Fish tacos, hand-painted pottery, empty beaches

Fran Gealer

Some cruise-ship day-trippers think of Cozumel as a mini Cancún, a budding Vegas off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Problem is, they're not looking beyond all the T-shirt shops and discos that face the malecón, Cozumel's whitewashed seaside promenade. If you scratch the surface of this 24-mile-long island, you'll find that this is no Cancún. The former fishing settlement got its first traffic lights a couple of years ago, and a supermercado is playing Mexican Wal-Mart, stealing business away from San Miguel's bodegas, but that's as far as the development has gone. There's still nary a high-rise in sight, and the entire windward coast, with its unspoiled white-sand beaches, remains electricity-free. It's a little piece of paradise in the Caribbean Sea.

Cozumel's hotel scene is centered on the main town, San Miguel, and along the leeward coast. The island's one major drawback: a dearth of stylish accommodations.

Built in the 1960's, the venerable 253-room Presidente Inter-Continental Cozumel (Carretera a Chankanaab, km 6.5; 800/447-6147 or 52-987/20322, fax 52-987/21360; doubles from $200) was inspired by the acclaimed Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, who pioneered the use of sharp angles and color-splashed planes. The Modernist hotel hasn't changed much since it was built, and it's still the best on the island, set on a golden beach.

One of Cozumel's top deals is the Condumel (Carretera Costera Norte, km 1.5; 800/262-4500 or 52-987/20892; doubles from $120). Its 10 one-bedroom beachside condo units have seventies-style sunken living rooms and louvered doors—and way more space than your average hotel suite. Added value: daily maid service.

Smart guests at Playa Azul(Carretera a San Juan, km 4; 52-987/20199, fax 52-987/20110; doubles from $160) choose to stay in the new 31-room Mediterranean-style addition. The suites here are generic, but have plenty of space, expansive sea views, and easy access to the pool.

Divers looking for comfortable quarters near spectacular dive sites need search no further than the Scuba Club Cozumel (Carretera Costera Sur, km 1.5; 800/847-5708 or 713/783-3305 or 52-987/21800, fax 52-987/21977; doubles from $258, including all meals). The white-stucco diving resort is pretty bare-bones, but it does have a pool. Packages include unlimited diving right off the hotel's dock.

Mexican architect Jorge Ruiz Esparza's two properties aren't for everyone, but with rates starting at $36 a night, most guests won't mind the simple, though stylish, accommodations. Tamarindo (421 Calle Cuatro Norte; phone and fax 52-987/23614), a five-room B&B, is on a residential block in San Miguel, just five minutes from all the action. Across town is Amaranto (Calle Cinco Sur, between Avdas. 15 and 20; 52-987/23219, fax 52-987/23614), a Gaudíesque stucco building housing two guest rooms; out back are three bungalows and a plunge pool.

BY AIR Continental has direct flights from Houston; or you can fly into Cancún and board Aerocaribe's 20-minute flight.
BY FERRY If you don't fancy puddle-jumping, take a taxi from Cancún to the port town of Playa del Carmen and catch an hourly passenger ferry (52-987/21508).
BY CAR Cozumel's finest beaches are a half-hour drive from San Miguel and the hotel zone, so you'll need a car once you're on the island. Rent an old-style Volkswagen Beetle (about $40 a day), which is still in production in Mexico, or splurge on a Jeep from Aguila (685 Avda. Rafael E. Melgar; 52-987/20729; $50—$65 a day).

Del Museo Avda. Rafael E. Melgar at Calle Seis Norte; 52-987/ 20838; breakfast for two $13. The Museo de la Isla de Cozumel documents the history of the island and its settlers. On the second floor of the pink Spanish colonial museum, there's a real find: an inexpensive café with priceless views of the ferry dock and the malecón. The Matuleño eggs, smothered in ham, cheese, and salsa, are the ultimate eye-opener.

Los Girasoles 198 Calle Tres Sur; no phone; breakfast for two $12. This cheery café serves traditional Mexican breakfast dishes. The Girasoles special (fried eggs over chilaquiles) is the most popular. The café's name means "the sunflowers," which is why there are yellow blossoms—real and painted— all over the place.

