. We used to like Rum Point, when there was good snorkeling. The past few visits the snorkeling was not good because condo development around the bend killed the reef, and the lunch food wasn't as good as in the past. So we now skip that stop. But if you want to include a beach break in your day with sting rays and snorkeling, Rum Point is a good option as there usually is not enough time to spend at 7-mile beach in addition to a snorkel and ray tour.
We went on the Buccaneer Catamaran tour with Captain Bryan this year. We went to sting ray city and had two snorkel stops, coral reef and coral gardens. All three stops were wonderful. Water was rough, so I found getting on and off the boat a bit of a challenge, but the crew were very helpful. We really enjoyed the itinerary.
The only disadvantage, from our perspective, was that the tour started late, a 12:10 (ship time) check in. We left the ship a little after 10 and wasted time walking around Georgetown. The excursion got us back about an hour before we
needed to take a tender back. Given our druthers, we like to tour first, then arrange the rest of our time contingent up when we get done with the tour and when the last tender is. When we walked around town we had our clothes on over bathing suits (hot!) and we carrying handbag and all our snorkel gear, towels, sunblock, etc. There's no place at the port to lock or secure stuff. The advantage of a late start was fewer people at Sting Ray City with us, as it can get very crowded.
The port we pulled into, Mahogany Bay, is owned by Carnival. Private tour companies are not allowed at or near the port, and it's a healthy walk over the hill to get to where the tour operators are permitted. Of course this is an incentive to book excursions through Carnival. But cabs are really cheap and beaches are free, so Carnival excursions may not be a good option! There is a beach next to the port, accessible by chair lift (also owned by Carnival) and it's a relatively cheap excursion, so could be a good option if all you want is a sterile cruise ship beach. We learned after our first visit to take a $2 per person cab ride over the hill to meet the tour companies.
We have toured with private guides from Bodden Tours for two years and are VERY satisfied. Victor Bodden does everything in his power to make you feel welcome, part of the family, comfortable, informed and to make sure you see and do what you like in Roatan. The island is only about 30 miles from end to end, so an overview tour is easy.
Our first time there we went on a snorkel tour and it was beautiful. Last year and this year we did extensive reading and research and planned things we wanted to see and do. Victor's guides were most accommodating! We had written to Victor in advance with our "wish list" and priorities, so he assigned us his most appropriate guide for our needs. And Tex was great! We went in a van, well cooled, and Tex is a native English speaker, which made things a bit easier. Victor has many tours on his website with specific stops, highlights, activities, but if you want to design your own, he calls it "Best of Roatan" and charges $40 per person for the day. We always pay for our driver's lunch and tip him well in the end too. This is still a third world country, just developing tourism, and is very poor by our standards. The people are warm and friendly and helpful. We enjoy the port as a place that is different but has enough "creature comforts" to keep us comfortable, but few enough to remind us how lucky we are to live as we do.
Bodden Tours' website includes a link to Roatan Children's Fund. It describes several institutions-orphanage, clinic, schools-that desperately need help. There are opportunities to visit, donate, volunteer. We arranged to go to a Garifuna school in Punta Gorda and brought three back packs filled with school supplies that we'd purchased on sale at WalMart and Dollar Tree. We may be feeling the crunch of our economy, but few of us think twice about buying a pack of pencils. Our American kids should all see these schools, to appreciate how fortunate we are! All donations are greatly appreciated (don't leave cash at facilities), and we saw lots of smiling faces as a result of what we could bring in. Customs directions come from Guest Services, and it was easy.
We also went to a Garifuna cultural exhibition which included dance demonstration and making of cassava bread on open fire, which is made from yucca root and no other ingredients. Of course, we had the opportunity to purchase some as a souvenir! We arrived before the tour bus full of people, so had a private discussion about the history of the Garifuna with the local historian. Being just two of us and early, we had the opportunity to ask lots of questions and really learn more than the group tour participants.
We had lunch at a lovely restaurant at Half Moon Bay, recommended by Tex. We also made a stop at the little village just across water from where the dolphin swim is, so got to spend a little time watching the dolphins perform for the visitors. We were as close as they were, but from the other side and did not follow up the demonstration with a swim! We also stopped at the cameo factory, which is primarily a store to sell cameos made there. They are made from shell, not stone as in Europe. We did watch the artisans, which was fascinating, and the sales person answered all sorts of questions for us. We didn't buy anything, just were curious about how they are made and designed.
Tex pointed out several other points of interest for us, and we learned more about the history of the island and its people and colonialism, as well as about the current economy and agriculture and development.
One option on all of Bodden Tours is "Victor's Monkey Business." It's a small zoo owned by Victor Bodden and located at the mandatory stop where your tour is paid for. The charge is $5 per person and includes a guide who tells you about the animals and is highlighted by a large cage you walk into to play with white faced Capuchin monkeys. Well, you don't really play with them: you let them play with you. They hop to and fro onto your back, head, arms, down your shirt, into your purse, etc.! The guide feeds them seeds to keep them moving and active. It was a giggle-filled period of fun. Plan to spend some time in that cage!
Victor says there are no strangers, only friends he hasn't yet met. Do stop and ask for him and say hi. If you have specific tour desires, communicate with him via e-mail in advance and he will custom tailor a tour for you or your group. Zip line? Iguana Farm? Real Estate opportunities? Beach and or snorkel? Victor can accommodate pretty much anything you want to do in Roatan and will get you back to the ship at either port in plenty of time for sail away.
Bring insect repellant if you are going to be walking around outdoors. Fire ants and mosquitoes are a problem, at least they are in September!
Mahogany Bay has all the usual port stores for jewelry and souvenirs and local handicrafts at the "rip the tourist" prices. We usually end our day with gelato at the kiosk in the middle of the port. The port is new and clean and sterilized of a native feeling.
We love Roatan and its people and all there is to see on land and underwater. One of our favorite ports!