Port and Shore Excursions
I looked very carefully into the port excursions in Belize. We booked independently online, with Coral Breeze tours (though Eco tours looked good, too) and were glad we did. They got us back to port with almost an hour to spare, so we weren't worried about missing the tender boats. The actual cruise port wasn't much to speak of, other than souvenirs and bars. We arrived really early in the morning (1st tender), and waited about an hour to start the tour. We shopped and talked to people. About 14 people were on the trip, and 12 snorkeled). We went on the snorkeling at Shark/Ray alley and Caye Caulker and had a great time. A tropical storm had come through, and it rained really hard at times, usually when we were in the boat. However, the sun showed a couple of times, the temps were fine, and the snorkeling was very good. The guides did their jobs well. My mother is active, but still 74 years old, and had not snorkeled in decades. One guide (Henny) helped her and another woman very well. Within 10 minutes of starting, and holding onto the buoy, she was enjoying the adventure. They did give her 2 lifejackets to tie around her waist on the back for extra security. The guide at the back for those of us who were straying and enjoying diving down was good too. He dove and found things we wouldn't have seen without him. The swimming with rays and nurse sharks was really amazing, and petting the sharks and rays was amazing! Once I told the guide I really wanted to pet them, he made it possible (they move fast). My sis held back, but when we asked for his help for her to, she was able to get in there, too. I was a little concerned about the guides making us stay corralled together too much, but it was just enough to keep things safe and organized, I think. The insecure snorkelers stayed with the first guide, and the rest held back more. The equipment was good, and the guides both used the general equipment, and carefully washed it all in soapy water at the end. I had my own equipment, and enjoyed it, but would have been fine with theirs. There was bagged (like bottled) water available the whole time, and watermelon, chips & salsa when we finished in the water. We had lunch included, a good idea in Sept and Oct, since the island was pretty dead in its off season. Very decent food, we had been given a few choices, and chose the rice, beans and chicken. Safest is always the 'typical food,' in our opinion. Like "when in France, eat as the French..." idea.
Cozumel is what one would expect a port of call to be. There is a ton of shopping, excursion options, beach clubs, good set taxi prices in decent vehicles. The weather is hot, the ocean views are beautiful. We took a taxi downtown and the driver dropped us off at a jewelry store he obviously has an agreement with. The employees helped us out of the taxi, ushered us in, and each of us had a salesman plying us with water, soda, or tequila. Mostly they were pushing the tequila. We were not there to drink or buy expensive jewelry, but were in a good mood, so we looked at the pretty rings that were quoted as being 80% off, at $770, and then miraculously lowered to $199 as we moved toward the door. I did not know the quality, and was not going to buy it, even though there were beautiful pieces. We shopped on the side streets going away from the main drag, and got better prices. I had booked an all-inclusive day at Nachi Cocum, a beach club, through Island Marketing. We got a set appetizer (hot refried beans, melted cheese, guacamole with tortilla chips, yummy), a choice of main dishes (great shrimp dishes), and dessert (good flan). Also, from the moment we entered, our waiter offered us water and beverages. Some mixed drinks were very light, others heavy on alcohol. We just alternated with water and juice. The club accepts up to 100 people/day, 9-5 (no hotel). On Sept 15, there weren't more than 35 or so, and it was very quiet and peaceful. No blaring music, no wild partying. I would guess during high season or spring break it would be louder, though. A man coordinates all the extras at the club. We had choices of $45 tandem (2 side by side) parasailing (I would recommend, it's wonderful, with new equipment!), massages, etc. For $7 you can rent soft foam-type floating lounger for the day. The pool and jacuzzi are beautiful, the facilities clean, and the taxi ride is $14-15 from the ship or downtown. I snorkeled with my equipment there (other people did too). There wasn't a reef, so it wasn't thrilling, but I floated, watching the floor of the ocean. There was sand, and different grasses in places. There are a few good-sized formations on the bottom with sea anemone, tang fish, cute colorful little fish, some larger plainer fish, and I even saw a lion fish hiding in a hole in a rock! There were some fans and a few shells. So it is not exciting snorkeling, but fun and safe, maybe a good first experience for someone. In Cozumel you don't need to preplan what you are going to do, though it gave me a more secure feeling to do it. 2 of the 3 taxi drivers had collections of laminated beach club brochures and maps. They would love to be someone's designated tour guide for the day.
