Secluded Beaches and Shark Diving in the Bahamas

Where can one find stellar scuba diving in crystal clear ocean as well as spectacular white sand beaches where the only footprints you see for miles are your own? True, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find both but they exist in tandem on Long Island in the Bahamas.

Stella Maris Resort secluded beaches Long Island BahamasKnown as one of the “Out Islands” in this nation of over 700 breathtaking isles and keys, Long Island has remained mostly unspoiled by tourism since Columbus came across it in 1492. At about 90 miles long and narrowing to less than a mile in places, you truly can go all day without seeing another soul.

Now you can certainly find this desired seclusion on many other Bahamas islands as most are unpopulated and accessible only by sea with nothing in place to make for a comfortable stay of any duration. But if you want more than a camping experience you either need your own boat on which to live while anchored, or one must search more diligently for places where there are decent amenities but a minimum of people and relatively few visitors.

On the one hand I have found some incredibly luxurious private resorts but unfortunately they cost a kings ransom which most folks, including me, can ill afford. However, there is a reasonably priced, modest place on Long Island in the southern Bahamas called Stella Maris Resort & Club which near perfectly fits the bill.

Stella Maris Resort shark diving2 Long Island BahamasAs a diver, I’d heard about it ages ago from reading articles in dive magazines and had always wanted to visit, especially for the added bonus of being able to dive with sharks. I thought of it again recently when looking to book my next dive excursion and was afraid it might have joined the ranks of the many great locations that ended up over-trampled by tourists in the intervening years thus losing its original unspoiled appeal.

But after some cursory investigation on the web and talking to other divers, it sounded like it may have retained its uncrowded charm. So the trip was booked and I have to say it was exactly as advertised. Miles of desolate brilliant white sand beaches coupled with the spectacular crystal clear waters known throughout these islands and reefs teaming with fish.

The island population has remained small with only about 3500 inhabitants and around 30 or so small villages and towns. There are only a handful of vacation places and they are smallish, nicely blended into the island landscape without overpowering it. Stella Maris is a prime example with accommodations including cottages and small hotel style buildings of only a few rooms each built into the hillsides overlooking the ocean. And yes the views are beautiful!

Stella Maris Resort shark diving1 Long Island BahamasBecause everything is spread out over a fairly large property this resort never felt crowded and was perfect for relaxing. The diving was superb with up to 200 feet of visibility for exploring the many great reefs and several wrecks. And of course there was the shark diving which Stella Maris pioneered. They never failed to attract one or two dozen sharks for a super diving experience safely done.

Topping off the outstanding beaches and diving are other opportunities to explore, like Deans Blue Hole, the deepest ever at 660’, great snorkeling either off a charter boat or places like the Coral Gardens only a short walk away. Plus there are kayaks and bicycles for going further afield.

And last but far from least was the outstanding dining available since being in and on the water always creates superb appetites. Enjoy fine fare in the main clubhouse or down by the beach, and you should also take advantage of the huge outdoor terrace for drinks or just watching the sunsets.

All in all Stella Maris Resort is a great choice for a romantic getaway or just spending time with a few friends and I’d welcome a return engagement. Just note that if you’re looking for intense nightlife then look elsewhere because here you’ll just find a laid-back, unpretentious place to enjoy great diving, exploring, taking long walks on the beach, or simply soaking up the sun doing nothing at all.

Tulum – The Mayans Knew Location Mattered

Known as the three most important things in real estate, location, location, location, was obviously something the Mayan Indians had taken to heart hundreds of years ago.

I mean just look at some of the gorgeous locations they chose to build at. White sand beaches, incredible turquoise water, cliff-side locations to enjoy the tropical breezes – I mean these guys definitely knew what they were doing in picking out some prime beachfront locations. Imagine standing on the bluffs, enjoying a spectacular view looking out over an emerald Caribbean Sea – It just doesn’t get much better than that!

El Castillo in TulumTulum or the “Walled City” was built by the ancient Maya on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. One of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, it was occupied for over 300 years, from around 1200 A.D. until after the Spanish conquest.

Located at a convergence of both land and sea trade routes, Tulum was a major link in an extensive trade network. Artifacts found in or near the site indicate Mayan commerce ranged from Central Mexico to Central America and all points between.

