Ever since we were little girls we have loved water and then somewhere in our early twenties we both began to try snorkeling. That minor change in our water sport interests has entailed a fortune in travel expenses and “resort wear” necessities, but we bravely snorkel on in search of the next best reef!
We have a previous post which (surprisingly) has good advice for anyone considering just starting to explore snorkeling. You may want to check it out.
If you are considering trying snorkeling, already enjoy it occasionally or are an experienced snorkeler we think you will be tempted to visit our favorite snorkel spots if you have not yet done so. For an extremely unreasonable fee we will accompany you and be virtually useless to you but happy to share your enthusiasm if you spot a good fish or ride a shark across a reef!
Our favorite snorkel spots (to date) are:
We were lucky enough to be the guests of Captain Cook Cruises Fiji twice.
The first time was their 7 day Yasawa Island cruise. Every day they made two snorkel stops did a great job of finding the best reefs.
Fiji is known for being the soft coral capital of the world and, although some reefs sustained considerable damage from Cyclone Evan in 2012, the Yasawa’s seem to have been spared. Fortunately Fiji is now making real strides to protect their reefs.
We went in August and because Fiji is the opposite hemisphere of where we live we went back and forth about the need to pack wetsuits. Spoiler alert: We’re big babies about cold water. We ended up wearing wetsuits every day but, as none of the other swimmers did, it’s probably safe to say we overdid it but it’s something to consider.
Some of our favorite snorkeling was near Castaway Island where the Tom Hanks film Castaway (well, what did you think?) was shot. But every day the guys on the ship would go wherever the coral was best and the water the smoothest and clearest. For those who were not snorkelers they also had a glass bottom boat so those people could look down at the coral and stay dry.
On our second cruise we went to the very remote Lau Islands. That particular chain of islands has only recently begun to allow tourism. There aren’t any hotels, shops (other than for rudimentary things for villagers) or restaurants. You are truly out in the middle of nowhere (and this is also the last place that ended cannibalism but try not to think about that).
The Lau Islands had somewhat better fish and critters than the Yasawas and still had the colorful coral. This time we went in May and although we showed up with our wetsuits again they really weren’t needed.
Seas were rough some days so we didn’t snorkel as often as in the Yasawas but we still had some fabulous sightings.
Kurumba, The Maldives
The Maldives are far away from North America but with all of the new Middle East Airlines with U.S. gateway cities they’re getting nearer all the time.
We chose the resort of Kurumba in the Maldives because it was the first resort there, really makes a point of respecting the environment and is owned by Maldivians. It also a good reputation for the quality of its reefs. (The fact that free wine was part of our “dine around” package was something we never considered. Yeah, right.)
We snorkeled ourselves silly(er) at Kurumba – it was a reef and fish feast for the eyes! Aquarium-quality snorkeling can be had by simply swimming out to the house reef from the beach. Ask any of the excellent staff in the Recreation Shop where to get in and when so you can swim with the current and not against the tide. We did a guided tour of the house reef, a private tour and a night snorkel tour. All were fabulous and the staff there is delightful (as genuinely so as in Fiji). The night snorkel was something we’d never done before and swimming with a flashlight/torch in your hand takes a minute or two to get used to but is worth it. You see lots of things that hide from you in the daytime and it isn’t scary or cold, just a lot of fun.
There is also a day excursion you can do with a picnic on a sandbar and again we had a private snorkel tour of the reef at the sandbar and it too was fabulous. We also had a snorkel en route to the sandbar. In other words we spent a lot of time being very soggy and used copious amounts of sunscreen as the Maldives are very close to the equator.
This is a resort that is very geared towards snorkelers. Water temperatures were perfect (about 85 F) and there was no need for wetsuits. We learned from the staff at Kurumba that a few drops of baby shampoo in your mask prevents fogging and it worked better than all of the expensive drops we’ve purchased in the past.
