Some crave steep snowy peaks. Others bask in a bustling metropolis. And some want a labyrinth of reefs, streaked in bright blues, yellows, and reds, swarming with bizarrely beautiful undersea creatures. For those aqua-oriented souls, we've compiled a list of Oyster's top scuba diving destinations.
Don't let Costa Rica's small size fool you. It's packed with spectacular marine life and an abundance of diving spots. Its beaches boast some of the sea's most colorful creatures, both big and small. With cooler, nutrient-rich waters, divers often see dolphins, whale sharks, and humpback whales. If you're feeling extra adventurous, Cocos Island, an uninhabited island more than 300 miles off the coast, is one of the world's most-treasured diving spots, with oodles of Hammerhead, ray, and dolphin sightings. It's normal to see dozens or even hundreds of these animals on every dive. If you're traveling between December and mid-April, make sure to pack some exposure protection, as water temps have been known to dip relatively low.
- Where to Stay: Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo (pictured)
Easily among the most luxurious resorts in Central America, The Four Seasons is as close to perfection as it gets. With two beautiful beaches, ocean views from each one of the sumptuous rooms -- decorated in materials including wood, bamboo, and stone -- and an 18-hole golf course, the resort makes it possible for guests to spend their whole vacation on-site.
- Where to Stay: JW Marriott Guanacaste Resort & Spa
The JW Marriott is one of the top luxury properties in Guanacaste, with beautiful, hacienda-style architecture (think: lots of wood and stone, romantic white hammocks, wrought iron light fixtures and indigenous art). The stunning free-form pool is the largest in Central America, and the tranquil spa is world-class.
- Where to Stay: Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa
The 202-room Hilton Papagayo is an excellent upscale all-inclusive option in Guanacaste, with a decent beach and comfortable (if generic) rooms. It's quieter and classier than your typical all-inclusive, with brand-name liquor, no annoying bracelets, solid (it not exceptional) food, and live music or karaoke rather than embarrassing staff performances.
Whether you're looking to dive at your resort's house reef, or take a boat ride to more challenging depths, you'll find it in Maui. As Hawaii's second-largest island, with more than 40 dive sites off the western coast, opportunities abound for beginner divers. Meanwhile, scuba veterans can try Molokini Crater, one of the island's most famous dive locales. Who knows what you'll find in the crater's interior. Eels, rays, massive schools of fish, and even occasional sharks or whales have been known to pass through the crater. Between December and February, divers often hear the songs of migrating humpback whales.
- Where to Stay: The Fairmont Kea Lani Maui (pictured)
Wailea's aptly named Fairmont Kea Lani is a "white heaven" indeed -- its 450 units sit on a 22-acre beachfront property that includes four pools, five restaurants, access to world-class golf, some of Maui's largest rooms, and a relentless dedication to service that rivals the nearby Four Seasons.
- Where to Stay: Grand Wailea Hotel Resort Hotel and Spa
The beautifully designed, 780-room Grand Wailea is awe-inspiring in its scale: It's got the best pool in Hawaii, one of the top U.S. spas, and a prime location on one of the best U.S. beaches. Opulence marks every feature -- from the luxe rooms to the massive gym -- but the resort's Disneyland-like vibe isn't right for everyone.
- Where to Stay: Marriott Wailea Resort
Situated on a rock between two beaches, the 22-acre, 546-room Wailea Marriott has panoramic ocean views and a serene vibe missing from some of the more crowded, neighboring resorts. Renovated in 2008, the Marriott's spiffy rooms, gorgeous adult-only infinity pool, reputable spa, and a popular restaurant make it the best midrange option in ritzy Wailea.
After the filming of the movie, "The Deep," featuring the historic Rhone wreck, the British Virgin Islands have allured divers from all over the globe. Today, the wreck's iron hull is coated in dazzling coral that flourishes with fish, eels, lobsters, and octopus. With visibility averaging around 100 feet, the surrounding areas have long been popular in the diving world. Another site that's becoming increasingly well-known is the Chikuzen, a wreck about seven miles off the coast of Tortola. It's known for colossal schools of fish, turtles, rays, and sharks. Another positive: All of the waters surrounding the Virgin Islands are protected by the National Parks Trust, which keeps marine life thriving. The U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John have plenty of hidden bays and wrecks as well.
