THIS REVIEW FOCUSES ON QUICK TIPS AND LESSONS LEARNED AS WELL AS THE WESTERN RUN WITH STOPS IN BELIZE, ROATAN, GRAND CAYMAN, AND COZUMEL. THERE IS ALSO A FOCUS ON PROVIDING INFORMATION ON SCUBA DIVING IN THESE PORTS. THIS IS INFO THAT I COULD NOT FIND READILY ON THIS SITE AND WOULD LIKE TO PROVIDE.
I am writing this lengthy review in the hope I can help someone like others helped me. This was our first cruise and I was earnestly seeking information in the months and weeks leading up to our departure. This site and more specifically this section were extremely helpful. I would like to thank all those who have contributed. Hopefully you find what I have written helpful. I found that there is a lot written about the ship in this section and very little written about the ports of call. More specifically there is very little written about scuba diving in these world-class diving destinations and that is why I have focused the port section of this review on Diving and other info I felt was missing.
SHIP: Carnival Paradise (11/02/03 to 11/09/03) LET'S HEAR IT FOR NO SMOKING!
PERSPECTIVE: Just so you know where I am coming from. I am a 33 year-old W/M with a beautiful wife of 10 years and 5 children (3 boys, 2 girls ages 9 to 1). We live in Farmington, Utah (there were at least 50 people on our cruise from UT in several different groups). I work all over the country as a self-employed systems consultant. We are somewhat conservative by worldly standards but we love to have a good time with fun and friendly people. Our idea of a good time is not smelling like ashtrays and partying till dawn (that is what high school was for), that is why this was the perfect cruise for us.
TIPS AND LESSONS LEARNED:
PACKING: Pack light! Bring clothes you would go to the beach in, for me that was shorts/swimsuits and tee shirts. I brought 3 pairs of shoes; dress shoes, running shoes, and flip-flops. - I never needed the flip-flops. You need a comfortable pair of shoes, you will walk a lot, even on the ship you walk a lot, it is a big ship. You should bring a nice suit or tux for dinner on formal nights (everyone dresses very nice - it was fun). The other nights were "resort casual" = pants and a shirt that is not a tee shirt or tank top and no shorts. I wore my suit pants with nice shirts on those nights - no need to bring other pants or jeans. My wife wore capri pants with nice tops, dress pants, and nice formal dresses to dinner, she was stunning! They do relax the dress code the first night because some people do not get their luggage right away on day one. That brings up luggage; a config that worked well for us was we both had a carry on bag, a backpack, and a large (checked) suitcase. This way you board the ship with a good portion of your stuff with you and you can change to your swimming suits right away and get out of the clothes you traveled in, you always keep your valuables and must-haves with you and it does not matter when your luggage is delivered (We were in our cabin by 12:30 and our luggage was there by 2:00 PM- the ship sailed on day one at around 4:00 PM). It is very hot in the ports, however it can be very cool on the ship (A/C) so bring one, maybe two (one dressy one not) sweatshirts/sweaters/shall. Bring sun glasses and hats, you do not want to burn, especially on your face, you will look stupid in all the nice pictures they take of you.
DAY ONE: Some people say to fly in a day before the ship departs to give you time if there are any problems (weather, cancelled flights, etc.) - this is good advice. We took a red eye and arrived in Miami (SLC -ATL - MIA) by 10:30 AM Sunday morning. All of the cruise lines offer shuttle service from the airport to the ship port but there are two very good reasons not take it. It is $22 per person round trip to take the Carnival shuttle, it is only $20 to take a cab. It is extremely easy to get a cab and it is literally 20 feet from where you get your bags to where you wait for a cab. You can pack as many people as you want in a cab and it is still $20 and you leave right away - no lines or waiting. With the ship shuttles you do not leave the airport until the shuttle is full, you have to haul yourself and all your crap way out past the cab stands to the shuttle, they use very large (Greyhound) busses as shuttles so it can be a long wait to fill it up, plus the bus driver asks (more like begs from what I heard) for a tip even though your shuttle ticket says all tips are included - what a circus, do yourself a favor and take a cab.
