Off the northern coast of mainland Honduras is a skinny, 32-mile-long island called Roatán. This Central American paradise has been a hot spot for divers for several years. But you don’t have to be a diver to fall in love with the place.
Sitting 35 miles out in the Caribbean Sea, Roatán is surrounded by a large coral reef, and the snorkeling and deep-sea fishing are great, the beaches are gorgeous and the water is crystal-clear. There are plenty of restaurants and bars to hang out in and the people are friendly (most speak English).
Cruise ships started coming here in 2005, and Roatán now has two ship terminals. Many visitors come here first by boat, like what they see and return for a longer stay.
Most of the resorts are clustered on the west side of the island, in two settlements not-so-creatively named West Bay (on the westernmost tip) and West End. Visitors who like company generally stay in this area. From the West Bay resorts, it’s a 10-minute water taxi ride to West End — a bargain at $3 per person, and a chance to hang out with locals onboard.
West End has a wider array of bars and restaurants, and fun shops like Waves of Art, which sells locally made jewelry, crafts and souvenirs at good prices. Look for Christmas tree ornaments like carved gourds and angels made of Pepsi cans.
If lively nightlife is something you’ve come to escape, go farther east to find coastlines that are largely untouched, and resorts that range from high-end luxury to secluded over-water bungalows.
The main town on Roatán is Coxen Hole — also the capital of Honduras’ Bay Islands — with banks, ATMs, grocery stores and a straw market. It’s named for an English pirate who once hid out here. (Sir Henry Morgan was another.) The two cruise ship terminals are nearby.
Driving in Roatán can be a challenge. The one main road tumbles precipitously along the steep ridge that forms the island’s spine. The landscape is lush and heavily wooded, with tropical plants, coconut palms, and cashew, mango and almond trees.
This sweet little island, just minutes off the south shore of Roatán, is reached by barge ferry from Frenchy’s 44, a restaurant in French Harbour. (A stylish German-Iranian couple owns the private island resort of Little French Key as well the restaurant.) Reggae blares during your boat ride over. On arrival, wander around to choose your beach. There are several, including one with tempting deck chairs set in the water. After you swim, snorkel or kayak, visit the mini zoo filled with rescue animals: toucans, parrots, deer, a noisy boar, a miniature horse and two young jaguars. Attendants will encourage you to hold a spider monkey.
For an escape to an even smaller and more adorable island, try Pigeon Key. Ask at your resort for boat trips or book one through Mango Creek Lodge (mangocreeklodge.com), whose captain will pick you up at the dock at J’s Restaurant in Oak Ridge. From there it’s about a 30-minute ride to Pigeon Key.
Unlike Little French Key, there’s nothing on this island — and that’s the charm. Pigeon Key looks like the desert island in a New Yorker cartoon. If you’re lucky, there won’t be any other visitors. But even if you have to share, it’s a great experience.
You can walk all the way around the island in just a few minutes. Bring a book to read on the sand, snorkel gear so you can see what’s underwater, a picnic, and a few bottles of the local Salva Vida (“lifesaver”) beer.
Sandblasters Dune Buggy Tours
If you like mud, take a Sandblasters Dune Buggy Tour. Wear old clothes; you’re sure to get dirty. At its mid-island headquarters, the crew will outfit you with goggles and a bandanna to protect your eyes, nose and mouth. Then hop into a two-person ATV for a loud and bumpy ride across the island, up and down steep dirt roads, and into a mud pit where your guides will encourage you to slam through the puddles, splattering in all directions.
From there, you’ll drive to the beach, where you can rinse off in the ocean. After that, there’s a stop for showers and refreshments at Palmetto Bay Plantation. To end the ride, you’ll buzz through the isolated town of Crawfish Rock, whose residents are surprisingly hospitable to the Sand Blaster tours. (roatanjmjtours.com; three-hour tour, $180 for a two-person buggy.)
Blue Harbor Tropical Arboretum
Just north of the city of Coxen Hole is a 160-acre garden with greenhouses that produce veggies and herbs for island restaurants and bars. They include lettuce, basil, cilantro, oregano, chives, parsley and the all-important mint for mojitos.
There’s also a conservatory full of palms, bromeliads, heliconia, ferns and Honduran orchids. Fruit trees thrive on the property: Persian limes, pink grapefruit, mango and hog plum. Out back there’s a pond where tilapia and turtles glide about. Helen Murphy conducts tours and tosses out feed to keep the Muscovy ducks happy. (blueharbortropicalarboretum.com; 504-9457-4264; tours $23.)
Roatán Rum Company’s shop sits high on West Bay Road, with spectacular views of both sides of the island. And there’s rum! Taste three flavors: dark chocolate with vanilla, coffee, and spiced, with a little kick of cayenne. Hot sauces and delicious rum-soaked cakes are securely packaged to travel well.
You’ll meet so many contented expats on Roatán, it may not be long before you’re contemplating your own move. Business opportunities abound. Expats have already sewn up hydroponic lettuce and rum cakes, but here’s another idea: You’ve heard of lionfish, the invasive species that’s trashing parts of the Caribbean reef? According to Jack Mitchell, of Roatán’s excellent Jack’s Harbor View Grill (in French Harbour), lionfish is delicious. But it’s a chore to remove the venomous spines to make the fish edible.
