Cozumel, April 20-30, 3 vacations in one

 Day 1, Friday, April 20 –

 As that music player in my brain plays the new Kenny Chesney song, “Beer in Mexico”, American Airlines’ daily commute touches down on the sun beat runway of my vacation home for the past dozen years.

 Ok, so I’m coming around to Mr. Chesney, at first I took him as just another Jimmy Buffett wanna-be, and as a life long Parrothead, there is a certain amount of pride to be upheld when it comes to this Caribbean/country/reggae/rock music/beach bum life style. It’s a lot work having this much fun!

 Besides, my wife won’t let me quit my job to become a traveling troubadour/beach bum, so I guess someone has to carry on the torch.

 But I digress, from the window of the plane I see the jungle has made some more recovery from hurricane Wilma, with the top 6-8’ of the trees still bare of any foliage for the most part, but the lower level plants are much thicker than they were just a short year ago.

 We make it through customs; go to the taxi window and by transfers to Caribe Blu, the small, wonderfully homey, diver’s hotel just a mile south of San Miguel.

 The taxis makes it’s way down the new 4 LANE! Airport road to Avenida Rafael Melgar, the beachfront road through the main ocean front tourist shops and restaurants, oh the restaurants, we’ll get to that later.

 If the hot sun doesn’t let you know you’re in Mexico, the colors will. First it’s the blooming bougainvillea, hibiscus and flowering trees along the airport road. Then there are splashes of brilliant primary colors, reds, greens, blues and yellows along with pinks and turquoises, on signs, t-shirts, trinkets, cars and boats all on a freshly painted white stucco background.

 Then it’s the smells, the unique smell of the ocean and the familiar smells of Mexican cuisine, and others, being prepared, grilled onions, garlic, chilies all enticing you to want more.

 This is just our second year at Caribe Blu after being long time residences of La Ceiba, recently bought by the El Cid hotel corporation and moving towards a time-share property, nonetheless, it already feels like coming home.

 Luckily our roof from last year was available, #206, the octopus room. For those who are not aware of C.B., each room has a nautical icon in mosaic stone, cut into the concrete floor. Turtle, sharks, fish…we have the octopus and a great night time photo of an octo on the wall.

 A little settling in, and semi-unpacking, we stopped by the dive shop to check in with Victor who greets us with a big smile and welcomes us back. We head upstairs to Rendez Blu, the hotel’s little restaurant on top of the dive shop for some lunch.

 The weather was just amazing, sunny, in the mid to upper 80’s, big fluffy clouds, a mild trade wind blowing in from the north to knock down any humidity there may be. Mild comfortable nights in the lower 70’s to open up the balcony door, shut the screen and let the soothing sounds of the ocean lull you to sleep.

 Taking advantage of the marvelous weather we walk the short mile to town to begin our regular first day routine. After stopping to take the elevator up to the new “Prima too!” restaurant to see it’s fantastic view of Coz, we head for Chedraui, the “Wal-Mart” of Cozumel to stock up on cervezas, water, snacks and breakfast bars for the surface intervals to help keep sea sickness away. It doesn’t always work, but keeping something on my stomach really helps.

 For dinner we went to our old buddy Mike Slaughter’s French Quarter. Mr. Mike had been busy all day at the golf tournament going on up the road so he wasn’t in attendance, but we would get to see him later in the trip.

 We sat at the bar and split a spinach salad, Cajun/Caribbean chicken tenders, sweet and spicy and mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat. A red wine for the pirate and a margarita for the lady to wet the pallet.

 This was actually going to be 3 vacations in one for us, the first weekend it would just be Lore and I, then on Monday through Friday, my fitness instructor buddy from the Tom Landry-Baylor fitness center in Dallas, Scott and his lovely wife Kim would be coming to town staying at the newly reopened and remodeled Park Royal, all-inclusive resort up the street.

 Then after they leave on Friday, it would be just the 2 of us again for the second weekend of the trip. It’s something different every year.

 Well, let’s get this thing rolling anyway!

 

 Day 2 ,  Saturday, April 21 –

 Saturday morning we woke up to the strains of tropical birds, boat motors and the occasional clanking of a scuba tank being loaded onto a boat for the day’s activities. Stepping out on the balcony I take note of the 2 cruise ships down at the still un-repaired International Pier. Along with the 3 construction cranes, one on the I.P. and 2 apparently doing something with the rubble that was once the Mayan Pier.

 A leisurely breakfast at Rendez Blu, splitting a continental breakfast and “diver’s special”, 2 eggs, potatoes & a pancake, juice and coffee, $12!!! With tip!! I love Mexico!

Time for the first dive of the trip, a shore dive to check out the newly re-built equipment and see how things are progressing on the reef out in front of and slightly to the south of Caribe Blue, know as Villa Blanca shallows.

 Not a whole lot has changed on the shallow reef from last May. The landscape is a sandy bottom from 25-35’, scattered with rubble of rock and dead coral for the most part. Some small live coral heads spot the landscape among the rock piles.