Zermatt Bakery Avda. Cinco Norte and Calle Cuatro; 52-987/21384; breakfast for two $5. A nothing-to-look-at storefront bakery making rich, buttery pastries. Sit at the table by the window, or take a bag of sugared elephant ears to eat by the water.

La Choza 198 Avda. Adolfo Rosado Salas; 52-987/20958; lunch for two $20. Mexican comfort food (try the sublime tortilla soup), giant margaritas, and all the chips and guacamole you can eat. The design is basic: painted cement floors and heavy wooden tables and chairs under a soaring thatched roof (choza is Mayan for "hut").

Prima 109A Avda. Adolfo Rosado Salas; 52-987/2477; pizza for two $25. Pizza and calzones may not immediately come to mind when you envision lunch in Mexico. But if it's as good as this (and as cheap), why not?Plus, a slice goes perfectly with a pitcher of sangria. Prima's rooftop café has plastic chairs and Christmas lights year-round.

La Cabaña del Pescador Carretera a San Juan, km 4; dinner for two $60, no credit cards. Lobsters are the only thing on the menu. The fresh-caught crustaceans are sold by the pound and cooked to order, while the rest of the food—rice, potatoes, vegetables—is thrown in free. The restaurant is set right in the jungle, and its leafy roofs and rickety bamboo walkways are straight out of Gilligan's Island.

El Capi Navegante Restaurant 312 Avda. 10 Sur; 52-987/21730; dinner for two $45. The fluorescent-lit nautical-themed El Capi hasn't got much in the way of design, but the fish is caught off Cozumel's shores the same day it's served. All it needs is a squeeze of lime.

El Caribeño Presidente Inter-Continental Cozumel, Carretera a Chancanaab, km 6.5; 52-987/20322; dinner for two $75. Request a waterfront table at the Presidente's open-air restaurant and order the red snapper. Or pass on the meal and come by for happy hour—with two-for-one drinks, it's a steal. Just beware of the "Cozumel," a concoction made with orange juice, bananas, lime juice, and Xtabentun, an anise-flavored Yucatecan aphrodisiac.

La Veranda 140 Calle Cuatro Norte; 52-987/24132; dinner for two $60. A martini menu, bananas flambé . . . need we say more?La Veranda's chichi selection goes beyond Mexican basics; you'll find mahimahi in lobster sauce, even jerk chicken. You can eat in the West Indies—style cottage or in a delightful garden with palm trees and wrought-iron tables.

• Two carne asada tacos and a beer from El Pique (25 Avda. Pedro J. Coldwell). It may be a no-frills taquería, but those who have made numerous repeat visits report that they've never encountered a problem.
• A bag of corn tortillas served hot off the griddle by Mexican grandmothers at the weekend market on the Plaza Mayor in San Miguel.
• Chips and guacamole at Mezcalito's (Avda. Rafael E. Melgar, km 14), a beach bar on the windward side of the island.
• Several helpings of sugar-and-cinnamon-coated churros from the outdoor stand at the northwest corner of the main square in San Miguel.
• The dinner assortment for dos personas at Lonchería Monica (Calle Tres Sur between Avdas. 35 and 40). For a sweet balance to the spicy dishes, order an horchata, a refreshing drink made from rice, vanilla, almonds, and sugar. No one comes here before 7:30 p.m.

While the handful of beaches on the developed side of the island tend to be rocky, they have the best snorkeling and diving. Here, where to go, from north to south:

Playa San Juan One of the few placid coves of talcum on the leeward side, fronting the Playa Azul Hotel. Avoid it on Sundays and holidays, when it's crowded with locals.

Chankanaab National Park
The beach itself is nothing to speak of, but for snorkelers, Chankanaab is a dream. Steps carved in the coral allow easy access to the fish-filled waters.

Playa San Francisco
The perfect setting, if it weren't for the noisy partyers at the two open-air restaurants.

Punta Sur
There's a $10 admission charge to enter this newly created national park, which encompasses Punta Celarain, at the tip of the island. Climb to the top of the old lighthouse museum for panoramic views.

