Scuba Diving: Perennial Favorites

Over and over again surveys of dive travelers show five destinations in the Western Hemisphere to be consistent favorites. They are: Cozumel, the Cayman Islands, The Islands of The Bahamas, Bonaire and Belize. Add to that the up-and-coming dive destinations of Turks & Caicos and Honduras' Bay Islands and you have a comprehensive short list of dive travelers' preferred and most-visited off-shore destinations.

Following is a look at what each of these destinations offers divers, along with sample packages offered by dive wholesalers. Prices are per person, based on double occupancy.

COZUMEL
A 1997 Readers' Choice survey by Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine shows Cozumel as one of the top destinations preferred by more divers than any other. In addition to its convenience and affordability, Cozumel offers prime diving.

A massive system of coral reefs surrounds the island and the underwater landscape is accented by caves, dropoffs, miles of walls, tunnels, pinnacles and overhangs.

Barbachano Tours, Miami. A $199 three-night special to Club Cozumel Caribe is available to travelers whose agents book air travel through Barbachano. The package includes two days of diving (one two-tank dive daily), accommodations in an oceanview junior suite, transfers and meals at the all-inclusive property. The price is available through Dec. 15, with a blackout period between Oct. 3 and 31.

THE CAYMAN ISLANDS
Spectacular wall dives draw tens of thousands of divers a year to this three-island British crown colony. Another Cayman calling card for divers is Stingray City, a shallow dive near Grand Cayman's North Wall where masses of tame stingrays congregate to beg for food from divers and snorkelers. Of the three Cayman islands, Grand Cayman is most developed for tourism, providing all the requisite amenities. Dive clients who prefer a more laid-back experience may prefer Cayman Brac or Little Cayman.

Waters Edge Scuba & Adventure Specialists, Denver. The operator is rolling back prices on a seven-night package to Grand Cayman to 1988 levels in order to mark the 10th anniversary of the wholesaler's local dive operator, Red Sail Sports. From Sept. 8 through Dec. 14, the package is priced at $955 ($593 for non-divers), including accommodations at the Hyatt Regency, Westin or Marriott; a two-tank dive daily; unlimited shore diving; a 10% discount on Red Sail Sports purchases; a Fuji disposable camera, taxes, and gratuities.

THE ISLANDS OF THE BAHAMAS
The underwater sights are as diverse as the islands themselves in this chain of 700 islands, islets and cays. In some destinations, marine animals such as sharks, dolphins and stingrays are the highlight, and there are both shallow coral gardens and deep wall dives off many islands.

Caribbean Dive Tours, Marietta, Ga. New divers looking to finish up their certification process can complete their open-water training at Stuart Cove's Dive South Ocean or South Ocean Golf & Beach Resort on New Providence Island by taking advantage of Caribbean Dive Tours' Cert-a-Vacation trips, offered at least once a month year-round. The three-night packages include accommodations, three days of two-tank boat dives and unlimited shore diving and are priced at $369 ($399 during peak season in February and March).

Certified divers are also welcome to book the package.

BONAIRE
"Bonaire is proof that God is a diver," a writer in Rodale's Scuba Diving Magazine once asserted.

Backing up that cheeky declaration is the easy accessibility of superb diving in Bonaire. Surrounded by fringe reefs, Bonaire has an underwater drop-off that begins in 20 feet of water just a few dozen yards off-shore, making shore diving unusually rewarding. Bonaire long ago took measures to protect its off-shore treasures, declaring its entire coastline a marine park in 1971. This year, Skin Diver magazine awarded its new Travel Hall of Fame to Bonaire, citing the island's tremendous underwater photo opportunities and its commitment to aquatic awareness and marine protection.

Caradonna Caribbean Tours, Altamonte Springs, Fla. A seven-night Bonaire Bonanza air-inclusive plan is priced at $879 per person for Wednesday departures from Miami. Available through Dec. 15, the package features accommodations at the Sunset Beach Hotel, transfers, six buffet breakfasts, six days of one-tank boat dives, unlimited shore diving, welcome cocktail, tax and service charge.

