In This Issue • Caribbean Islands
- Cozumel, Mexico
- Visiting St. Croix USVI
- Grand Cayman
The Island Of Cozumel
This port of call is often referred to as Cozumel, but it is actually island on the southeast coast of Mexico and the actual port city is San Miguel de Cozumel. Located off the Yucatan peninsula it is part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and a very popular cruise stop on most western Caribbean itineraries. Its real claim to fame are the beaches and the diving sites but it is also a good place for bargain shopping.
Where Your Ship Docks
Terminal de Cruceros or Cruise Ship Terminal is the major location for cruise ships but there is another major terminal located in downtown proper. With this destination being so popular there is a possibility that your ship could dock at either location.
The Terminal de Cruceros is a well developed area with excellent facilities, two shopping villages, a number of bars (the infamous Mini Senor Frog’s and Three Amigos) and a number of good restaurants. It is about two and a half miles into downtown San Miguel. It is right next to a remarkably good snorkeling area right at the terminal “beach”.
The other cruise docking pier is central to San Miguel and an easy walk to the main shops, restaurants and the actual original Senor Frog’s.
If you are looking to get to locations within a few miles of the pier the best choice is a taxi. They are plentiful and moderately priced. Just make sure you settle on a fare before heading out. If your goal is to do some diving or serious snorkeling the recommendation is to book with a tour operator of which there are a number right at the pier and they usually include transportation. Taxi drivers also will offer a fixed price tour of the island and most people we have spoken with have been happy having taken this option. There are also numerous tours you can book with your ship.
The local currency is the Mexican peso ($1 about 2 pesos) but U.S. Dollars are commonly accepted. One word of caution – this is a port where liberating tourists from their money is a popular past time. Be cautious of ATM’s, money changers and especially pay phones that accept credit cards cannot be trusted. ATM fees can also be unuaually high.
Shopping – Both at the terminal and in town there are a number of bargains to be found. Mexico is famous for silver, onyx and pottery and often the prices are too good to pass up. Two items that are always a good deal are vanilla and tequila. In shopping for vanilla don’t be tempted by those large, cheap bottles of vanilla available in many gift shops. They may not contain real vanilla extract, and sometimes may contain something that could hurt you. That “something” is coumarin, an extract of the tonka bean that imparts an intense vanilla aroma and thus makes it smell like the real thing. Coumarin was banned as food additive in the U.S. in 1940 because of toxicity. Pay attention and make sure you know what you are getting.
Beaches – One good recommendation is a visit to a beach and one popular choice is Chankanaab. The cruise ships will offer tours including beach trips and snorkeling but if you are looking for a day at the beach our recommendation is to take a taxi to Chankanaab Beach Park and pay the park admission. You’ll save a lot of money over the tour cost and can go and return when you want. It’s not far and there are usually taxis waiting at the park to take you back to the ship. There is a beach bar, a couple of food options, snorkeling and beach chair rentals and the water is great. To get out to the better reefs it’s a bit of a swim though.
Looking for some history? Cozumel has San Gervasio, Mayan ruins centered on the sanctuary of the goddess Ixchel, the island´s ancient deity.
For the more adventurous there are usually tours available that will take you two hours south along the coast to Tulum, the pre-Columbian Mayan walled city. The ruins are situated atop 12-meter tall cliffs above the Caribbean Sea. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya between the 13th and 15th centuries.
For a price many cruise ships also offer tours to Chichen Itza some two hundred miles inland (by plane of course). This Mayan city is on everyone’s list of the seven ancient wonders of the Americas with the central city covering almost two square miles of temples, stadiums, courtyards and palaces.
A Cautionary Note: Cozumel has a reputation as a party town and there are no age restrictions on drinking alcohol. It almost seems to be a sport for bars to work at getting teen visitors drunk. So pay real close attention to you children if you go ashore. The problem has been bad enough that many cruise ships no longer stay in the port in the evening because of issues with drunk teens.
St Croix, The Other Virgin Island
The United States Virgin Islands is comprised of three principal islands, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. At 84 square miles, St. Croix is the largest island in the Virgin Island group and significantly more rural than its brother, St. Thomas. The island features a rain forest in its western interior, an arid climate with cactus in the east and two historic towns.
The island was a possession of Denmark until the early nineteenth century and boasts a deepwater working port on the south coast along with a large pier at the west-end town of Fredireksted. Historically the port was defended by Fort Fredirek as far back as the mid eighteenth century. The deepwater industrial port was developed in the twentieth century and services an oil refinery and cargo ships. The island, along with St. Thomas and St. John was bought by the United States in the early nineteenth century. That means you don’t need a passport to visit and you can bring back five liters of liquor duty free.
Christiansted is the other town on the island and represents the quintessential tropical waterfront. Christiansted is located on the north central coast. The waterfront is fringed with a boardwalk and small boat docks, protected by a natural reef and a close-in small island. The harbor features sailboats at anchor, crystal clear water and a number of small hotels and restaurants along the waterfront. Around the waterfront is a colonial town that has changed little in a couple of hundred years. It is remarkable for the stone and brick buildings that include covered colonnades protecting the sidewalks from those frequent tropical showers. Most of these buildings feature art and craft galleries, shops, restaurants along with a couple of small hotels. Just to the east on the waterfront is the old Fort Christiansvaern operated by the U.S. Park Service. The small island in the harbor is Protestant Cay and features the Hotel on the Cay which is serviced by hotel launches.
