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May 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Cocos, Fiji, Roatan, Yucatan

and why you shouldn’t rely solely on travel agents

from the May, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Xcalak and Chinchorro Bank, Mexico. If any diver studies a map of the Yucatan, he has to imagine that the Chinchorro Bank, south of Cozumel, has to be special. I thought so 10 years ago, and was disappointed; my full review is still on our website. Jason Marks (Oakland, CA) gave it a go in March, and reports that nothing has improved at Chinchorro, but dives close to the mainland are just fine. "All diving was with XTC Dive Center, just outside Xcalak. We liked the local diving quite a bit. Hob Na, at the north end of the Xcalak reef, is a beautiful set of deep canyons and ridges, lushly covered with gorgonians and hard corals. While there were only a few snapper of any size, and I saw no grouper, smaller fish - - angels, parrots, wrasses, cowfish, butterflyfish - - abounded. La Poza, a relatively deep wall with side canyons harboring schools of tarpon, jack and snapper, was spectacular, and the entry, from inside the lagoon and over the wall with breakers rolling overhead, was neat. Poza Rica and Dona Nica were tamer sites, but still fun.Chinchorro Bank, on the other hand, was disappointing. The trip out, through swells of five feet and against a strong wind, was rough, and took more than 2.5 hours. (Coming back was easier, at almost two hours.) Everyone got soaked as we hit the reef cut, and despite some sun, it was impossible to get warm in the wind and spray. Punta Isabel and Punta Irelanda's relatively shallow reefs, averaging 50 feet, had apparently been scoured clean of most coral cover by a storm. Only widely scattered sponges and gorgonians survive; very sparse hard corals on the mostly sand-covered reefs, especially at Isabel. That said, there were more moderate-size fish (schools of snapper, several grouper, and a couple of triggerfish) than at the local Xcalak sites, probably reflecting fishing restrictions on this part of the Biosphere Reserve, as well as numerous conchs and garden eels in the sand flats. XTC Dive Center was a well-run operation with good staff, the exception being the divemaster on the Chinchorro trip, who was disengaged almost to the point of uselessness. We liked staying in their apartments next door (a.k.a. the Flying Cloud Hotel), which were comfortable, affordable and so convenient." (www.xtcdivecenter.com)

Wananavu, Ra Divers and Volivoli Beach Resort, Fiji. While Wananavu still promises to have a dive operation in June, details are not forthcoming. Ra Divers has moved on to Volivoli, and it's a fine place, reports Lynn Siebert, who owns Scuba World in Sacramento, CA, and went there in February. Ra, of course, is a good operation, but what about this hotel few have visited? Lynn says, "Around seven years ago, the Darling family from New Zealand (Steve Sr., Gail, Stevie and Nick) bought Ra Divers and 20 acres of surrounding property on the beach and coastline of Bligh Waters at the northern tip of the island of Viti Levu. Their vision was to create a dedicated dive resort that would meet the level of accommodation, food and service U.S. divers have come to expect when diving while land-based in Fiji. The grand opening this February of their new hotel wing offering nine hillside, ocean-view, deluxe rooms (best suited for twin-share dive buddies) added to the 10 private, hillside, ocean-view villas best suited for couples. Volivoli and Ra Divers have accomplished their goal: to provide a certain level of resort luxury and cultural activities at an affordable price without sacrificing their focus on diving and dive training in the Bligh Waters and Vatu-IRa Passage. The beautiful new restaurant and bar that overlooks the pool, swim-up bar and ocean, served up really good meals cooked fresh to order, which does take a while so don't be in a hurry. And don't expect gourmet presentations, just good, wholesome food of gigantic proportions with a definite New Zealand influence. Try the Volivoli Burger . . . No waiting for divers on the other dive boat to return for the restaurant to open up. The cook and meal-service staff are always there to take your food or drink order with a first-name greeting and a gigantic Fijian smile . . .You can take advantage of the cultural excursions, which include a Rakiraki area tour, native village visit and horseback riding. For our group, Volivoli arranged an Aqua-Trek Pacific Harbor shark dive day on the other side of the island - - a very long day, but it was worth it." (www.volivoli.com)

Sea Hunter, Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Everybody loves the Sea Hunter, as did Michael D. Smith (Oklahoma City, OK) on his April trip, where he saw "lots of shark action on every dive, rays in herds, enormous schools of jacks, dozens of octopus, turtles, morays, lobster everywhere, reef fish and smaller critters galore." However, the news is that "The Deep-See submarine was on board, and about half the guests made a trip. Two options were available, one to 300 feet and another to 500 feet. The cost was $1,200 and $1,800, respectively. We didn't make a trip, but 'unbelievable' and 'experience of a lifetime' were the comments from those who did." Who says diving is a cheap recreation? (www.underseahunter.com)

The responsibility of travel agents -- and travelers. We've heard occasional complaints about the service from Aggressor Fleet travel agents, and here is a recent example. A new diver and subscriber from Denver requested a downtown hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica, and was told the Indigo "was within walking distance of the museums and marketplace, in an upscale area of San Jose." However, she found that "it was in an industrial area, there was a shopping center down the street with basic junk, and cab fare to go downtown was $75 to $100 each way. The agent's excuse was she didn't know. She was taking her San Jose agent's word." Had either the travel agent or the traveler looked at the Indigo website, it would have been clear that the hotel is 3.73 miles from downtown and in a business park. And while a cab driver might have tried to charge $75, no savvy traveler would have paid it. You can get to the airport and back, with tips, for that money. Moral of the story: Bum advice from the travel agent, but with the Internet at hand, you should verify everything yourself - - and book it yourself if your travel agent is ignorant.

P.S.: San Jose's Hotel of Choice. Of course, any travel agent should know to book their clients at the Hotel Grano de Oro, clearly my favorite San Jose hacienda. Michael D. Smith adds to his Sea Hunter report: "A wonderful old hotel with a fabulous restaurant. We enjoyed a few days after our Sea Hunter trip, visiting the countryside around San Jose and doing lots of urban trekking to museums, parks and restaurants. A couple of our favorite eateries were Tin Jo and The Park Grill." (www.granodeoro.com)

Reef Gliders, Roatan. Debra Ferguson (Fergus Falls, MN) wags her own finger at herself for not doing her Internet homework or emailing before traveling to this Honduran island. By not contacting Reef Gliders, she didn't know that all dives included regulators, BCD, wetsuit, fins and masks, which at $30 per dive, was a bargain - - and she could have shed travel weight, bringing only her mask and computer. "We shared a house in West End, a five-minute walk from Reef Gliders that our friends found online. They paid $2,400 for a two-bedroom, two-bath house for a month. Reef Gliders kept groups small, three to six divers per guide. Two boats, operating with big motors, carried 12 to 15 passengers each. Most dives were within a five-minute boat ride. The deep dives had pretty healthy corals. Head counts were done at the conclusion of each dive. Most dives were around an hour, and a second guide took up the fast air consumers, leaving us with the lead guide for another 20 minutes of dive time. Even though the reef was close to shore, boat traffic made shore diving unsafe. There are lots of restaurants on the West End, and small grocery stores where you can get basics. Fruit and vegetable venders sold out of their pickups. Reef Gliders took care of all our equipment, changing tanks and washing up after the dives. The quality and quantity of sea life has deteriorated in Roatan over the past 20 years. P.S.: There were three burglaries in the area during the month our friends were there." (www.reefgliders.com)

- - Ben Davison

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