TESTUDO'S SNORKEL GUIDE Cayman Off the Beaten Path

ROATAN SNORKELING PICTURES - THE HIGHLIGHTS

Experienced some fantastic snorkeling off Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras Bay.  Certainly a different experieince than what I am used to in Cayman.

Here are some of the highlights.

A Turtle’s Tale - Roatan, Time & Place

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KISSING COUSINS


It was through fortuitous circumstances that we ended up visiting Roatan.  Our planned dates to visit our own vacation condo in Grand Cayman had to move due to work commitments; as luck would have it, the condo was rented out over our new travel dates.  So, we were forced to consider “cheating” on Cayman and visiting somewhere new.  Being an avid snorkeler, I was drawn to the Bay Islands.  After conducting super-duper in-depth research, I selected Roatan based on all the good things I read about the reef and its accessibility; while I figured my wife “ wouldn’t mind” the beach.

We searched the rental by owner sites and were both intrigued by a rental called Xbalanque; partly because the accommodations (minimalist and modern) and partly because of the location (roughly half way between West Bay and West End).  Never having been to Roatan, we also liked the idea of the chef and bartender being available on-site (it’s a developing country, if we can’t drink the water or flush the toilet paper, what are we going to eat?).  After running all our lodging finalists by the TA forum for feedback and advice, we decided to go with our gut.

The gathering feelings of guilt about our upcoming dalliance with La Isla Latina, got me thinking of ways to make it seem alright.  Then it dawned on me, during my research for the trip, I learned that one of the groups that first settled the Bay Islands came from Cayman Islands.  That’s it!  Visiting Roatan is like we were just going to another one of the Cayman Islands.  Thank you Wikipedia, I promise to make a donation.

 


Cheating?  Nah, just kind of like kissing your cousin.



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CHECKING BUGS

Having all our “resort wear” at our place in Cayman forced us to shuttle some back earlier in the year in preparation for this trip.  We actually have to pack for this this trip.  Darn, that means we are going to have to actually check bags.

Being insect magnets, Mrs. T is the Skeeter-bait and I am the No-see-um Yum, we proceeded to hit Amazon to stock-up on all the wonderful snake oils we read about on TripAdvisor - Cactus Juice, Lemon Eucalyptus Oil, Deep Woods Off, 100% DEET, Multi-vitamins, Lard, etc…best take two of each.

The arsenal


Come on, we had to check a bag anyway.  To ward off all the other nasties, we also opted for as many pills, stabs, jabs and live bacteria tablets our travel Doc would recommend.  Not coming home to be known as Typhoid Testudo.

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I MUST BE IN THE FRONT ROW

With no direct flights available for our dates, a connection in Houston was in the cards.  So as not to waste any vacation time, we opted for a Friday night departure with an overnight at IAH.  Turns out the owners of the rental were going to be in Roatan the same time we were and they were actually on our connecting flight.  At least we knew we’d have no issue tying to find our ride at the airport. 

We booked seats in the front of the plane to try and avoid any snarls in immigration.  Turns out they also deplaned from the rear on our flight.  So much for that bright idea.  None-the-less, we were near the front of the immigration lines and got through in about 10-15 minutes or less.

Then it was time to hurry-up and wait for the luggage.  Mrs T. took the initiative and grabbed some ice cold bottles of the local brew to help get us acclimated to the harsh developing country environment.  Once we finally had all the luggage collected we were off on our adventure.



Life Saver

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FISH OF THE WEEK

After a few business stops along the way for our hosts, we were introduced to one of my new  favorite foods - pastelitos -  at a stop in West End.  Fresh-made by one of their on-island partners and filled with flapping fresh Wahoo.  Yahoo!, was about all we could say as we tried to constrain ourselves from inhaling a dozen.  Thinking, “Hey, if these pasetello {sic} things are that good, how good are the baleadas going to be?”

We stayed in the boutique hotel portion of the Xbalanque complex which shares its name with the neighboring beach house.  For those familiar with the area, it is near the South Shore Zip-Line and quizzical inland roadside lighthouse bar/restaurant (has anyone been there?).

From the beach it is a few properties past Gumbalimda Park, heading east.  There is also another rental home on the property.  The grounds are amazing with a small stream running through to the beach, caged parrots, lighted lanterns in the trees, a stunning pool with water features, a private dock with hammocks and little decorative touches all over.  Judging by the surroundings, we were feeling pretty good about our upcoming week.

                       


After getting settled, we hitched a ride with the owner to Eldon’s supermarket at Plaza Mar to procure some supplies (pretty much booze, water and a few crackers and such).  Must say the supermarket had just about anything you would want, even armed shelf-stockers (or were they guards?) and the pricing was…well I don’t know what the costs were because I never took the time to check out what the exchange rates with the USD were.  No worries, I was paying with plastic.  A nice bag boy helped us with our boxes, yes boxes, of provisions to the car (all the vino).  I only had $20 US bills, so sent Mrs. T back in to get some change.  She came back with so much, I had no idea how much to tip the fine young man.  I handed him a green bill figuring it was close in value to a greenback.  He seemed pleased, so I felt good.



Decent Tip?

Being early evening when we got back, we decided to eat at the house restaurant, Lotus.  Truth be told, we really knew we were going to eat there in the afternoon after we helped transport the freshly caught Wahoo (that made the pastelitos) to the kitchen.  Applied some Deep Woods Off, off we went  to the bar for some cocktails and to mingle with the other guests.

After dinner we headed to the roof-top patio, bottle of wine in tow, to marvel at the stars glistening overhead and listen to the lizards talk dirty to one another.  So far so good.  Better get to sleep early so I can snorkel all day tomorrow.

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NO-A-TAN?

Ahh, Sunday.  Up and at ’em nice and early to snork…watch the rain stream down the windows and the topsy-turvey surf break on the reef.  Not ones to let the weather dampen our days, Mrs. T. sets-up shop under a beach hut, Kindle in hand, while I decided to take a test swim to the reef.  Unable to see much at all due to the run-off and fighting through chop, I headed back to shore to join Mrs. T. , not having seen the actual reef.   What the?  Almost bump heads with an Eagle Ray.  Neither of us saw one another due to the poor visibility.  I think I’m going to like snorkeling here.