 It all sounds so baron and lifeless to describe, but get down there and poke around and you will find life…lots of it. Spotted eels, yellow stingrays, juvenile angels, nudes, blennies, peacock flounder, various crabs and bugs including our ever-present dive buddy, the arrow crab are all there. This is the place to find many juvenile fish that haven’t grown to the size of moving out with the big boys yet. I spied 2 beautiful juvie queen angels while I was out there.

 The small coral heads look better than they did last year, with new soft coral and sponge growth noticeable from last May. Sea fans are still few and far between and the search for the perfect flamingo tongue pic continues.

 Although we didn’t see, as many large fish as we usually do when we come a couple of weeks later in the year, there were thousands, probably millions, of tiny fry fish and very juvenile fish everywhere on the reefs both deep and shallow.

 It also seemed a little early for turtle season, I didn’t see any and reports of them were pretty sparse. I also didn’t see one shark on this trip, I had actually hoped to see a black tip, as reports of them have been surfacing more and more.

 The afternoon was spend soaking up rays and relaxing, ah the good life.

 Now I know what some of you die hard Coz’ers will say, but as I stated before, I’ve been a life long member of the Society of Head of the Parrot, I was a Parrothead before there were Parrothead! So a trip to the newly opened Margaritaville was mandatory.

 Then latest addition to Capt. Buffett’s restaurant chain is located just as you come into town form the south, in the location of the pre-Wilma “Acuario” a long time Cozumel favorite that was blown away by the hurricane.

 We had been to Margaritaville in Key West and were anxious to make a comparison. Note to self. When ordering margaritas at Margaritaville be VERY specific, I ordered “just regular margaritas on the rocks”, when the bill came we were charged $9 each for top shelf drinks, not what I asked for. Anyway, minor hick-up.

 Out front are Adirondack chairs painted with tropical themes and surfboard park benches, to sit on and people watch. Inside through the lighthouse entryway you pass thru the gift shop mostly to your right and into the bar, decked out in a scuba theme with it’s huge great white shark DJ booth, (“fins to the left!”), to the right and band stage to the left.

 The floors inside and out, as well as the outdoor tables are beautifully polished wood thick with lacquer to fend of the salt and weather. There is a large swim area roped off for the more rowdy hot days of the coming summer.

 Surprisingly the place was over half full of locals, the cruise ships had left for the day so the rowdy crowd had left and a quite dinner crowd was enjoying the mild evening.

 We ran into our old pal, Armando Alentado, photographer extraordinaire and owner/ operator of Island Photo–Video Center, located at El Cid La Ceiba. Armando and his lovely wife Holly have been my underwater photography teachers and mentors for several years.

 I hope I’m not letting the cat out of the bag, but Armando said he is going to close shop. “After 18 years, I’m done” he said. The shop will remain open for another year to year and an half from what I remember him saying. The place won’t be the same without them, I sure hope someone steps up to the plate and fills in their shoes. Wish it could be me!

 The food at Margaritaville Cozumel wasn’t as good as in Key West, where I had the best calamari I have ever! Cozumel’s version was of the larger ring variety that isn’t as tender as the smaller squid. The fish sandwich, bacon cheeseburger (in paradise), and French fries were very tasty and large enough that we could have just split one or the other of the 2 sandwiches.

 The kitchen oil seemed to be a little too hot and although the fried foods weren’t overcooked, the breading was too dark for proper presentation. The place had just been open for a few days so I’m sure the kitchen will fine tune things. The service was very good; our young waiter just learning the ropes did an excellent job, other than the drink mishap, which may not have been his bad.

 Oh well, got the new place out of the way, from here on out, it’s the old favorite haunts.

 

 Day 3 ,  Sunday – April 22 –

  No cruise ships on Sunday, seems like it has been that way ever since I’ve been coming here.  Cruise ships are another double-edged sword for me. On one hand, they over populate the place with folks doing the “cruise ship on-day landing, dazed shuffle”.

 Most of these people have never been to the destinations they are stopping at and do very little research about them. So when they arrive, they just go downtown, and walk up and down the Avenue Melgar trying not to make eye contact with any of the merchants, stopping at every restaurant deciding weather or not to spend money eating something “different” or just wait and go back to the ship and eat “what we’ve already paid for”. Ending up at Carlos’n’Charlies, because that’s where the cruise ship recommended.

 On the other hip, it all makes for great people watching, the ships make great backdrops for sunset photos and if things get too bad, you can always rent a jeep and escape to the Caribbean side of the island or take the ferry to Playa del Carmen and head out to a Mayan site.

 On Sundays the island returns to the sleepy, quiet little place us veterans remember. There is almost no traffic, there are less boats because the Fury catamaran doesn’t have all 4 or more sailboats running, there are less parasail boats, glass bottom boats and the booze cruises aren’t running. Downtown is slow except for the preparations in the square for the traditional Sunday “family night” of music and dancing.

   Sunday was also boat dive day one. We had opted to go out on the 10:00am larger boat “No Problem”; I think a former Blue Bubble Divers boat. I had not dove Paradise Reef in a few years, it seems no one wants to take “experienced divers” there anymore.

