Perhaps the single most popular snorkel spot in the world is Stingray City in Grand Cayman — and there is a good reason for that. It is simply a wonderfully fun and at times silly experience that I do every time I visit. Any dive shop or resort can arrange to get you to this shallow sand bar with a jar of squid parts for the local denizens. The Pavlovian response of the stingrays to the boats and snorkelers arrival is hilarious above and below the water. Rays soar in and suck bait from fingers using smell, not sight, which can lead to occasionally awkward but harmless encounters as they explore with their rubbery lips while snappers clean up the stray bits. The ballet of flying rays is mesmerizing. The challenge is not losing your snorkel while laughing at the antics!
Local snorkel tour for your trip: Stingray City Trips
Anse De Colombier
Hills surround this bay at St. Barts’ northwestern point, calming the seas for snorkelers, and no roads lead to Colombier, leaving it the island’s most secluded beach. Of the two trails in, the easiest is a 20-minute ocean-view hike from the end of the Flamands road. You’re on your own on this quarter-mile of sugar sand, so bring the basics. This being St. Barts, that means a gourmet picnic and a chilled Sancerre in addition to fresh water.
SNORKEL TOUR As with many other Caribbean beaches enclosed by rocky headlands, most marine life – parrotfish, angelfish, morays, sea stars – gathers along the edges of the bay. For strong swimmers, a wall topped with hard and soft corals lies about 200 yards out along the left side. Says Thierry Balaska of the St. Bart’s dive shop Plongée Caraïbes, snorkeling off the right side of the beach gives you a good chance to see green sea turtles foraging in the sea grass. Along with the all-natural attractions at Colombier, if you’ve ever wanted to snorkel au naturel, this is the place.
One of the most popular beaches on St. Croix, Cane Bay is a launching pad for exploration of the north coast’s 7-mile-long coral wall, just offshore. There are two beach bars and a restaurant, with snorkel gear, chairs and showers available at the Cane Bay Dive Shop.
A shallow reef stretches the length of the beach about 15 yards out; enter at the dive shop’s boat ramp. Tonja Schmidt, manager of Cane Bay Dive Shop, says beginners should swim through the cut and then head either right or left until they begin to see the healthy patches of hard and soft corals surrounded by reef fish. Good swimmers should keep kicking 100 yards straight out to snorkel over the dramatic coral wall that starts in 40 feet of water and drops precipitously to 3,200 feet. “You’ll see every coral reef feature imaginable,” says Schmidt. “Lots of turtles, eels, octopuses, lobster, flamingo tongues, seahorses; we even have an ancient Dutch anchor. I’ve been here five years, and I never get bored snorkeling the bay.”
WHERE TO STAY
Legendary family-owned resort with 138 rooms and suites, three beaches with snorkeling, kids camp, spa, golf course, six dining options and two beach-side bars.
From $295 in low season ($340 high); www.thebuccaneer.com; 800-255-3881
Bonaire is all about reefs, not sandy beaches, but the stretch of coast in front of the Plaza Resort offers both. Find snorkel gear rentals at Toucan dive shop, drinks and snacks at the Coconut Crash beach bar, full lunch and dinner at the Banana Tree restaurant. Showers and restrooms are available, but they do charge nonguests a fee to use the beach and facilities.
There are two entry points, one in front of Coconut Crash and the other in front of the Tipsy Seagull. “Right at the entries you’ll see rock formations and loads of juvenile fish,” says Emile von Aesch, manager of Toucan Diving at the Plaza Resort. “And you’ll find all the adults and larger species just a bit farther out, about 10 yards.” Along with all the usual suspects of reef fish, there are plenty of marquee species. “Watch for squid and octopuses in the shallows,” says von Aesch, “and eagle rays, small turtles and tarpon in the deeper areas.” As 18 Palms lies on Bonaire’s lee and reefy west side, the conditions here are almost always calm and clear.
WHERE TO STAY
Plaza Resort Bonaire
Large, full-service beach-and-marina resort offering suites and villas; beach bar plus three other restaurant/bars; dive operation.
