Where To Dive Without Sinking a Lot of Money
by K.C. Summers
Washington Post March 7, 2010 p.F3

Life is all about making choices, and that goes double in the Caribbean. Or triple. Zach Husid and Kelly Vaughan, a scuba-diving, beach-loving, all-inclusive-resort-craving couple, have some decisions to make.

You can have world-class diving. You can have the gorgeous beach. You can even stay in an upscale all-inclusive on a tight budget.

You just can't have all three at once.

Bonaire, for example, is widely considered the best dive destination in the Caribbean, but if you're looking for miles of white-sand beaches, forget it. Turks and Caicos, another highly regarded dive spot, has a laid-back vibe and pretty beaches, but you'd have to scale back considerably on lodging to stay within your budget.

Mexico's Cozumel boasts a winning combo of fantastic dive sites and more affordable all-inclusives, but the island isn't particularly known for its beaches. And in the Dominican Republic's Punta Cana, you can have your pick of fancy oceanfront resorts at affordable prices, but the diving isn't as dramatic.

Decisions, decisions. Depending on your priorities, here are three trip suggestions.

Turks and Caicos. The island chain of Turks and Caicos, a British territory about 40 miles south of the Bahamas, has one of the longest coral reefs in the world — and you know what that means. The PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Travel Network, which offers dive trips throughout the world (800-729-7234, padi.com), ranks it among the top five most popular scuba destinations in the Caribbean.

The islands are an ocean plateau with offshore depths of up to 6,000 feet, and the dramatic combination of reef and wall diving results in dense concentrations of animal and plant life: corals and sponges, small tropical fish and large fish such as reef sharks, groupers and barracudas. As for beaches, Grace Bay on the island of Providenciales is consistently ranked one of the world's prettiest strands.

The all-inclusive Club Med Turkoise on the island of Providenciales (888-WEB-CLUB, clubmed.us) is a popular lodging option. It offers a package deal from Washington, but its rate for two people for four nights — including round-trip air, airport transfers, all meals and drinks, a range of sports, activities and entertainment and all taxes and gratuities — is $3,105 for two, well outside your budget.

Instead, consider booking your flight independently and staying at a smaller place. For example, the 37-room Osprey Beach Hotel on Grand Turk Island (649-946-2666, ospreybeachhotel.com), with a beachside pool and on-site bar and restaurant, has double rooms in mid-May starting at $150 a night, including taxes. The hotel books scuba excursions starting at $75 a day.

Cozumel. This 185-square-mile island off the Yucatan peninsula is a magnet for divers from around the world and offers a wide variety of lodgings.

With its dazzling chain of coral reefs, it's one of the world's top five dive destinations, said Christine Grange, executive director of PADI Travel Network. "The names of some of these dive sites are hallowed in divers' logbooks: Palancar Reef, Colombia Reef, Santa Rosa Wall," she said. "The currents carry you along dramatic drop-offs, and there's great quality as far as visibility and sea life."

A large part of Cozumel's appeal is that there's a real there there.

There's plenty of shopping, if you're into that, but it's also fun just to walk along the pretty sea wall and to check out the zocalo, or plaza, downtown. It's the place to be on Sunday nights for locals and visitors alike. Biking is a good way to get around, or you can rent a car to explore outlying villages. And save at least a day to explore the mysterious Mayan ruins in the area, including San Gervasio (reachable by taxi), Tulum, Xel-Ha and Chichen Itza.

Accommodations range from guesthouses to oceanfront villa rentals to all-inclusives. Funjet (888-558-6654, funjet.com), for example, has a four-night deal at the Melia Cozumel All Inclusive Beach Resort for $748 per person, including round-trip air from Washington, hotel, all meals and beverages and most taxes and gratuities. Total for two: $1,495.

Punta Cana. The resort area of Punta Cana on the island of Hispaniola is better known for its beaches, golf courses and miles of all-inclusive resorts than its diving. But casual divers and beginners can keep busy at the more than 20 scuba sites, which are especially appealing because of the shallow waters and plentiful barrier reefs right offshore.

Excursions to Catalina and Saona islands, from dive centers that are about a two-hour drive from the resort area, appeal to experienced divers, too, with sightings of turtles, whales, sharks and other big fish. There are even a few shipwrecks to explore.

Apple Vacations (800-517-2000, applevacations.com) has a four-night air-hotel package at the upscale Iberostar Punta Cana on Bavaro Beach at $752 per person, for a total of $1,793, including taxes and gratuities. The resort has multiple swimming pools, a disco, a casino, bars and restaurants. Cost includes round-trip air from Washington, airport transfers, all meals and drinks and more.

Or put together your own package. At the all-inclusive VIK Hotel Arena Blanca (888-774-0040, vikpuntacana.com), a four-day stay in an oceanfront suite runs $272 per person, for a total of $544, including taxes and gratuities. Cost includes all meals, unlimited drinks, non-motorized water sports and more. Booking the air separately, the fare would be about $385, including taxes, for a total of $1,314. That gives you plenty left over for dive excursions.

Where: All inclusive resort in the Caribbean
Why: Romantic Getaway, with an emphasis on Diving
When: Five or six days in May
Budget: $1,500 to $2,000