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Review: The Occidental Grand Resort/Dive Palancar, Cozumel, Mexico

by Conrad Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton

Above is an aerial view of the Occidental Grand resort on the southwestern side of the Mexican island of Cozumel. Note the dive boat dock and beachside bar/restaurant on the left, the cluster of three-story guest buildings in the center, and the restaurants, lobby building, night club and sports facilities on the right. Also note how green and lush everything is, and the two large pools are fabulous.

Location: Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Overall: The Occidental Grand is an elegant all-inclusive resort that caters to all kinds of vacationers as opposed to just scuba divers. It is a gated complex/community of elegant common buildings, guest buildings and extensive recreational facilities about nine miles south of San Miguel. It is a 4-Star luxury resort in a wonderfully lush, tropical setting with birds darting around, iguanas in trees, and other lush tropical greenery everywhere.

Large, nicely decorated guest rooms are in a dozen three-story buildings with an open atrium center. Dozens of Cozumel's best coral reef and wall dive sites are reachable via dive boat within minutes.

It's hard to imagine a nicer setting, and the Occidental Grand offers exceptional value. We can heartily recommend it both to divers and non-divers alike.

Getting there: Getting to Cozumel is easy. It may be an island off the east coast of the Mexican Yucatan and part of the Caribbean, but all it took us in November of 2009 was a three and a half hour Continental flight from Sacramento to Houston, and then another two and a half hour flight on Continental from Houston to Cozumel. And not in a small propeller plane, but in a real Boeing 737.

Arrival/customs: On your flight you fill out customs documents. Upon arrival, immigration officials are friendly and efficient and process even large crowds very quickly. You pick up your luggage after passport control, run it through another X-ray machine, and then get ground transportation. We had our transfers booked through Travelocity and a rep from Olympus Tours was waiting for us. Don't get sidetracked by time-share salesmen and others who'll try to get your attention!

When you leave, get to the airport at least two hours ahead of time. We were lucky and could walk up right to the very friendly folks at the Continental counter. There is no departure tax on Cozumel, and when you go through security, you don't even have to take your shoes off or your computer out of your carry-on! Cozumel airport is nicely air-conditioned and has spaceous, modern facilities with plenty of shopping. When boarding, everyone's carry-ons will be examined again.

Getting to the resort: The ride from the airport to the Occidental Grand is maybe 20 minutes in a cab or van (again, book your transfer ahead of time!). You drive through San Miguel where you see a colorful mix of local stores and homes, bars, restaurants, dive shops and the like. Once out of town, it's a bit like driving through tropical rain forest.

Once past the Occidental Grand's security gate, the ride ends at the most impressive reception building. We were greeted by a hostess who offered us champagne. Check-in was quick and friendly.

General: The Occidental Grand, being about nine miles south of the town of San Miguel, is a "self-contained" resort. It is secluded in a lush, tropical setting, and unless you schedule a trip via taxi, there is no need to leave the resort. Even partying types and those who need a lot of variety and stimulation will never be bored here. Between the several restaurants, the wonderful grounds, the two large pools, the beach, the several bars, the sports facilities and numerous activities, there's always something to do (I was usually busy uploading my underwater pictures and just generally being too pooped from diving to party). The resort also has something special going on every night: fire dancers, shows, games, a market place, an special theme nights. Below is a look at the reception area in the open-atrium main building, and below that one of the incredible Cozumel sunsets accented against the gorgeous architecture of the resort.

Room: There are about 250 mostly similar rooms in eleven elegant and well-maintained three-story buildings. There are no elevators, so if you don't like climbing stairs, ask for a ground-floor room. We stayed in Building 16, which was located roughly halfway between the lobby/restaurants and the beach (the resort is quite large, so being in the middle of it is a good thing).

The room was large, had two (rather hard) double beds, a big ceiling fan, and plenty of US-type 110 Volt electrical outlets. There are plenty of lights, nice darkwood furniture including a desk, and the floor in both the main room and the bathroom was all limestone tile. That's great for divers with all their wet gear. The water pressure in the large, luxurious shower was excellent and there was plenty of hot water. The drain in the bathrub was very slow, no doubt due to divers soaking their sandy gear in there. There were no warnings not to drink the tapwater, but several bottles of water were in the (entirely free) minibar.

