Grand CaymanA southern stingray at Stingray City. Photograph by Andy Deitsch.
Spend a week in Tobago, and it’s hard not to fall in love: with the tall mountains ringed by white-sand beaches; local delicacies like roti, a burrito-like mound overstuffed with curried potatoes and meat; friendly Tobagonians and their sing-songy patois; and the diving, which isn’t just good year-round, it’s warm. “January to December, the water never dips below 80 to 82 degrees,” says divemaster Kerron Ottley of southern Tobago’s R & Sea Divers. In the northern town of Speyside, divers head for world-famous sites like the Sisters and London Bridge. But it’s lesser-known dives like Bookends, Blackjack and Japanese Gardens — a shallow site with hundreds of barrel sponges interspersed among a reef so healthy, you’ll be wondering if you’re actually in the Indo-Pacific — that’ll have you ooohing and aaahing. As good as Speyside’s sites are, the south has its share of awesome dives too. Most divers ask for repeated trips to the purpose-sunk Maverick wreck, and when they tire of that, the boats head for the Atlantic side to current-washed gems like Flying Reef and Diver’s Thirst, which burst with soft-coral life and turtles at every turn. It’s so good you might never want to leave. (And some, believe it or not, don’t.) “Every day we’ve got sun, sand and sea,” says Ottley. “Here on Tobago, we’re living the sunny side of life.” — David Espinosa
>> DIVE IT: tobagoscubadiving.com
It might not be what many envision when thinking of a tropical winter escape — Bonaire’s candelabra cactuses, exposed cliffs and wild roaming donkeys bear more resemblance to Arizona than to most Caribbean islands — but the laid-back island has been a longtime favorite of travelers seeking refuge from chilly weather. Bonaire’s reputation for 365/24/7 diving just yards from shore is justified, and divers consistently rank it as the world’s best shore-diving location. In 1979, the island’s waters were declared a national marine park; today, more than 60 sites are marked along its 24-mile-long leeward coast. Rent a jeep or truck to take full advantage of the shore diving. As easy as it is to wade in at sites such as Hilma Hooker, Invisibles and Pink Beach, plan a boat dive to nearby Klein Bonaire, an excursion to rugged Washington-Slagbaai National Park and a trip to the island’s playful east side, where you can windsurf or kayak. — Patricia Wuest
>> DIVE IT: Buddy Dive Resort, buddydive.com
PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA
There is nowhere else in America you can dive with lemon sharks, explore numerous wrecks and encounter critters like striated frogfish within a few fin kicks of the beach. Dive operators in the Palm Beaches area offer easy access to the county’s nearly 70 dive sites, while the Gulf Stream ensures warm water, excellent water clarity and lots of healthy reef growth. Florida divers have long known about the riches off the Sunshine State's Atlantic coast, but now divers from around the world, including underwater photographers, are getting in on the action. Juno Ledge, a few miles north of Palm Beach Inlet, attracts schooling fish like snappers and plenty of encounters with the big boys, like eagle rays, goliath groupers, barracuda and, in winter, dozens of lemon sharks. Mizpah is a 185-foot former Greek luxury liner intentionally sunk in 1968 in 90 feet of water. Orange cup corals coat its inner structure, while barracuda, jacks and turtles patrol its exterior. Better still, Mizpah, like most Palm Beach diving, is done as a drift — you’ll also explore two other wrecks, PC1170 and Amaryllis, on the same dive. There’s always the chance to see something weird in the shallow waters at Blue Heron Bridge in West Palm Beach, so pack your macro lens along with your flip-flops. Plus, this winter getaway is packed with lots of surface-interval action, including Major League Baseball spring training and kayaking on the Intracoastal. — Patricia Wuest
>> DIVE IT: Pura Vida Divers, puravidadivers.com