- Where to Stay: Caneel Bay, A Rosewood Resort (pictured)
Built from a historic sugar plantation, this profoundly serene 166-room resort sits on 170 acres of a protected national park dotted with seven remote beaches. Even with a quaint pool and rustic rooms that lack TVs and phones, Caneel's attentive service and unparalleled setting make it one of the Caribbean's best resorts.
- Where to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas
The Ritz-Carlton is St. Thomas' classiest resort, located only five minutes from Red Hook's fun dining and yacht scene. Its private sailboat, fitness center, spa, and soft-sand beach -- a marine-life sanctuary -- are all among the best in St. Thomas.
- Where to Stay: Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort
A clean, modern resort with stunning views, this 478-room Marriott is a cut above every other hotel in St. Thomas, except, maybe, the pricier Ritz Carlton. It's sprawling, the food's overpriced, and it can, at times, become packed with conventioneers. But its excellent gym, great pools, top-notch beds, and soft-sand beach rival the island's best.
Clear, warm Jamaican water provides an ultra-relaxing environment for divers. Although the reefs have taken a heavy hit (due to both human and natural causes) this destination is an ideal spot for beginners. With its proximity to the U.S., it's a popular getaway for divers on a budget that crave some quality time in the water. Some of the best diving can be found in Negril, a west-coast town that's home to seven miles of white, sandy beaches. A profusion of bright fish and coral thrive in this area, making it one of the top dive spots on the island. Thanks to multiple preservation efforts, fish populations are starting to grow again. Several close-to-shore wrecks around Pete Wreck are good alternatives for advanced divers, where lots of barracuda have been known to hang out.
- Where to Stay: Half Moon (pictured)
Drawing everyone from Queen Elizabeth to 50 Cent, Half Moon strives for timeless, understated luxury (even at the swim-up bar). Stretching over 400 acres (including 2 miles of beach), the 400-room resort offers attentive service, quality cuisine, and seemingly limitless activities like golfing and horseback riding.
- Where to Stay: Round Hill Hotel & Villas
Round Hill is phenomenal. Sincere, intimate hospitality; private child care; large, beautifully designed rooms by Ralph Lauren; and breathtaking grounds (to which no photo can do justice) -- it is easily among the best resorts in Jamaica.
- Where to Stay: Sunset Beach Resort & Spa
Perfect for a no-hassle family vacation, the Sunset offers a water park and kids' club so parents can indulge in frozen daiquiris at the nude beach, the swim-up bar, or as part of a staff-hosted drinking game. Though the rooms are nothing special, the full-service restaurants best the buffets at competing resorts.
The Bahamas boasts some impressive numbers: 100-foot visibility; 340 sunny days per year; 700 islands. It’s no wonder divers relish year-round in its multiplicity of healthy coral reefs. Nassau offers clear, warm water with plenty of caves, wrecks, and blue holes – perfect for green and experienced divers alike. Grand Bahama Island has some worthy options for divers as well, particularly its historical ship wrecks. The Sugar Wreck, resting off the West End, abounds with gobies, angelfish, and parrotfish, thanks in part to the large amount of sunlight it receives almost every day.
- Where to Stay: One and Only Ocean Club (pictured)
Bringing tranquility to otherwise-crowded Paradise Island, the 105-room Ocean Club's personal butlers, beautiful pools (one for adults, one for families), restaurant from Jean-Georges, and access to Atlantis' water park, casino, and other attractions make it one of the Caribbean's best resorts.
- Where to Stay: Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort
The Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort has great rooms, a gorgeous beachfront, three great pools, a top-notch gym, and a friendly and cheerful staff. But it's a massive property -- 694 rooms -- with little to eat nearby. This means that guests are stuck with the Sheraton's own overpriced, mediocre fare. Still, it's a great value.
- Where to Stay: Radisson Our Lucaya Resort, Grand Bahama
It's the top lodging on Grand Bahama -- immaculate grounds; great beds; convenient, scenic location. Plus, it has a wide range of rooms, features, and dining options.