There were plenty of towels (don't use them as beach towels; those you get at the pool in exchange for a plastic card each guest is given.). There was a hair dryer, shampoo, conditioner, soap, an iron, and all the little convenience stuff you except from a good resort. The room had a coffee maker which I never used since all meals and drinks were free anyway (you can even get room service in the all-inclusive). All rooms have a small balcony. We could see the beach and the gorgeous sunsets from ours.

The room had central air that was very efficient in keeping the room as cool as we wanted, but it was also quite noisy. At times we used it in conjunction with the ceiling fan in an attempt at keeping mosquitos away (more on those later). The room had a smallish CRT TV with cable programming. Selection and picture quality were marginal.

Each room has a sophisticated electrically operated safe with a numeric keypad. We felt very safe and secure at the Occidental Grand, but it's still good to have a place for valuables, and those safes were terrific as they did not require carrying around a key.

The minibar contained water, beer and several types of soda (Pepsi, Pepsi Light, Sprite, a couple of local citrus sodas). Whatever was used was promptly restocked. They even put in extra Pepsi Lights when they realized I drank a lot of them.

Housekeeping was friendly, efficient and very professional. Each day we found a different creation made of towels and flower petals on our bed. A nice touch. I wish they did not leave the doors open while doing the rooms, as this is where mosquitoes get in. The one problem we had (a lock that failed) was fixed quickly and efficiently. About the only complaint we had with the room were the hard beds and thin, hard pillows.

Restaurants: The Occidental is an "all-inclusive" resort, and they really mean it. All meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner are included, as are the drinks you have with them (and before or after). It's a bit difficult to figure out at first where to eat, though, as there are several restaurants. In essence, there are two buffet restaurants, the one shown below and another open-air one by the beach. While we were there, breakfast was always at the elegant "La Posada" buffet, lunch at the Beach Club buffet whenever the weather permitted, and dinner always at the La Posada. The two other restaurants, one a steakhouse and the other mediterranean-style, were more like fine dinner dining and require a reservation. The lenth of your stay determines how many reservatins you get to make. Our week's worth at the Occidental entitled us to three reservations. Service in all restaurants is friendly and efficient. No tipping is expected at the table.

Food: The food in the two buffet-style restaurants is varied and generally of excellent quality. There is always a very wide variety of items, so there's something for everyone. Not everything is "Mexican-style," though the restaurants generally had a different theme every day. There is a large salad bar, a large desert bar, and there is so much variety that no one will ever go hungry. A soda fountain would have been nice, but you can order whatever you want, including beer and wine (yes, no charge again). You are always seated, and the friendly, efficient staff accommodates any and all special requests. Acoustics are amazingly good and the ambience is excellent for a buffet-style place. After hours you can always get pizza at the La Posada. That, however, doesn't taste quite right to American palates.

The two specialty restaurants are very nicely decorated and quite formal, like fancy, upscale restaurants in the US. In addition to having a reservation, you need to wear long pants, closed-toed shows and just generally be a bit dressy. The ambiance is very elegant. Wait staff is meticulously dressed and very professional. Food is a la carte insofar as you have your choice of one of four to six items for each of the four or five courses. Drinks, again, are included although you can also ask for a wine list and order a bottle. This is one of the very few items that costs extra at the Occidental. The extra-cost wine selection is good, but the wines are not inexpensive. If you stick with the house wine, there is no cost at all, though we usually left a tip for their excellent service. Ask for Mayan Coffee, which is prepared table-side in a wonderful, fiery procedure.

Bars: The Occidental Grand has several bars, with the main one opposite the reception area and having three rooms, one the bar itself, and two adjacent rooms for sitting, watching TV and playing games. At the bar itself you can get just about any drink you want, all free, always. All bartenders were friendly, attentive, prompt and knew their stuff. The rooms adjacent to the bar have old-fashioned CRT TVs with murky picture. No HDTV on flatscreens here.

Architecture and ambiance are fantastic wherever you go in this resort. Even the bathrooms are beautifully done, spaceous and always meticulous.

Pools and recreational facilities: The Occidental Grand has two large pools. One of them is within the main grounds, the other, larger one, by the beach. Both pools are gorgeous, and you don't have constant policing by life guards as we have in the US. Plenty of chairs, and you get beach towels by depositing the towel card each guest is given. You can order (free) drinks, and there is an entire schedule of activities you can participate in if you want to. While we were there, the poolwater was amazingly cool, much cooler than the 84 degree ocean.