Waiting to dry-off, I made my first bad decision.  At least I think it was my first.  Don’t wait to dry-off on a cloudy, breeze-less and rainy day.  Why? Because you’ll get to actually see the No-See-Ums, as they sample your vintage.  Well thankfully it was only one or two bites before I realized I was serving as an early morning Bloody Mary (like a Bloody Caesar, for those few Canucks who visit Roatan) for the buggers.  I rushed back to the room to try out another one of the magic lotions we brought.  Lemon Eucalyptus Oil would be the repellent of the day.  Smelled nice and hopefully it works.  Let’s look at that bite.  Yikes!  It wasn’t one or two bites, my approaching corpulent body had 25 odd red bulls-eye marks on it!  Better bring the Maximum Strength Lanacane back out to the beach, along with a double Cuba Libre as back-up itch mitigation.

Lunchtime.  Not exactly sure how these water taxi things work.  Maybe we can walk to West End and try them another day.   We reached a dead-end, for us anyway, at the start of the rock outcropping.  It was high tide and the seas was still churning, so back to Xbalanque.  Wait, I have a better idea, lets walk to West Bay, it is even closer and I want to explore.  Back down the beach towards West Bay.  Pass the zip line, spot a bridge, ought oh.  Mrs. T. freezes.  She suffers from vertigo.  So close…she takes a few step on the ladder-like stairs and freezes again.  Not walking to West Bay.  Back to the Xbalanque where we flag down a water taxi headed to West End.  On the boat ride I notice that none of the bites are itching and neither had they swelled-up at all.  Interesting.

Arrive at West End and ask how much the fare is…$6.  Now what was that exchange rate?  40 to 1 or something?  Is this $250L enough?  Si, mister {loco gringo}.

 

Might be the same Water Taxi we took, but then the availability of life vests indicate it is not.


Down the dock and into the…MUD.  We knew about the road situation, but why did we have to decide to head there on a rainy day?  After perfecting our puddle jumping and taxi splash evasion techniques, we came upon the Argentinian Grill near Half Moon Bay.  Good burritos and cold beer.  Sat around awhile catching the vibe and people watching.  Now full and content, we asked for the bill and realized the exchange rate was closer to 20 to 1.  Well, I hope that water taxi skipper bought his two kids some ice cream.  Seemed not to be too expensive for the quality of food ~$30 US.  Back to the resort on a $150L water taxi to wait out the weather.  

Rib-eye was on the menu for the night’s dinner and even though I swore I was not going to eat any beef on this trip, the other guests were eating there, so we decided to join them.   Nice dinner and the rain eventually moved off-shore. Fingers crossed for snorkeling tomorrow.  Rain, bugs, bridges, bugs, cloudy water, jury is still out on this place.


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THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE

Sunny Monday - First Snorkel Day!  Rise early to hit the reef.  Slather on the heavy-duty all living creature repellent (sorry reef, but is a long swim and I’m not taking any chances).  Down a cup of java and a Bays English Muffin.  Why do I only find Bays English Muffins at grocery stores in the Caribbean, when they are headquartered in Chicago?

 

 Best English Muffins in the Caribbean?

Lasso the kayak to my ankle leash and head off to the reef.  Water is still a bit cloudy when paddling out, so I do not have high hopes for my first visit.  Once I get to the reef though, the water is a bit clearer, enough so to see the bottom.  Don my gear and roll-off the kayak into…PARADISE!  Head up to Luna Beach to explore the reef up there and make my way back towards “home”.  Get lots of great pictures including a Hawksbill Turtle.

Speaking of leashes, we got our first full introduction to the artist known as Pitbull. Only having been exposed to Mr. Pitbull via a  Dr. Pepper. commercial, our bartender Abel, shared his full catalog on the sound system while we had some drinks at the pool.  Some catchy songs, but one so sickly sweet I couldn’t stand it.

We had some great quesadillas for lunch and lounged in the sun for a few hours afterwards, hanging out with two other couples from Texas.

Another trip to the reef after lunch and then back for some adult beverages.  I can really get used to this routine.

Let me just squeeze in one more snorkel before it is time to re-apply the bug juice and get ready for dinner.  Approaching the channel at reef in the kayak, I hear the sound of something breaking the surface.  Eagle Ray, fish trying to avoid becoming dinner… no, isn’t that a dorsal fin?  The body shape I see almost looks like a dolphin.  Down it goes before I can make a positive ID.  Well if it was a dolphin, he should be resurfacing any minute now.  Let me get my camera ready.  Waiting, waiting, still waiting.  Why hasn’t he resurfaced?  What else could that have been if not a dolphin?   Ought oh!  Spidey sense is activated.  Maybe I really don’t need to get a snorkel in with the fast setting sun and all.  I mean sharks usually start feeding at dusk, right?   This might just put a damper on my snorkeling for the week.                    

I relay my fish tale to the good folks back at the resort and they are all in utter disbelief.  No one has seen any type of shark, other than a rare nurse shark, inside the reef in the 10 years they have been there.  I am shamed into possibly thinking I have mistaken a giant Permit fish for a shark.



Man Eater

Have to hurry to flag down one of the last water taxis heading to West End.  Brantley, the Jamaican ex-pat skipper asks if we want to book any snorkeling tours with him.  He knows all the good spots.  Just a few hours ago he even got to show a family a pod of dolphins.  See, right over there by those boats.  Phew!  This turtle is not telling any fish tales.

Where to eat?  We heard Tongs was good, along with Besos.  So much mud.  Maybe we’ll just eat somewhere near the drop-off dock.  Ends up a taxi driver prospecting for fares recommends Gio’s.  Wait a minute, I know our host said Gio’s was a fun place in French Hole with another, not as good outpost somewhere closer, but certainly not in West End.  So I question the driver.  His response, “Oh, you’ve been here awhile”.  “Most certainly” I reply.  “Well then, the Lighthouse isn’t half bad.”  OK we’ll give it a shot.  “You come back for a taxi?”  “Yeah, Yeah”.

