Why we decided to go to Grand Cayman for our next dive vacation
It’s that time of year when we start to plan for our next big trip. After much debate over where to go, we decided it was time for another warm water SCUBA diving trip. We considered going back to Spain and walking The Camino de Santiago again. But then I realized it had been 3 years since we’d been diving in water that was above 60F degrees.
The most difficult part was deciding where to go. We’ve already been diving in Hawaii several times, all over the Bahamas, Cozumel and the Mexican Cenotes, the Netherlands Antilles (we’d gone to Bonaire twice and that was off the table. The coral bleaching there is terrible). We’ve also been to Key Largo, Key West, and Pensacola and done the major wrecks a couple of times now. Where else could we go? We decided to go to Grand Cayman. This post outlines my cost benefit analysis among several locations and how we came to decision to choose Grand Cayman.
Our basic expectations of a dive operator
At this point I feel the need to clarify a few points that are important in our selection of location. My husband and I are both Technical divers. That means that we are certified to dive deeper, on mixed gasses (Nitrox and Helium) and incur decompression obligations. Additionally, Bill, as a GUE Tech 2 diver, is far more experienced and knowledgeable than the average divemaster, who normally only holds a recreational dive certification. We don’t need a divemaster leading us around asking us how much gas we still have, so they can determine if we need to end our dive.
We are also photographers and want to be able to stop and focus on a shot without being rushed. Sometimes we just like to linger in one area and look at little critters, doing little critter things. We want to be able to dive our own profile and dive for an hour or more. Not a lot to ask, especially when I’m paying them for my dive.
*All prices are in US Dollars
Places we considered in The Middle East and The South Pacific:
1) The Red Sea liveaboards:
As of this date the liveaboards (large yachts designed for a 12-18 divers to sleep, eat and dive for a week or longer) operating in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt are offering killer deals. For about $1,000 you can get 1 week of diving, your room, and all meals and beverages. The last time I’d checked them out years ago, you couldn’t touch a trip for under $3,000 per person. This was extremely tempting. But 2 major things removed this dream off our list within hours.
The first issue is the cost to get there from Alaska. We just don’t have the 200,000 miles needed to get to Cairo. Then we’d need to buy flights to Hurghada. We were looking at over $4,000 in flights alone. The second reason is the high terror alert in that region. Even if we had the miles to get there, we would still have decided against Egypt. Our adventure level has its limits.
2) The Philippines: So yes, it has ongoing terrorist activity as well, but the Philippine Archipelago is huge. The terror activity is centered, for now, in locations about 1,000 miles away from where we were looking to dive in Puerto Galera. The diving in the Philippines is fantastic and pretty inexpensive. This sounded like a great possibility, until I looked at the miles it would take to get there. It was Egypt all over again. We needed 200,000 miles or fork over $4,000 in cash for 2 tickets. That didn’t take into account the cost of diving. Which, although inexpensive, would have still cost us $2,000 per person for just one week. Yeah, that was off the table fast.
Places we considered in Roatan, Honduras:
Okay, so this location was a reasonable amount of miles at 95,000. The length of time to get there is terrible. We were looking at 30 hours each way because of necessary long layovers due to the way flights arrive on the island. But we could manage that. We’d done the same thing when we flew to Bonaire (off the coast of Venezuela). We’d just add extra days to allow for staying overnight in a hotel. Roatan is a diver’s Mecca. All there is to do on the island is dive. I mean, what else would you want on a dive vacation anyway? Right? This was the location that I thought we were going to choose. The prices at the resorts were reasonable.
The Popular Resorts
1) Anthony’s Key Resort (AKR) on the North side is currently offering a 2 for 1 package for a week long stay. Cost is $1,485 for 2 people including tax! AKR is an all-inclusive which means that the price includes 2 boat dives and unlimited shore diving, food, and a room. Wow. We could do 2 weeks for about $3,000 total. But I don’t think I want to be stuck diving the same shore dives for 2 weeks straight. Boat dives are guided. Not at all appealing.
2) Coco View Resort was another option. It’s a famous resort that sits on the South side of the island protected from any bad weather. They offer two boat dives a day with the option to be dropped off the boat on both dives. You then find your way back to shore along their “front yard”. Also an all-inclusive but a bit more in cost. For 2 people, the cost for 1 week is $3,400 including tax. That’s just 1 week. Boat dives are guided. Not at all appealing.
