Grand CaymanA southern stingray at Stingray City. Photograph by Andy Deitsch.
Did you have to put on 10 layers of clothing when you walked outside this morning to get your paper? Did you have to dig your car out of a snowbank? Did your tongue stick to the metal pole? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then it’s time for a dive vacation to a spot with bright sun, sparkling beaches and clear, warm waters home to fantastic animal encounters. These 10 warm-water destinations feature all this and more, and will provide a lifetime of memories so fantastic, we bet you’ll never want to come home.
You want another stamp in your passport. You want postcard beaches and swaying palm trees. You want spectacular diving — and you don’t want to pay through the nose for any of it. What you want is Cozumel, a quick (and direct) flight from plenty of U.S. cities. Though the island hosts multiple cruise ships daily, divers can avoid the crowds by heading to the reefs south of the main town, where the reward is lush hard corals and plentiful fish life. Dive operators along the west coast are within easy reach of dive sites, and an ever-flowing current — sometimes strong — makes for exciting drift dives, wherein you might see multiple turtles but will have time only to wave farewell as you fly past. Must-dos include Horseshoe on Palancar Reef, where you’ll drop in around 35 feet into a coral amphitheater filled with blue tangs, parrotfish, turtles and shy green moray eels. More-advanced divers can head farther south to Punta Sur, a deep wall dive featuring coral tunnels and swim-throughs, as well as turtles, eagle rays and reef tropicals. And those beaches? After you surface for the day, bury your toes in the sand with a well-earned cerveza in hand. — Rebecca Strauss
>> DIVE IT: caribbeandivevacations.com
CABO SAN LUCAS, MEXICO
The Gulf of California is home to Baja’s big five: whale sharks, hammerheads, sea lions, mantas and humpbacks. And with Cabo San Lucas sitting on the tip of Baja, where the Pacific meets the Gulf, it’s not only easy to get to but easy to get a glimpse of some of these big guys. Not far offshore, sites like the North Wall dip to about 60 feet. Though the water here is cooler, divers are rewarded with tons of life, including angel sharks, green moray eels and colorful angelfish. Farther out, sites like the Blowhole and Cabo Pulmo usually deliver visits from sea lions and dolphins before you even get your fins wet. Depths plummet to thousands of feet, bringing in schools of hammerheads, soaring mantas and even a humpback or two. Topside, everyone hits the lively downtown bars and restaurants, but for something a little off the beaten path, head to Todos Santos, a small artist’s town an hour up the coast from Cabo. There you can relive your dives over margaritas and fresh ceviche. — Tara Bradley
>> DIVE IT: Manta Scuba, caboscuba.com
Perhaps the greatest thing about Grand Cayman is that it offers so much to so many divers — new divers and more-experienced ones, solo travelers and divers traveling with their families or in groups. Whether you like reefs or wrecks, shallow dips or plunging walls, big-animal encounters or little critters, Grand Cayman is the perfect wintertime playground. This 22-by-8-mile island is ringed by hundreds of dive sites, many defined by precipitous walls, towering canyons and reefs laced with swim-throughs. In fact, thanks to the island's Dive 365 initiative, Grand Cayman will soon have 365 moored sites, one for each day of the year. Off Seven Mile Beach on the island’s West End, many of the sites are the stuff of legend — Orange Canyon, Trinity Caves, Eagle Ray Rock and Aquarium — and start in just 60 feet or so of calm blue (and warm!) water. North shore diving is characterized by steep drop-offs along North Wall and shallow sites found in North Sound; Stingray City, Grand Cayman’s world-famous animal encounter, is in only 12 feet of water in North Sound. The action continues on the island’s relaxed East End, where you can dive sites such as Split Rock. Grand Cayman's newest attraction, the Kittiwake is worth making a dive on, no matter where you're staying on the island. Combine all this underwater scenery with countless restaurants, bars and land-based recreational activities, and you’ll likely need more than a week to experience it all. — Patricia Wuest
>> DIVE IT: divecayman.ky