Roatan was a better port in many ways than Belize. There was so much to do, and it was so beautiful, I could spend a week or more there!!! If you like to see new places, get beyond Mahogany Bay!!! Biggest downfall was the cost of most excursions. Official taxi prices are very high. Everything is nice, but at a price. After reading a lot, we did not book anything ahead, but had general prices for everything we wanted to do in mind. And knew what we wanted to do. I had read that Mahogany Bay was pretty, but not to settle for it, but rather go to West End Beach (same as Tabayana beach club). I agree, it was amazing, and you could do all kinds of stuff from there! We walked about 10 minutes from the cruise ship to get out of the complex completely. We went over a hill where there was no sidewalk and hit the last security checkpoint, and all the independent companies waiting for people. An outgoing independent taxi driver, Nelson, started talking to us. We were a little nervous first by his tough look and selling himself that way, but people seemed to know him, and we settled on 20/day each (for 3) for transport to South something ziplines (excellent!) and snorkeling at West End Beach. Nelson did a good job, spoke good English, and talked a lot (usually good). I speak Spanish, so he lapsed into it a bit, though with my family he spoke clear English.) He took us to a high lookout point that was really pretty. He bought us a dollar bag of Rambutan (in English) fruit, which I love! Then he took us to a shopping place lots of tour guides use, where he said we got good discounts (good after we bartered a little, but much better than at Mahogany Bay!) We are not big shoppers; we just needed gifts for our immediate families, like $6 kids t-shirts, $7 or 8 for adult ones. Not top quality, but not bottom quality either. Also they had fun costume and shell-type jewelry, some of which was high priced, I thought. We went ziplining at South Shore (I think that's the name), and it was great. We saw lots of tropical forest, the ocean, and it was ideal-looking. The first zip is very low and easy, and a great introduction. My 74 year old mom was nervous, but had a great time. The guides helped her a lot, taking her with one of them always. I got to go upside down on one, and do the 'superman' hanging from my back. It was scarier than I thought, but the best! The guides took pictures with our cameras. They were not the best pictures, and they sell better ones at the end that their pro took. They suggest 20 tips from each person, which we all though ridiculous, but they probably figure we'll give at least 5 or 10 if they ask for so much. There were just 5 of us in our group, and the guides did a good job, The zip cost 45 each before tips. We told Nelson we wanted to have a good seafood lunch. We couldn't get to the restaurant he thought best (roads closed by construction), but he took us to Half Moon Bay to a rustic cabin/calming / no tv type of hotel. The restaurant was on the water, and we watched boats, snorkelers, and the building of a structure around a mini-submarine. The food was a little expensive, but for $20 each, we got a salad, bread, and a plate of 2 amazing grilled lobster tails with rice and veggies. All excellent! We couldn't finish our lunches. The ambiance was wonderful, quiet and relaxing. We then went to the Maya Princess resort, paid $10 to get in, which included a beautiful pool and relaxing area, and the beach loungers. My mother got an expensive but excellent massage inside, and outside my sis got a $10/30minute massage right in her beach chair by a roving masseuse. She thought it was good. Any of the hotels that allow day guests seem to be good there. Tabayana is where you go snorkeling (a bit to the left), but seemed more crowded, with more chairs. It had rained very hard the night before, and unfortunately the water was not as clear as usual. Once I dove underwater w/snorkel gear, I could see amazing plants and animals, but it did get tiring. That's where rainy season got me. We did find a huge moray eel just outside his hole. He just stayed there, apparently looking at all his visitors. If we had wanted, we could have gone on an hour snorkel excursion by boat for $20. Other people told me they had seen amazing stuff. There was parasailing, boards to pole yourself on (don't know the name), boat trips, etc. An artist had amazing acrylic paintings of that beach on display for $10-60, depending on the size. I wished I had not underestimated my spending for the day, and could have bought one. The colors were vibrant and the pictures peaceful. Back to Nelson the taxi driver, he had snorkel gear in his taxi, so my sis didn't rent the $15 ones, she used his (and added a bit to the tip). My fins had rubbed my foot wrong, so I got to use his, too. At the Maya Princess, we ordered a mojito, and it was excellent, big, and $5+tax+tip. Tip is included on the receipt, but the waiters insist they don't receive a penny, and expect one additionally. Generally, at all ports, I found this to be the case. Cruise passengers inject a lot of $ into the economy, and tips are everything, from the ziplining, to waiters, to taxis, etc. This was the one port we did not take enough cash for. Everything is in dollars, and it adds up, even for us who are trying to go fairly budget. We did tip Nelson the driver $45total because we felt he went beyond driving a taxi for us for the whole day. For much cheaper than most others.