AKR is a really good deal, Coco View is pretty expensive. We didn’t like the idea of being stuck diving the same shore dives and being led around by a divemaster on the boat dives. We just want to be left alone to do our own thing, and for the boat not to leave us behind. So I started looking at dive shops and accommodations that were not part of an all-inclusive.
Coconut Tree Divers: I found a dive shop called Coconut Tree Divers. They are a training facility for Tech divers so I had high hopes that we could work something out. They offer 4 boat dives a day that are spaced very closely together. No time for a leisurely lunch. We can live with that. We’re there to dive, not eat, right? No shore diving so we’d be stuck doing the 4 boat dives if we wanted to dive all day. Cost for diving and a small apartment for 2 weeks is $2,320 per person. Plus whatever cost we incurred for food. Food is cheap so it’s not a big deal. Probably end up costing $2,600 per person for a 2 week period.
However, when I inquired about doing a Tech dive, they told us we’d have to pay for a guide. A what? A guide? No thank you. Maybe it’s a Roatan requirement that guides be in the water when diving from a boat. I don’t know. I don’t care. This isn’t how Tech divers are treated. The other major drawback is that the afternoon dives include inexperienced divers and snorkelers.
For us, this would actually qualify as a representation of the 5th Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. I think we’ll take a pass.
The Fifth Circle of Hell is where the wrathful and sullen are punished for their sins. Transported on a boat by Phlegyas, Dante and Virgil see the wrathful fighting each other on the surface of the river Styx and the sullen gurgling beneath the surface of the water.
Summary of Roatan
Prices are reasonable at 2 of these places (AKR and Coconut Divers) with lots of diving at all of 3 places I reviewed. They would both be good options for recreational divers who aren’t particular about who is on the boat with them and don’t mind following the divemasters. The deal breaker for all of these places for us was “hand holding”. That’s what I call being forced to dive with a divemaster and following them around. All of these places had a requirement that you follow the divemaster. This was a huge turnoff. Sure the shore diving was on your own, but how fast would we get bored with the same site?
I didn’t think it would be this hard to find a place that caters to experienced divers that don’t need or want valet service diving. Obviously, I was mistaken. Or maybe just looking in the wrong places?
A location we hadn’t considered
During the process of researching the perfect dive location, someone on a dive forum and one of our dive buddies both mentioned Grand Cayman Island. Scuba Diving Magazine’s annual Readers Choice Awards for “5 Best Places to Dive in the Caribbean & Atlantic ” has named The Cayman Islands the “Best Overall Diving in the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans”. A couple of other dive buddies told us that they’d loved the diving there. So I spent a few days researching and exchanging emails with some operators on the island.
Grand Cayman Island: The winner
I admit, when people recommended Grand Cayman I was skeptical. I had immediate visions of mass amounts of tourists, cruise ships, $8 beers, a bad exchange rate, etc. Of course, I was right about all those things. But then I asked a couple of fellow Technical divers and they recommended that I check out DiveTech.
DiveTech: Their location is at Lighthouse Reef and away from the more touristy area of George Town. They offer 2 morning dives to deep sites where we could dive to 130ft or stay on the reef at 60ft. We could follow the divemaster or swim off on our own. finally! Free shore diving right off their dock with the ability to hit the deep wall and do long dives. We will be able to rent doubles if we want and they even rent dive scooters. Really? Could they really be so rational and civilized? Of course they are. The owner is a woman!
DiveTech is a training facility for recreational and Technical divers. Therefore, they have Helium and Oxygen, if we want to spend the money. The cost is $1,296 per person for 12 days of diving (at the time of publishing this post, and for the dates of our trip which are low season). This includes 2 morning boat dives and unlimited shore dives and weights. This is a done deal. All requirements for what we want in a quality dive operator are being met.
Cool history about DiveTech:
It was founded by a woman, Nancy Easterbrook, an International SCUBA diving Hall of Fame honoree. She’s been featured in dive magazines for decades. She was instrumental in bringing Nitrox and Technical diving to Grand Cayman, and was a driving force behind bringing the USS Kittiwake to Grand Cayman to be sunk as a dive site. She still lives on Grand Cayman and if I’m real lucky, I may get to meet her at Inner Space 2018, which she also founded. Inner Space brings together Rebreather divers from all over the world for a week of seminars and awesome diving.