The Castillo, sometimes referred to as the lighthouse, is the tallest building at Tulum and the most famous. It stands on the bluff, commanding a view of the ocean and coast for several miles in both directions.

Around 1000 A.D. Chichen Itza in Yucatan was the center of the Mayan civilization, which was spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, through Belize and Guatamala, and on to the edges of Honduras and El Salvador.

Today the Maya number around five million and live mostly in the Yucatan Peninsula and the highlands of Guatemala. As they did over a thousand years ago, most live in villages and make their living from the land.

Our modern cities are primarily centers for commerce which is completely different from the purpose of the Mayan stone city remains we see today. For the ancient Maya, these were principally ceremonial sites and gathering places where they came for spiritual reasons.

During the early 1500’s the Spanish were determined to systematically destroy the Mayan civilization. One of the world’s greatest cultural crimes was their destruction of all the wriitten records they came across.

As for the people themselves, those not killed in battle, were mostly decimated by diseases carried to the “New World” from the “old”. Today the magnificent stone cities lie abandoned and in ruins once more.

Until the late 20th century when tourists became too numerous, the local Maya continued visiting the temples to burn incense and pray.

There is no way to gain a real appreciation of the Mayan culture without visiting some of these ruins that have been abandoned to the elements. There are hotels to be found in the area, plus the Tulum ruins are only a two hour drive south of the popular beach resort of Cancun, which makes for a pleasant day trip.

Great Eating on North Caicos

Whenever traveling, I like to find those out-of-the-way places to eat. You know, the ones where the locals go to get a great meal for a fair price. Often these eateries don’t look like much, and usually take extra effort to get to, or even find, but man are they worth they effort.

The best way to locate one is to ask around. Check with the locals, make use of travel sites on the internet, and ask other visitors. Folks are usually not shy about telling what they think.

Franks Cafe, North CaicosAlso, keep your ears open. We learned about a place called Franks Cafe from overhearing the conversation between a couple folks who were regular visitors to the Turks & Caicos islands. They were happy to share their discovery, and provided details for finding it, without which we probably never would.

First you have to leave Provo and get over to North Caicos where the pace slows way down. Take the ferry and arrange to have a rental car waiting when you arrive. Note there is no office, over there – just the car and a friendly guy to take your money and answer questions. He may even need you to drop him off at his place on your way out.

While Franks is just off the main road, and has the remnant of a sign partially hidden by some trees, it is definitely easy to miss if you don’t know when to start looking. We passed it a few times each way. The turn off is more of a wash than a road, where the car bottoms out in the potholes.

But once you drive up it a couple hundred yards, you’ll see the house. Yep, it’s a house with the restaurant in front, and a small bar off the main room. The atmosphere was relaxed, and the kids playing outside just reinforced the slower pace here. We later learned they were actually Franks grandkids.

We arrived around lunch time, and aside from a couple guys coming in for to go orders, we were the only sit-down customers. At that time Frank wasn’t there, but his daughter was. Friendly and gracious, she took our order and prepared a great meal of fish, conch fritters, and veggies. We also got a chance to visit briefly with her afterwards.

Bottom line is that our meal at Franks was our favorite during our trip to these islands. It takes some effort to find, but the search is worth it because the food is great and the prices extremely reasonable – which is saying a lot, since most everything tends be pricey in these islands.

The Original Bob Soto’s Diving

Reprint of the original article from 2005…

The year is about over and with it, the passing of an institution in the world of diving. Anyone familiar with diving in the Caribbean, surely knows about Bob Soto’s Diving on Grand Cayman. Well it seems it is no more. Along with the other dive operators and pretty much everyone on the island, they suffered significant damage from Hurricane Ivan in late 2004. There are many businesses still trying to recover, and some are up and running, but Bob Soto’s closed their doors early in 2005.

Bob Soto's DivingI for one am nostalgic thinking of its demise. After getting my first dive certification at 16 years old, I read everything I could about the sport, and of course that included Skin Diver magazine – which ironically ceased publication a couple years ago as well. I can remember reading innumerable articles about Bob Soto’s and diving in Grand Cayman – sort of grew up with it. In fact it was in large part due to their history and reputation that I ended up doing my divemaster training, followed up with taking an IDC there to get my instructor certification sometime back.