 No Problem is used mostly for a dive/snorkel combo trips for divers that have non-dive family members who want to go snorkeling or lay out on the boat while the others dive. The first dive is Palancar, probably Gardens, or Santa Rosa wall, which we did this day and Paradise for the second dive. With Toro as our DM/guide we headed for Santa Rosa wall.

 Santa Rosa wall is described in the “Cozumel Dive Guide & Log Book”, (which every Coz diver should own), as the “classic Cozumel wall dive”. And that it is.

 Dropping down over the sandy bottom and moving to the shelf drop-off I get my first look at the deep reef in a year. A lot of the sand deposits from Wilma had thinned out quite a bit and the corals and sponges greet you with an explosion of color.

 Again here, the fry fish and juveniles were everywhere, no so many large fish or even the angels I usually see. But drifting down the wall and through the swim-thrus, it’s still and awe inspiring site.

 Coming up from the last swim-thru you go from 60+ feet to 40 feet or so and my old nemesis reverse blockage showed up throwing my equilibrium off a little and by the time I was through the safety stop and back on the boat I was feeling sea sick.

 By the time the surface interval was done, so was I. The whole reason I took this dive was to guarantee that I get to dive Paradise and now I was sea sick and unable to make the dive. Sometimes when I get sea sick I will make the second dive and getting back into the water makes it go away, but on this day I was way beyond trying to suite back up for the second dive. Oh well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, Lore made the dive and gave me a great report that the reef looked good and was full of life as usual, that’s all I really needed to hear.

 The rest of the afternoon was spent lying by the pool trying to recover.

 After recovering to about 75% we decided there could only be one thing that could fix me up…Casa Denis.

 Casa Denis has been around since the 40’s and is Cozumel’s oldest restaurant. Just off the square this little sidewalk restaurant is a favorite of many a long time Cozumel visitor. I realized sitting there that in all these years; I have never actually been inside the place. I had the Mexican plate and lore had her favorite spinach cream soup, shrimp ceviche (cocktail) & a cheese enchilada that they made with Verde sauce rather than the usual chili sauce, simply awesome! Oh and 2 mango margaritas, including one to go for dessert. The waiter said they were the best on the island, I believe it.

 

 Day 4, Monday – April 23 –

  Monday morning we got up and took advantage of the great weather, and the new wide, flat sidewalks along Ave. Melgar and went for a jog. Heading south we made our way to the gates of the International Pier, turned around and headed back north to town, past Caribe Blu and on up to Servi Playa, the small convenience/liquor store by the soccer field just on the south end of town. We needed some refreshments for the room, so we stopped in and stocked up. Lore decided to jog back to the hotel while I took the groceries back in a cab.

 After that, a late breakfast at Rendez Blu and some more pool time.

 Our friends Scott and Kim were due in on Monday, so after a couple of attempts to contact them by phone we decided to walk down to the Park Royal and see if we could find them. We got lucky and just happed to catch Kim within sight on the beach of the newly opened all-inclusive compound.

We got caught up and made plans to get together the next day. By this time it was late afternoon and we got cleaned up for dinner at Guito’s.

 Guito’s is by far one of our top restaurants on Coz, Italian fare, with some of the best pizza I’ve ever had, and I know my pizza. We split the salad special, spinach salad with Gorgonzola cheese, carameled pecans and light vinaigrette. Seafood pasta for her and prosciutto pizza for me.

 

  Day 5, Tuesday – April 24-

  Tuesday morning we got up and walked down to Rock’n’Java for breakfast. Another long-time favorite. This is one place where you can eat healthy if you choose to do so. Whole-wheat pancakes and whole-wheat tortillas are things we can’t even find on menus back in the States. The owner Lisa is known for her desserts, and the girl can bake, just stop in for dessert if nothing else.

 Lore went the healthy breakfast route with poached eggs on a bed of spinach over wheat toast, I on the other hand, went the other direction completely with the Cowboy breakfast, basically biscuits and gravy with scrambled eggs and bacon over the biscuits before the gravy is slathered on…hey you gotta go off the chart every now and then!

 After breakfast we headed to Less-Pay car rental and secured a jeep for the rest of the period that Kim and Scott would be on island. Checked back in with them, and headed back to the hotel for some pool time and an afternoon shore dive.

 Lore opted to sit the shore dive out and I went out with a newly certified diver named Jason from La Crosse, Wisconsin. He and his girlfriend, Angel, were staying over on the Mayan Riviera, the Yucatan Peninsula’s coastline south of Cancun, and they had come over to the island for the past couple of days to finish his checkout dives with Blue Angel.

 The shore dive was pretty much the same as the first one except that after a dozen years of diving Cozumel, I finally got to see my first sharp tail eel. He was just sitting on the sand as I drifted by. I took one pic and it was too hot with the flash against the white sand. He started swimming towards me, I had been facing into the current holding myself in place by fanning my fins so I just stopped kicking and floated backwards with this little eel just a couple of inches in front of me. I adjusted by strobe and took another shot, still a little to hot.

