About Cozumel
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Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

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 families."

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 undeveloped.

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 their hotels.

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 operator.)

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.

Chankanaab Beach (pictured at left) is a marine and ecological park near the largest hotels. Visitors can rent scuba gear and snorkeling equipment.

Nonswimmers, including children ages 8 and older, are eligible for Chankanaab's Sea Trek program, in which participants don helmets and walk along the ocean floor.

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 cost extra.

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.

Other attractions:

· 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.

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