FOR NEARLY 30 years, Thomas Lew has been a diver. He’s donned scuba tanks all over the Caribbean, exploring reefs and brushing up against vividly colorful marine life. It’s a pastime that comes at great cost, however: Beyond the expense of getting to the tropics, Lew typically spends about $250 per day on the air tanks, equipment rental, and dive boats necessary to get out to good dive spots. That’s why he often takes a day off from scuba diving to snorkel instead. “With snorkeling, you can carry your mask and snorkel in your luggage, and some of the best snorkeling is close to shore,” says Lew, a vice president at Boston-based TNT Vacations. Indeed, with no need for equipment rental or a dive boat, a spectacular day of snorkeling can cost . . . nothing.
This low-key approach has advantages beyond the price. The first time I snorkeled, at a Jamaican resort, I rode a shuttle bus to a dock, endured an interminable boat ride to the reef, and wound up spending more time getting to and from the dive spot than I did actually diving — after planning my entire day around the boat schedule. On a more recent trip to Hawaii, I avoided the dive-boat rigmarole and instead went to Hanauma Bay, a short drive from Waikiki. I paid a small public park admission and walked down a steep path to a wide, protected beach. Snorkeling from the beach instead of a boat saved money, but it also put me in control. I could choose the depth of the water where I felt most comfortable, and I could traverse the wide reefs at my own pace. I could also take breaks to laze on the beach. So-called shore snorkeling is only possible at the right kind of beaches — you need gentle surf, clear water, and something interesting to see down there. But when you choose this kind of diving, snorkeling becomes just one part of a fun day at the beach, instead of a long, pricey expedition that can consume most of a precious vacation day. Here are four experts’ picks for budget snorkel getaways:
Admittedly, Gloucester won’t make any serious snorkeler’s 10 best list. Like all of New England, it’s plagued by cold and often murky water, even in summer. But it can be a great place to learn without stepping on an airplane. During July and August, Discovery Adventures (978-283-3320, discoveryadventures.org) gives four-hour guided snorkeling tours for just $75 a person. Everyone wears a provided wet suit, which offers both warmth and buoyancy, making it easier for newbies to focus on breathing. Participants wade in from the beaches and reach some of the beaches by kayak. “When people think about snorkeling in the Caribbean, they think white sand, blue water, and bright fish,” says Kacy Lafferty, Discovery’s executive director, who’s been leading snorkel tours for 17 years. “In New England, we have browns and greens and reds — the underwater landscape is totally different, but there’s tons of stuff to see.” On an expedition out of Gloucester, her clients typically encounter starfish, urchins, striped bass, lobster, and skate.
Florida is the most logical warm-water destination for East Coasters, with Key Largo — an hour’s drive south from Miami and home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an underwater park — the first choice for many snorkelers. But snorkel pros say Southern California can be a great place to slip a day of snorkeling into a larger summer vacation. (Winters can be too chilly, unless you’re in San Diego.) Terry Peralta, a dive travel specialist at Turquoise Travel Adventures in Dana Point, California, suggests Catalina Island as a great destination for boatless snorkeling. “You can step into the water at Casino Point and see the kelp forest, resident giant groupers, and bright orange garibaldi fish, to name a few,” she notes by e-mail. A third choice for folks who want to vacation without a passport: Puerto Rico, where there’s plenty of great snorkeling just off the beach. At any of these destinations, find a local dive shop and ask for the best spots to wade in.
Consider All-Inclusive Mexico
While travelers have deemed many parts of Mexico too dangerous to visit, Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan Peninsula not far from Cancun (and which Jacques Cousteau viewed as one of the world’s best dive spots), is considered relatively safe. TNT’s Thomas Lew suggests staying at an all-inclusive resort, where you can snorkel from the beach or kayak out to reefs before donning a mask. Non-motorized water sports like kayaking and boogie boarding are generally free at all-inclusive resorts, he says, and kayaks can be an especially good way to find great snorkel spots. He recommends the Iberostar resort (305-774-9225, iberostar.com), which has its own dive shop, as a great home base. As at most all-inclusive destinations, Lew says, you can rent snorkel equipment on-site if you choose. Earlier in March, various websites listed three-night stays in Cozumel (including airfare, hotel, food, and drinks) at around $900 a person.
In its January issue, Scuba Diving magazine’s Readers’ Choice Awards named the Caribbean island of Bonaire both the world’s top snorkeling destination and its top value pick. “Wade into the water almost anywhere [on Bonaire] and you’ll find something interesting to watch,” the magazine says. The Dutch “special municipality’’ is part of the so-called A-B-C islands (A is Aruba, C is Curacao) that lie north of Venezuela. Bonaire is considered a “value” destination because once you get there, costs are low. Rent a car and you can access great spots to snorkel off beaches without ever stepping foot on a charter boat. Hotels are reasonable, too. One example: the Sonrisa (sonrisabonaire.com), a boutique property that TripAdvisor ranks number one on the island, has rates starting at $99 a night during the low season that begins April 15. The “value” moniker does not mean Bonaire is flat-out cheap, however. “Any of the Mexican or Dominican destinations are cheaper than Bonaire — it’s expensive to get to,” says Andy Reppeto of BonairePros, a Southlake, Texas, travel agency that specializes in booking trips to the island. Another downside: Infrequent flights make Bonaire best suited for weeklong stays, not quick getaways. From Boston, the best route to Bonaire is to drive to Newark and take Continental’s once-a-week direct flight, which leaves on Friday evenings. (Earlier in March, round-trip fares for May flights tallied $573 per person.) If driving to Newark is too much, it’s possible to connect to direct flights from Atlanta or Houston, or to fly to Aruba and hop to Bonaire on a smaller plane. Generally, these options are more costly. Reppeto insists the complicated journey is worth it. “If it was easy and cheap to get to, there’d be a lot more people there, and if there were a lot more people there, it wouldn’t be nearly as desirable,” he says. Which means once you get your mask in the water, odds are strong the only creatures you’ll be sharing space with are Nemo and his brethren.