So just figure out an easy, cost-effective way to de-spine the nasty lionfish, and you’re in business.
Getting there: American Airlines has three flights a week from Miami to Roatán (four hours) and now American Airlines flies from Dallas to Roatan Honduras. Ticket prices vary depending on what month you visit, but round-trip fares that include connecting flights from New York start at about $600.
Where to Stay:
Infinity Bay West Bay Roatan (our favorite place to stay in Roatan)
Infinity Bay Spa and Resort is an exclusive upscale resort of 145 spacious one, two and three-bedroom villas that are located on one of the best beaches in the world. Located on the world’s second largest barrier reef— setting the scene for world class diving and snorkeling only 50 feet off the shoreline. Roatan island’s greenest resort committed to the preservation of our magnificent reef system – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered by many the best spot for scuba diving, snorkeling and fishing in the world. Villas consist of either studios, 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms that come equipped with kitchen appliances, living room area, dining area, private bathroom, central air conditioning and a balcony or patio. This Roatan Resort has the most amazing infinity pool where you can enjoy great sunsets. Infinity Bay Resort also offers an outdoor bar and restaurant with beachfront view. Spa services and a Activities Concierge. There are many local attractions nearby that cater to all ages and interests.
Norwegian Smoked Salmon and ream cheese on a bagel for brunch pictured.
Attractions: An exotic destination in the Caribbean. Run and managed as one of the Top hotels on the Bay Island of Roatan in Honduras. Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort! is located in West Bay Beach, considered by many the best beach on the Island. The white sandy beach is the second largest barrier reef with exotic wildlife and is also considered by many divers an underwater museum!
Infinity Bay Spa and Resort, Roatan 1-800-230-4134
West Bay Beach, Roatan, Honduras
Ever popular Cocoview Dive Resort is somewhat an anomaly in an otherwise slow industry. Around the world, numbers are down at resorts, and dive resorts in particular. Cocoview however, maintains their numbers. Eighty percent occupancy at low times is nearly unheard of. Look at several nearby resorts that are closed for several months in the slow season. A nearly 50 percent return rate helps. There is a special name for those that come back time after time-Coco Nuts. After a visit it is easy to see why.
Twenty nine rooms are both on the sandy peninsula and several cabins sit over the water connected by a myriad of walkways. We look into a few cabins. Rustic, yet everything is there. From hairdryers, to refrigerators, coffee pots, air con, and the essential hammock on the shaded porch. Deluxe service in a laid back atmosphere.
What keeps the divers returning? The obvious answer is diving. But many places offer diving. It is the attention to detail and complete and total respect for The Diver. All you can eat buffet meals, all inclusive dive packages, a well run dive operation, large boats that are not too crowded, 24 hour unlimited shore diving (yes you can dive at 3am if you wish), divemasters that know everyone by name, any and every dive gadget you could want available onsite, photo and video pros, and most of all a sense of family. Many staff members have been at the resort for years and a few since the beginning. That says something. All are local and proud to be part of such a great operation.
How do you become a Coco Nut? Visit 5 times (the 10th trip is free) and you are inducted into the Coco Nut Hall of Fame. To start your journey find more info at http://www.cocoviewresort.com/.
– See more at: http://www.honduras.com/scubadiving/
Las Verandas Hotel & Villas: Part of Pristine Bay, the island’s newest and most ambitious development, Las Verandas Hotel & Villas rents out lavish villas. The elegant resort opened in March 2012 and expects to complete additional hotel units by June. Pristine Bay’s pride and joy is the Pete Dye-designed Black Pearl Golf Course. Las Verandas resort guests can enjoy infinity pools, high-end restaurants and a Beach Club with dive shop. (las-verandas.com; 855-224-6620; low-season doubles from $195; villas from $225.)
Bananarama Dive & Beach Resort in Roatan 1-800-230-4134 West Bay Beach 1, Roatan
Bananarama Dive & Beach Resort is located at West Bay in Roatan features an eco-friendly dive and beach resort with turquoise waters and sparkling white sandy beaches surrounded by lush tropical plants. A dream vacation in Roatan location for those who wish to escape their every day stress. Accommodations equipped with refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker and kitchen sink along with utensils, plates and cups. Hot and Cold water dispensers as well as a kitchen table and chairs in rooms with high ceilings providing cooler temperatures. Air conditioning and ceiling fans e=in every room. Private porch with hammocks and balconies. each villa has 2 bedrooms and includes a twin bed with a unique mosaic shower. The upper level has a queen bed along with a screened in reading area. On the beach, with lots of activities, three restaurants and a wide range of accommodations, including condos and cabanas. (West Bay; 727-564-9058; bananaramadive.com; garden cabanas from $125 for two.)
Palmetto Bay Plantation: A collection of 17 architect-designed beachfront villas, plus handsome open-air lounges. It may look familiar: In 2003, the reality show “Temptation Island” was filmed here. (Crawfish Rock; 855-676-2826; palmettobayplantation.com; villas from $240 per night during low season after May 1.)
Mango Creek Lodge: Stay in one of six over-water one-bedroom cabanas, where you can swim off your front steps and enjoy sea views from your porch hammock. (Port Royal; mangocreeklodge.com; doubles from $2,500 per week, all-inclusive.)
More Roatan Hotels
More about Roatan
More about the Bay Islands
More about Honduras