COZUMEL, Mexico -- Every week, four or more cruise ships from Houston
and Galveston arrive here, allowing thousands of Texans their first
taste of this tropical island's hospitality.
But only a taste.
The masses crowd onto snorkeling boats, take off on a Jeep safari or
party away the day. All too soon, they're sailing into the sunset.
To fully appreciate the appeal of this island off the Yucatán
Peninsula, you need an extended stay and a slower pace, both of which
are easily arranged. Nonstop flights from Houston take only about two
hours, and while you won't find a "hotel row" of high-rise
developments reminiscent of Cancún, island resorts -- among them
several sprawling all-inclusives -- make a convenient and affordable
base for exploration, or destinations in themselves.
Don't leave the kids at home, either. Cozumel, long a favorite of
scuba divers and snorkelers and a popular honeymoon retreat, has
emerged as one of Mexico's most family-friendly playgrounds.
Activities abound for adults and teens. And the largest resorts offer
extensive programs that keep young children entertained.
"Cozumel is very laid-back and also extremely safe, with a fairly high
standard of living," said Gabriela Eisele, marketing director for the
Presidente InterContinental Cozumel Resort, the island's first AAA
four-diamond lodging. "It's a place with roots, not like Cancún, which
was artificially created for tourism. You still see the local people
dressed up on Sunday and sitting around the plaza visiting as
Part of Cozumel's charm is that while there is no reason for any
visitor to be bored, it's easy enough to manage a quiet escape, even
on midweek days when passengers from a dozen cruise ships overwhelm
the main tourist attractions. The island's east coast is largely
Aside from the cruise-ship influx, no rampant development is on the
horizon. "We hope to attract more flights from the U.S., and we would
like to see the island grow in terms of available rooms (from about
4,000 lodging units), but it has to be controlled growth," said Eisele,
previously an executive with Cozumel's tourism bureau. "There is only
so much water supply, only so much power supply. We are an island."
Most large resorts are scattered along the island's west coast, a 10-
to 20-minute drive south from San Miguel, Cozumel's only town. Routine
amenities include a beach, multiple pools and restaurants, lots of
optional activities, and air conditioning. Some guests never leave
Mirroring Playa del Carmen on the mainland, the trend is toward more
all-inclusive properties that package lodging, dining and activities
under one price, with an emphasis on watersports (kayaking,
windsurfing, sailing and snorkeling) and tennis. The tariff also
covers unlimited beverages (yes, this means booze, beer and wine).
While all-inclusives share a format, each features individual styling.
Opened only 19 months ago and striking in its colorful design, the
Occidental Grand Cozumel has 252 rooms in 11 colonial-style low-rises.
The 4-year-old Iberostar Cozumel's 300 rooms are in one- and two-story
bungalows surrounded by gardens, with hammocks on terraces or
balconies. The 6-year-old Reef Club's 306 rooms are in two- and
three-story Caribbean-style villas.
A check last week found standard room rates for June in the $150-$250
range, a bargain considering meals are included. (Tip: In inquiring
about rates, ascertain whether they're per room or per person.).
These resorts operate kids clubs, too, as do the upscale Presidente
Intercontinental and Fiesta Americana, which price lodging and dining
separately in a more traditional "European plan" format. Typical
offerings for ages 4-12 range from Spanish classes to beach
volleyball. At some resorts, a separate pool is reserved for kids.
Portions of the world's second-largest barrier reef are just a short
boat ride from the main hotel zone, and scuba divers and snorkelers
treasure waters where visibility can reach 200 feet.
Some resorts offer free or inexpensive snorkeling and diving lessons,
but tank diving carries an additional charge unless it's part of a
package. The Reef Club's seven-night dive packages start at $825 per
person and include two tank dives. Several smaller hotels, including
Casa Del Mar, Hacienda San Miguel and Casa Mexicana, also combine
accommodations with diving. The Scuba Club Cozumel, a resort one mile
south of downtown, caters specifically to divers.
The Web site www.islacozumel.com.mx
lists more than 20 dive operators
and dive shops. Equipment rentals are available. The price depends on
the amount of time you want to spend and the guidance you need. (It's
wise to inquire about the safety record and experience of any dive
Pause for a spell on Cozumel to savor a
sandy beach or marvel at pink flamingos.
Atlantis Adventures schedules underwater tours in a submarine ($79)
for those who don't care to get wet. Glass-bottom boat rides usually
offer a choice: Stay on board or snorkel.
(pictured at left) is a marine and ecological park near the largest
hotels. Visitors can rent scuba gear and snorkeling equipment.
including children ages 8 and older, are eligible for Chankanaab's Sea
Trek program, in which participants don helmets and walk along the
The park's dolphin-encounter programs also are popular with kids and
adults. Accomplished swimmers can snorkel with dolphins in a protected
environment. Educational programs are designed for young children.
About 15 dolphins are cared for as part of the park's marine outreach.
The park entrance fee is $10. Dolphin encounters and Sea Trek programs
Other outdoor adventures on the 300-square-mile island include
deep-sea fishing, parasailing, horseback riding and golfing at the
Cozumel Country Club, designed around dense jungle and inland lagoons.
The Punta Sur ecological reserve, at the island's southern tip, can be
explored by electric bike.
Beach clubs on the island's west coast -- the largest are Mr. Sancho's
and Playa Sol -- provide free access to sand and surf, as well as
plenty of opportunities to invest money in food, beverages,
water-sport activities, horseback riding and ATV rentals.
· Mayans revered the island as a religious retreat, and the ruins of
San Gervasio, a sacred center of Mayan culture, include four distinct
historical districts. The entrance fee is $5.50.
· The Museum of the Island of Cozumel puts the region's history in
perspective. Admission is $3.
· Shopping, you asked? And dining? San Miguel is the hub. You'll find
traditional Mexican crafts, pottery, clothing and cuisine.
International goods and food also are plentiful.
Just one suggestion: Wait until those thousands of cruise passengers
have sailed away. Then you'll have the town -- indeed the entire
island -- almost to yourself.