 Then, the eel suddenly dove head first up to about 1/3 of his body into a hole of some sort and was getting after something. Cool! This is better than Wild Kingdom! ( I know, showing my age) I took a couple of more shots of him feeding and waited a little while to see if he would come out of the hole but he was feasting away so we moved on.

 On the way back we moved out into the turtle grass to look for sea horses, but to no avail, no big problem the sharp tail eel was worth the tank of air alone.

 I had just purchased a safety sausage and wanted to try it out. I had taken a short piece of pvc and wrapped nylon cord around it for a drop cord for the sausage. Well that design didn’t work out so well. Not realizing it would take 3 hands to do the procedure and I only really had one and half with the camera along.

 The pvc got away from me and the cord wrapped around my legs, not enough to disable me, but enough to see this wouldn’t work. I surfaced and gathered up as much of the cord as possible and made a surface swim to the shore as Jason swam along underwater.

 Getting close to shore I submerged and did the second miscalculation of the day, swimming up to the small access beach at Blue Angel, there are several large boulders that make 2 “canyons” if you will to swim through to get to the beach.

 Well, actually one of them will take you where you want to go, I took the other one and ended up along the seawall being battered by the incoming surf, while the band new diver did exactly what I should have done. No harm, no foul, I got out of the water without a scrape and logged the experience for future reference.

 That evening we tried to get with our friends, but their dinner was taking forever at one of the “fancy” restaurants at Park Royal. We told them we were going to Ernesto’s across the street and to come over when they finish.

 Well it was already about 8:40 and Ernesto’s usually closes at 9:00 but it was a slow evening and he had already started to clean the grille, so we decided since tomorrow was a dive day we would just grab a pizza and salad from Guito’s, (yes again), and make a night of it.

 

 Day 6, Wednesday, April 25 –

  Boat dive day 2 - after the seasick episode, we thought maybe the fast boat was a better idea, so we headed out at 8:30 for the reefs once again. This time as part of our group we had from the Scubaboard with us “Underachiever”, Randy and his wife Angie from Florida along for the ride and Matt (Mateo), as our DM, the Chicago transplant is a super nice guy and a heck of a dive instructor.

 Today we would do the Columbia’s, Deep and Shallow. First up, Columbia Deep, of course. This dive is truly a classic wall dive, with tall pinnacles, swim-thrus deep crevices for critter to hide in and that amazing drop off into the abyss.

 Again, just an explosion of color, there are some really big sponges here, some over 3’ across as well as some large branch coral species. We saw a couple good-sized grouper and more Angels than we had up to this point. Tube fans and blennies can be found here also, I do pretty good shooting the fans, but those darn blennies just won’t cooperate.

 After a leisurely trolling motor speed surface interval, it was time for one of my favorite shallow dives, Columbia Shallows. As DM Matt says, “If you want to go deeper than 30’ here, you better bring a shovel.”

 Columbia Shallows sits on a sandy bottom, dotted with coral heads from the size of beach ball to the size of a small apartment. I could dive this all day, there is so much to see and poke around in. Schools of grunts congregate around and among the larger heads. Eels, blennies, yellow stingrays & skates as well as their cousin the nurse shark can be found here. Christmas tree worms are everywhere sticking up out of their coral homes waiting for someone to sneak up on and try and shoot a picture before they suck back up into their tubes.

 We were down for over an hour when thirst, fatigue and chill set in and we surfaced to look for our ride, the Chiquimax.

 By the time we got back to the dock I was feeling a little punk again, nothing like the first day though, so after rinsing the equipment and a light lunch at Rendez Blu, it was time for a nap by the pool.

 We called Scott and Kim and picked them up to go to Playa Corona, the little day beach just up the old beach road from hotel Fiesta Americana and Chankanaab Park.

 Corona has a special place in our hearts, our fist time to Cozumel we stayed at the Sol Caribe, now the Park Royal. The place was over half closed for renovations and the “all-inclusive” buffets were just terrible, and we are not picky eaters by any means. For dinner they would have unidentifiable meat in a greasy sauce and for breakfast they were serving canned fruit! In Mexico! Canned fruit! Even the “fancy” reservations only restaurant wasn’t very good.

 So desperate for good food and decent beach, we jumped in a cab and asked the cabbie “where do we go for a day at the beach”, “Playa Corona” he answered, “let’s go” I replied.

 When we go there it was dead, just a couple of local families and us. We had a blast, sunning, snorkeling and eating some good Mexican food. So it is a place we always come back to.

   Before hurricane Wilma, Corona was starting to be a happening place they had added onto the building & put in a dive shop. Post Wilma hasn’t been so good to the old place. They haven’t rebuilt the pier so no dive boats can stop during surface intervals anymore and I think with the new highway, people are just overlooking it.

 Unfortunately, they had already shut the kitchen down for the day because of lack of business. Man! I hate to see that. We ordered a round of cervezas and chips and salsa and enjoyed the day.

 We dropped the kids off at their hotel for dinner and headed to ours to get cleaned up for our evening meal.