The really important reason you will want to take a cab is so that you can stop at the Biscayne Sheraton to take advantage of the Pre-Check In service Carnival offers there. This is truly the best tip/advice I could give you for day one, it will literally take you 5 min. and save you an hour or more in line later. Simply ask the cab you get at the airport to take you to the Biscayne Sheraton (It is very near the Miami Port), have him drop you off and just wait for you, walk in the lobby with your cruise papers and find the little Carnival table. They will ask for your ID/Passport, Credit Card to activate your Sail and Sign card, and Carnival ticket packet (It helps if you fill this out in advance). It literally takes 2 minutes, they will give you a stamped card (the key to saving time at the port) and you are back in your cab and on your way to the ship. It is a short ride to the port (the little stop adds $10 to your cab fare but who cares it saves you an hour or more of standing in line). Once at the port the baggage porters asks for your bags, give them your checked bags and bring your carry on and backpacks with you. Pay the cab the $30 fare ($20 + $10 for the Sheraton stop) and tip the baggage porter. They don't seem to do much but it is good karma and like I said my bags were by my door by 2:00 PM. Also take a moment and laugh at the folks getting off of the huge bus (Ship Shuttle) and arguing with the driver about his tip.
Once in the door of the Port building the first line you will see is the line for security. Get in this line right away, it splits into two lines and on that day the right hand side went faster. The security line moved quickly and we were through without incident in less the 10 min. This is where the Sheraton stop pays off. Instead of joining the next line for check in, you show your stamped card from pre check in at the Sheraton and walk up stairs past all of the huge lines. You end up in the comfortable air-conditioned waiting area where you pick up you sail and sign card (no line) and wait (seated) to get on the ship. We arrived at this point by 11:45 AM. The ships normally do not board until around noon, on that day they started letting people on at 12:30. It was a very orderly process there was no chance for anyone to rush the front or act like an idiot in any other manner. The Carnival representatives were very organized and kept every one in line. (Believe it or not people tired their hardest to be idiots and rush up and get on ahead of others who had been patiently waiting in their seats but the Carnival reps kindly reminded them to take a seat and wait to be called by their row.)
Soon after your row is called you take a short walk and then ride up an escalator, and after a quick embarkation picture from one of the ships excellent photographers, you are on board and free to do what ever you want. The quicker you get in full "do what ever you want" cruise mode the better. The first thing we did was find our cabin, change our clothes, put some stuff away and go exploring. We walked around the ship for half an hour straight checking everything out and trying to get the layout down (that takes a few days it is a big ship). We ended up at the Paris Restaurant near the back of the ship on the Lido deck to eat. A nice place to sit is outside overlooking the water and beautiful water front homes opposite the port. One quick comment on the food, I felt it was very good. Everything wasn't perfect and sometimes a roll would be cold or a desert you would pick was less then excellent but that was the exception and not the rule. Some meals I was amazed at how good the food was, yet there were little things here and there that were not quite as amazing, all and all the food far exceeded my expectations.
For all you soda fans (my wife and I do not drink alcohol but enjoyed our fare share of virgin pina colada's mmm-mmm-good) the way to go is to buy the $29.95 card that entitles you to all the sodas you can drink at no additional charge. I am somewhat of a diet Coke fiend so I bought the card and I was very glad I did. Individual sodas (even at meals) cost around $1.50 per so if you think you can drink more then 20 sodas a week (which is easy to do when you are asked if you would like one every where you go on the ship) buy the card. There were probably a couple of days where I was on the ship all day that I drank more then 20 diet cokes in one day. The bar service folks are fantastic, Radek from the Cechk Republic is one of the bar service people I would like to mention specifically. He was our drink server at dinner and from the very first night he would have a diet coke waiting for me at my table every night and every time he saw me at a show or other places on the ship he would bring me one, even if I never saw him or never asked for one. If I wanted him to keep them coming all I had to do was say so, he was great, what service. All of the staff on the ship were exceptional, we had a very good room steward, Jose from Miami, an exceptional head waiter, Elmond from St Vincent, and everyone else we came in contact with that worked for the ship were just great.
There are free drinks all over the ship including water (not bottled but good), lemonade, and ice tea. Juices (orange, apple, grapefruit) were also free even if you order them from room service. I had read a few posts that mentioned bringing a mug from home to put drinks in. I never felt this was necessary (plus I think you would look like a clown holding your 'Top Stop' 44oz monster mug on board the ship) but I guess you could always refill water bottles if you like. The bottled water they did sell on the ship was very inexpensive ($2 for a huge bottle).
