Your Great Escape

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When you wake up in the morning to cold rain and snow in our Chesapeake Bay watershed, believe it or not, the weather is warm and the sun is shining in the Caribbean. Southern Marylanders live in a world class cruising, fishing, and water sports area for most of the year. However, the winter months can inflict a severe case of cabin fever for those of us addicted to having a deck beneath our feet.

In past years, I simply growled and scowled my way through the winter months as I woke before sunrise and worked outside past sunset in weather that was simply miserable. For over a quarter century; been there, done that, not going back. Now, I plan my annual escape and welcome you to do the same.

This year, my wife and I took a 12 day trip out of Baltimore with Celebrity Cruise Lines aboard the MV Mercury to the Eastern Caribbean. We missed the cold weather through the middle of January and snorkel dove the waters of five islands. While people across our Country were shoveling snow, Carlene and I were flipping our swim fins over tropical reefs, sipping cold island beers, and soaking up the sun for a nice healthy tan.

A trip like this does not have to be expensive. Interior and even some ocean view cabins can be booked for less than fifty bucks a day per person if you watch for the cruise specials that are available. All of the islands have taxi service that will take you to the beachfront swimming, snorkeling, and diving areas. By skipping the cruise ship excursions and planning your own custom trip, you can greatly reduce your costs.

Check out as much you can on the Internet before you get on board your cruise ship. Onboard Internet rates are simply unreasonable. You can catch up with your e-mails at the Internet cafes when you reach your destination. Unless you have pressing business, avoid making a shipboard connection. Use your home service to cruise the Net before boarding and enjoy your cruise without worrying about how much searching the Web is going to cost you.

Another expense that you can do without is the roaming charge on your cell phone. Turn it off. But!!! Remember to wear a watch. Many of us now depend on our cell phones for the time of day. Better yet, wear a dive watch. You will not have to take it off in the water and it will help you not loose track of time should you become engrossed with natural beauty of the tropical marine ecosystem or the French ladies swimming off the topless beach. Though you are on vacation, you must stay abreast of your schedule to arrive back to the ship prior to departure.

Our particular cruise of the Eastern Caribbean included five single day stops at the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Kitts, Antigua, and St. Maarten. The goal of this trip was to bring back detailed information about the most affordable and accessible beaches to visit and snorkel in the Caribbean. I made the mistake of not doing a good Internet search prior to getting on the cruise. Fortunately, my years of experience running commercial passenger carrying vessels helped me ask the right questions on each island to find the best snorkeling beaches to share with readers of the CHESAPEAKE.

During our first stop in St. Thomas, Carlene and I struck off from our cruise party of St. Mary’s County residents interested in shopping extravaganzas to find the best beach to see coral and marine life close to shore. The general consensus from the local people and taxi drivers was Coki Beach which is across the island from where the cruise ships dock. After a nice tour of the island by taxi, we arrived at Coki Beach. Immediately, we were hustled to rent beach chairs. We settled on one to keep our gear together.

If I had done an Internet search earlier, I would have known that a 14 year old girl who was a passenger on the Carnival Cruise Line was shot and killed nearby in July of last year. Though ignorance may be bliss, I picked up on a strange vibe at this beach with the vendors who continually pushed to give body massages or hair braiding. Carlene and I took turns guarding our gear while the other one of us went into the water.

The marine life near this beach which is adjacent to the Coral World Marine Park is quite good for a shore access. The coral outcropping right off the beach is full of marine tropical fish and some of the fattest yellowtail snappers I have ever seen so close to land. A Google search of [Coki Beach fish feeding frenzy] will give you a good view of the beach as well as the variety of fish and corals that you will see a very short swim from shore. The local people sell crackers to feed the fish which accounts for the friendliness of the fish as well as the fatness of the snappers. Those carbs really bulk up the yellowtails.

The islander vendors also recommended that tourists leave the beach after 3:00 P.M. for safety. Actually, I think they had a big local celebration cooking for the evening and did not want a culture mix that could cause more bad press. Dead tourists are not good for business. Regardless, we knew it was time to get out of Dodge by dodging out of Coki Beach in a taxi.

All in all, Coki Beach was the best beach for a novice snorkeler but I would recommend traveling in a group because it is not the safest of places on the shore side.

The next stop became my favorite dive site of the trip which is Cane Bay in St. Croix. This time we were joined by our full party of cruising friends. After haggling with the taxi drivers over rates, we walked into the nearby Cane Bay Dive Shop right beside the cruise ship docks. For four dollars less than the round trip of a taxi, they provided the complete two way taxi trip, snorkel gear, beach chairs and very detailed directions on the best snorkeling and diving areas. Obviously, the dive shop offered the best deal which got even better as you will see.