 Well sir, after a day like that, there’s only one thing to do…eat! With Corona being closed I was starving! Off to Espacias for dinner.

 Espacias is owned by one of the son’s of the owner of Casa Denis and Adrian wasn’t in which is too bad because he is a wonderful host and a really nice guy. We did just happen to see my friend masseuse extraordinaire Sally Hurwitch, “Coz Sally” from the Scubaboard, walking down the street. I had been having a hard time picking up the phone to call her for an appointment, go figure, I’m on vacation, so I set up an appointment for Saturday at 4:00p.m.

 Having the business part of the meal out of the way it was time for steamed grouper with veggies and those wonderful South American spices in a foil pouch, I’ve seen them use banana leaves here also. Man, it was so good, flaky white fish, moist and flavorful. A mix of vegetables seasoned and steamed to perfection. The wife had Thai shrimp, which from the momentary silence, other then the occasional “mmmm”, I assume it was pretty good.

 We jumped in the jeep and headed down to Park Royal to pick up Kim and Scott to go to town for drinks and to hang out.

 Casa Denis mango margaritas were calling again, so we answered the call. For some reason this is were things got out of hand.

 Well, not totally, but a little off the chain. Shortly after ordering our first drink, one of the local “mariachi” guys stopped by the table. Now, this guy is not your regular traditional mariachi playing the usual Mexican folk songs, no sir, he’s a little…different.

 “Tina”, I have no idea, don’t ask; as he said he is called plays more classic rock music with a wild and fun presentation. I don’t think most folks know how to take him because he “acts” a little crazy. Yeah, crazy like a fox.

 He played “Hotel California” at my wife’s request and asked for more requests and started naming of bands he played music by. When he got to Pink Floyd, Scott and I piped in with a “Floyd” unison chant.

 I don’t know what I was expecting, but the melodic melody of “Wish you were here” comes flowing off the strings of his Washburn. Every note in place, really, really nice!

 He ended up sitting at our table playing and b.s.ing and the next thing I know he’s handing me the guitar and saying he’ll be right back. Now, I haven’t played in several months, and my brain goes completely dead trying to open up the file that has all those songs I USED to know. I’m not much more than a chord player anyway so after banging out a few partial songs I finally gave my new friend back his guitar and sat there trying to steal anything I could.

 At one point, we bought him a drink and the waiters brought out the biggest shot glass of tequila I’ve ever seen. It was at least 4” tall and shaped like the tall skinny shot glasses you usually do tequila shots in, notice I said ‘you’ not I, tequila is for sipping, not shooting. Anyway he put it down in about 2 ½ drinks, and had another one less than 15 minutes later. It hurts my head just to think about it.

 The wait staff is having a hay day, laughing a joking around with all of us and gives me a “tip” of a fake $5 bill with the owner of Casa Denis’s picture on it for my musical talents.

 

Day 7, Thursday, April 26 –

 One of my favorite things about going to Cozumel is driving around the island and having a long leisurely lunch at Coconut’s. Today was that day.

 We picked up Kim and Scott up around 11:30 and pointed the jeep south. Since last year the new highway has been extended all the way down to Punta Sur, nice smooth blacktop all the way. We chose to take the “old road” which is actually partially new it’s self because Wilma washed it out in places.

 I prefer driving this road because it follows the beach and you can drive slow and check out the haciendas, condos and hotels along the way.

 The old beach road eventually turns inland and becomes a frontage road to the new highway at the Reef Club resort, so we continued south to the entrance of the road to Cedral, the “first city of Cozumel”. This usually very quiet 100-year-old village comes alive the first week of May for the annual Fiesta de Cedral to celebrate the town’s birthday.

 The official party started on Monday the 1st, but things were shaking already. There was to be a parade in the afternoon and bullfight with 2 horseback matadors from Spain to bullfight at 4:00p.m.

 The place was all abuzz with people make ready for the celebrations, dancers in traditional garb, vendors setting up stalls with everything from t-shirts and the usual tourist trinkets to fine art and hand crafted clothing.

 By this time we were all getting hungry and that meant one thing, Coconuts! So back to the jeep and south we go with a brief stop to see our old pal “Tree”, the massive Ceiba tree just about a mile or so north of Punta Sur. The Mayan people, they used the Ceiba as the blueprint if you will for the symbol of their civilization, the “tree of life”. Looking at this one you can see how the native people of this land marveled it upon.

 The story of the naming of the tree, “Tree”, is cute little tale of locals and gringos crossing paths, better told by my buddy Gordon Gunn, ggunn to Scubaboarders, it’s his mother’s story, and he would do it much better justice than I. If you make a search on the Scubaboard.com on the Cozumel forum, I’m pretty sure Gordon has told the tail once or twice there.

 ‘Tree’ has to be hundreds of years old, has seen the Mayan civilization, Christopher Columbus, the Pirates of the Caribbean and thousands of divers and tourists pass by him in his day. Not to mention who knows how many hurricanes and tropical depressions and he still stands tall and proud.  Now situated between the old highway and the new you can get a full 360-degree view of him without having to battle snakes and lizards to do it.