For those not familiar with history, here’s a brief illumination. Bob Soto started his dive business in 1957 in Georgetown, Grand Cayman. He was a pioneer in the industry, and his backdoor was what many have called the “Jewel of the Caribbean”. Though there are nearly 50 operators there now, he was the first. He ran the business for 20 years before selling it to Ron Kipp who called it Ron Kipp’s Bob Soto’s Diving and spent the next 22 years building it into quite an operation.

Achievements during this time are many including opening the first PADI 5 Star Training Development Center in the Cayman Islands. In fact, there is an interesting account about Ron in Mark Henricks book, ‘Not Just a Living: The Complete Guide to Creating a Business That Gives You a Life’, which includes the story about the building of this world-class diving phenomenon.

Ron retired in 2003 and sold the business to Dan Tibbetts of Reef Divers who called the new company Bob Soto’s Reef Divers. Dan also had operations on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. These latter two are still up and running, but the original Bob Soto’s is gone.

Even though its hard to accept that Bob Soto’s Diving will no longer operate after nearly 50 years, Grand Cayman remains one of my all-time favorite dive destinations. In fact, its been awhile now – time to take another trip back……

Americas Backyard – Diving in St. Croix

One could liken St. Croix to a sort of “hidden gem”, not just for divers looking for great diving in lesser known locales, but for anyone wanting to get away from the crowds and more visited places that have become way too “touristy”. Here divers will find healthy, pristine reefs, a few wrecks, great macro diving, plus the famous “Wall”.

St. Croix, Cane Bay Reef Club - The Wall OffshoreBecause it’s off the beaten path, Saint Croix is one of the more affordable islands in the Caribbean. You’ll not only find great deals on dive packages, but everything else from accommodations, to great places to eat, to transportation, and more, is all very reasonably priced.

For about 7 miles, the “Wall” runs along the north shore, starting at about 50’ and dropping off to 3200’. It’s only a couple hundred yards offshore making it an easy shore dive, but you’ll also want to do some diving off a boat to explore as much of it as possible. Many locations have mooring buoys to protect the reef from anchoring.

Two of the most popular sites are Northstar and Pavilion, where you’ll see gorgeous sponges – purple tubes, lavender vases, red ropes; several stands of black coral, as well as prolific schools of fishes, including a few bait ball swarms. Don’t forget to peek under the ledges where lobster and large crab can be found hiding.

Over near Salt River, the location where Columbus landed in 1493, are several sites to the east and west of the reef where it protects the harbor. You’ll find huge coral heads with some small caves and giant swim-throughs. These are just plain fun, and dives there are always going to end way before you can tire of this part of the wall.

There are tons of crevices that provide ample hiding places for large lobster and crab, and by taking your time and looking in and under the ledges, you’ll see them lurking. This area also attracts hawksbill turtles. An especially large one was nonplussed enough with divers to allow us to swim alongside for a good while.

St. Croix, Frederiksted PierSomewhere on your agenda, be sure and include a dive under the Frederiksted Pier. While most of the premier diving is along the north shore, this west-end location shouldn’t be missed. Especially for macro photographers, it’s a potpourri of goodies.

The pier was built for cruise ship traffic but with their absence over the last few years, it’s become home to a variety of creatures who’ve moved in. In fact it’s got more fish and other critters packed into a smaller area than most anywhere else you’ll visit. Interestingly enough, you’re virtually assured of seeing not just one octopus, but several on any given dive.

On both the west-end north of the pier, and the northeast side of St. Croix are several wreck sites. All the vessels were made safe before being intentionally sunk, and are shallow enough for most divers. Some penetration is possible, but they don’t require technical diving skills. Most of the sites are sandy bottoms teeming with garden eels, and frequented by southern stingrays.

These wrecks have been submerged long enough to have healthy growth over much of them, yet the structures are still quite visible. Highlighted in the clear water, with the right lighting, they make excellent photo opportunities.