Turns out the Lighthouse makes killer Mojitos and the owner let us sample some of the locally produced Grog.  What’s not to like?  Both had our fish of the week and enjoyed the hefty portions.  Gourmet, it is not.  Basic good food it is.  Eating under the stars just makes everything seem better.  Hey, hey, taxi, taxi take us home.


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INSTANT KARMA’S GONNA GET YOU….R WALLET

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day.  The morning routine now well ensconced.  Quick breakfast, kayak, snorkel.  Since it is a lighter cruise ship day, we decide we will investigate West Bay today.  Take in some rays, have a mojito and groove to Pitbull’s greatest hits, which is again playing on the sound system.  Abel is such a nice guy, but I think I’m going to have to request a new mix.  Dance/Pop is just so out of sync with the vibe here.  Damn, not that silly song again.

Water Taxi to West Bay with the Texans.  They are already connected on island with a water taxi at their beckon call.  How’d they manage that?  Find out it is thanks to a phone and a water taxi’s cell #.  Is there any better mode of transportation?  Wait, why don’t we have a phone?  I’ll get around to asking that sooner or later.

Land at the dock near Infinity Bay, scope out the area and decide to walk the beach.  A few cruise ships in port and while not wall-to-wall bodies on the beach, it is congested enough to make us grateful for choosing to stay where we did. Bite on the Beach was recommended for lunch, so that is where we head.  A few rum and Cokes, unmemorable fried grouper and grilled chicken sandwiches were had from a great perch.

Back at the hacienda, its time for another round.  Wait, what’s that I hear?  I am not sure, but I know it is not Enrique, rather some new age ambient melodies.  Somehow that just sounds more appropriate for our setting.  Oh, forgot Karma Jewelers were doing a trunk show later in the afternoon.  A favorite of our host, Mrs. T’s interest was piqued.  I think I best head out for a long snorkel.

Fantastic conditions and I spot a long lost relative.  Explore the reef system from Luna Beach to Gumbalina Park, it is magical.  Pruning up, I finally must beach myself and come ashore…to find the damage was done.  Karma takes credit cards.

The Karma Duo, Marco and Karla (Image from TripAdvisor)

Hoped to have dinner at Vintage Pearl, but were unable to score a table.  No worries, there is a special Valentine’s dinner at Lotus.   Wahoo!

Later, while taking in another fabulous sunset from the roof-top and listening the Pitbull CD repeat down below (the nice folks from Karma had moved on), we got to hear what would become our theme song for the week, the sickly sweet crooning of Enrique Ingelsias: I Like It (Don’t click, you’ll regret it!).  As the sun dips, we clink our wine glasses and spontaneously perform a karaoke-esque sing-along with Enrique.



After a few days to get grounded in Roatan, we both decided, yeah…we like it.

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GETTING OUR FILL(et) OF BAREFEET

Wednesday and we are in the zone.  Mrs. T. cranks out a full-spread breakfast - Bay’s breakfast sandwiches with eggs, turkey bacon and extra sharp cheddar.  Fueled and itching to go (literally, some of the bites from Sunday are starting to itch), I’m off to the “fabled” Blue Channel for some snorkeling.  Hope I can find it.

After a lengthy paddle, I vector toward the location I discerned from Google Earth.  Since there is a steady breeze, it is probably best to moor the kayak at a buoy.  Nirvana!  The snorkeling is the best yet and I have the place all to myself.  The coral, the fish, the channel itself.  Lots to see in a smallish area.

After an hour or so, I decide to start snorkeling back along the reef to Xbalanque with the kayak in tow, when I soon run into trouble.  Swarms of Sea Walnut jellyfish are being forced by the wind and tide toward the reef and becoming giant masses.  I know these guys don’t pose a stinging threat (or at least I think these are the species that don’t sting), but when you get stuck in a cloud and can’t see much past them, it can get a bit unnerving.  I dive deep trying to evade them.  No luck.  Probably better-off getting in the kayak.



Kayak!  Where the F is the kayak!  I see the paddle floating near me, but the kayak is floating over the reef and drifting quickly out toward Utila.  Urp, gurgle, gurgle.  Damn, shouldn’t have had that second Bay’s McMuffin.  Can’t worry about that now, gotta retrieve that boat.  Luckily, the kayak was hovering over a small channel area, so I was able to corral it without issue.  Note to self, learn how to tie better knots and apply learning toward securing paddle as well.

Of course I manage to avoid any jellyfish stings, that is until I am beaching the kayak.  I chose to snorkel in to shore to see what was in the shallows.  Well a box jellyfish was in the shallows and one of its tentacles grazed my lip as I was taking off my mask.  Off to the bar to see if they have some vinegar.  Capt. Jack quickly comes out of the kitchen with some Balsamic.  It will do just fine.

Some sun time and daily dose of “I Like It”.  Darn song is growing on me.  Finish off the Ron Botran Añejo 12 yo and ponder the lunch options.  Since we are in Honduras, shouldn’t we try one of the “national” foods.  Baleadas is the choice and Chapi Catrachas is the place.  Water taxi to West End and the now drier roads.

A small line is queued, so we hop on the end.  My, these things are cheap and they even have pastelitos.  Ehh, can’t determine what the filling is for the pastelitos, but I know what pollo, listed as a baleadas filling, is.  “Quattro baleadas con pollo por favor”, I confidently order.  Grab a stool and we dig into our taste of Honduras.  Pretty good, there are some chunks of cartilage I have to spit out, but still pretty good.  I have inhaled my two baleadas when Mrs. T. suddenly makes a pre-hurling gurgle and shoves her plate with a ⅓ of a baleada into my face.  ”Fet!”  What?  ”Gonna be sick, get it away from me!”  What?  ”Feet, Feeet-Feeeet!”  Guess that was a little more than cartilage…

Back to the ranch to sterilize our stomachs with a just opened bottle of Havana Club 7 Añejo.  No Enrique?  Well the native folk music is a welcome respite.  No more snorkeling today as lo estómago es muy mal.  Yes, completely psychosomatic, but problematic none-the-less. Dinner tonight will be at the Vintage Pearl and we want to be able to enjoy our meals.  So we must keep drinking to cleanse our systems.