One good tip I read on this site that I did follow and was glad I did was to bring a small alarm clock to keep in the room (There is no clocks in the rooms). The wake up call system in our room worked just fine but then you have to get out of bed to get the phone to turn it off (I also heard someone say their wake up call did not work). I am a hit the snooze button 10 times then get up kind of person so I liked having my little battery-powered alarm clock with me. One other note, how do people that have the rooms with no window finish the cruise with their sanity intact? If there is anyone that is going to go postal on a cruise it will be one of those no window people. Half the time the only thing that motivated me enough to get up early was to look out my window at the beautiful port that we had arrived in early that morning. I heard several people comment on how disorienting and weird it was to not have a window. That would just mess with my head way too much. Plus having a window was really fun, there is a lot to see on a cruise, next time I will get a balcony for sure.
MONEY: Bring lots of it. It is easy to get change (smaller bills) or convert Travelers Checks to cash at the ships Information Desk (there is usually a small line, especially on port days but it goes quick). Get small bills ($5's and $1's) before you go ashore, it makes it easier to bargain and get correct change. I dealt in US $'s at every port the whole trip and never had any issues. There is an ATM on the ship and it charges a $5.50 fee. You can get money on your sail and sign card in the casino for a 3% fee but they give it to you in chips at a table and you would have to then exert super human will power to walk away and convert it back to cash at the cashiers desk. Another piece of gambling pleasure that requires a strong will to resist is Bingo, how can you resist the odds, spend $20 to win $1000 what a deal, that one got me and so did the free cruise Bingo - I did not win, what a shocker.
SHIP PRICES: Most prices on the ship were reasonable, some were just more reasonable then others. The spa is one place on the ship where there were no reasonable prices to be found, we avoided it, and unless you like to overpay for that kind of thing I would not go. There is 24HR photo processing that costs $9 a roll (double prints) of 35mm film, APS is more. We developed four rolls out of our dive camera and were very happy with the results. Make sure to take advantage of all of the photographers on board. They are never pushy, you are under no obligation to buy, and they really do a good job. We ended up spending about $50 buying pictures that they took. We only bought the 6X9's for $8 and felt the 8X10's for $20 were too much. I will say that for every one 8X10 you buy you can buy 6X9 copies for $5 as many as you would like. The art auction was interesting, the prices were very good if you liked the art and there was a wide selection. The prices in the various shops were good and the prices for some things like libations were very good (so I heard). A lot of people were buying jewelry and watches as well as perfume so I will assume the prices were good on those items as well.
SUGGESTIONS: Eat good and eat often. We met so many people on the ship who did not take full advantage of what was available on the ship. We were amazed at how many people did not order room service. We loved it, it was the first thing we would do when we got back on the ship after a day at port. We had a ritual, order room service, shower, take a nap, and get ready for dinner. Try the sandwiches, the BLT is great, so is the shrimp salad sandwich, everything from room service was great and it is included (Free). We did tip them but they deserved it, have you ever seen someone bring you a stack of covered plates as tall as you are, try it, order your height in room service. It is not as gluttonous as is sounds they give you a separate plate with cover for every little thing you order. Do not miss dinner in the dining room, we loved it, the food and service was fantastic. We were very fortunate in that we really liked and enjoyed the company of the three other couples who shared our table with us. They must make some kind of effort to match people up, we were all close to the same age, and three out of the four couples had 5 kids. We often would go to the shows with these people after dinner and it was very enjoyable to talk at dinner and hear about what everyone had done a port that day. I was very skeptical about this aspect of the cruise (being forced to sit with people I do not know) but it turned out to be one of the highlights. I would also suggest the late seating for dinner (8:00 PM), you are never in a hurry to get ready and you have time to take a nap every day after coming back on board the ship (and you will need it).
