To the uninitiated, scuba often seems an impossibly exotic activity – an otherworldly affair as rarified as a space walk. The good news: It absolutely feels like that, too. And yet it's perfectly approachable for just about anyone; within days of sucking your first breath underwater, you're ready to cruise a vibrant coral reef and go face-to-face with everything from sea turtles to trumpet fish. All while blissfully floating weightless in a kaleidoscopic dream of warm blue water.
If you're ready to make the leap beneath the waves, you may as well do it right. Our favorite scuba spot whether you're a beginner or old hand is in the Cook Islands. Located in the South Pacific, with direct flights from Los Angeles, the Cook Islands are relatively unknown next to South Pacific heavyweights like Fiji or Tahiti. Which means they're less crowded and way more affordable.
The main island in the Cooks, Rarotonga, is like a mini-Tahiti – think steep mountains covered in lush jungle that slope down to palm-fringed, turquoise lagoons, each rimmed by coral reefs that drop off abruptly into the cobalt Pacific. There's a single road on the entire island, which circles the coastline and takes just 45 minutes to do a complete loop. Since it's a protectorate of New Zealand, the main language is English and there's a friendly Kiwi vibe that mixes wonderfully with the strong Polynesian culture. If you took Hawaii and turned back the clock 50 years, that's what you'll find in the Cooks.
For the experienced diver, there are dozens of dive sites spread around the island, from large coral reefs with huge schools of colorful fish, to multiple reef passes, a favorite hangout for turtles and sharks. There are also shipwrecks to explore and deepwater drop-offs loaded with sea life. For the beginner, the many shallow lagoons offer the perfect place to get your feet wet first, and there are a number of highly qualified, professional dive shops located on the island waiting to teach you how. Our favorite is The Big Fish Dive Centre, a fully credited PADI Five-Star dive operation with a friendly and knowledgable staff (PADI is a strict international scuba certification body). And because it's located a few feet from a safe and sheltered lagoon, you'll never have to spend an agonizing minute sitting in a boring pool.
For beginners, a lagoon dive is an easygoing taste of scuba: You get a lecture on safety, the basics of diving and communication, and then suit up. From the shallow lagoon water you get used to breathing underwater and have about 45 minutes to explore and get comfortable. For those who want to dive straight in, there are options for accelerated certification classes as well, so that after just a couple of days you'll be qualified for shallow 40-foot scuba dives anywhere in the world.[From $90, or PADI partial certification at $385; thedivecentre-rarotonga.com]