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Casa Del Mar

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Joined: 09 Nov 2005
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Location: Texas

Post subject: Casa Del Mar
Posted: Wed Nov 09, 2005 4:23 pm
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Safest and Fully Staffed Place during Hurricane Wilma.

During Hurricane Wilma, we were so lucky to stay at Casa Del Mar. We heard of other hotels abandoning their guests, leaving them without food, water, or help. The staff of 18 served the 18 guests who could not make it off the island in time. I will never stay at any other hotel, not ever. Commitment to service was proven beyond what any words could ever say. The staff risked their very lives for our safety. We had food, water, even information. We had unsurpassed protection. We had running water when 90% of the island did not. Here is the full account:

Casa Del Mar
A Countdown to Wilma
By Angela Juul

Like the thrilling rush of a rollercoaster as it swoops down a hill, intense anticipation surged through my veins as the jet descended. The familiar green jungle permeated every inch of the lovely island below. Our captain circled before landing in Cozumel, Saturday, October 15. My friend Quintin and I looked forward to seven glorious days of scuba diving before attending his sister’s wedding the following weekend. Quintin was even bringing a surprise to the wedding: a long time family friend the family hadn’t seen for decades.

I began planning our dive list weeks in advance, studying books and videos to blend new-to-us dive sites as well as some favorites sure to present an array of Spotted Eagle Rays, Turtles, Sharks and huge Groupers. As I made our air and hotel reservations, I emailed our dive list request to Martin at DiveWithMartin dive shop and received a friendly response.

And then we were there - the gentle, warm salty breeze offering soothing relief and excitement all in one slow inhale. During the drive through town, we saw new growth and construction of buildings added in the last year, as well as familiar vendors. As we conversed in Spanish with the driver, I could feel my stress dissipating into thin air; an effect of the island’s cheery relaxed atmosphere. An ear-to-ear smile emerged across my shining face as we drove beneath the overhead walkway, around the thatched roof of the dining room and by the tower into Casa Del Mar’s driveway. We were at our “home away from home” on this calm sunny day. The friendly staff checked us in and delivered our bags to our room. <br><br>We headed to the dive shop within minutes. “Angelita Del Mar!” Martin’s dive staff greeted us, as they helped prepare for our first shore dive by the sunken airplane. Sunday morning began with steaming omelets, served as we prepared for our first early boat dive. Swimming through Palancar Gardens and Dalila was like walking through a favorite neighborhood. Monday, we shot video as we marveled through Palancar Caves and Paso Del Cedral. Tuesday morning’s dives at Santa Rosa left us laughing as I ended with 1200 pounds of air to Quintin’s sorry 400 pounds.

After a relaxing shower back at the hotel, we turned on the news to hear about a tropical depression approaching the island. We laughed and joked with the bride-to-be about the storm. Over a dozen family members and friends were flying in for the wedding from all over the U.S., so the joke about a hurricane was dismissed with a hiss. By the time we picked up our underwater pictures, the depression had turned to a storm. At that point, we were still unconcerned as the storm could go in another direction. Besides, we were excited that Quintin’s friend Dennis was flying in from Washington D.C. for his first dives in the warm water of the Caribbean. <br><br>As we ate our steaming omelets Wednesday morning, the mood was different. Fewer people were in the dining room. Leaving for our dives, we walked by locals doing construction work, yielding to us as we passed. As we approached the dive shop, we noticed the boats were gone. Martin explained that the port was closed. “Pesky storm,” we thought. We inquired about a shore dive later that day when our friend Dennis was to arrive. When Dennis checked in to Casa Del Mar later in the day, one of the guests was dismayed to see him checking in as the storm approached, when so many were checking out. Still, we were not overly concerned as we headed to town to shop. <br><br>Returning, shopping trophies in hand, we strolled through beautiful gardens filled with blossoming plants, majestic palms and towering climbing ivies. We sat back and relaxed under the hotel dining room’s thatched roof. The faint echo of hammers caused eyebrows to raise, heightened oven more by the sight of our travel agent arriving to talk to us about evacuation plans. We watched as the last ferry to Playa Del Carmen left just before sunset followed by the cruise ships leaving hours before their usual departure time.<br><br>Thursday morning, October 20th held a series of surprises. First, Quintin’s family invited us to join them as they left Playa Del Carmen to drive inland to escape the storm – but there were no boats left to take us over to the mainland. Second, the airport closed before our airline had evacuation plans for us, as I learned straining to hear over the sound of continuous hammering. Then, as the banks were closing early we did a “wild goose chase” around the island for cash. It was a reality: hurricane Wilma was on her way toward Cozumel and we were stuck. Stores were boarding up and some were even sand bagging their front doors. A drive to the East side of the island showed the police-protected road closed, framed by the raging surf and punctuated by stray dogs.