We saw quite a few reef sharks, one large magnificent octopus, lion fish, butterflyfishes, damselfishes, parrotfishes, moray eels, and probably a good 50 or so other varieties of fish. We’re still trying to identify all of them using a the book “Reef Fishes of the Maldives” which we purchased (at an exorbitant price) while at Kurumba. The coral was also beautiful and mostly healthy although the coral is better in Fiji’s Yasawa Islands.
Another thing we appreciated about Kurumba is that they have a program to regenerate dying coral and form new reefs. We participated (perhaps to their dismay) in the program and explain it here.
St. John, the U.S. Virgin Islands
St. John is an easy ferry ride from St. Thomas (about 4 miles away) but a world away culturally. St. Thomas is full of cruise ships, stores, casinos, tourists and more tourists. St. John is much more laid back and natural thanks to the fact that 60% of its land is a national park (most of it donated by Laurence Rockefeller). Also, much of the island’s waters, coral reefs and shoreline are protected via their inclusion in the park which was expanded in 2001 when the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was created. In other words, it can’t get commercialized and ruined so that’s probably the only reason it hasn’t been!
When we look for snorkeling destinations our preference is for islands where you can snorkel from the shore rather than have to go out on a boat to a reef. It’s not only more convenient but also less expensive to be able to go from the beach.
We have stayed at Caneel Bay which has lovely off the beach snorkeling and the Westin St. John Resort and Villas which has a very nice man-made beach but no snorkeling. Caneel Bay has quite a few of the national park beaches on it and is lovely and family oriented. We tend to stay at the Westin because they have internet which Caneel Bay does not, and also because we can stay at the Westin for free using points!
Either property can get you a rental car which you will want for at least a few days to explore the island and sample the various reefs. But be forewarned – they do drive on the left! Also be forewarned that the people there are not nearly as nice and friendly as those in Fiji or the Maldives!
Another word of advice, really for all snorkeling destinations to be on the safe side, is to take water shoes to protect your feet from rocks, sea urchins or reefs. And never, ever, ever stand on or touch a reef as doing so kills that spot and it may never regenerate. And don’t forget that a wave can knock you into a reef so keep a safe distance away for the sake of you and the reef!
When we went to Anthony’s Key Resort (AKR) in Roatan it was a pain to get there but now there are flights directly to Roatan from Miami on American Airlines. Although this is a resort that was originally almost entirely dive focused they have found a lot of value in snorkelers and also offer wonderful dolphin encounters.
This is not a resort where you snorkel from the shore. However, twice a day a boat takes snorkelers out with a guide who shows you all of the amazing and gorgeous underwater goodies to be seen. The snorkel boat trips are included in the price you pay. We never once went out without being amazed by the diversity and abundance of coral and fish life. The guides have some sort of personal radar that allows them to find an eel that’s 6 feet under a rock you would never notice. As most people are there to dive, not snorkel, you will most likely not be snorkeling with a large group of people and we really liked that!
We also greatly enjoyed a dolphin encounter. A surprising and hilarious thing was when the dolphins pushed Brunette through the water using their snouts to propel her by her bare feet! That’s a trick their trainers use and Brunette didn’t know that, or that she was required to wear flippers; her bad but her fun too! BTW the dolphins aren’t captive. They’re in a huge netted area and at night the net is put down so they can swim wherever they’d like. But, like most people, they like to be where they get attention and food so they reappear on a reliable basis!
AKR is an all-inclusive resort which helps greatly when figuring out your budget. We recommend the bungalows on the island, not the mainland, but a good deal is a good deal so make your own choice!
Ambergris Caye, Belize, Honduras
Belize has hundreds of islands (cayes) and Ambergris is the largest and the Belize Barrier Reef runs the length of it. We stayed at Xanadu Island Resort and really enjoyed their eco-friendly luxury and the pleasant walk along the beach to get dinner in town each evening.
One thing to keep in mind for this destination is that you cannot snorkel very successfully from shore – on Ambergris Caye, not only the Xanadu property. This is because the reef is a ways out and also because they are mindful of not destroying the area by making beaches and destroying the natural seafront beach grasses. You need to go out on boat trips which are a lot of fun but add to your trip costs. We had a very fresh bit of fish ceviche on one of our trips as you can see below!