 +  = 

Hitch a ride to West Bay and arrive a half hour early for our 8:30 reservation at Vintage Pearl.   Based on the piles of footwear out front I guess we are supposed to dine barefoot.  Sounds good to me.   Kill time with some wine at the bar while the hostess looks up our reservation.  She returns and has to break the news that our reservation was in the book for 6:30.  Well this isn’t good.  We advise we were offered a choice of 6:30 or 8:30 and not yet ones for early-bird special dinning, we opted for the 8:30.  No problem, we get seated once a table opens up.  Very nice dinner of “the fish of the week” was enjoyed out on the patio.

Request a taxi and are actually accompanied to the alley by the hostess.  The taxi soon arrives and Juan Pablo Ángel assures us he will get us to Xbalanque in no time.  Sure, driving 50 mph like we are on a bobsled run (with no rails!) we do arrive in no time.  $20 Juan Pablo Ángel?  Si.  No tip for you.  Buenos noches.


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THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO ROATAN

Serling Thursday - Pure morning, days dawning, skin’s crawling.  Damn no-see-um bites are really starting to itch.  Thank God for Lanacane and Rum.  It is starting to dawn on me that the end of our ride is coming into view.  Time to start making the most of this vacation.  I’ve arranged a trip up to Pristine Bay to snorkel, Mrs. T is content to catch some more rays on the beach.

9:00 and my ride is at the dock .  Meet and greet Carlos and we head to West End to procure a missing anchor.  After a nice ride along the coast, taking in the scenery, we arrive at Pristine Bay about 45 minutes later.  Snorkel out by a wreck off the golf course.  Very good snorkel grounds, more for coral than abundance of fish.  I do manage to spot a Sand Diver.  After an hour or so, I’ve reached my quota and we head back west, trolling for Wahoo on the way.  No luck, guess we’ll need to go somewhere for lunch.

The folks from Texas had mentioned earlier in the week that the pizza at Splash Inn was very good and that we should give it a try.  These Jersey folks are not complete pizza snobs, but proper pizza in Honduras?  Query the Magic 8 Ball travel edition and get the response “Don’t count on it”.   Ehh, I am feeling like something other than fish, so completely disregard the Magic 8 Ball’s advice and head up to West End in search of Splash Inn.  Whoa, those darn Texan’s know good pizza!

We spy some new guest arrivals when we return from lunch.  Place is filling up.  A bit more local snorkeling and then some chillaxing on the beach with some new age ambient melodies now being played.

Take in the sunset from our perch once more and are comforted by our Pitbull best of CD again.  Decide on staying local for dinner at Lotus.

What an eclectic group of people at dinner!   Lobster is on the menu as it is the Texan’s last night.  The rest of the guest now consist of a an artist from the mainland who was commissioned for the lobby painting, an NGO manager/Yoga guru from New Jersey (What is going on here?), a Canadian couple who are actors on a SyFy series called Lost Girl (he was also a former member of the Canadian Olympic team), the Bracy’s and their local partners.



After a killer dinner, where much vino was consumed, it is time to crank up the fire pit.  We all mosey up to the deck and gather ‘round the fire.  Suddenly the actor starts thrumming a guitar, where it came from I had no idea, and the conversation flows.  The guitar gets passed around and turns out there are some fine musicians in the group.  Suddenly it is dueling guitarists.  The fire pit flames are growing higher, the wine is making me flush.  I look at Mrs T and ask “Where are we?  Better yet, when is Charley Daniels going to walk through the portico fiddling against the Devil?”.  With actors from a show on SyFy, a Yogi and an abstract artist in our midst, I really believe we are in some episode of the Twilight Zone.



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GUILLERMO, GUILLERMO!

Friday - Opening the House.  Up early and see the morning’s yoga session on the dock.  ”Want to join us?”.  Polite wave and muter some excuse about a bad back. Man those folks are flexible, just not my cup of tea!  The big property unveiling is today, so we figure it is best to vacate while all the set-up preparations are going on.   When we see some parrots and native dressed Garifuna ladies arriving (not at the same time), we know we are doing the right thing.  Since we really did not get to spend much time in West Bay, that is our destination.



We set-up shop all the way at the end by the black rocks and the Grand Roatan construction site.  Mrs. T joins me on a snorkel as we weave through the coral maze towards the outer reef.  Oh noes!  Jellyfish!  Mrs. T heads back to the safety of the beach.  I spend an hour or so exploring the outer reef.  Not too shabby for being so close and accessible to shore.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few cruise ship snorkel excursions in the area and the boat traffic is a bit unnerving (sadly a group of tourists had a run in with a boat earlier in the week, so that weighed heavily on my mind).  Heading back to shore, I get “trapped”  between the inner and outer reef.  I can see some folks snorkeling 15-20 feet closer to shore on the “other-side”, but I can’t find a safe passage through the reef!  I try re-tracing my route and manage to float over a gap in the reef, beer belly narrowly averting running aground on the coral.



Plop down on the sand and enjoy the melodic sounds from the hat making pan flute playing guy.  Little do I know it, but I have just made big mistake #2.  After the sounds of construction and parade of cruisers proves too annoying, we head to Bananarama for some Salva Vidas to go.  Pay up with my wet bills.  “Cruiser?”, nope just a snorkeler.  $36 left for lunch, drinks and water taxi.  What to do?

Our second choice on where to stay was the Meridian condos over by Lighthouse Point.  I had read in the TripAdvisor forums about a place called Smuggler’s Cover with a beach bar and good snorkeling that was adjacent, so figured it would be neat to scope it out.  A 15 minute walk over a sizable hill and we were thirsty again.  Arrived at Smuggler’s Cove, selected some loungers and got another round of Salva Vidas from Tim the bartender.  Nice place, very quite compared to West Bay.  After speaking with the only other folks about, a mother and daughter staying at the Turrets, I decided to try the snorkeling.  Nice!  Great visibility, healthy coral and good fish count.  I like, I mean I Like It!  Now how much were those beers and Chicken Nachos?