Back at Casa Del Mar, the lobby and game room had been converted to a mighty fortress. Its solid beams, unyielding construction and unique triangular design combined to provide the strength needed to withstand this never-before-witnessed category five storm that spanned 400 miles in width and 1200 miles in length. Traveling at only five miles per hour, the chance of torrential, flooding rains was also a threat. The Governor warned that severe water damage was likely.

During the day, the first hotel storm notice was delivered, then the second and the third, asking each guest to attend hurricane procedures briefing. The staff guided us through three levels of protective procedures and answered our questions. After the walkthrough, over lunch, we learned that one couple who traveled from Spain was on their honeymoon and another was celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Oddly, we noticed that flies were unusually prolific and aggressive around our food. The government inspectors arrived to inspect the hotel’s shelter, which passed with flying colors, saving us from being forced to move to public shelters as had happened at most other hotels.

As directed, we returned to our rooms to pack one necessity bag and to put our luggage on the top shelf of the closet as instructed. I stuck my identification in my bra, just in case. We made phone calls to family back home, bravely covering up the fear in the pit of our stomachs. I text messaged two churches and several friends requesting prayer. My mind raced through my memorized Bible scriptures for ones that brought peace and Quintin read from and translated Acts 15 from the Spanish Bible.

At 6:00 pm we each claimed a blanketed plastic beach lounger. I situated my overnight bag and book. The eighteen remaining guests were about to become good friends. Each of the expansive windows and glass doors had been completely covered with wood on the outside. Some were additionally layered on the inside. Wood chucks were nailed into the ground to hold support beams that braced boards across each window, inside and out. Several of the guests lingered outside the front door, socializing, some having drinks, some smoking; all in good spirits yet aware of the danger approaching. Around 8:30, many of us took our places on the hard, narrow makeshift cots reading while lighting was still available. The staff arranged drinks and bottles of water on the long serving table. With earplugs in, I started drifting off to sleep, stifling a distinct claustrophobic feeling as the staff nailed our doors shut with the wooden reinforcements. We were officially holed up.

The lights flickered as the intensity of the hurricane grew, and then the hotel lost all electricity around 3:00 a.m. on Friday the 21st. Hotel engineer, Normando, in his yellow hard hat and tall goulashes, checked each window every half hour. Most of the guests were in the lobby with a few downstairs in the basement game room. The two rooms provided us about 1200 square feet of space and with our flashlights and dive lights, we were able to move around with a fair amount of comfort. Carlos, the tall security guard, sat with his back to the front doors which were roped and tied against the storm. Each arm was raised and he firmly held the door handles in his hands.

Friday the 21st we awoke to find Carlos still holding the doors as if he never budged. Normando again checked the windows, a task we had no idea would have to be performed so many times. The hurricane sounded like war. To our military folks, it sounded like B52s overhead. It was impossible to distinguish if the sounds we were hearing were waves of surf crashing against the walls or the wind itself. Sounds of howling, whistling and sometimes like those of voices, as one guest described, “like a thousand poltergeist spirits circling the building searching for a crevice to get in at us,” assailed our ears. Occasionally we heard crashes outside. In the windows, we could see candlelight reflected on the glass appearing to breathe in and then out. I suddenly felt a change of air pressure and reacted by equalizing, plugging my nose and gently breathing out. It felt like a squeeze in my sinuses; like the oxygen suddenly got sucked out of the room.