From $190 in low season ($240 high); plazaresortbonaire.com; 800-766-6016
This beach at the southernmost tip of Eleuthera, the 100-mile-long Bahamas Out Island, offers endless walkability on 7 miles of creamy coral sand with zero development (for now). A half-mile-long smile of a cove faces south, while the beach on the east side of the point stretches straight to the horizon. Palm groves and a dramatic, sea-sculpted limestone bluff provide shade, but Lighthouse Point is a total end-of-the-road destination, so bring everything you need.
Both sides of the point are snorkel-worthy, but Tom Glucksmann of Bahamas Adventures prefers the cove. “The reef in the middle is beautiful, with grouper, crawfish [lobster], parrotfish and all the tropicals in about 6 to 15 feet of water.” If a south wind is blowing, stirring up the cove, simply walk to the east-facing beach (you’ll want to go there anyway, to see the stony bluff). The water on that side is shallower, only 3 to 6 feet, but filled with coral heads. “You’ll find brain and elkhorn corals,” says Glucksmann, “and plenty of fish.”
WHERE TO STAY
Nineteen luxe two-bedroom townhouses fronting a big marina, with full water sports, three beaches and two restaurants on 4,500 acres.
From $280 in low season ($649 high); capeeleuthera.com; 888-270-9642
This small, soft pocket of sand graces Curaçao’s rugged northwest coast. Lodge Kura Hulanda’s beach bar stands by with cold drinks and casual eats, and local underwater expertise – along with snorkel, scuba and kayak rentals – is available on the beach at Ocean Encounters West.
Scuba divers know Playa Kalki as Alice in Wonderland, an allusion to the reef’s forest of mushroom-shaped corals. The main reef lies not far from the end of the boat dock, and it’s a great spot to get an aerial view (the reef crests at 25 feet then falls straight to 100). There’s also plenty to see in shallower areas, reports Julie Cannegieger of Ocean Encounters West: “You will find all manner of sea life – fish, eels, turtles – by swimming to the right, along the cliffs. We’ve also been seeing lots of dolphin, with large pods coming through; our snorkelers and divers have the chance to encounter them underwater.”
WHERE TO STAY
Beach Club Cliff-top cool overlooking Playa Kalki, with 74 rooms, suites and studios; three restaurants; dive shop.
From $180 in low season ($199 high); kurahulanda.com/lodge; 877-264-3106
PLAYA DE LA CHIVA
Also known as Blue Beach, the bay here curls a mile from point to point, with Isla Chiva plunked right in the middle. Set your blanket on the stretch of white corraline sand close to the island. There are no facilities here other than a few thatch umbrellas, so bring lots of water and a picnic lunch.
Dramatic canyons and crevices carve through the eastern point of the bay, sheltering loads of fish, and Abe Velasques of Abe’s Snorkeling and Bio Bay Tours says the swim out to Isla Chiva is a must-do. “Wade in off the curve of beach just to the east of the island,” says Velasques, “and swim toward its west side.” If it’s calm, he suggests circumnavigating the island (about three-quarters of a mile) counterclockwise; otherwise, stick to Chiva’s west side. “You can spot lots of marine life, such as reef fish, small turtles, octopuses, eels and conch,” says Abe. “We’ve even seen big spotted eagle rays.”
WHERE TO STAY
Inn on the Blue Horizon
Tropically trendy 10-room boutique hotel with fine dining.
From $130 in low season ($160 high); innonthebluehorizon.com; 877-741-2583
An intimate little swath of coral sand shaded by a stand of casuarinas about two miles south of Georgetown, Smith’s Cove is a well-known “secret” beach. Get here early enough, and you’ll think you’ve found your private blue lagoon. When there are a lot of ships in, though, company’s a comin’, and on weekends, this is a local favorite. (Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays are your best shot at seclusion.)
“Smith’s is an excellent site for beginner and advanced snorkelers,” says Mike Pinnington of Sunset House, the divers’ nirvana just up the road from the cove. “A gentle, sandy slope leads into the water, and along the limestone edges of the 15-yard-wide cove, the water’s only about 10 feet deep.” This natural pool is filled with parrotfish, peacock flounder, juvenile angelfish and surgeonfish. Advanced snorkelers can head straight out of the cove to the edge of the coral reef in about 35 feet of water. “It’s about a 200-yard swim,” says Pinnington. “But you’ve got the chance to see southern stingrays, hawksbill turtles and occasionally a sleeping nurse shark or an eagle ray.”