RANT: Another suggestion is if you want something ask for it, if you want two appetizers at dinner order them, order three if you like they are very happy to bring it to you. Also if there is something that bothers you about your room or something else, tell someone that work for the ship about it (not your fellow cruisers) and give them the chance to fix it, believe me they will try. Also do everyone a favor, do not walk around the ship or sit at dinner and talk about how on NCL this is better on RCC that is better, you are not on one of those cruises, you are on a Carnival cruise and if you ask me they de a fairly good job, and if you disagree I didn't ask you to hear about it. Some of us (1st time cruisers especially) do not know any better and we are having a great time when one of you know it all cruisers rolls up on us and drops a "well if you liked that show wait until you see one on RCC it is much better". I cannot count how many times someone said something like that to me. I am just sitting there enjoying myself minding my own business and someone feels the need to tell me that "such and such is better on such and such cruise line" did I ask you? It is weird, a lot of people act like "Well I am only on this ship because I couldn't get on the 150,000 ton whatever ship", or, "I only cruise with carnival when I want to slum with the commoners". I hate people that have that attitude. I was really surprised at how much attitude people had especially our oxygenarian friends (older people). If it is true that old people like to complain, they are in Olympic form when they are on a cruise ship. If you are ashamed to cruise on Carnival don't, if you have ship envy every time we pull into port and you spot a bigger or newer ship, save your pennies and spend the extra money to go on one of those other boats. I liked the Paradise, I liked it a lot and I like carnival as well. Now some of you might be saying that I do not know and better and you would be right. That does not mean I want to be reminded over and over again that I don't know any better. I was happy, blissfully happy on my cruise, so tone down the negativity and let me remain that way. I will try other cruises and other cruise lines hopefully I will try a lot of them. I love cruising and I did not think that I would. I chose the Paradise (and Carnival for that matter) because they gave me an opportunity to eat and enjoy myself without be forced to 'enjoy' my fellow passengers foul stinking death mist. Let's hear it for Carnival, for them having the big brass propellers to have a totally non-smoking ship, and let us all pray for another one (The Liberty perhaps? Does anyone from carnival read these boards? They should).
Before I went on this cruise I posted a request on the CC message boards asking fellow divers who have dove the four places we visited to rank them 1-4 best to worst. Now that I have dove each of the four places myself I realize how difficult it is to simply rate them best to worst. There were good things about each place and some not so good things. In some ways the places we dove were very different and in some ways they were very much alike.
For example the sea life we saw in each place was very similar. However, the configuration of the sea life (meaning did you see schools of fish, lone fish, big fish, lots of fish, pelagics, lobsters, crabs, eels, turtles, sharks, eagle rays, coral, fans, sponges, etc.) from place to place was very different.
I am not going to do what I asked others to do and rank the places we dove best to worst (one reason this would be foolish is that we only did two dives in each place) I am just going to describe each dive and discuss what we liked and didn't like about it. Another factor that weighs heavily against how much we enjoyed a specific place is the people we dove with. The dive shop and operators we dove with will be described using the same standard (likes vs. dislikes).
Belize (11/04/03) (8:00 AM to 5:00 PM CST) - Here our options were limited by our location and time in port. Belize is a tender port (the ship anchors off shore and you take a small boat into the port) and in Belize you anchor way out so it takes some time (15-20 min one way) to get in to port. There are two reputable dive shops that operate out of Belize City (There are many that operate from the Cays and Islands but due to time constraints they were not good options). Hugh Parkey's is one of those shops. The cruise line uses them for the dive excursions you book through the ship. They offered a 2-tank dive to Turneffe Atoll for $145 + tax per person. Part of me wishes I had the chance to go to Turneffe or one of the other outer Atolls to dive as it seams that all of the premier dive sites (Blue Hole, The Elbow, etc.) in Belize are way out on the Atolls, but due to time we chose another option. (We wanted to see Belize City as well as dive and the dive excursion offered through the ship picked you up and dropped you off at the ship and you never get to go ashore.)
The second reputable dive shop operating out of Belize City is Sea Sports Belize. www.seasportsbelize.com. We chose to dive with them because it saved us time (2 hours less then the ship Turneffe trip-We did a 2-Tank dive on the barrier reef near St. Georges Cay, it was a 20 min boat trip from their shop at the port vs. a 1hr boat ride from the ship to go to Turneffe Atoll) and money (2 persons 2 tank dive for $194.40 total including tax- we saved $130.40 over the ship 2-tank Turneffe price including tax - we brought all of our own gear). Another reason we chose Sea Sports Belize was that they came highly recommended and Linda Searle (Co-Owner with husband John) was very good at communicating with us via email. Give her a try, she answered all of my questions and was very helpful firstname.lastname@example.org. We even were able to pay for our dives in advance using PayPal.
