NO DOUBT EVERYONE has their own version of this story to tell – the saga of the day you arrive at your long-awaited diving resort… and your heart sinks.
The time it happened to us was when we arrived at reception at a hotel in a country a few hours east of the Red Sea after an overnight flight – only to be totally ignored by the staff.
Curious. We waited, we tried to get attention, we were as polite as polite, we were ignored. Eventually, we were told that there were no rooms.
Sorry? We have a reservation. Still, we were ignored.
We found the dive-centre. Knowing that we would be landing at 5.30am, we had paid for the room for the previous night to be sure that it would be waiting for us, but now we were informed that the “no-room policy” meant that we had to be there by 2pm.
After returning to reception and performing a considered melt-down, we were given a room that was dirty, had the worst, rock-solid beds, no view (we had booked beachside) and the noisiest neighbours on the planet.
Things were not looking good, and to be honest, by the time that trip was over, we realised that the check-in debacle had simply been a reflection of the entire trip.
The big conundrum is how to find a resort where you won’t feel let down. The devil is in the detail, as they say. Never cut corners when it comes to researching what type of hotel or resort is the right one for you.
FEET FIRMLY ON THE GROUND
Deciding which geographical destination to visit is usually the fun part – sit around, read a book or magazine, daydream for a bit then, voila! You’re ready to book the best trip of your diving life.
However, the hard part starts when you try to choose exactly where to stay once you’re there.
Although your trip is mainly focused on the marine realm, a lot of divers prefer to stay on terra firma. Resort-based dive holidays are perfect for people who are happy with fewer dives, have a non-diver or family with them or want to enjoy the local culture.
There’s more flexibility to go where you want and when you want. You can drop a dive one day to see a local landmark, or choose which dive-sites you want to visit, while missing others.
Also, sometimes interesting diving areas are better served for in-depth exploration by a local resort than by being on a liveaboard with no access to shore.
The most important thing to do is define your requirements before you start the booking process. Ask yourself how much you can afford, what style of hotel you like, what your travelling companions need and, as always, what type of diving you want to do and what you want to see.
Next, read as much as you can and tap everyone you know for recommendations. It can be hard to know who to believe in this information super-age, because we can be overwhelmed by the volume of information about distant places yet not always sure whether bold claims can be substantiated or not.
It depends who’s doing the claiming, and that isn’t always clear.
So talk to your friends, check back-issues of DIVER and read a guide-book (we know a good one!). One obvious route is to check a resort’s website, but it’s important to try to read between the lines when you do, as their job is simply to convince you of how great they are, and how much better than their rivals.
A breathtaking, bragging-rights remote destination may actually have primitive infrastructure, or a small resort may fail to mention that its most famous dive-site is actually 50 miles away.
Choosing where to stay
There are usually, but not always, an abundance of choices at most major diving destinations. In really popular areas such as Egypt and the Maldives, there will be a broad range of accommodation options and dive-centres at all budgets and in many different styles.
Very occasionally there won’t be, of course – a few world-famous island-based dive-locations have just the one, so that doesn’t take too much thought.
And no doubt you have been happy with that type of choice in the past. But what about the areas where there may be dozens of options?
No matter which wonderful country you have decided on, budget is usually the first consideration. Many destinations will have resorts ranging from all-singing, all-dancing, credit-card-breaking luxury to cheap and cheerful.
Once you have worked out your category, make a list of what you need. Divide the must-haves from the things that would be nice, but won’t be upsetting if you don’t get. Remember that even if you can afford the best resort available, it may not have the amenities you want.
On-site facilities are a particularly important issue for those with non-diving partners and children.
Many top-class resorts don’t have, for example, a kid’s pool or club, as it’s not the market they want in their fancy resort, while smaller budget hotels may not have the space for such things.
For those with kids, look for a separate, shallow pool with safety facilities. A play area or kid’s club is also a good option and, depending on how old they are, you may want to ask if the dive-centre can teach your youngsters.
If all the adults in the group are divers, is there a baby-sitting service, useful for both dive days and nights out?
For the big people, look for the opposite. Is there a child-free pool or adults-only zone, and can you request a room that is away from families?
Are there bars and restaurants both inside the hotel and nearby, if you like to try the local food?
Likewise, for everyone in your group, you may need a variety of non-diving options. Are there historic sites, art galleries or other entertainment alternatives? Are there surface water or indeed other sports available?
Is there a local village to take a walk around at the end of your diving day, or access to a capital city if you want a big day out at the end of your trip?
The next consideration, and possibly the most important, is the dive-centre – specifically, is it based in the resort or somewhere else?
In some countries, you may need to walk to the hotel next door, while in others it may be at the closest port, as that is where the day-boat launches from.
Off-site dive operations will often send a vehicle to collect guests in the morning, but that might be inconvenient as you will be carrying kit with you constantly – and forgetting something frequently!
It probably doesn’t need saying, but always check that the operation is affiliated to a major training agency or similar governing body.
If you go off the beaten track, this may not be a given, although that’s rare these days. And in some parts of the world small dive-centres may claim affiliations they don’t actually have – if in doubt, check with the agency early on.
Otherwise, if you have concerns drop the dive-centre an email in advance. Ask about facilities, if it has any extra courses you might want to do, whether it has good-quality, well-maintained equipment if you want to rent some or all of your kit and, should anyone in your group have a disability, if it can provide extra assistance.
The manner and speed of its response will in itself tell you much about a dive-centre’s efficiency.
It’s also worth asking about shore-diving. Is it available and, if so, will it be tide-dependent? Can you wander in at leisure from the beach, or can you leap in from a jetty so that the diving is unrestricted? Is there easy snorkelling available for non-divers?
It’s worth checking the centre’s policy on whether you can dive alone with your buddy or need to have a guide with you, as some do require the latter.
While the precise location of the sites is something you rarely need to worry about, it is worth knowing in advance how you’ll get there.
RIBs are often used for a single dive, so you come and go to the dive-centre and can use facilities there. However, if most of your dives will be done from a larger day-boat, check the amenities on there.
It’s no fun being out on the water all day without some shade, a loo, lunch and drinking water. Ask if lunch is included too or whether you need to make arrangements at the hotel.
Camera-users will also want space to store their toys, or work on them.
Another query might be about snorkelling, and whether the operators take snorkellers out with the scuba-divers. This can be great if you want your friend or kids to come out for the day with you, but can be less fun for the divers in the group, because the mixed focus can be disruptive for both sides.
While you’re dropping a note to the dive-centre, another area to investigate is what its policies are in terms of buddies, group-diving or even solo-diving.
If you have your own buddy, you’re ready to go, but nothing is more frustrating for some people than to be an advanced diver and buddied up with a total novice (or vice versa).
Slow and gentle divers who like to spend time on the reef will be frustrated if they are shepherded around with a group moving at the speed of light.
The biggest moan you hear on this subject is having to end a dive early if one diver runs out of air and the whole group is asked to ascend.
In the end, also bear in mind that no matter how many questions you ask, you still may find something that annoys you. The trick is to revel in the good stuff, and dismiss those minor devilish details.