Today, DiveTech has a different owner, who also happens to be a woman, Joanna Mikutowicz, aka Pinky Jo. She apparently has a love of pink. That’s why their boat is pink!
Funny how we always end up diving with shops owned by woman (Alaska, Saba, Kona, and now Grand Cayman). I’m taking my ScubaPro pink Jet fins on this trip for sure.
Accommodations on Grand Cayman are expensive if you stay at a hotel or resort. Very expensive. Therefore, I looked at my tried and true Airbnb site and sure enough, I found an apartment just 10 minutes from the dive shop that are very welcoming of divers. It’s in a quiet, private neighborhood away from the tourist areas.
The apartment has a full kitchen, 2 separate bedrooms, a living area, a hammock, A/C, and free parking. Plus, the owners have a chicken coop and you can help yourself to a couple of eggs each morning. They stock the fridge with milk, juice, bread, herbs for tea, coffee, and cereal. They provide a cooler, beach chairs, and a place to hang our wet dive gear.
Cost for this little piece of paradise: $86 per night. You read that right. It’s not a fancy resort. It’s living with the locals, which is always our preference. We don’t care about resort amenities or housekeeping. We especially don’t want to be around a bunch of noisy tourists partying all night.
The owners of the apartment have great reviews on Airbnb and I reserved that apartment within a day of finding it. We’ve been using Airbnb and HomeAway apartments for years and never had a bad experience. I’m pretty savvy when it comes to choosing excellent places on Airbnb.
Due to the decreased costs, we decided to extend our trip from 14 night to 17 nights. Dive with DiveTech for 13 days and then go off and rent tanks for shore diving on other parts of the island, or do a boat dive on the East End for the remaining 3 days of diving. I rented a car through Budget for the duration of our stay. As expensive as everything else is on this little island, for some reason, car rentals are cheap. Go figure. $17/day for a standard size car. By comparison, I can tell you we paid $28/day for a compact car in Spain in May 2017.
Total cost for 17 nights with 12 days of unlimited diving, an apartment, and a rental car is $4,470. However, this doesn’t include food. Therefore, we plan to do the same thing we did in Bonaire. We’ll buy food at the supermarket and cook for ourselves, and go out for a nice dinner a few times.
Based on the cost of living calculators available online, I expect we would spend around $500-$600 on food. Around $200 on shore diving for the extra 3 days. We’ll probably end up around $5,200. Therefore, still cheaper than the least expensive dive resort (suite with a kitchen) on the island. For this length of stay we couldn’t touch a resort for under $5,800 (diving plus a suite with a kitchen). That’s not including the car or food. I estimate that we’ll save about $600.
You can see that we are paying about the same as we would have on Roatan, but staying 3 nights longer. We also gain the dive freedom that we want, and a car to explore the island instead of being isolated at one resort. Plus, we won’t have to worry about contracting Dengue Fever on Grand Cayman 🙂 That’s always a plus in my book.
Conclusion (or TL;DR)
In conclusion, do your research and look at all possible options. I almost booked one of the all-inclusive resorts on Roatan before I started reading the reviews on Scubaboard and asking questions from the dive operators. In addition, I also didn’t take the package deal from Divetech in Grand Cayman which had quoted me $5,220 for 14 nights/13 days of diving and accommodations at a nearby resort (hotel suite with a kitchen). It’s a good price, but I really need to keep the total cost down for this particular trip.
As a result, I found a significantly cheaper and equally nice option. Yeah, no housekeeping, but so what. I don’t need my bed made, and I can wash my own towels since we’ll have a washer and dryer. Also, as a result of extending our dates, we will overlap with Inner Space 2018 and we have the opportunity to sit in on their guest speaker presentations. These Rebreather guys are pretty cool.
If you want to get a discount on your FIRST Airbnb reservation please feel free to use my link. You will get $40 off your FIRST reservation and I will get a $20 credit toward my next reservation. Win-Win. Click on THIS link to get the coupon. Or type this into your browser www.airbnb.com/c/ilee1278 .
I also recommend that you take a look at my Travel Tips page for helpful information on:
7 Essential Things to Consider When Planning an International Trip
The Best ATM Card for Travel.
∗Tell me what you think and where you plan to dive next year. What great deals have you found? What advice do you have for divers on a budget who want to travel?