WHERE TO STAY
A 55-room dive-centric waterfront lodge with good diving and snorkeling directly offshore and the oceanfront My Bar.
From $182 in low season ($196 high); sunsethouse.com; 800-854-4767
Westin Casuarina Resort & Spa
Seven Mile Beach star with 343 rooms, three restaurants and three bars, including a swim-up pool bar.
From $309 in low season ($399 high); westincasuarina.com; 345-945-3800
Three crescents of fine white sand – Spring Bay, The Baths and Devil’s Bay – are joined by the Caribbean’s most boulderific trail. Poor Man’s Bar & Grill and national park restrooms and lockers are available at The Baths.
For the full tour, grab your gear and head left from The Baths beach onto the trail and then climb, crawl and wade your way through the jumble of granite boulders to the beach at Devil’s Bay. “Start looking, even in the very shallow water,” says Belinda Kloppers, master instructor at Dive BVI (divebvi.com) in Virgin Gorda’s Yacht Harbour. “You’ll find octopuses hiding among the rocks, and if your toes are painted red, cute little fish will swim up for a nibble.” The boulders on both sides of Devil’s Bay offer great snorkeling, with lots of tropicals like sergeant majors and blue tang, but keep an eye out over the sand and sea grass. “We often see green turtles and baby hawksbills,” says Kloppers. “And nurse sharks sometimes rest on the bottom by the dinghy mooring.” Avoid snorkeling here between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when it can feel like a water park because of the crowds.
WHERE TO STAY
Trunk Bay’s beach stretches for more than a quarter-mile, with white powdered-coral sand backed by palms and sea grape trees. A spit divides the bay and points directly at Trunk Cay, a rugged little isle that’s a short swim from the beach. The entire bay is part of the Virgin Islands National Park and offers full facilities, including showers, a snack bar and a shop where you can rent snorkel gear, beach chairs and umbrellas.
“Trunk Bay is easy and inviting, even for first-time snorkelers,” says guide Dave D’Alberto of OneHornButtfish. “It’s generally calm and clear, and there’s a marked snorkel trail that follows a zigzag course in 3 to 18 feet of water.” The park installed 15 underwater plaques along the trail that explain the ecosystem and identify marine life. Shallow rocky areas around the bay are home to octopuses and crustaceans, while the deeper water holds swarms of blue tang, yellowtail snapper, parrotfish and butterflyfish. For the more experienced “one-horn buttfish” (a local name for snorkelers, because all you see above water are snorkel tubes and rear ends), D’Alberto suggests circumnavigating Trunk Cay. “Start on the right side and swim counterclockwise,” he says. “You’ll see the young reef out there, with nice brain corals, and then ride the current back to the snorkel trail.” In the middle of the bay, in 15 to 30 feet of water over sand and turtle grass, snorkelers often see green turtles, stingrays and eagle rays.
WHERE TO STAY
Westin St. John Resort & Villas
Family-friendly beach resort with 175 rooms, 146 villas, a spa and four restaurants, including Snorkel’s Bar.
From $333 in low season ($420 high); westinresortstjohn.com; 866-716-8108.
WEST BAY BEACH
More than a half-mile of fine white sand meets 40 miles of lush coral reef at the western tip of Roatan. This is the island’s best beach, with a variety of hotels, dive shops and beach bars.
The further south (left as you face the water) you go, the closer the reef – though it’s not far offshore anyplace along the beach. The water is calm and clear, and Louis St. Louis of Bananarama Dive and Beach Resort says the snorkeling is good up and down the beach. “All of West Bay is part of Roatan’s marine park,” he says. “Expect to see eels, turtles, grouper and conch.” The most popular site is Mandy’s Eel Garden, where dozens of slender garden eels poke out of their dens in the sandy bottom while reef fish school around nearby coral heads. To find Mandy’s, swim straight out from the bend in the beach about 80 yards south of the water-taxi dock.
WHERE TO STAY
Bananarama Dive and Beach Resort
Family-run resort located in the middle of West Bay Beach; 23 rooms (plus condos at adjacent Island Pearl); beach bar and dive shop.
From $81; bananaramadive.com; 727-564-9058
Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort
Condo-resort development on West Bay Beach, with 145 rooms and suites (studio to three-bedrooms) and swim-up bar.
From $200 in low season ($250 high); infinitybay.com; 866 369-1977