Back in time to freshen-up prior to the shindig kick-off.  Decide to combine Deep Woods Off and Lemon Eucalyptus Oil.  Not having taken many pictures other than snorkeling images, I head out with the light of the setting sun to get some of Xbalanque and the surroundings.  Attempting to frame the Seagrape Tree with the ornamental lights I am asked what cologne I have on.  Why it is L’odeur du Outback.  No lie.

Guests are starting to stream in as the Sun’s afterglow illuminates the clouds.  Guillermo Machi, the charismatic artist who painted the lobby mural, is the Emcee for the night.  After the hors d’oeuvres and sushi are picked thin, we are summoned to the fire pit balcony area for the night’s entertainment, guitarist and folk singer, Guillermo Anderson (the Honduran Bob Dylan).  The two Guillermo’s radiate the pride of their homeland and as the music begins, Mr. Anderson is joined by cellist, Shirley Paz.  All I can say is wow!  Where are we again?

Following the phenomenal concert that is more like a recital, the hour has grown late and folks are beginning to head back to where they are from.   Heading back to our room we catch the most expressive and ruminative sounds drifting up from the lobby.  We are intrigued and like moths to a flame, must investigate.  Shirley is performing a spontaneous solo, that turns into a duet for the few still in attendance.  Magic.


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PIGEONS AWAY!

Saturday, snorkelday.  The end is near, but not before we go sailing.  Following-up on a TripAdvisor post by mcgosler regarding a sail on the Free Radial to Pigeon Cay, we had booked in the hope of being able to reach the distant cays, renowned for their snorkeling and beauty.  Mrs.T is feeling some of the after effects from last night’s festivities.  I can see the look of dread in her eyes caused by the thought of spending 8 hours at sea.  Just waiting for her to tell me she is bailing.  But being the trooper she is, I hear no such words uttered.  Did I get more bites? Given the location on my body from these latest nibbles, I can only assume I got them when laying on the sand in West bay or dare I think it, in bed!  Combine Hydrocortisone and Lanacane to ease the discomfort.

Mcgosler and his lovely wife had offered to pick us up and ride over to West End where we’ll meet up with a few other folks and take a hired van out to Oakridge.  The ride out at least lets us see some of the other parts of the island we’ve yet to explore. In 45 minutes or so, we are at the dock.

As fate would have it, the seas were not coorperative and Pigeon Cay was off the board.  Instead, we enjoyed a leisurely sail up to the Port Royal environs for some lightweight snorkeling and interesting mangrove sightseeing.  Not a big fan of piña colada, the ship drink, I asked Capt. Ed for some rum.  I get a wry look and followed by a question, “sure you want rum?”.  If it is not too much trouble, I sure would.  ”Damn! The cheap stuff is all the way in the back, I only have my good stuff at hand.”  No problem, I can handle the good stuff.  That precedes a nice discussion on the world’s best spirit. Overall, a nice way to spend the day, good sites and good people.

It has been a long day.  The fresh sea air reliably has a way of sapping the energy out of you.  Not in the mood to fret over dinner, we decide to once again hit West End for our final dinner.  We had forgotten all about Besos, so since it was on our list we head there.  Afraid of missing the last water taxi, we head out a bit early for the Testudo’s and plan to have some pre-dinner drinks to kill time.

Mosey up to the bar at Beso’s (we are tired and lazy).  See a bottle of Ron Zacapa rum and must ask if it is the 15 yo or the 23 yo.  The barkeep’s response provides all the evidence needed to know we chose a fine establishment.  ”23 year old.  Why would we serve the 15 year old?”.  When things are good, things are really good.

Spend the next few minutes watching another patron from Miami pick out stones for a necklace from a street vendor that walked in.  When suddenly two ladies arrive and join the necklace buyer for drinks.  We overhear one of the “ladies” was his “masseuse” and the other is her niece.  They are on break and looking for some fun.  Welp, think it is about time we take our table.  As we are being seated, necklace guy and masseuse lady wander off into the back “yard”.  Fine establishment indeed!  

Upon returning, they are greeted by the owner and asked to leave.  Truly fine establishment.

After a great dinner we hunt for Charley, the taxi driver from the other night.  We find him, car 405, and wrap up our last night in Roatan.

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CLOSING TIME

Sunday- Stay just a little bit longer guests.  The posse from El Progreso never left yesterday. We last saw them set-off with the Bracy’s on a sunset cruise, only to now find them queuing up for a big family style breakfast.  Well, one last meal with our new found friends can’t be a bad thing.  Emails are exchanged and offers to visit when in each others neck of the woods are made.

Clean out the fridge and offer the left-overs to our actor friends who are staying for another week.

Shirley has found the property’s zen garden and is off to grab her cello for one last recital, as we are chauffeured in the opposite direction up the driveway towards the airport.

This was just one of those trips were everything came together.  The right time intersected with the right place and was populated by the right people, resulting in memories for a lifetime

As the song goes, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end


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ACCOMMODATIONS


The property’s location is fairly isolated, so if you are looking for peace and quite this it is a good place.  The beach is nice, but the water entry is a mix of some sand for the first few feet and then the turtle grass that lines most of the area inside the reef.  While sunning on the beach and pool, we got a kick out of watching just about every beach walker stop and stare at the resort, I guess it is just that stunning.

The suites are beautifully decorated with an Indonesian motif (as is the entire complex) and outfitted with top of the line kitchen, bath and A/V accessories; if only our home was so nice.  We had a second floor unit named Men (Mayan for Eagle). There is AC for each room, along with ceiling fans and all linens are provided, including beach towels.  The large balcony had a dining table and 2 loveseats.  We liked eating breakfast on the balcony and watching the morning procession of workers and tourists walk the beach between West End and West Bay.  Bed was comfy, plenty of storage for our clothes and gear.

The snorkeling at the reef off the beach and continuing up towards West End featured some of the best snorkeling I have every experienced.  Here is a link to some pictures from the snorkeling there: Roatan Snorkeling Pictures.  Delvin would have a kayak ready and waiting each morning for my paddle out to the reef.

