Image: Maldives
Dennis Sabo  /  © iStockphoto.com
The Maldives may be the ultimate winter scuba escape. The water is warm throughout the year, visibility is excellent, the accommodations are flawless and the food is both fresh and imaginative. What's more, the beaches are immaculate and there are many opportunities to see large and impressive sea life.
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updated 2/12/2008 1:12:58 PM ET 2008-02-12T18:12:58

While some winter vacationers are happy to nurse cocktails on a beach, others — the few, the hardcore — take trips specifically to dive. In the middle, of course, are plenty of us who like to switch it up: dive for a few days, enjoy the beach, soak up the electric green of a rainforest and the incandescent blue of tropical skies. And maybe nurse a few of those cocktails, too.

The quest to determine the world’s best scuba sites is practically its own cottage industry. Considering that only about a third of this planet exists above sea level, there’s a surfeit of good options just below the surface. Ours is not a competing line-up of the top diving spots around the world; rather, it’s a look at the best winter diving escapes. When it’s cold outside and the sky is gray, these places beckon with not only world-class diving, but sunny shores, remarkable vistas and luxurious accommodations.

To make this list, each of these diving destinations offers premium underwater visibility and, of course, a high probability of seeing magnificent sea life and vibrant reefs. But that’s not all. They must also feature plush accommodations, exotic locales or unparalleled above-water scenery. And while it would be easy to populate this list by focusing solely on the Caribbean, we’ve instead assembled a global panel of experts to assess the best winter scuba escapes —from Costa Rica to Queensland. Think of these places as rehab for the winter doldrums.

There’s quite a range to these sites. Cocos Island off of Costa Rica requires divers to pony up for live-aboard ships; and the Lakshadweep Islands, offshore from India, have few established accommodations. The Maldives, on the other hand, are stacked with all-inclusive luxury resorts. But that doesn’t mean the first two destinations are anything less than spectacular; most visitors will spend part of their vacation on the mainland Pacific Coast of Costa Rica or tropical Kerala in South India, respectively — the diving is just part of the overall trip.

For North Americans, Central America is a surprisingly quick three- to four-hour flight from the southern states. An emerging winter scuba escape is Panama’s Coiba Island, the largest island in Central America. A penal colony for most of the 20th century, it remains underdeveloped and is one of the last places in Central America where the scarlet macaw still thrives in the wild. Matthew Firestone, who has covered Panama and Costa Rica for Lonely Planet Guidebooks, explains, “Fed by the warm Indo-Pacific current through the Gulf of Chiriqui, Coiba is home to a unique underwater ecosystem atypical of this region, and attracts large populations of pelagics including sharks, whales, dolphins and manta rays as well as enormous schools of fish.”

Brazil is represented twice on this list. The Fernando de Noronha archipelago off the northeastern coast is generally recognized as one of the best places to dive in South America. The islands also present a cornucopia of other water sports, on-land adventures and idyllic beaches. Adriana Schmidt, owner of the innovative Noronha-based travel agency Your Way, lives on the archipelago and is a certified PADI Dive Master. When not enjoying Noronha’s ideal diving conditions, she likes to travel south to Abrolhos Marine National Park in the state of Bahia. Just 45 miles off shore, the group of five volcanic islands claims some 80 million square feet of coral reefs. The area is known for its unique coral pinnacles called chapeirão, which look like enormous mushrooms topped with domes of brain coral and fans of colorful fire coral. Back on land, it’s a short trip to blissed-out beach towns such as Trancoso and Morro de São Paulo, or up the coast to the animated state capital, Salvador.

Sri Lanka-based Gaya Sriskanthan, senior program officer for Marine and Coastal Ecosystems for IUCN (The World Conservation Union), suggests that the Lakshadweep Islands off of India “have the lovely, off-the-beaten track dive sites … while the best commercial sites are bound to be in the Maldives.” Adrift in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are more than 1,000 coral islands grouped into 26 atolls. (The English word “atoll” actually comes from the local term “atholhu”). Here, you will find some of the planet’s best underwater visibility and access to large open water marine species. Luxury and seclusion are not hard to come by either — more than 80 of the islands have resorts. Many are single resort islands, so it’s more difficult to find crowds than it is to discover your own private stretch of sand.

When it comes to reef diving, it doesn’t get any more tremendous than Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The world’s largest single structure made by living organisms lies off the coast of Queensland, Australia’s “Sunshine State.” The state capital, Brisbane, is worth its own trip. Between the street festivals, the Queensland Ballet and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) — the largest modern art gallery in Australia — there’s plenty to help you decompress from winter gloom.

Our experts have spoken. Check out the rest of the list, then get out there and immerse yourself in one of these alluring destinations.

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