It’s hard to beat the spectacular diving, or modest prices found in Saint Croix. Seemingly overlooked by most divers and other travelers as well, it’s a piece of “America’s backyard” waiting to be discovered. Do yourself a favor and take a look.

Finding the “Perfect Beach”

No brainer – white powder sand, turquoise water, no crowds. But wait, I’d really like some clear water & reef to do some snorkeling, so maybe a little rocky offshore – but keep some of the bottom sandy for playing on without stubbing a toe.

And I’d like to do a little body surfing too, but then the kids can’t handle the big stuff. Oh yeah, what about shade, maybe there should be a few palm trees placed strategically – but don’t block the sun. Better make sure it’s wide enough for some volleyball too – don’t want the beach disappearing whenever low-tide comes around.

Perfect BeachSpeaking of low-tide, those tide-pools left behind are cool for finding little critters, so maybe some more of those reef rocks up on shore – not too many though……

Hmmm, maybe this isn’t such a no-brainer after all. I suspect everyone has some sort of fuzzy notion in their mind of what the perfect beach looks like, but when it comes time to actually pick one out as a destination, it becomes a bit more complicated.

The real answer is it depends – it depends on what you want to do at the beach. And that answer will no doubt have several parts that change with every trip, not to mention ages of the travelers.

Lets go a step further and really complicate things. If you were going to pick a beach to settle or retire on, which would it be?

Now you have to start considering other things, like how often will you be blown away by hurricanes, how far from groceries and other stores, how far from services like doctors and hospitals, and a hundred other typical home buying questions.

Sort of takes the fun out of it eh? Not really, but makes for a much more thought provoking question. For instance, while I really like being right on the beach, I might not like it during bad storms, or potential flooding.

MartiniqueIn fact I might want to get off the beach and live high up where I can enjoy cool breezes and a panorama view of the ocean. There was great illustration of such a place in a film called “The Thomas Crown Affair” starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. (Actually was a remake of the original with Steve McQueen.) It was filmed in Martinique where Crown had a cottage up a couple thousand feet, on top of a mountain. It was totally secluded with a magnificent 360 degree view out over the ocean.

As much as I like the idea of stepping out the back door and walking to the beach, I’m becoming more interested in something like Crown’s place where I get the breeze and view, but would have a longer walk down to the water. Probably more sensible in hurricane areas and would certainly save on insurance as well as property cost.

Another reason for considering locations not directly on the beach would be that no beach will likely provide for all the different activities I might want to do. These range from sunning, reading in the shade, taking long walks, surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, finding shells, searching tide-pools, enjoying both calm seas and crashing waves, and on and on.

There just isn’t one place to do it all, which is a bit frustrating because the reason one goes to the effort and expense of living on a beach is to do beach things. So not being able to do all of them would be rather annoying.

And the end of the day, there will no doubt be compromise involved. What do you think – what comes to mind when thinking about a “perfect beach”, or have you already found you place in the sun?

Grenada Sailing Festival – Pure Sail, Pure Spice

Grenada is always a premier island vacation destination, but sailors find it even more compelling for its consistent winds. And for those enjoying the thrill of racing, the best time to visit is during the last week of January because that’s the time of the Grenada Sailing Festival.

Known as one of the islands most popular events, the festival, which was first held in January 1994, attracts sailing enthusiasts from all over the world. It features several days of races and regattas, as well as a day-long craft market and street festival. Over the years, the event has helped put Grenada on the world map for international sailing in the Caribbean.

Grenada Sailing FestivalThe Grenada Sailing Festival is run in association with the Grenada Board of Tourism and supported by many sponsors. It lasts for four days and each year organizers report seeing ever stronger and more competitive fleets and record numbers of yachts and participants.

Grenada Sailing FestivalThe yachts race in several different classes including J24s, racing, cruising, charter and multihull, and the challenging ocean racing is overseen by a team of internationally accredited judges and officials. The sight is spectacular each morning as the yachts maneuver for positions at the starting line, and even more so during the races themselves.