We caught one of the first tenders off the ship bringing us to the tourist village in the heart of the port of Belize City. From there it was an easy 2-block walk through the streets and small shops and vendors to the Sea Sports Belize dive shop (I followed the directions I printed off their web site and easily found the shop). They have a very nice full service dive shop full of kinds of great stuff to purchase. Besides the standard selection of dive equipment they had many local wares for sale and nice tee shirts and various souvenirs. There was a large area in the back of the shop with very nice bathrooms and a large space where we could set up our gear and get ready to go. Their shop backs the harbor and they have a very nice dock right out the back door of the shop where the shop boat was parked and waiting. They have a very nice, smaller (aprox. 22') open style dive boat that has a center cockpit with a single 200 HP OB. There was no canopy (the only down side of the boat as it is very hot in Belize) but there was plenty of seating and the ride out to the dive sites was surprisingly comfortable.
After signing some paperwork and doing some quick shopping we were on our way. With literally two steps out the back door we were on the boat and joined by John and Linda, the boat captain, and a couple from Australia. Linda is an American expat, her husband John is a local with a great personality and killer 'Magnum PI' mustache. Both are very experienced divers and instructors. The boat captain, also a local, was very helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable as well. One thing Linda and John did that we really enjoyed was that as we made our way out of the harbor they would explain everything that we were seeing, giving the history behind the buildings and the country itself. This continued the entire day as they would point out items of interest and tell us all about them, they were especially good about talking about what we saw on our dives, I really liked that.
The harbor was alive with activity, boats going back and forth, fishermen rigging their craft, a small swing bridge near by. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, the seas were relatively calm, and we were going diving. We drove out quickly to St. Georges Cay to pick up some divers from a sailboat charter slowing only briefly to observe a pod of at least 15 dolphins playing all around us. We picked up 3 nice folks on St. Georges Cay bringing the total in the boat to 10 with 7 of us diving (2 passengers did not dive but they did get to fish and snorkel). It wasn't a big group and it never felt crowded, it was just right, another reason we chose to dive with these guys.
Next it was a short drive to the dive sites on the barrier reef. The water was beautiful, at least 50'+ of vis if not more and a warm (86 F) water temp. On our first dive we dropped down on the reef, swam through a few canyons, along a wall, and ended up back on top of the reef at about 45'. One of the first things we saw was a 6-7' nurse shark resting on the sandy bottom in one of the cracks in the reef. There was an amazing amount of coral, fans, and sponges on the reef. (The only other place I dove that even compared to Belize in the amount of life growing on the reef was Roatan. In Grand Cayman and Cozumel there was less coral, sponges, and other life covering the reefs, although the barrel sponges and fans were very large in Cozumel.) Looking across the top of the reef in Belize was like looking across the top of a miniature forest of fans, coral, and sponges teaming with fish of all sizes and description. Looking off into the abyss you would often see larger groupers and other unknown shadows, Linda even spotted and Eagle Ray, unfortunately I never saw it. There was so much stuff on the reef it felt 'crowded' at times when you got down close, but it was a 'good crowded'.
After our first dive we drove slowly along the reef trolling a streamer. After fishing for less then ten minutes we had hauled in a large Spanish Mackerel and a 4'+ Barracuda. They let one of the guys who did not dive haul them in and it was great fun just to watch. After finding our way through a passage in the reef, we anchored in about 10' of water inside the protection of the reef and enjoyed a nice lunch and some snorkeling. They had a great selection of cold drinks on board as well as some delicious homemade sandwiches, some candy bars, and potato chips. The snorkeling was fantastic I saw tons of fish, some stingrays, and a large barracuda parked at a cleaning station above the reef.
Our second dive was at a spot on the reef named 'Chub Change'. This was an area with large sandy open areas dotted with house size chunks of reef jutting out in all directions. Once again we saw all of the usual suspects; tons of fish and lots and lots of coral, fans, and sponges. We went through a few large canyons and along another wall, the only thing missing were large pelagics, which apparently don't show up in any numbers on the reef until later in the winter.
We had the option of being dropped off right at our ship but chose to go back to the port to explore and shop a little more. We made it back in plenty of time to look around a bit and buy a few things. Belize City is nice, very third world, but I like it 3rd world. The people are nice, everyone we me on the streets was very polite. None of the vendors were pushy or aggressive and all in all we loved our time in Belize.