 He looks great; Wilma did little more than give him a nice pruning. Oh sure, the cable that was blown through the almost 48” diameter trunk is still sticking out of it, but the old guy looks amazingly healthy.

 Today was pretty windy already so turning the corner at Punta Sur wasn’t the usual sudden rush of wind we normally encounter once we escape the protection of the Channel of Cozumel and hit the open Caribbean Sea. Nonetheless, the slight change in temperature is noticeable. The stiff breeze over the water, cools the air ever so slightly.

 On those days later in the summer when temps are high, and wind is hard to come by on the hotel zone, a drive to Cozumel’s “other” side can be a great escape indeed.  Those are the days when you can really feel the change in temperature and welcome the occasional spray of salt water caught up in a sudden gust of wind.

 We parked the jeep at the foot of the hill of Coconuts. Coconuts sits on top of a bluff over looking the ocean. A large, open air palapa surrounded by palms with a circular bar painted with the Dos Equis beer logo in the middle, a small kitchen to the rear and a separate bano, (bathroom) just to the north.

 Coconuts is not only known for their view, but the margaritas are legendary and so are the “family pictures”, maybe a couple of dozen photo albums with partiers, mostly of the female persuasion, who have chosen to give up the upper half of their clothing to add to the collection of t-shirts, bikini tops and bras stapled to the ceiling.

 The place was packed! We must usually hit it on a slow day, or someone has let the cat out of the bag. Randy and Angie, S.B.’s “Underachiever” and wife, were there, they had been driving the island the opposite direction than us and were just about to leave so we gladly occupied their table.

 The afore mentioned cocktails were as they have always been, potent and delicious. The wife and I split chicken fajitas and our friends had beef nachos; guacamole, chips and salsa for all.

 Hurricane Emily, Wilma’s smaller yet no less destructive sister from July of 2005 wiped out Coconuts and most everything north of there including the road. Now, not only had the old road been repaired, but the new highway also starts again at Coconuts and runs perpendicular to the old road up to Mescalitos, the other long time favorite of Cozumel regulars. The little beachfront bar surrounded by gift shops with colorful signs reading “almost free” and “Mexican Target”, I love the sense of humor these folks have.

 Turning left at Mescalitos and heading back to San Miguel on the “Trans Island Highway” was the biggest surprise of the trip so far. The little, narrow 2 lane jungle lined road has been replaced by a 4 lane highway of shiny new block top. Maybe this is the reason for the larger crowds at Coconut’s…accessibility.

 After cruising the northern hotel zone and seeing the new monuments at the park at that end of town, it was getting late in the afternoon and we dropped them off at Park Royal and we headed home to get ready for diner at “Mission on 30th”, as it is known.

 There are 3 restaurants known as the Mission on the island so you have to be very specific about where you are going. There is La Mission “downtown” in the tourist district, Casa Mission, which I’ve never been to and the Mission on 30th, which really has a word that starts with a ‘P’ in front of the word Mission in it’s name, but I can never remember it. Everyone knows it as the Mission on 30th anyway so just tell the cabbie that and you’ll get there.

 The food is authentic Mexican cuisine, and absolutely wonderful. I had to have the Mexican combination and Lore answered the same call. An amazing array of traditional Mexican dishes, a chicken mole enchilada, taco, chili rejano, tostada, rice, black bean frijoles and fried plantains, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.

 Scott and Kim opted for the special of grilled grouper served with baked potato and veggies. Raves of approval all around.

 

 Day 8, Friday – April 27 –

   After stopping by the airport to see Scott and Kim off, we headed to the Museum for breakfast. This is another long-time favorite that goes way back to the Sol Caribe trip.

 We each get and “Energetic”, a large bowl of fruit served with granola, yogurt and honey. So healthy you feel the nutrients flowing through your body. To balance that all of we split a ham and cheese croissant sandwich and wash it all down with a orange and carrot juice mix and delicious coffee.

 The plan was to go back to the hotel, get some sun and do another shore dive or maybe a night dive. Neither happened as a lazy, relaxing day just slipped away. A very late lunch / early dinner at Rendez Blu of chicken fajitas and bean and cheese burritos and a couple of margaritas sealed the deal and the relaxation continued into the evening.

 

 Day 9, Saturday – April 28 –

  Back to the diving, we probably should have squeezed in another boat dive earlier in the week, but time flies when you’re having fun as they say.

 Today it was back on our old horse the Chiquimax with DM, Jose and off to Palancar Caves for the first dive.

 There aren’t really caves here, but a spectacular series of arches, overhangs, swim-thrus and crevices, on a steep wall that drops off to the deep blue. Again, large sponges and coral formations of all shapes and colors can be found here, as well as the usual suspects, grouper, angels, schools of grunts and jacks. Jose found a small orange Nudibrach, a small worm-like creature. I could barely see it with my 40+-year-old eyes so I just put the camera in macro and stuck it down there and shot. I should have gotten a little closer, but it did come out better than my naked eye could see it.