TURKS & CAICOS
One of the hottest destinations in the dive world these days is this chain of three dozen low-lying islands and small cays, prized for both its dramatic underwater sights and the absence of mass tourism shoreside. Underwater terrain encompasses both shallow banks and depths reaching 12,500 feet. Reefs start at 40 to 60 feet below the surface and are especially colorful. Turks & Caicos is especially suited to live-aboard dive vacations because of the variety of its dive destinations.

Peter Hughes Diving, Coral Gables, Fla. A seven-night live-aboard package on the 18-passenger Sea Dancer, which sails roundtrip out of Providenciales, gives divers five and a half days of diving with up to five dives a day, says director of sales and marketing Sue Hamilton. Year-round, the trip is priced from $999 per person (with shared bath) up to $1,399.

HONDURAS
The Bay Islands, located off Honduras' Caribbean Coast, encompass four island groups. Its largest island, and among its popular dive destinations, is Roatan, which has the biggest concentration of lodging facilities, including the well-known Anthony's Key Resort. Also favored by divers are the islands of Utila and Guanaja. Honduras offers divers good value, especially since many of its casual island resorts are all-inclusives. The dive experience in Honduras varies considerably depending upon the destination. For example, there are wall dives, a shipwreck off Guanaja's coast and coral gardens off Utila.

Maduro Dive Fanta-Seas, Miami. A seven-night air-inclusive package to Roatan is priced at $1,027 through Dec. 15. In addition to roundtrip air travel from Miami, the package includes accommodations at the Fantasy Island Beach Resort, three meals daily, three boat dives daily, one night dive, unlimited shore dive, transfers and a welcome cocktail.

BELIZE
Jacques Cousteau brought Belize to the attention of divers around the world when he trained his spotlight on its now-famous Blue Hole, a deep circular shaft that measures 1,000 feet across and 480 feet deep and contains a large cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. Belize also boasts 185 miles of barrier reef and three of the Caribbean's four major atolls -- Turneffe Islands, Lighthouse Reef and Glover's Reef. An especially popular dive destination is Ambergris Caye, the most developed of the cays and the gateway to a five-miles-square marine preserve.

Sandy Llewellyn, president of Ocean Connection in Friendswood, Texas, likens the diving in Belize to that found in the Caymans. "There's wall diving in that area. One of the most famous is Half Moon Wall, which is out on Lighthouse Reef. It's a spectacular wall dive that has spectacular coral, sponges and fans. You see spotted rays and manta rays, big schools of fish, lots of sponges, black coral and lots of eels."

Ocean Connection is offering a summer special at the Blackbird Cay Resort in the Turneffe Islands, priced at $1,095 through Nov. 1. The seven-night package includes meals and three to four boat dives daily and a free dive computer. The resort's location allows dive operators to take divers to Belize's famous Blue Hole in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll.

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Premier Cruises has teamed with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) to offer scuba excursions to various locales. The pairing affords travelers the opportunity to enjoy the amenities of a cruise vacation with the chance to explore some top dive sites.

From famous wreck and coral reef dives to shark and dolphin encounters, Premier & PADI offer excursions from four of the six ships to the following destinations: the SeaWind Crown (Aruba, Curacao, Barbados, Margarita Island), SeaBreeze (Ft. Lauderdale, Key West, Cozumel, Roatan, Belize), Oceanic (Nassau, Port Lucaya in The Islands of the Bahamas) and OceanBreeze (Cartagena, Colombia; San Blas Islands, off the coast of Panama). All of the ships feature new Scuba Pro equipment.

The Discover Scuba Diving program is tailored to meet the needs of both first-time and seasoned divers with a certification course for the beginners and more advanced sites for the experienced diver. Three-dive, three-night Bahamas cruises are priced from $513 including port charges, but certain restrictions apply. For more information, call Premier Cruises at (800) 990-7770.

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