The staff, Raul the chef, Abel “Captain Jack” the bartender and Delvin the all-around helper were great.

The Bracy’s were such wonderful hosts and the island such a magical place, that we could not help but have one of the most memorable vacations.  If Xbalanque looks like your kind of place, do not hesitate to visit.  You won’t regret it.

hey testudo, do you have any info on the wreck of the pallas (palace) off south sound cemetery beach? How far out is it and is it a good place to snorkel?
Anonymous

I have no idea of the location (wrecks are not my cup of tea), but you may want to check with Cathy Church or Sunset Divers as to the exact spot since I found this info regarding it’s location:

I checked with Cathy Church who has the popular photo center at Sunset House. She loves the PALLAS (referred to as the PALLAS or PALACE wreck) where she takes some of her photo students snorkeling among “schooling fish and colorful corals.” The wreck is about 60 yards from shore, not far from the South Sound Community Cemetery. The Norwegian freighter sank in a storm in 1903 and is scattered about in 6 to 60 feet of water. Some of its artifacts are in Grand Cayman’s National Museum. For more details check out: “Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands” by Wood Lawson or “Tropical Shipwrecks” by Dan and Denise Berg. Ellsworth Boyd, Wreckmaster”

The entry on page 131 in Lawson Wood’s Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands gives a pretty good description of the wreck’s location.

Also, from this image and the linked video it looks like some of the remains are visible from shore and it is stated as being easy to find -  Pallas/ (Palace) Wreck  Snorkeling Video

image

http://onedailyshot.com/tag/palace-wreck/

Other Snorkel Guides

As there appears to be a dearth of good snorkeling guide information out there, I thought it might be handy to provide some links to other snorkeling guides I have found useful.  If you have have come across any good snorkeling resources and would like to share with other snorkelers, please comment and I’ll add them to the list:

GENERAL

  • Tropical SnorkelingHusband and wife snorkeling duo share their snorkeling experiences.  Contains informative reviews and images of their snorkel trips with a focus on Hawaii, but also including the Continental US, Mexico and the Caribbean. 
  • Shore Diving Guide: Diving focused, but includes ratings and reviews of from shore diving and snorkel sites worldwide.  A bit dated, but some of the reviews are insightful.
  • ScubaBoard: A message board forum geared towards snorkeling and free diving.  I learned a lot about improving underwater photography here.

BONAIRE

  • KASDIVI: Really more of a dive site log and guide, but has some useful descriptions and location pictures.
  • Skin Diver- Snorkeling Bonaire:  Highlights some of the popular spots on the Bonaire Snorkel Trail along with map locations.
  • Bonaire Talk: A fairly active message board forum with useful information regarding snorkeling and diving in Bonaire.

ST. JOHN

CAYMAN ISLANDS

HAWAII

SNORKEL GUIDE: BAREFOOT BEACH

            TESTUDO’S SNORKEL GUIDE: Barefoot Beach

imageView from atop the stone staircase at Barefoot Beach, East End, Grand Cayman

LOCATION INFO: Perhaps one of the most stunning vistas in all of Grand Cayman can be viewed looking west from the widow’s walk, atop the stone staircase at Barefoot Beach.  This idyllic spot has pretty much dropped-off the tourist radar (if it ever was on it) once the planned Mandarin Oriental resort fell into post hurricane Ivan limbo.  Having seen a brief mention of this spot (when describing the shore dive at neighboring Anchor Point) in the snorkeling guide that got me started on Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands Discounts Dive and Snorkel Guide; I thought it might just be a nice quiet little beach worth searching out one day.

Having correctly guessed at the location thanks to an entrance sign on the defunct Barefoot Gardens Villas development, Mrs. Testudo and I took our chairs, cooler of CayLight and sauntered down the path to the beach eager to see what we happened upon.  The short downhill path through some Seagrape trees opens to a small natural sandy beach.  The surrounding palm tree fringed cliffs create an amphitheater like setting and which adds to the beauty of the spot.  There are washed up strands of sea grass with some intermingled flotsam and jetsam (Anyone lose a flip-flop?).  Just clear out some space and make yourself comfortable.  Following the beach westward towards the abandoned villas leads towards another good snorkeling area Anchor Point


FINDING IT (19°21’12.91”N  81° 7’36.05”W)Look for the Barefoot Gardens Villa sign on the abandoned development’s wall when coming from the West (Old Man Bay, approx. 3.3 miles from the Frank Sound Rd. intersection) or a long, low stone wall when coming from the East (the Reef Resort is about 2.3 miles away).  The entrance to the beach is an unmarked, small tuck-in opening between the Seagrape trees, with parking for 2-3 cars (if done right) or park along road.  It is easy to miss, so just drive slow when you come upon one of the landmarks and keep on the look-out for a speed limit sign and a driveway on the opposite side of the road.  There is little traffic on the road, so backing up is usually possible in the event of a drive-by.

image

Link to a larger interactive map of Barefoot Beach


CONDITIONS:  The sandy beach gradually spills into the usually calm water, making for a very easy entry and donning of gear.  When not snorkeling, the water is perfect for swimming or leisurely floating the day away, enjoying your favorite beverage.  From the beach, the best snorkeling can be found by heading straight out towards the barrier reef.  The initial 125 yds are approx. 4-6 feet deep, passing over seemingly endless beds of sea grass.  Here you are apt see an occasion turtle, reef squid or a curious gang of Bar Jacks.  Upon reaching the end of the grassy meadows, you will start to see large mounds of interspersed coral heads popping up from the ongoing grassy bottom.  This area is very much reminiscent of the Queen’s Monument location in terms of seascape and marine life.  Depending on the tide, the depth can range from 3-8 feet with little or no current.  There are some underwater vents in the area that can cause the water to become a bit blurry. This is due to the chemicals being ejected (more on the vents to come in the upcoming Anchor Point Guide) mixing with the sea water.  You may notice a sulfur smell on the beach if the sulfur spewing vents (fumaroles) are particularly active or it is a windless day.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO SEE: The rapidly unfolding coral formations and marine life are abundant throughout the area.  Start exploring in a westerly direction out to the reef, then zig-zagging back and forth over the shoal area.  The coral in this shoal is among the healthiest near shore I have yet encountered. There are young Elkhorn, budding Brain corals, large carpets of green Mountainous Star corals and some eerie ancient Elkhorn remnants out by the reef.  Fish of all kinds can be seen darting about and many are unafraid.  Since the water is rather shallow, close-up observation and of the creatures that dwell within nooks and crevasses of the corals is easily accomplished.  Careful observation may yield an anemone or sea flower spreading and closing its “petals” in search of a drifting morsel.  Lots of juvenile fish that look nothing like their older siblings are also fun to discover.  Small schools of the shy Black Durgon can usually be seen on a nearby coral head, only to gradually drift away as you approach.   Grunts and small snapper are plentiful, and the grassy sea bed makes it a great environment for rays.  Scorpionfish, Glasseye Snapper, and Glassy Sweepers are also regular sightings.  The conditions make this a great location for snorkelers of all abilities, except for possibly first-timers (due to the moderate swim out). 