The Occidental Grand also has tennis courts, a special kids club area with great staff, and just about any activity you want to engage in. If you want to order special services, like a jeep safari or other sight seeing, there are representatives from several tour companies in the lobby area. They are actually very helpful and give you lots of insider tips.

The Occidental Grand's grounds themselves are enough to thrill guests with their luscious, tropical quality, and it's all real; you never get the feeling you're in some Mickey Mouse park. There are all kinds or birds and animals, and you could spend hours watching the goings on in some of the gorgeous wetland areas.

Dive shop: I am not sure what percentage of Occidental Grand guests are divers, but given Cozumel's reputation as a diver's paradise, probably quite a few. Occidental promo materials mentioned they had a PADI Gold Palm Facility. PADI defines Gold Palm resorts as "Resorts of this caliber focus on memorable dive experiences, customer satisfaction, diver safety and environmental awareness, by going the extra mile to provide professional and outstanding service". Unfortunately, the dive shop is small and rudimentary and nowhere near the level of the resort itself. There is no place for divers to change, the "lockers" are small plastic boxes in sort of a chicken coop, getting on dive boats is a hit-or-miss affair, and sometimes the shop even ran out of weights or locks. The dive shop seems very much an afterthought in this beautiful resort. That may be because the shop is part of Dive Palancar and not part of the resort, but it is on resort premises and reflects on the resort.

Below is a look at the resort's small pier, the terrific beach club/bar, and the tiny dive shop to the right of it.

Now you don't have to dive with the Dive Palancar operation that runs the shop at the Occidental resort. In fact, our friendly tour operator guy repeatedly tried to get us to book another dive operator through him. He claimed the operator would pick us up at the dock, and even bring weights or whatever else we needed. However, it makes no sense to me to have a dive shop on th premises and then get the dives through someone else.

As is, diving is not included in the Occidental Grand package. You're supposed to book directly through the dive shop, which we tried via email and phone, to little avail. Eventually we found that you might as well just buy the dives as you go. It's US$32 per dive, with a small discount if you buy ten dives at a time.

Dive boats: If you go through the local dive shop, chances are you won't do all your dives on the same boat or with the same dive master, though sometimes a dive master will make efforts to book good customers (i.e. those who aren't a nuisance above and under water, and who also tip well). Boats come in many different sizes. Before this trip I thought Cozumel dive boats were either big, sluggish "cattle boats" or speedy little boats, each with its inherent pros and cons. In fact, you see the whole gamut from massive catamarans to standard boats with room for 16 divers or so, to smaller pontoon boats for eight or so, to really small boats where you have to enter the water via back-roll. In Dive Palancar's fleet, some boats are fairly new, others are pretty beat up. We were mostly on the somewhat worn Triton III, a 45-foot or so boat that was nice enough, but had tired/broken tank retainer clips instead of recessed round holes to put tanks in, and no windshield in the front. This meant that tanks were in constant danger of falling down (and several times did), with the potential of doing damage to equipment and people. It also means we got sprayed constantly even in moderately rough water.

Air: Tanks are on the boat; you don't have to pick them up or carry them anywhere. They are all standard 80 cubic-foot aluminum tanks with US standard Yoke valves. Larger tanks are available upon special request. The boats do not have compressors, and the dive shop at the Occidental did not fill tanks either, so they all had to be brought in from another Dive Palancar location at a neighboring resort.

Nitrox is available upon request. It's US$6 extra per tank, which is a good deal (we've often come across places that charge US$10 extra per nitrox bottle). Nitrox may or may not be available. Hurricane Ida threatened (but eventually bypassed) the island on our trip, and the day after the storm there was no nitrox at all, with the explanation that the oxygen had to be brought in from the mainland.

Weights: The Dive Palancar shop has standard lead brick weights that you check out and bring back after each day's dive. You determine how much you need. The shop ran out of weights one day, so make sure to get there when the shop opens. Weights only come in one-pound increments are are not always clearly marked. If you go into the water and don't have enough weight, the dive master usually carries some extra and helps you out right in the water.