After a scenic trip across the island, we were fortunate to arrive on an almost flat calm day with a hundred foot of visibility in the blue water. Cane Bay is at the edge of a deep 3,000 foot drop off which provides a shore diving experience unmatched by anything I have witnessed.

Though this trip was dedicated to snorkeling, I intend to come back to spend a few days in St. Croix specifically enjoying the scuba diving if they will accept my 40 year old PADI dive certification card.

The vibe at this beach was laid back and the snorkeling was excellent for strong swimmers. I would recommend a safety vest because of the distance the best reef areas are from shore. Especially beautiful is the deep drop that extends down into dark blue water. I was reminded of snorkeling in Okinawa in another place in time. But, that is another story.

One thing that many people notice in the Caribbean waters close to populated areas is the relative lack of food fish like grunts and porgies and larger fish like groupers or big snappers. There is a reason for this which I will reveal later. However the underwater structure of Cane Bay makes this a destination worth spending more time at.

After exploring the reef, we went back to enjoy time on the beach. During a conversation with David and Katie from West Virginia who came in on another taxi, we discovered there was free rum punch nearby provided by the dive shop for our after dive enjoyment. A lively conversation ensued and the day went from really very good to even better.

David and Katie were a young married couple who were also cruising on the Mercury. The Cane Bay excursion was the beginning of more new snorkeling friendships we made on the trip. Our gratitude goes to Suzanne Rosbach, owner of Cane Bay Dive Shop for her supreme hospitality and strong rum punch!

Upon arrival at St. Kitts, we hooked up with our past cruise tour guide and driver, Captain Kenny Sunshine, to take us across the island to Cockleshell Beach. This beach has thousands of shells in shallow snorkeling depth. You can spend hours searching for colorful Caribbean shells or you can swim to the rock outcroppings off the point to see shallow corals and fish. There is a lot of trash on the bottom which degrades the snorkeling experience but my wife swam with a spotted eagle ray and a squid which was the highlight snorkeling experience of her trip. Again, the massage and hair braiding vendors were out in force along with hucksters of cheap jewelry.

St. Kitts does have the most breathtaking view of the volcanic mounts during the trip to and from the beach. You can see both the Atlantic and the Caribbean waters at the same time. Though they may look the same from a passing ship, each Caribbean island has it’s own unique culture and ambiance.

Long Bay was the highly recommended beach in Antigua which was our next port. This time, Carlene and I were again on our own so the taxi ride was a little more expensive. Ideally, find a group to get the best rate. The trip across the island was enjoyable. The new Antigua sports stadium is covered with solar panels which is a very practical addition in this land where sunshine is the predominate order of the day.

The reef at Long Bay is close to shore but the facilities to change clothing are limited to the bathrooms of the local bar. It is better to wear your bathing suit underneath your clothes on most of these excursions. The Long Bay reef area was fine for snorkeling, but the local vendor pressure especially the illicit offer to purchase “smoke or coke” made the beach unappealing to me. Other than the presence of more cruise ship new acquaintances, Pam and Peter, Long Bay will become a long gone memory.

The most secure, clean, and scenic beach of our trip was on Pinel Island on the French side of St. Martin. After a pleasant taxi trip across the island where we easily passed through the Dutch/French border, our group of new snorkeling friends and accomplices boarded a small passenger ferry to cross a short distance to Pinel Island which is a park and marine sanctuary. On the island, there were shore lockers for safe storage of our gear which is a welcome benefit. Also, no vendors pushed to sell their goods. There was calm protected water to fish watch in. I walked to the open ocean side of the island and snorkeled in the surf to see the larger coral formations.

On the swim out to the reef, there was the frame of a defunct fish trap. The wire mesh had been removed. This is the reason why there are so few food and large fish on the Caribbean reefs. The island fishermen continue to use these traps to deplete what few fish they have left. A fish trap acts like a vacuum cleaner that literally sucks up fish much like the bank traps we banned in St. Mary’s County over a decade ago. I expect these traps are illegal in the marine sanctuary of Pinel Island but it will take quite a few years for the fish to repopulate the area.

That said, the peaceful serenity of Pinel Island along with the natural beauty of topless sunbathers certainly will leave pleasant memories for many years to come. Sipping a cold Red Stripe beer under a thatch roof hut with new found friends was the perfect way to end our last shore excursion.

Maybe you might like to take a couple weeks off from the chill of winter to chill out with a Caribbean cruise. The prices are extremely affordable and the weather there is sunny and warm. Are you ready now to start planning your escape?


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