Roatan (11/05/03) (6:00 AM to 2:00 PM CST) - This ended up being our favorite Port and dive destination of the Trip. (Belize-Roatan-Cayman-Cancun) It was so exciting to wake up and look out the window at the beautiful Isla Roatan that morning. The ship is literally only 100 yards off shore. The water is a stunning deep blue and the ship is literally parked on top of a reef teaming with tropical fish. Roatan is by far the most beautiful island from a topography and nature point of view. The buildings and buses that are near and on the pier are not much to look at (very third world, even more so then Belize) but the island is heaping with jungle covered hills and small mountains. There is not a building on the island over 20 feet tall but that lends to the charm. The first plus is that we were docked and simply walked off the ship. That was a big plus for us in that the first thing we did that morning was carry 9 bags of school supplies, candy, and baseball equipment off the ship that we had brought to help a local orphanage. (If you want to help contact Brad Warren at email@example.com He is doing some great work for the wonderful children of Roatan.)
The first thing you want to do when you get to Roatan is walk past all of the people asking you if you want a ride or need a taxi. Go through the last gate and take a right and keep walking, the price gets cheaper the farther you walk. Just outside the gate the price to take a taxi to the West End was $40, after walking 20 paces down the road the price was down to $10. Another thing you will want to do is hire one of the little boys that are running around asking you if you need help. For a small fee ($5) they will be your tour guide, porter, negotiator, and concierge for the day. We were fortunate to meet Samuel, a 10 year-old native boy who spoke perfect English and Spanish. He stayed with us all day long, he was our personal tour guide; he translated for our cab driver, carried our dive bag (Very Heavy), and negotiated prices at shops. All he asked for in return was "whatever we felt like giving him". By the end of the day we had probably given him a total of $20 but it was worth it, we should have given him more, he saved us time, money, and hassels. He did everything for us, he was great - ask for him by name - Samuel.
After finding Samuel and a cab we made our way to the other side of the island and the Inn of Last Resort (www.innoflastresort.com). There are several dive operators on Roatan, some big and some small, the one we chose is right in the middle as far as size, and it was a good choice. I had been communicating with the Inn as well as Bananarama and Anthony's Key. I had heard good things about all three, what it came down to in the end, was price and the number of divers they would have that day.
The two tank dive you can book through the cruise ship uses Anthony's Key and costs $99 + tax per diver. The interesting thing is that on the Anthony's Key web site they offer dives to non-resort guests for $25 per dive ($50 cheaper then the ship tour). However, they do not allow people who come to the island on a cruise ship to dive with them without booking through the ship (and spending the extra $50). We dove with the Inn, which is located just a half mile down the road from Anthony's Key, and saved $50 per person over what the ship charges (We paid $55 per person for a 2 tank dive with the Inn). The Inn of Last Resort is a wonderful resort and Dive operation. Their boats are my favorite of any I have ever been on. They are big and nice, there is tons of room, they have 2 rinse tanks, and the boat is ever so easy to get in and out of. They also have nice canopies that you can climb up on top of if you like to enjoy the view from the top.
Our dives in Roatan were simply the best of our lives. Our first dive was a simple reef dive. The water was clear (60'+ Vis) and warm (84 F) and the reef was teaming with life. One of the best aspects of our dive was the dive master. There were only four of us diving that day (the resort only had 3 guests) and that meant we had tons of personal attention. The dive master had a slate (Magnadoodle) and he kept pointing things out to us and writing names and descriptions on the slate. He also found some amazing shrimp and spiny stars for us to play with. A large green sea turtle (our favorite thing to see) showed up and swam with us on that dive as well as a myriad of other creatures. We actually went back to the resort between dives (it is that close) and had some fruit and drinks for a snack. Our second dive was unreal, a true out of this world experience. If you ever make it to Roatan you should dive the 'Spooky Channel'. This is one of the most amazing dives, it gives you that other worldly feeling that made you fall in love with diving in the first place. You swim in and out of canyons and spires that stretch from the bottom at approx 100' all the way to almost the surface. You stay at around 33' the whole dive (which makes an hour long dive possible). You constantly swim in and out of huge tunnels and over hangs and you really do feel like you are on another planet. I would often swim with my back to the bottom and just stare up at the slits of light coming down from above and watch the fish darting back and forth on the reef heads above. What a dive, I would not miss it, the best we have ever had.