Diving: Cozumel is not a large island and there really are only a few reefs and dive sites. It is, however, still large enough so that where you stay pretty much determines where dive boats will likely take you. Since most boats return to the docks after each and every dive, but certainly at noon time, they don't like to go to remote dive sites. This means that if you stay in San Miguel, you'll likely be diving the sites that are fairly close to town. If you stay in a hotel or resort farther south on the island, such as the Occidental Grand, you'll be closer to some of Cozumel's most famous reefs, such as the Santa Rosa wall and the several Palancar reefs and walls.

Cozumel is famous for drift diving, with the current varying from barely noticeable in some locations to quite strong in others. Unlike the surge you might experience on some islands close to the beach, the current off Cozumel is constant and steady. You're not getting buffeted around at all. It's more like being on a conveyor belt or escalator. You just go along for the ride.

This means that divers need to stay together in groups with their dive master, or at least stay within viewing distance. You get in together, go down together, then follow the dive master as only he will know where he'll be going and when he'll be going back up. When the dive master decides to go up, he'll inflate a safety sausage on a line that signifies to the boat where the divers will come up. If you miss the dive master here, you may end up surfacing a distance away from the dive boat. They'll likely find you, but it's not a good idea to take a chance. It can also be confusing because some of the more popular dive sites can have dozens of dive boats in close proximity and it can be difficult to figure out which one is yours, or for the boat captain to figure out which surfacing divers belongs on his boat.

The disadvantage of this system is that you can't just stay down a bit longer if you still have enough air. It's frowned upon even if there is almost no current, and if there is current, you'll drift away from the boat. Our dive master usually started going up at about 35-40 minutes, and most dives were a total of about 45-50 minutes.

As for the dive sites, some are truly spectacular. Be aware, though, that you may not see the same scenery someone else will see on the same dive. That's because those reefs are fairly large and unlike other places where boats moor, the boat never seems to drop divers off twice in the same location. So depending on your drop-off, you may be treated to spectacular sights or to unexceptional sand chutes and plains and not much else. We did, for example, three dives to the famous Santa Rosa wall. On the first dive, after a ten minute swim/drift we got to see the wall/slope in all its splendor and it was a breathtaking experience. On a second dive, we saw no wall at all and simply labored against the drift over unexciting and mostly flat sea bottom for the entire time. On the third dive I specifically asked to be dropped off at the wall and, presto, instant wall.

The diving can be spectacular. The strong current along the island means the water is constantly moving and so visibility is better than in most places. 150 to 200 feet is not uncommon. In some places it's like swimming in an aquarium, it's so clear. Those accustomed to vertical walls (like in Roatan or other Caribbean islands) will find the Cozumel reefs quite different. The reefs are composed of huge heads and formations that have numerous cuts, gullies, tunnels and swimthroughs. That makes for a dramatic, interesting and very attractive diving experience. As of November 2009, the reefs were in splendid health and condition. We saw a little coral bleaching here and there, but almost everything is in full bloom and without damage or silting or wear.

In terms of critters, some of them are plentiful, others less so. There's the usual Caribbean variety of parrot fish, damsel fish, angel fish, groupers, spiny lobsters, giant crabs, moray eels, French grunts, Southern stingray and spotted rays, etc. You also see the occasional splendid toad fish peeking out from under a rock, an octopus, a turtle or two, and, if you're lucky, a nurse shark. We didn't see any other sharks, though some divers claim they've seen some.

Electricity: No problem here. Even during tropical storm Ida, the resort never once lost electricity.

Reception: The elegant reception area faces the open atrium. There is always someone there and they are quick to respond and very helpful. Almost all speak at least passable English.

Computers/Internet: The resort has wireless Internet access in all of the guest buildings. Unfortunately, it is not free or included. Instead, you need to buy access for minutes, hours or days. The only acceptable deal really was access for the whole week, which cost US$80. Access was reliable, but not very fast.

There are three walk-up computers in the bar area. Those, too, require that you purchase internet access time.

Cellphones: Once I arrived on Cozumel, I got a text from AT&T saying calls would cost me US$1.99/minute, and data was something ridiculous like $10/megabyte. When I tried calling the US, the calls did not go through.

Security: The resort is gated and has excellent security. There is good lighting and there are inconspicuous security patrols. It is, and feels, safe at all times.

Vendors: Vendors came and set up their stands at the Occidental Grand twice during our weeklong stay to exhibit their arts and crafts either outside the bar area or on the central plaza. Most of it is jewelry and smaller items made by local artisans including black and red coral items, decorated and painted wooden boxes, embroidery, etc. Most speak passable English. Payment is in dollars and some accept credit cards. Prices are generally reasonable, but it pays to negotiate a deal. Keep a degree of skepticism so as not to overpay.