Normando instructed the guests in the game room to come up to the lobby. The lobby was dark and its tile floors wet and slippery from rain that had seeped under the doors. I kicked off my sandals and donned my scuba booties. A staff member began using squeegee to push water from the lobby floor into the basement. Through a small peep hole, we could look out at the palm trees violently thrashing back and forth in the 165 mph wind and heavy fog. Outside it was raining so hard that it sounded like a waterfall. It was no surprise to see increasing drips of water fall from the ceiling. Though we were unaware at the time, when Normando was not checking the windows, he used rope supports to crawl along the ground to his car to get radio updates on Wilma. We have no idea how he got outside and back in the mighty fortress. By this point it was a muggy 90 degrees and the roof was shuddering. We looked forward to the storm’s halfway point. Hours crept by as we tried to sleep. Our thought was, “if we just go to sleep, it will all be over when we wake up.” Normando estimated relief in two hours, but two hours turned into ten, again and again and again.

By Friday at 3:00 p.m., Normando asked the guests to move downstairs due to changing wind direction. Calling out commands in Spanish, he instructed the team outside who respond with more hammering on the reinforcements. We wondered what prevented them from being swept away. Once again, we experienced the sensation of oxygen being sucked out of the room and the odd “sinus squeeze.” In the glow from four tiny candles, we listened as the blasting war winds finally quieted for a few minutes. Guests tried their cell phones and amazingly some had enough reception to send and receive text messages to inform friends and family of our status and that the storm was at the halfway point – or so we thought. We were encouraged to receive text messages back, learning that hundreds of people were praying for us. Through Internet weather updates, our contacts made us aware of how slow, large and strong the storm really was and that we were in for war-zone like conditions for another twenty plus hours.

At that point it was 95 degrees and extremely humid. The carbon dioxide in the room made us all very sleepy and lethargic. We used the time to introduce ourselves to each other and worked together to stay calm. The group of eighteen guests ranged from 25 to 55 years in age, mostly scuba divers, from Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado Virginia, and Spain. Some were dive instructors or dive masters and most were advanced divers, with a total of about 15,000 dives combined.

As the day wore on, the water depth in the game room went from dry to two inches; the ceiling seemed to get lower as the water got higher. The hotel made another area available to wait upstairs from the lobby, but it was miserably hot. Jimmy, a dive instructor from Tennessee, commented that “his sweat was starting to sweat.” By that point I was feeling faint, dizzy and nauseous. Knowing that help was not an option, I crept back downstairs to try to sleep on my sweat-drenched pillow. I stopped by the peep hole for a view, but it was covered by fallen trees. The winds were roaring ferociously and we could hear more crashes outside. <br><br>We tried to stay hydrated as the hours crept on. With no running water, the toilets could not be flushed, another unpleasant reality of the storm. At one guest’s suggestion, we collected the dripping and seeping rainwater and used it to flush the toilets. Updates again suggested that relief was not too far off, but the updates did not predict the reality of how long we’d be stuck. We learned that some of the hotel staffs’ families were staying in the hotel rooms outside of our fortress. Waiting for the hurricane to subside, it seemed like an eternity was minutes, and minutes, an eternity. <br><br>In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Normando called everyone to move back upstairs to the candlelit lobby. As Wilma’s eye centered over Cancun, a cold front threatened to turn the storm around and send it back over the island like a pin ball, pinging back and forth between Cancun and Cozumel. The staff, dedicated throughout the entire experience, invited the guests to a breakfast of cereal, fresh fruit and milk. We were now allowed to have our first look outside. Nothing could prepare us for what our eyes witnessed. The horrific sights were balanced only by the relief of breathing fresh air for the first time in over 36 hours. Commanding caution, the continuing heavy rains and wind compelled us to stay inside.

By 4:00 p.m. some of the men, rebelliously, ventured outside in protected areas to try to see the damage done to our pre-Wilma rooms. In many of the rooms, the windows were blown out and the security lock’s lever on the doors was blown shut. Drawers were sucked out of the armoires and wall lamps broken. Mud was everywhere. Few rooms were unscathed. As we got our first glimpse outside of our protected fortress, someone discovered a large propane tank damaged by a collapsed ten-foot concrete wall. The reality of a leaking propane tank refocused the staff’s energies to prevent a possible explosion. Trees formerly lush with greenery and flowers were now branchless and barren, many lying on their sides, uprooted. There were no people, anywhere. No one wanted to mention the crazy thought that we might be the only survivors.

We marveled at the continued force of the storm. Still without water and electricity, the Casa Del Mar staff worked incessantly for our safety and comfort. Around 8:30 p.m. Saturday, we received word that Wilma was finally and truly going away. In a last angry act, she spun off a huge tropical storm with the island in the middle of it.