Samuel and our cab driver were waiting for us at the resort when we returned, we took a short ride over to the beach town the West End and used the internet phones ($1 per min) to call home. It is pretty on this side of the island but very rustic. There is a beach called Tabyana that a lot of people from the ship went to and enjoyed. We headed back to the pier at Coxen Hole and did a little shopping before was said good-bye to Samuel and got back on the ship. Roatan was so beautiful we just stood on the deck and watched for over and hour as the ship pulled away.
Grand Cayman (11/06/03) (9:30 AM to 5:00 PM EST Same as ship time) - The most beautiful thing about pulling up to Grand Cayman was the four or five cruise ships anchored just off shore when we arrived. The island it self is very flat, just like Cozumel and Belize, everything is flat, no topography what so ever. It is nice once you are on shore but from the ship it is not much to look at, nothing like Roatan. This is another tender port, however, in Cayman you are anchored very close to shore so the tendering process does not take very long. All though we did hear a few stories of those who waited over an hour just to get on a tender, that was not the case for us as we left early and got on one of the first tenders.
We did not pre arrange any diving on Grand Cayman. There are many dive shops on Grand Cayman but most were far away from where we got off the ship and they were also a little on the expensive side. Most of the dive boats leave at or before 9:00 AM so we missed that dive and the second dive they take usually starts after 2:00 PM and would not be back in time to make our ship, so doing a boat dive in Grand Cayman was just not in the cards this trip. Everything on Cayman is on the expensive side it is a very rich very wealthy island. Even though we had no arrangements we did bring our dive gear and lucked in to some very nice and very cheap diving. When you get off the tender, take a right on the first main road you see going along the coast, you will see signs for Eden Rock dive shop, it is a light blue building right on the shore you can't miss it.
Here at Eden Rock you can rent tanks ($7) and weights ($1) as well as a locker ($4) and dive right from the shore. The diving was a lot better then I expected. There is a nice reef (Eden Rock) about 50 yards off shore that is really fun to dive around. We saw many turtles (our favorite) and several barracuda. One huge barracuda was in the same spot all day (resting under the moored Eden Rock dive boat). He was absolutely huge, well over 6' in length. There were lots of Conch on the sandy bottom and tons of fish. The reef was not near as lush as the reefs in Roatan and Belize and the vis was also not the same but all in all for being a shore dive it was nice. It was a very easy very relaxing dive, and it was cheap, something I did not expect to experience on Grand Cayman.
This short shore dive gave us some time to see the rest of the island. We took one of the taxi tours with a wonderful native islander named Sonya. We took the obligatory trip to Hell and then went to the Turtle Farm and Tortuga Rum Cake Factory. We really enjoyed the turtle farm. You can get up close and personal with them and can even pick them up for pictures. We saw most of seven-mile beach (it is nice if you like your beaches teaming with resorts) and lots of local sites and neighborhoods. Cayman is a nice island it is very clean, very safe, and very wealthy. Make sure to buy some rum cakes and sample the free samples as well (very good and very fresh). We liked the Tortuga brand but ended up buying the Black Beard brand (I liked them better). Don't buy rum cakes on board the ship they are not as fresh. (That is what I was told)
Cozumel (11/07/03) (12:00 AM to 10:00 PM CST) - We have always liked Mexico and have visited many times. However, we had never been to Cozumel prior to this trip and were not disappointed. We were docked on a pier so getting on and off the ship was easy. We were off the ship by 12:30 PM and were not scheduled to meet the dive boat until 2:00 PM so we took a Cab to Chankanaab Beach. It is more like a nature park then just a beach and in some ways that justifies the $10 per person entry fee. The entry and grounds of the park are very beautiful. The beach is not really a beach in the classical sense of a slope of sand meeting the pounding surf (those beaches are on the windward side of the island). The beach at Chakanaab Park is an impeccably groomed stretch of sand, palm trees, and cabannas that ends near the water where the rock begins. This side of the island has little wave action and the entire coast is rock, however, the water is beautiful and the snorkeling and diving here is very good. You can do just about any activity you can imagine at Chankanaab, you can snorkel, snuba, scuba, swim with dolphins, parasail, jet ski, take a nature walk, see some ruins, eat, drink, party, or just hang out on the beach, and it is a very picturesque beach.