Cost: Anytime you go an a week's worth of vacation it adds up but I feel the trip was well worth it. Staying at a double room in Building 16 from Friday to Saturday the next week cost us US$2,569 including tax for the two of us, including the flights, or about US$1,300 per person, booked via Travelocity. That included the very nice room and all meals and drinks. We did 13 dives each and that added US$754 plus another US$84 for the nitrox we had used. We also spent about US$200 for a jeep safari on the last day (highly recommended), US$74 for the transfers to and from the hotel, plus whatever tips we left.

Tips: There are no hard recommendations and it's pretty hard to figure out who is supposed to get a tip and how much. The dive masters generally expect a tip after every dive (or couple of fives if the boat does not return to the dock after each dive). The bars have a tip jar. The safari tour folks expected a tip. Everything else is pretty much up the individual guest to decide.

Bottom Line: The Occidental Grand on the Mexican island of Cozumel is an elegant 4-star resort in a lush, tropical setting about nine miles south of San Miguel. There are about 250 very nice guest rooms in a dozen three-story buildings. Architecture and facilities are all first class, as are the two wonderful pools. The Occidental Grand is "all-inclusive," meaning all meals are included and all drinks as well. The restaurants offer excellent food and great variety. What is not included is diving (or other extras like wind surfing, massages, etc.). Guests can buy dive packages through the Dive Palancar Dive shop on the premise, or contract with any other dive operator (they'd pick you up at the dock). The on-premise dive shop and facilities are rudimentary and not at the same high level as the resort itself. Overall, the Occidental Grand offers great value and a wonderful setting and we'd definitely go back, though we hope the resort will overhaul the dive shop and facilities.

Occidental Grand websites
Occidental Grand
Dive Palancar dive shop
Generally, whenever I check the weather on Cozumel island on my iPhone, it will likely show the thunderstorm or cloudy symbol. That is quite misleading. As on many islands, yes, you can often see clouds in the distance, and there's the tropical weather pattern with frequent showers and rapidly changing weather. We got there just ahead of tropical storm Ida on November 6, 2009, and it was gloomy, windy and rainy. The storm then bypassed the island and the rest of the week the weather was sometimes cloudy and sometimes sunny. In November it was generally 80 degrees during the day and about 68 degrees at night every day.
Water Temperature
During our trip in November, the water temperature on the surface and at the bottom was an almost constant 84 degrees Fahrenheit. We generally dove with just bating suit or with a dive skin. On a couple of windy days I used my 5-mil wetsuit.
After having battled the dreaded "no-see-ums" in other Caribbean locations, I was glad that there did not seem to be any on Cozumel. There are, however, mosquitoes and they are a major pain. Despite wearing long pants, I was bitten all over by the second day. These very aggressive mosquitoes are large and black, so they are easy to see, but you absolutely need bug spray and plenty of it. Also check the room for them each night before you go to sleep. And don't even think of going on a safari trip without bringing bug spray along!
Occidental Grand animals
The Occidental Grand has its own menagerie of animals on its grounds. No cats or dogs, but you'll see plenty of lizards and iguanas, some of them quite large. There are also frogs, all sorts of song birds, herons, turtles, ducks and more. Someone even saw a small wild pig!
History of Cozumel
Archaelogical records indicate that Mayans were living on Cozumel island as early as 300 AD or before. Mayan civilization prospered on the island throughout the classic and post-classic Mayan periods between 300 and 1500, with the island being both a trade and ceremonial center.

Spaniards reached the island soon after Columbus, and the arrival of Conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1519 began a period during which the Mayan population shrunk from 40,000 to just a few hundred. The island became essentially abandoned and Cozumel became an operation base for pirates. In the mid-1800s, indigenous people resettled the island and Cozumel slowly built a modest economy in maritime transportation and trade.

During World War II, the US had bases on Cozumel, but those were later abandoned. In 1961, Jacques Cousteau put Cozumel on the map as a diving paradise in one of his famous documentaries.

While Cozumel is a Mexican island and the official language is Spanish, this being a tourist island, almost everyone speaks at least a bit of English.
Cozumel diving
More Cozumel diving