Here are some pictures from my last snorkel.  The seas were a bit cloudy, but the fish were friendly:

image image

Barefoot Beach Gardens Villas landmark   -   Views from East and West

image image

Stone Wall landmark heading west                   Tuck-in, with a small parking area at base

imageSquadron of Bar Jacks

imageJuvenile Yellowtailed Damselfish

imageJuvenile Smooth Trunkfish

imageElkhorn and Brain Corals

imageChristmas Tree Hydroid

imageGlasseye Snapper

imageYellow Sting Ray

imageMountainous Star Coral

imageMore Mountainous Star Coral

imageCorky Sea Fingers

imageGrunts and a Wrasse

imageTypical Seascape out at the reef

imageGreen Sea Turtle

imageFish Bowl

imageView of Barefoot Beach from the water

This site is quickly becoming my favorite due to the great corals, abundant fish and beautiful setting.  So for somewhere truly off the beaten path, go run Barefoot to this beach.  If you get the opportunity to visit let me know what you think.

DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE FROM GOOGLE DOCUMENTS

ADDITIONAL PICTURES HERE: 

http://goo.gl/tJEN

http://picasaweb.google.com/testudo92/GrandCaymanSnorkelingRumPoint02#

 © 2010 Testudo Enterises, LLC

SNORKEL GUIDE: RUM POINT BOULDER CORAL GARDEN

  TESTUDO’S SNORKEL GUIDE: The Boulder Coral Gardens

Typical Giant Boulder Coral at Rum PointTypical giant Lobed Star Boulder Corals, Rum Point Coral Garden, Grand Cayman

This is the spot I am most intimate with and the reason I fell in love with Grand Cayman.  Our little Cayman abode is located on the beach at the point and I try to snorkel it at least once a day when we are there.  It is amazing to witness the transitions of the marine life during the different tides, coupled with the dramatic effect the angles of sunlight have as they shift throughout the day.  My favorite time to visit is about an hour before sunset.  It is then that I find the lighting most serene and the abundance and activity of marine life at its peak.

LOCATION INFO:  1st major coral bed is approximately 225 yds of the actual ‘point’ at Rum Point (19°22’22.56”N 81°16’16.62”W), by the Retreat Condominiums.  The 2nd major coral bed is located 25 yds across the sand channel that begins at the far end of the 1st bed (You can usually see some rays and conch hanging out on the bottom).

(This location is not the “Coral Gardens” frequented as part of many Sting Ray City tours.  That location is part of the barrier reef, close to Sting Ray City Sand Bar).

This spot is definitely seeing an increase in visits by the various Wave Runner tours; as evidenced by the multiple excursions stopping by, even on light cruise ship days.  There is now only one marker buoy anchored at the site making it a bit harder to spot from shore.  While not usually an issue, snorkelers should be aware of any Jet Skis and boat traffic, especially on the weekends.  Having a diving/snorkel flag or other identification device is not a bad idea.

My best advice for locating the prime coral beds is to refer to the satellite images below and then orientate yourself standing at the ‘point’ of Rum Point.  Look for the two large Marine Zone buoys closer to shore on your right.  Look out and to the right of the far buoy to locate the smaller mooring buoy of the site.  If water conditions are favorable, you should also see the dark patches of the corals about 225 yds slight off to the left from the point and about 10 yards to the left of the small mooring buoy. 

Link to a larger interactive map of Rum Point

Snorkel Guide

Overhead view to get orientated. (Click images for larger version)

View of coral bed location from sign at the point.  Boat is moored on marker buoy.  Notice larger marine zone buoy on the right.

Coral Garden location with Waverunners moored at marker buoy.

ENTRY: I usually enter the water from a small opening in the iron-shore, about 30 feet to the right of the Marine Zone sign post.  There is a sandy-ish bottom and pieces of iron-shore on each side that make for good, albeit sharp, flipper rests or hand holds.  You can also head-off from the beach area if the iron-shore is too intimidating.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT:  Depending on the weather and water conditions, there can be a slight to moderate current here, especially in the winter months.  On the snorkel out, you will pass some small corals directly off the point and then begin to enter a zone with little coral and few fish.  The depth approaches 20-25 feet at this point.  As you head out, off to the left you should see a ridge rising from the sea floor.  I use this geographic feature as a reference to keep my baring. 

Approaching the main garden, you will begin to see some soft corals interspersed with a few hard corals on the floor below; continuing onward, they will start to become larger and healthier.  The water here is still about 20 ft deep.  This is not the main garden.  Depending on visibility you may be able to see dark shapes off in the distance, ahead and closer ones to the right.  Off to the right are isolated large coral formations.  They will be surrounded by a sandy floor.  These are located closest to the farther Marine Buoy on the above image (tapering dark patches to the left) .  You may not see them if you are closer to the ridge.  I usually skip these, but they may be worth a look. 