 After the required surface interval it was time for another favorite second dive, really, aren’t they all. Punta Delila, or just Delila to most, named after the Delila Ranch located on-shore nearby.

 This is one of dives last year after Wilma that kind of gave you a bit of sick feeling. Broken coral and sand deposits littered the once pristine reef. Wow! What a difference a year makes. Still remnants of the hurricane, but they were easily overlooked for beautiful coral garden that has emerged from the ashes, so to speak.

 A lot of the sand has been blow off the coral by the prevailing currents and new growth is taking over.  It was one of the most active reefs we dove other than Columbia Shallows. Parrot fish, damsels, angels, tube critters, a couple of large grouper hanging out under a ledge and the only barracuda I saw on the trip.

 Jose found a sea dragon in some seaweed and I ran across a large crab, a ½-grown drum and couple of blennies that, again, just wouldn’t cooperate for the lens.

 During safety stops I don’t just like to scan the bottom to see what I’m missing down there at 45’ when I’m at 15, but I like to actually look at the water. Last year the water was full of plankton, minute jellies, larvae of things and all kinds of creatures were floating about.

 That was last mid-May, here in late April the plankton bloom had not yet begun, I didn’t see much except for a lone jelly fish. This is one of the ones with the typical jellyfish shape, mushroomed dome top, flat, squiggly primary tentacles and long skinny secondary ones, not the usual thimble jellies that will be showing up in the next couple of weeks.

 I floated along with it and tried to take some photos at the same time trying to avoid being caught up in the long, violet, almost invisible tentacles. I’ve had that experience a couple of times and don’t want it again.

 Rinse equipment, a quick lunch at Rendez Blu, and a little relax time and it was time for me to head off to Sally’s for my massage.

 I first experienced the amazing hands and feet of Sally Hurwitch last year and can’t for the life of me figure out what took me so long to secure her services. I have a tendency to get very tight in the upper back and neck from working out and sitting at a desk drawing on the computer all day. And lugging around luggage, (wonder if that’s how it got it’s name), and scuba equipment doesn’t help the situation.

 Sally specializes in Ashiatsu, Reiki and Swedish Massages. I don’t really know what all that means but I do know an hour with her and I’m a new man. The stiffness in the neck and back and those kinks that I’ve been trying to stretch out and can’t quite get to, are gone and walking on a cloud.

   I don’t know what was our problem on this trip, but we probably ate more pizza than we have in 6 months! This night it was Caesar’s salad and veggie pizza from Prima’s the second story Italian restaurant just off the square. A long time Cozumel favorite, seafood lasagna is one of their specialties and I usually end up with backend grouper.

 

 Day 10, Sunday – April 29 –

 The last full day on the island, but let’s not try and think of that.

 This morning our ride was Jibara; one of the fast boats and our DM was Lucio who we made a special request to dive San Francisco if no one else on the boat had objections.

 Vote taken, San Francisco it was, but first, Palancar Gardens.

 Of the four Palancar dives, starting in the south, Bricks, Caves, Horseshoe and finally Gardens is the most northern of the four.

 Much like Caves, Gardens is made up of crevices, channels and small swim-thus cut through the reef with lots of places for critters to hide out in. Floating over it I just couldn’t help but think that this really was a sea garden.

 Lucio threw me a curve ball as he dropped down over the edge of the shelf; he turned left…south…currents usually run northward here. To day there was almost no current so he took us south for a ways and swam around a pinnacle, thru a small swim-thru and back north we headed, great navigational skills.

   I spied lobster, little peppermint stripped shrimp, another ½-grown drum, a spiny sea cucumber and what appeared to be an octopuses garden on the safety stop. I would have loved to have found it when I was still on the bottom and seen if I could find the octopus in it’s lair under one of the three coral heads surrounding the lobster and crab carcasses.

 No seasickness today, I love boats, but they don’t always agree with me, today and Saturday were two of those days when being on the ocean was just pure pleasure. As the captain took the boat to the shallows close to shore and put into a tolling speed, we lazily chugged along the turquoise blue water. I sat on the rail of the boat and dangled a bootie-clad foot into the water and enjoyed the day.

 San Francisco is a “shallow” wall dive if you will. It does drop off to the abyss, and could easily be deep wall dive, but the real action is higher up at 50’.

 We drop down as always to a sandy bottom watching our gauges to keep at the 50’ish mark, for maximum bottom time. The current gently blows us over the sand to the edge of the coral wall looming ahead.

   The reef greets us with schools of fish milling about, a school of yellow fin swim over the edge of the wall below us as we start our exploration of the reef. I find a small needle nosed fish backed into a hole in the sand and take a couple of shots. Another large grouper hangs in ambush under a shelf, I look for the large green moray that lives on this reef, I had taken one of my favorite underwater pictures here of him a couple years back, but this must not have been his hangout, although I did find a small green spotted cousin of his.

 Lucio finds another dragon fish and Lore finds a huge crab. Red hinds, parrotfish, damsels, filefish, Blue Chromis, angels, triggers and schools of grunts are everywhere to be seen.