One of the many fun and perhaps idiotic things we did was to take a boat trip to snorkel in Shark-Ray Alley. You snorkel above Nurse Sharks and a lot of Stingrays and generally live to tell the tale and impress your friends.
Turquoise Bay Drift Snorkel, Ningaloo Reef, Australia
We went to Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth, on the northwest cape of Australia. A man we spoke with at a restaurant one night in Boston told us to go to Ningaloo Reef when we said we wanted to snorkel with whale sharks. That was enough for us to book our flights and we were glad we did!
The snorkeling with whale sharks was fabulous and we definitely recommend it but it’s costly and you have to choose your season carefully. But for snorkeling you can just grab your equipment and rental car and head out to Cape Range National Park. There are a number of lovely spots to snorkel from the shore in the park but our favorite, and where we saw a fabulous octopus up close, was Turquoise Bay Drift Snorkel. As the name implies you get in and drift along to the end on a current which we found to be gentle. They recommend you do it at low tide and don’t do it without a flotation vest if you aren’t a good or confident swimmer.
In Exmouth we stayed at the Novotel Ningaloo which was far and away the nicest hotel in the area at the time. However, we did find their restaurant to be considerably over-priced, have only mediocre food and dreadful service so we always drove into town for our meals.
If you are driving out of Cape Range National Park at dusk be very careful not to hit or be hit by the dozens of kangaroos leaping across the road!
Kura Kura Island Resort, Indonesia
This may very well be paradise! Friends suggested it to us and, once again, we were only too happy to jump on a plane and go halfway around the world to check out a good suggestion for snorkeling! The resort is reached by a small private plane then a sea boat all of which made us feel like Bond Girls even if no one else noticed the resemblance!
Admittedly it was a resort primarily inhabited by honeymooners and two American baby boomer women together seemed a bit out of place to probably everyone but us! There were several options for snorkeling. You could walk a path through the sea to some reefs (remember those water shoes!), they will take you out on their private boat (for no additional charge) or, and this was the best for us, you can go right from the pier where their boat is. You walk down a ladder into the water and almost literally cannot believe your eyes!. This was magnificent coral; the only better we have ever seen was in Fiji. The fish life was less fantastic but the coral was gorgeous and really inspirational in terms of getting across the importance of protecting reefs.
The resort has private villas with lovely private pools, a well-trained, friendly staff and an excellent chef. We never would have left if it hadn’t been for a minor thing known as money. Also, we enjoyed the fruit bat “serenade” at dusk every evening. They would get in the trees and screech like crazy for half an hour starting at 7:00. They were very reliable! We asked the extraordinarily Italian manager why the bats did that. In a perfect circle of cigarette smoke, he laconically said “they are either having a fight or making sex”. Good enough explanation for us!
The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
We had always wanted to go to The Galapagos and after a year and a half of family illnesses and death we decided that life is short and money should be spent on travel, so off we went! On the advice of a virtual stranger we booked our trip through Myths and Mountains. They specialize in small boat cruises (really the only kind there anyway) and top notch naturalists.
This was a trip for the fairly fit crowd (amusing to see us as part of that but somehow we were) as it involved two daily hikes and two daily snorkels. The Galapagos are literally like nowhere else on earth. They have different species, different topography, different fauna, you name it. We learned so much from the naturalists that it’s a shame that we retained virtually none of it but it made us feel very smart at the time!
Snorkeling in The Galapagos gave us yet another chance to snorkel over sharks (these seemed more menacing but farther below us than the ones in Belize) and many opportunities to have sea lions swim toward us at high-speed only to turn away inches from our face masks. Because the area has been so well protected environmentally the coral is beautiful and the reef life is like being in a fabulous animated 3-D film of fish swimming everywhere! We can’t resist a couple of pictures from here.
As you can probably tell by this point our enthusiasm for snorkeling is fairly extreme and we will go great distances to have a good experience.