At 2:00 PM we met the folks from Eagle Ray Divers (They have a fantastic web site with tons of good Cozumel info - check it out - www.eagleraydivers.com). We found them easily at the pre arranged meeting site "La Caleta" marina. The marina was easy to get to ($5 cab ride from the pier - very close to Chankanaab) and all of the taxi drivers know where it is. (A note on cabs in Cozumel, there are no meters but they do have standardized zone based fees they are supposed to post in the cab and follow, if you do not see it, ask to see it- negotiate a price before you get in a cab.) I cannot say enough about how much we enjoyed our time with Chellie and Raul from Eagle Ray Divers. We chose to dive with them based on recommendations from other divers and the fact that Chellie was so good about communicating via email. We only saved $20 or so over booking the 2 tank dive excursion the ship offered but I am confident we received far better service and had a better time then we would have had elsewhere. Their boat "Miguelito" is old and on the smaller side but it is very historic, sea worthy, and comfortable. What it lacks in creature comforts and modern features it more then make up with charm and personality - plus the ride to the dive sites is very brief, less the 10 minutes.
The diving in Cozumel is very good, the vis was better then I have ever experienced (at least 80'+), the water was warm (82 F), and relatively calm at the surface. Our first dive was right off shore 100 yards or so South of the marina right where the reef goes from flat to a sloping wall. There is a slight current, which I really liked. The current did shift and slow down a few times but over all it added to the dive and made it very relaxing as long as you did not try to swim against it, drift diving is great. The reef is very patchy, a little here and a little there, but the life on the patches of reef is abundant. The barrel sponges here are huge and we saw things in Cozumel we did not see anywhere else. The first thing we noticed was how many schools of fish we saw, some schools were as large as a thousand fish or more. There were different fish schooling all over the place (schooling fish was not something we saw in Belize, Roatan, or Cayman). By far the highlight for us (and our dive master) was the 8' Black Tip Reef Shark we caught a glimpse of cruising the sand flats between the reef and the shore. We saw another turtle on this dive as well as lobsters the size of full-grown dogs - they were huge!
Our second dive was to the north of the marina at a dive site called 'Paradise'. This was a shallow reef dive (40' average depth) that ended very near the cruise ship dock south of town. The amount and variety of sea creatures we saw on this dive was amazing. We saw several Toad Fish, lots of eels of all shapes, sizes, and colors, (including a huge 6'+ green morea), some Sting Rays, more huge dog-sized lobsters and crabs, large grouper, and reef fish of every description. The reef here is also not as overgrown and crowded with live coral as the reefs in Roatan and Belize, which allows you to spot and observe the critters a lot easier. I would not say it is better or worse, just different, and different is good. The sun was setting just as we surfaced from our second dive. As we rested on the surface waiting for the boat to pick us up and stared at the setting sun and the beautiful cruise ships all lit up near by, it was just too perfect, almost too beautiful, what a day.
Chellie and Raul were another reason that the diving was so great in Cozumel. I have never had such service and personal attention on a dive boat. Not only did we never touch our gear the whole trip, Chellie even applied no fog solution to our masks for us before each dive. There were only ten of us on the boat and only four divers (The others were snorkeling). Chellie personally guided two snorkelers, Raul was our personal dive master and guide, and another dive master escorted the other couple who where doing a discover scuba dive. Even though all three groups of people were doing different things and entering/exiting the water in different locations, everything was smooth, seamless, hassle free, and very enjoyable. Chellie and Raul were just as excited as we were about what we saw on our dives. They had some reference books on board and they would show us fish we should look for and other things to find (most of which we did see). Then they would give the names and descriptions of everything we had questions about I really liked all the good info. They had an assortment of cold drinks on board and some Halloween candy for snacks. I highly recommend these guys, diving with Eagle Ray Divers was great.
Eagle Ray Divers arranged for a cab to pick us up at the marina and it was a quick ride back downtown to the pier and the ship. We had enough time to shower and change on the ship and still spend an hour or so shopping downtown. One tip: do not use the phones on or near the pier to call home or the phones on the ship ($9 and up per minute). Buy a Telmex phone card at any store or pharmacy and use one of their phones ($.50 cents per minute). They are very nice phones (we used the one in the nice mall across the street from the pier) and they show a count down of how much you have left on the card as you talk. You can call as many times/people as you want and the sound quality is perfect.