Getting Away From It All

With just a little extra effort, clients can lose the crowds in Cozumel

By: Maribeth Mellin

Rare is the day in Cozumel, Mexico, when there isn’t a brilliant white cruise ship looming on the horizon. The behemoths parade in and out of the island’s waters as if competing in jumbo-size regattas and more than 2 million passengers wandered its streets in 2002.

Most passengers stick to Cozumel’s waterfront Avenida Rafael Melgar, browsing through jewelry galleries and souvenir shops, or head for heavily advertised beach clubs. Precious few explore the beaches and streets favored by locals.

There are ways to avoid the cruise-ship crowds and enjoy the pleasures of the island. Use the following suggestions to help your clients get the most out of their time at Mexico’s most famous port of call.

Make Tracks

Walk a few blocks away from the crowded parking lots and streets around the piers before waving down a cab. They’ll save a considerable amount of time waiting in line for overpriced transport. The shops and restaurants away from the waterfront are more interesting and less crowded than those near the piers. Walk along avenidas 5 and 10 and take time to sit under a shade tree at the main plaza.

Hire a Cab

Taxi drivers charge less than $20 an hour, and clients can see the highlights in about three hours. Head for the windward side of the island, where wild, windswept beaches are usually deserted (the water is choppy). Stop for a cool drink at a small restaurant on the sand before heading inland to the archaeological site of San Gervasio. It’s not as impressive as the Mayan sites on the mainland but take less than an hour to tour.

Dive In

The Palancar Reef just off Cozumel’s shores is the second-longest barrier reef in the world. Serious divers should consult a Cozumel dive shop before their cruise begins. “Any of our services can be booked ahead of time,” says Bill Horn of Aqua Safari, a professional shop. “Advance notice is significant because the ship’s schedule can be a challenge.” Most dive shops also offer snorkeling tours to the best reefs. There is also good snorkeling off the sands of Mr. Sancho’s Beach Club on the southern side of the island. The club doesn’t get busloads of cruise passengers; it has a restaurant and pool, and water toys are available for rent.

Stay at a Hotel

The serene Hotel Presidente Inter-Continental offers reduced rates for cruise passengers who want the use of a room for the day. The hotel also has a $25 day rate that includes use of the pool and a secluded beach (the snorkeling here is excellent). Meals, well worth the splurge, are extra. The Hotel Brisas Cozumel, a few blocks south of downtown, has a day-use fee of $25 per person for unlimited food and drink and use of the beach club with pool and good snorkeling. Use of just the facilities is $10 per person.

Shop Sensibly

If clients are looking for high-quality Mexican folk art, they should hop the Playa del Carmen ferry (it runs every half-hour and takes 30 minutes). The shops along the crowded town’s waterfront and Fifth Avenue carry a far better selection than Cozumel’s souvenir shops.

For more information, www.isla

Dining For Those in the Know

Cozumel does have a rather impressive two-story McDonald’s and raucous Carlos ‘n’ Charlies and Hard Rock Cafe franchises.

But why should clients eat somewhere predictable? Suggest they check out these local favorites instead:

Ambientes Cozumel -- Blissfully powerful air conditioning cools the art-filled dining room and an indigenous cayumito tree shades the courtyard. Clients should try fresh pita bread stuffed with flank steak and manchego cheese, crab rolls with bacon and mango margaritas. Av. 10 Norte between calles Salas and 3 Sur (987-872-3621).

Guido’s -- Clients should bypass the tables by the wood-burning oven and head for the shady courtyard out back, where cruise-ship captains and staff often gather over pitchers of sangria and crisp pizzas. And do be sure to tell them not to miss dessert -- the coconut ice cream topped with Kahlua. Av. Melgar 23 between Calles 6 and 8 Norte (987-872-0946).

Jeanie’s Waffle House -- The huevos rancheros atop a fresh waffle is wonderful but, whatever clients choose, will be enhanced by the view. Jeanie’s is just south of town, behind Acuario’s restaurant, and her tables are just a step from the sand. Av. Melgar at Calle 11 (987-872-4145).

La Perlita -- The ceviche and whole fried fish are as fresh as can be at this neighborhood seafood market and restaurant. Lunch is the main meal here and the hungry crowd is largely made up of families and local workers on a break. Clients will have to take a taxi to La Perlita it is too far to walk from the downtown and hard to find. Av. 65 Norte between calles 8 and 10 Norte (987-872-3452).