 The biggest treat of the day however was not one but three bearded toadfish! This is the “to see” fish of Cozumel, because it is found nowhere else in the world. Ranging from 9-12 inches, this funky little blue and black horizontally striped fish with it’s yellow lined fins and trademark “bearded” face is usually found in a small crevice that looks like a cave about 5” in diameter with it’s face almost out of the light.

 Why is it the best dive of the trip is always the last one and just leaves you jonesing for more? That’s part of the fun of diving, I guess, remembering the last one and looking forward to the next one. Which for me will be in a 12,000-gallon fresh water tank at the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park, surrounded by Amazonian natives rather than Caribbean natives. Which has it’s own rewards.

 After giving the equipment a thorough rinsing and setting it out on the balcony to dry, it was time for a little “otherside” time again.

 We pack a cooler and point the jeep south taking the old highway all the way to Punta Sur. The new highway was nearly a traffic jam at the entry to the town of Cedral with locals and tourists headed down for the day’s activities.

 We stopped and marveled at ‘Tree’ for a few minutes to pay our respects and continued around the island to Coconuts. Fish tacos for me and shrimp quesadillas for her, margaritas to wash it down.

 Heading north we stop at what used to be one of the little restaurant/bar/tourist shops along the way. Punta Morena is the “surf beach” of Cozumel. I have actually seen some very respectable sets roll in there and where there are waves…there are surfers. Surfers and divers have much in common, the “build it and they will come” mentality runs deep.

 One of the hurricanes, I imagine Emily, really did a number on this place. Two stone buildings have just one full wall and partial sidewalls left, with palm trees just snapped off 2/3 up the trunk. Somehow the three long boards that make up the Punta Morena sign either survived the storm or were saved and replanted on the little hill by the road.

 We continued our way back to San Miguel and stopped to enjoy the sunset by the scuba statue on the shoreline of Ave. Melgar.

 This was our last night so a good meal was in order; we had not been to so many of our favorites, Sonora Grille, Poncho’s Backyard, Ernesto’s, I need at least another couple weeks here!

 The French Quarter sounded good, so that’s where we headed. Mike was off the golf course, but still entertaining the golfing crowd in the open-air bar downstairs. He greeted us with a warm welcome and invited us upstairs to the dining room.

 Red wine and complementary hushpuppies for appetizers, we split a salad and Lore had the Shrimp Miguel, sautéed Shrimp in a write cream sauce over pasta and I had the house specialty, perfectly spice rubbed, slow roasted and tender short ribs. A full rack of pork ribs in a, what I would call Memphis style sweet vinegar based sauce. Backed with garlic mashed potatoes and veggies, what a way to go!

 Decadent chocolate cake and coffee for dessert and Frangelico, the hazelnut liquor in the Franciscan monk bottle, to settle it all down.

 

 Day 11, Monday, April 30 – they make us go home...

Well all-good things must come to an end, why is that? And why do they have to come to an end?

   Since we have been flying American Airlines rather than one of the charters, we have been having a good portion of our last day on the island before heading home.

 The flight leaves around 2:00pm, so we have devised a schedule to stretch the vacation as long as possible.

 We get up and finish packing, go down to the dive shop and settle up with Victor at Blue Angel, vowing to get back as soon as possible. Check out of the hotel and go to the airport at least 3 hours before flight time.

 We check our bags, usually timing it so we are between the lines of people trying to get home. This time we mis-timed it a little and had to stand in line about a half an hour.

 Anyway, we still have the jeep so we jump in it and head off to have a nice lunch at a good restaurant rather than hanging around the airport and eating that food.

 This trip it’s back to Guito’s for, yes, more pizza and salad, this time accompanied by a half pitcher of sangria, “whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh I love Sangria Wine” (Jerry Jeff reference for ‘ya there).

 We take our time enjoying the sunny day and watching the pod people do “the shuffle”.

 With just a little over 40 minutes until our plane leaves we head up to Less-Pay and settle up on the jeep and jump in a cab for the airport. Nostalgia is setting in already and I haven’t even boarded the plane.

 I already can’t wait to get back.

 

 Epilog –

 Overall the reefs were very impressive, well on the way to recovery from the last couple year’s onslaught. Water temperatures were near 80 and visibility was nearly unlimited at times. Currents were very mild to almost none on all dives. The abundance of large fish on the deeper reefs weren’t as apparent as they are usually in May, but if you look for it, you can find life everywhere. The reef changes daily and even by the hour, that’s the fun of diving, you can dive the same site day in and day out, and if your are the observant diver, you will never get bored, because it’s never the same.

 Absent from this trip for me were sharks, sting and eagle rays and turtles, but seeing the sharp tailed eel feeding, observing the jelly fish on the safety stop and seeing three bearded toadfish on one dive help to ease the pain.

 And as I sit here with Lowell George and his Little Feat dancing around in my head, tolerating yet another rainy day, it has rained in Dallas every day for the past week and an half since we’ve been back. I’m plotting and scheming a way to get back “home” before another year passes by.