Roatan, Honduras, is having a “moment.” This bamboo and coconut-covered, multicultural island seems ready for its close up (and is pretty as all get out) as it enjoys the sunny spotlight of tourist attention.
Located on the world’s second largest barrier reef, the region has long been a destination for scuba divers. But the cruise ships have also been calling for more than 10 years, so more vacationers are clamoring up its mangroved shores. Meanwhile, locals are surfing the mighty wave of tourism. One restaurant owner estimates that 87 restaurants have opened, changed ownership, or closed in the last 6 years. Tourism has become the primary industry, with commercial fishing a distant second.
Which leads to my dilemma: I can’t stop talking about this new (to me) secret place, while secretly hoping that you don’t actually go there, so it won’t become too crowded. Ah, but already an Applebees and a Wendy’s are sharing space with local businesses; vacation homes are showing up on those international real estate TV shows; and construction is booming. It looks like Roatan has been “discovered” (yet again; it has a historic legacy of visitors and invaders), and for good reason.
Starting with the party atmosphere on the flight over, you can’t help but notice that something’s up when flight attendants start joking with returning regulars and the pilot reminisces about his own scuba diving vacations.
The largest of three Bay islands, Roatan is about 35 miles off the coast of Honduras — not quite 5 miles across and almost 40 miles long end to end. Its history was populated by conquistadors and pirates, while today’s population (approx 65,000) has settled into a Central American/Caribbean/European cultural melting pot. Part of Spanish-speaking Honduras since the 1850s, its most common language is still Caribbean English. Prices for most products are given in both Honduran Lempiras and US dollars, and the local radio station seems to play Spanish, American, and reggae music in equal rotation. Adding to the diversity, local cultures include the Caracol (of European and British-Afro-Caribbean descent) and the Garifuna (of Carib, Arawak, and West African descent).
Since I don’t scuba dive, eat shellfish, or lie on the beach without turning into a red lobster myself, a scuba diving mecca wasn’t at the top of my travel list. But my friends run Ooloonthoo, a restaurant in Roatan’s West End, and a visit was happily in order. And my non-scuba-ness didn’t matter in the least after I stepped off the plane. Roatan’s history and culture are rugged and compelling with something for everyone. There are plenty of activities to do on your own or in a group: fishing, glass-bottom boat tours, kayaking, horseback riding, zip lines through the canopy, even yoga and spa retreats. The water was warm, the average daytime temperature was in the mid 80s F and not too humid. The beaches were clean. You can go for the diving and natural environment, while eating well and strolling to local shops.
With coral close to the shore, even casual snorkelers don’t have to swim far to be amazed by colorful fish, eels, and sea turtles. Many dive shops rent snorkeling equipment if you don’t bring your own flippers. There are lots of dive shops to choose from. Coconut Tree is one that came recommended http://www.coconuttreedivers.com
My tour guides were Canadian-born chef Paul James and his wife Soden. She is from northern India, but the duo met in Canada before travelling around Asia and the Caribbean, then settling in Roatan. Ooloonthoo, the “first and only Indian Restaurant in Honduras,” was born in 2005.
Visit restauranteurs and you are bound to enjoy some food tourism. In general, the food we tried was tasty and consistently fresh, not too spicy, but flavorful: lots of fish and shellfish — my friend who loves shrimp was happy as a clam here with all the wild-caught Caribbean pink shrimp — but there were always other choices as well.
And oh the lime. I had key lime pie that was worth the airfare all on its own.
A Few Highlights:
• The Posada Arcos Iris is a small hotel nestled under the West End canopy. The 3rd floor suite enjoys a hint of water view through the foliage, and feels like a comfy tree house. Light breakfasts and lunches could be eaten in the kitchenette, with supplies from nearby vendors. It’s also home to the Argentinian Grill, a restaurant with particularly good steak. The same owners run a second location, Posada Las Orquideas, in a nearby neighbourhood. http://www.roatanposada.com; http://www.posadalasorquideas.com/
• Paya Bay Resort – The east side of the island is more rugged than the west. The hills are higher, and there’s a mix of pine and palm trees. This very secluded and photogenic resort juts out of the rocky cliffs — a surprise after the winding 30 km drive from west to east. We didn’t stay, but did eat lunch and walk around the grounds. That my sea bass sandwich (“not the endangered kind,” they said) was so tasty was astounding, really. Everyone, touring chef included, raved about the conch soup, and wow that mutton pepper hot sauce is good (if, like me, you like that sort of thing); second only to the key lime pie. http://www.payabay.com
• If an all-inclusive “upscale and bio-sensitive” condo on the beach is more your style (you can always take a tour or taxi to go exploring), Infinity Bay Resort and Spa offers short- or long-term stays. Both rental units and condo ownership are available here. http://www.infinitybay.com
• The Lobster Pot is a resto in Luna Beach, just past West End. You can’t beat the atmosphere — sit up on the verandah or at a patio table on the sand, under almond and mango trees. Everyone at our table gave good reviews to their hearty plates of shrimp, red snapper, or roast chicken dinners, Caribbean style.
• Eagle Ray’s Bar and Grill – great marine views from this outdoor restaurant on a wharf in West End. The grouper quesadillas was tender and the fish and chips light and drizzled with lime, with a little more lime on the side, of course.
• Cindy’s Place – Tasty fare comes out of this unassuming West End food stand, like homemade tortillas, Honduran red beans, and locally produced hot sauce. A shared pastelito (Cuban-style pastry) and shrimp burrito also got yums of approval.
• Ooloonthoo – offers elegant outdoor dining in a hilltop Indian restaurant with island flair. From curried calamari to Bengali fish jhol and pork vindaloo, the menu offers thoughtful appetizers and entrée options. Reservations required. Vegetarians or people with other dietary considerations should let the chef know in advance. http://www.ooloonthoo.com
• West End, the most touristy area, is located (as you might expect) at the west end of the island. It has a beach-front main street lined with restaurants, small hotels, and shops. Half Moon Bay is circled by the beach, as well as local homes, vacation homes, and new condos.
Overview, with information from Coconut Tree Divers website:
“Coxen Hole, the municipal center and most densely populated town in Roatan, is your most likely point of ingress to the island…The French Harbor is the island’s main center of commerce, though historical Oak Ridge supports a bulk of the commercial fishing industry. Punta Gorda, Paya Bay, and Santa Helena to the east maintain much of their unique cultural heritage. On the opposite end of Roatan, Sandy Bay, West End and West Bay form the island’s tourist hub.”
Today, Coxen Hole is home to the airport and cruise ship dock; there is a second dock further east in Mahogany Bay. Some of the cruise lines that include Roatan as a Port of Call include: Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival and its affiliates, Norwegian, and Princess.
Kate Keating is a writer and researcher whose daily commute happens in cyberspace most days (mostly because, in real time and space, she lives and works across a province instead of in a city). Kate divides her work and life between Toronto, Ottawa, and London, Ontario, Canada.