Historic Christiansted is actually the center of activity on St. Croix and has a number of nice, small hotels like King’s Alley, Holger Danske, Caravelle, The Hotel on the Cay, The Danish Manor (now the Company House Hotel).
This is a large island and to get around you need to rent a car and remember that the Virgin Islands traffic drives on the left even though most cars are right-hand drive. If you aren’t up to driving, staying in Christiansted isn’t a bad option with the restaurants, shops and the beach at The Hotel on the Cay. (You can take the hotel launch over for a fee if you aren’t a guest) or you can stay at any number of island resorts.
Most of the beachfront resorts are clustered in three locations on the island. The most popular resort area on the island is the eastern north shore with the centerpiece being the Buccaneer Resort and Golf Course. The Buccaneer has been an institution on the island forever and deserves its’ high marks. A little further along the coast are the Tamarind Beach and Chenay Bay resorts. They both have good beaches and Chenay Bay offers cabinst.
Crossing the island to the east end of the south shore there are a couple of resorts centered on Divi Carina Bay Resort. There are good beaches and snorkeling along that shore with great coral reefs close in to shore in reasonably shallow water.
Another area for great beaches and good snorkeling, is Davis Bay. Located along the western north coast it has always been pretty isolated and primitive but the beaches are some of the best on the island. Some thirty years ago the Rock Resort people built an exclusive resort above Davis Bay called the Carambola Resort but a combination of things, including hurricane Hugo, caused the venture to fail. Today it is alive as the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Resort and, based on location alone, it is well worth consideration.
There are also a number of apartment and condo developments like Mill Harbor that offer rental units along with Colony Cove and Sugar Beach. While a little out of town, the beaches are nice and the amenities are good.
One offbeat attraction predates tourists at the Montpellier Domino Club located up in St. Croix’s rain forest. Visiting what is just a local bar you’re expected to buy the pig a beer by simply tossing a can into the pen attached to the club. The pig would pick up the can, raise its head, crush the can and drink. If you got there too late (or early depending on the perspective), the pig was passed out drunk. The Montpellier Domino Club it seems has gone through a number of pigs and it now seems to be a “must do” tourist destination.
Of historical interest are the two colonial fortifications on the island, several historic buildings in Christiansted and on Centerline Road east of Fredireksted is the Whim Great House and museum. Whim is the only plantation great house surviving in the Virgin Islands.
If you are a skin or scuba diver, or just a novice swimmer, one real “must do” on St. Croix is to visit the underwater National Park at Buck Island Reef where the whole island, not just the reef, is the park. Located 1.5 miles off the northeast coast, there are a number of boat tours from Christiansted out to the area and the reef is spectacular. There is also an underwater trail on the eastern tip. If you can convince yourself to take this trip and put on a face mask you will never forget it.
The island has a number of good restaurants but the scene changes regularly so it’s best to refer to current reviews. While there are a number of fast food places on St. Croix one favorite for locals and visitors is Cheeseburgers in Paradise out on the northeast coast road.
While there aren’t a lot of cruise ships visiting some do spend a day tied up to the Fredireksted pier and, if this is how you come to St. Croix, we would recommend that you rent a car and spend your day driving around the island. The scenery is breathtaking with the rugged coast along North Shore Road and Cane Bay Road worth the trip. Along Centerline Road visit the Estate Whim Museum, the only surviving plantation great house in the Virgin Islands. Go into Christiansted for lunch and a walk around harbor and return to Fredireksted via the rain forest on Mahogany Road.
The Island of Grand Cayman
Grand Cayman is a popular tropical destination famous for its beaches and coral reefs. George Town, is a modern town famous for good duty free shopping, restaurants and island tours.
The biggest attractions in Grand Cayman are the beaches and the clear turquoise water. The island is a major destination for sport divers and snorkelers.
Transportation – There are basically three ways to get around this island:
Bus System – Cayman actually has a pretty efficient bus system with fares starting at CI$2.50 (US$3.15). The central bus terminal is located in downtown George Town.
Taxis – Taxis are readily available but like most things in Cayman can be pricey.
Rental Cars – Cars are pretty easy to arrange but can be a bit expensive. Finding your way around is pretty easy, traffic is moderate but remember they drive on the left.
Money – The local currency is CI$ and is fixed at an exchange of US$1.25 to CI$1.00, so remember that everything is 20% more expensive than it seems. The US Dollar is usually welcome along with most credit cards with ATMs readily available.
Local Attractions – Beaches, beaches and more beaches with the centerpiece being Seven Mile Beach featuring resort hotels and restaurants. The island is also a scuba and snorkeling paradise with lots of coral reefs in shallow water for great snorkeling along with a great drop-off wall for scuba diving. Grand Cayman was the originator of the stingray tour called Sting Ray City where you can actually walk on a shallow sandbar and hand feed the stingrays.
Other attractions include swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery, The Cayman Turtle Center, Crystal Caves and visiting Hell a gift shop with famous post office where you can send home cards postmarked HELL.
Grand Cayman is also famous for its duty free shopping with excellent buys from diamonds to watches to luxury housewares and fashion accessories. It is also home to one of the Caribbeans best known rum cakes.