Soon the generators started and within minutes we had lights! As we waited, the staff prepared clean, safe semi-private rooms and a nice dinner, in the midst of the ongoing tropical storm and heavy rains. We were so grateful for the protected courtyard where we could sit and enjoy each other’s company in fresh air. Our communications with the outside world entirely cut off, we still had no knowledge if anyone else on the island was alive.

Sunday morning, under heavy caution, we were allowed to venture outside in an extremely limited area. I felt the rain sting as it hit my face as I witnessed the destruction left of not just windows, but also of buildings, roofs, foundations, piers, seawalls, sidewalks, jungles, roads, medians and steel reinforced cement electrical poles. The war of Wilma was as devastating as any actual war, according to those with previous military experience. The streets were littered with an incredible range of debris from televisions to cement staircases, propane tanks, scuba gear, large pieces of furniture, power lines and imbedded transformers. Broken glass was everywhere. We saw tangled cars, motorcycles and parts. The airport tower was gone, as was the top of the lighthouse. The Casa Del Mar staff took turns checking on their families at home, all with good reports, while other staff members worked to restore running water. The roads were impassable. With airports flooded and damaged, and airplane fuel contaminated, it was to be days before we could leave. Many less fortunate had no food, no water and no information. Unlike ours, many hotel staffs abandoned their guests. It made us truly appreciate how much Casa Del Mar valued our safety, weather updates, meals, clean water, and comfort. We knew we had it good when our chef appeared at meals with his tall chef’s cap to keep spirits perky.

End of day Sunday, October 23rd, contrasted the heart-wrenching, unimaginable destruction on the ground, with a beautiful, glorious sunset above that promised better days ahead. With limited cell phone reception, families joyously reunited over the distance, including Quintin’s newly married sister and the wedding party now safe in Meridia.

By 10:00 a.m. Monday, all boards and braces were removed, and the tenacious, smiling staff began clean up efforts, demonstrating their commitment to the future of Cozumel. And there it was. The mighty fortress was transformed back to the welcoming lobby at Casa Del Mar for decades to come.
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Joined: 29 Nov 2005
Posts: 27

Post subject: Another Great stay at Casa Del Mar
Posted: Sun Jan 20, 2008 11:53 am
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I first stayed at this hotel 10 years ago. The first time didn't go too well (I think they were over booked). We decided to give them a second chance the following year, and I'm glad we did. This is not a 5 star property, and they don't claim to be, so if that is what you are used to , go some where else. If you want a clean room, a good location, a decent breakfast (included), at a reasonable price, than Casa Del Mar should make you happy. They usually* provide free shuttle service to their private beach club, Nachi Cocum, which is arguably the nicest beach club on the west side (* there was a problem with the taxi union trying to stop the shuttle service when I was there). The "beach" area directly across the road from the hotel didn't have any sand yet, but they were hauling it in the day we left. The pool area is great for catching some rays, but lacking in shade if you want to get out of the sun. I've stayed at this hotel 7 times, and I will return.
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Lisa Martin

Post subject: Great times!
Posted: Tue Feb 26, 2008 1:07 pm
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Me and my traveling companions had a great time. We enjoyed Cozumel and all the things it had to offer. We snorkeled, toured the island and went deep sea fishing. The hotel was clean, and in a good spot for getting around. The restaurant and bar personnel were wonderful. They provided us with excellent service. The meals were pretty good. I was a little worried about the food, but everything we ate was good and there was plenty. The variety was limited but there was enough to choose from that you didn't have to eat the same thing twice. The maid service was great, they cleaned up everyday and made the room very comfortable to return to. The taxi services on Cozumel are excellent. We had a driver that went far beyond our expectation. We left an article in his taxi and he returned it to us the following day. All in all every driver we had was good. The down side to the whole trip was the front desk. We never could get a safe deposit box, so we had to carry all our valuables with us at all times and the staff was basically unfriendly and not much help. But I would and will return to Casa Del Mar because everything else was wonderful.
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Steve L

Post subject: Good Value
Posted: Sat Mar 27, 2010 7:00 pm
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Did a dive package with Dive Paradise. I thought it was a pretty good value. The diving was awesome and the accommodations weren't fancy but was what we needed.It's clean and friendly staff and loved the location. Right by the water. Definately would return.
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