Along with Grenada’s own home-grown talent and local crews, the festival attracts some of the best names in Caribbean racing from neighbouring Trinidad, as well as Barbados and Antigua.
You’ll also see a great mix of other nationalities, including skippers and crews from the UK, Ireland, USA, France, Netherlands, Holland, New Zealand, South Africa and more.
St. George's, Grenada

Seaview Hotel, Grand Cayman

This is an update to the original post shown below. I’d been curious about what had happened to the old Seaview hotel and it seems it is no more. Although it did survive the beating from hurricane Ivan, it needed a good bit of work. Having received the insurance damage settlement the owners intended to fix the place back up and reopen but a developer thought the property would be great for condos and made an offer. Apparently the deal closed but issues arose and the property ended up sitting dormant for nearly a couple years. I understand the site was razed but don’t have any word yet on whether the project ever completed. If anyone knows please feel free to comment.

Seaview Hotel Grand CaymanAs originally posted in early 2008…
This is a quaint little hotel that sits maybe a few minutes walk south of Georgetown. It has the reputation of being the oldest hotel on Grand Cayman as it was built in 1953. Along with nearly everything else on the island, it got trashed pretty badly in late 2004 during hurricane Ivan.

Like so many properties, it had to close down until it could be made habitable for customers once more. They were supposed to have re-opened in 2005, but there’s been no word on that, and I know of several other establishments that shut down for good.

Seaview Hotel Grand CaymanSeaview is a nostalgic place. It’s small, only about 15 rooms, and caters to divers who can hit some of the most fabulous reef anywhere by just stepping off the shore out back. They’ve also got a great deck area surrounding the pool perfect for watching the sun set.Seaview Hotel Grand Cayman

Besides that was a super bar and restaurant called the Naked Fish. It was always crowded with locals who knew where the best eats were, but never took that long to get served. Food was always tasty, especially after a day in the water.

Found the place my first time on island. Was actually staying on the other side of Georgetown at a hotel called Treasure Island Resort. It sits at the start of the famous Seven Mile Beach, and is also a great place but much larger. I always think of the steel band playing during the weekly party night while we drank rum punches.

Anyway, was wandering around the capital of Georgetown where all the cruise ships come in checking out the shops and eats, and went on out the other side of town and found the quieter areas to the south. Definitely not crowded. Just a few homes and two hotels. The first was Sunset House, of Cathy Church Photography fame, and then Seaview just a bit further.

It was night and day compared to Seven-Mile Beach. Completely relaxed and laid back, it set a whole other pace away from all the tourists. I immediately decided to re-locate once my reservation was finished at Treasure Island.

Got lucky because they had a room opening just when I could take it. Now this is nothing fancy mind you. That’s what was so nice. Just basic accommodation, clean and quiet, with most of the guests there to dive their brains out.

Seaview became my hotel of choice when visiting Grand Cayman, and even though it’s mostly a diving crowd, everyone is welcome. Just bear in mind that if it’s fancy hotels and night-life, along with their attendant hustle and bustle, then you’ll want to move on over to the 7-mile area.

A Quiet Retreat in the Turks & Caicos

If you’re looking for plenty of white sand beaches and turquoise waters, you won’t be disappointed with the Turks & Caicos Islands. Providenciales is the most populated of the larger islands and its famous Grace Bay Beach, the most visited.

While it certainly deserves its reputation as one of the worlds best beaches, Grace Bay has also become one of the most crowded. Seems like resorts are jammed into about every available inch of its 12 mile length.

Turks & Caicos BeachesHowever there are plenty of places on Provo and especially the other islands to find that same gorgeous sand and water, but without all the people. In fact there are even a few spots left at the end of Grace Bay towards Turtle Cove.

This is the end where the beach gets a bit rockier in places, but its also where the reef is easily accessed for snorkeling. A short walk out and you’re on Smiths Reef which offers some of the best snorkeling anywhere.

Besides the reef, the best feature of all is the fact that there are several villas available for rent where you have your own section of beach – not that you need it since there’s hardly anyone down there anyway. But you will love the isolation and solitude.

This one is set back from the beach, but has a tower gazebo for a 360 degree view of the beach, as well as the marina. Not being directly on the beach, its super quiet – especially at night, and the pool is hidden from view as well. Perfect for honeymooners and quiet getaways.

Turks & Caicos Vacation Rental