The water level will gradually begin to become shallower, the corals will start to jump in size and more fish (usually Damselfish, Grouper and Dog Snapper) can be seen below around the corals.  Try to keep close to the sandy bottom on the right and continue on.  Yes, it does seem longer than 225 yds out, but trudge on; you are getting close to the good stuff.  Ahead, about 25 yds, you should now see some large boulder corals.  Head there and begin exploring, this is the entrance to the garden.  A Moray Eel sometimes hangs out here.  The area along the right with the sandy bottom is where the largest and most dense concentrations of corals and fish will be.  Water depth is between 15-20 ft. 

Among the many species of fish darting around and about the corals, large schools of snapper and grunts frequent this area closer to the bottom.  Rays can be found hidden in the sand and barracuda will sometimes shadow you.  As you explore the area to the left (away from the sandy bottom), the water level will become shallower, as you float above the ridge incline.  This area is predominately covered with soft corals, sponge and sea fans. 

If you continue out towards the reef, the coral garden will end and you will reach a sand bottom channel.  Swim across the channel to reach the second coral garden.  Large outcroppings and clusters of boulder coral begin in about 30 yds.  Float over them and explore right to left.  The water at this garden is a bit shallower making some of the corals and sea fans appear more vibrant.  Grunts and Snapper abound here as well.  The occasional Trumpetfish can also be seen.

CONDITIONS THIS VISIT: The winds were blowing northeasterly for most of the week, which made visibility on the North Side of the island sub-optimal (all the crud that pools in the North Sound gets blown back out towards sea, but ends up trapped by the barrier reef).  You will see many of the images (especially from the Sting City Dive Site) have greenish hues or castes to them; this is as a result of the higher than usual concentrations of algae.

WHAT I SAW THIS VISIT:

I was thrilled NOT to find any Lion Fish around my regular floating grounds this trip.  There was an abundance of the usually fish: various species of Grunts, Snapper, Damselfish, Tilefish, Squirrelfish, Wrasses, Large Parrotfish and Spiny Lobsters.  There was a noticeable increase in: Triggerfish, Trunkfish, smaller barracuda and predatory Bar Jacks.  There was a noticeable decrease in Larger Snapper, Large barracuda, Grouper, Rays and Conch.  I did see one Green Turtle and snapped a few shots before he bolted.  In my experience, the turtles in the Rum Point area and Grand Cayman in general, tend to spook easily.

The beautiful, but invasive Lionfish

Resting Nurse Shark

Green Turtle making a quick exit 

Southern Sting Ray cruises by

Typical boulder coral field 

School of Grunts amid the coral

Sunlight dapples the coral masses

Moray Eel makes its presence known

Just like an aquarium 

A Jolthead Porgy tries out its camouflage techniqueFrench Grunts and Bluehead Wrasse (initial phase)

Juvenile Parrotfish find protection from predators by shadowing the biggest fish around (me)

Juvenile Parrotfish cascade over a Giant Lobed Star Coral

Large school of juvenile Parrotfish

Serene twilight scene

French Grunts

French Grunts

Southern Sting Ray, Stoplight Parrotfish and Tiger Grouper in the twilight

Barrel Sponges

Spiny Lobster guards his turf

Grasby protecting its territory

A friendly Green Turtle snorkel buddy A large Spotted Eagle Ray glides by Catching up with the Spotted Eagle Ray

DOWNLOAD THE SNORKEL GUIDE FROM GOOGLE DOCUMENTS HERE:

Images from this trip can be found here:

http://snipurl.com/wfgh0

Images from previous visits (with more emphasis on coral formations can be found here):

http://picasaweb.google.com/testudo92/GrandCaymanSnorkelingRumPoint02#

 © 2010 Testudo Enterises, LLC

Testudo,

Just got back from Grand Cayman last week. Barefoot beach was an absolute hidden gem. Awesome variety of coral, and the fish count was decent the day we went. While we were snorkeling, the jet ski race around the island went right past us...it was awesome! Question though...what would happen if you swim further out past the protective reef? What would you see? I almost did it but got a little scared and decided against it. Also, we took a jet ski tour out to coral garden at Rum Point. It was awesome as well. I have a request that you give us a underwater tour of Eden rock and Devil's grotto as well as any hidden spots to the south of Devil's grotto. Thanks for the all the snorkeling tips...you're site is awesome!!!

yowzers73
Anonymous

yowzers73,

Thrilled you enjoyed one of my favorite spots! While I do most of my snorkeling at Barefoot on the inside of the reef, there is a wall drop off not too far past the reef. Snorkeling the wall is a bit better just just up from Barefoot at Anchor Point. 

However, there is a wreck that I understand to be located somewhere between Barefoot and Anchor Point, the Gevena Kathleen, that is supposedly strewn throughout the barrier reef. I went hunting for it last month but had no luck finding it. I went towards Anchor Point, next time I’ll head to the right of the Staircase. Maybe someone else will have better luck or can point out where it is if they’ve seen it.

EDIT: Found the wreck remnants.  It was too easy…will publish a guide shortly.  Here are some teaser pix.



"Wreck of the Geneva - Kathleen
The Geneva Kathleen - a two-masted, wooden-hulled, 200-foot plus schooner - met her demise on Grand Cayman’s east end during a raging hurricane in 1929. It pushed her hard onto and then over the shallow barrier reef protecting the Cayman shore. Her remains sit there now in just seven feet of water, her iron winches and bollards encrusted by soft and hard corals. Enter via a protected beach (ask local dive shops for directions to the beach and the wreck) and snorkel right along the shoreline. A trail of artifacts will gradually lead to her grave just inside the reef. (Remember, artifacts are protected; please do not remove any items.) Currents here can sometimes be quite strong, but more often than not, it is as flat as a swimming pool. Check before you head out. It’s a great snorkel site, but not for the beginner.”

My ultimate goal is to have guides for all the snorkel spots on all three islands. I will eventually be getting to some of the lesser known spots along South Sound either later this year or early next. Though I really like Eden Rock and Devil’s Grotto, it has been a bit lower on the priority list since it is so well know and utilized. But If I hit it next trip maybe I can get a guide published. In the mean time, here is a link to a dive map of the site that points out some of the features for both Eden Rock and Devils Grotto:

EDEN ROCK Site Map

DEVIL’S GROTTO Site Map