You'll need a car to reach Cozumel's finest beaches, along the eastern (windward) side of the island. Stake out a deserted stretch and it will remain blissfully unpeopled for the day. (Just beware of strong tides off these lifeguard-free sands.) Scattered huts serve cold beer and fish tacos. The best of these beach bars, from north to south along Avenida Rafael E. Melgar:

Mezcalito's Bar & Grill
Km 14. The first oasis you spy on the approach from San Miguel is this café. Hammocks line the shore, and there are horses for rent.

Punta Morena
Km 18. Brave souls can overnight in the bar's $10-a-day shacks; bring candles. A prime spot for surfing lessons.

Playa Bonita Km 26. A quiet watering hole on a tranquil cove.

Chen Río Km 30. A seafood restaurant on a protected beach. The top spot for swimming.

Paradise Café Km 33. All Bob Marley music, all the time.

UNDERWATER The reefs off Cozumel are some of the top diving sites in the world, inhabited by bright sergeant majors and shimmering parrot fish. Outfitters include Flash's Adventure (52-987/20788) and Eagle Ray Divers (52-987/25735). Tired of watching fish?Try Yucatech Expeditions (144 Avda. 15; 52-987/25659), which takes explorers diving through rivers in underground caverns and into ancient cenotes, sacred wells rumored to have been used for Mayan virgin sacrifices. A two-day course includes lessons and five dives.

In ancient times, Mayan women came to Cozumel to worship the goddess of fertility at San Gervasio; 24 pilgrimage sites have been discovered in the island's jungles. Unlike on the mainland, Cozumel's sites are usually devoid of tourists. The two to visit are San Gervasio and El Cedral, a small structure once used as a jail.

Only gringos go to Carlos & Charlie's, a rowdy nightclub overlooking the malecón. Locals and in-the-know tourists prefer Joe's Lobster Pub Restaurant & Reggae Bar (229 Avda. 10; 52-987/23275), where reggae-salsa fusion bands perform nightly and everyone dances until 2 a.m.

Sunday-Night Concerts The whole town gathers from 7 to 10 p.m. for free performances by local musicians in the central plaza of San Miguel.
Carnival A mini Mardi Gras starts the Thursday before Ash Wednesday (this year: February 22—28). Floats parade down the malecón, and dance contests take place all over town. The fiestas are open to visitors.
Día de los Muertos Mexico comes alive for the Day of the Dead, a weeklong festival that begins on October 31. Candy stores hawk sugar skulls and skeletons, and ghoulish cemetery parties are held November 1 and 2.

For basic souvenirs—striped serapes, carved wooden toys, silver earrings, onyx chess sets—skip the overpriced shops in San Miguel and hit Avda. Benito Juárez, which traverses the island. At open-air stalls along the route, you'll find similar merchandise at much lower prices. (Get ready to haggle.) If you're bent on shopping indoors, check out these options.

Los Cinco Soles 27 Avda. Rafael E. Melgar Norte; 52-987/22040. In the early 1900's, this building was a warehouse where dried resin from the chicozapote tree (chewing gum's main ingredient) was stored. Today it's a warren of stalls selling custom-painted dinnerware, hand-blown glassware, Day of the Dead memorabilia, high-quality silver jewelry, and embroidered clothing. You really don't need to shop anywhere else.

Artesanías Pech 30 Avda. Pedro J. Coldwell; 52-987/23303. The insider's source for hand-painted Talavera pottery, including sinks (try lugging one home!).

Manati Avda. Cinco between Calle Dos and Calle Juárez; 52-987/25169. Attached to an Italian restaurant is a sweet boutique selling simple island paintings and handbags in the shape of orange and lime wedges.

José Chan Avda. Cinco Norte at Calle Cuatro; no phone. On the porch of his blue-and-yellow house in the center of town, Chan has been weaving hammocks on a wooden loom for as long as anyone can remember. If he's not outside working on one of his multicolored creations, he's probably home anyway, so try knocking on the door. His hammocks come in one size and are $25—less than half the price of similar ones sold at local stores.

Naturalia 1132 Avda. 20 Sur; 52-987/21862. An airy café and bookstore that stocks candles, locally produced all-natural soaps, mountain-flower honey, organic jelly, and incense. Is New Age the next wave on Cozumel?