During the cold winter months, my mind doesn’t turn to skiing, but to a holiday in a warm tropical place with white sand beaches and clear warm waters. I don’t like all-inclusive beach resorts where you hang out all day. I want to be in a place where there are more young people than retirees, but I don’t want them to be too young, that is, under the age of 10. I like to swim, snorkel, go boating, and walking. And I like to sample the local cuisine. This year, I did not want to fly half way around the world, so I chose Roatan, an island which belongs to Honduras.
Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, which are located off the second largest barrier reef in the world (the largest is the Australian Great Barrier reef). Because of its proximity to the reef, it is a popular diving and snorkeling spot.
How to get there
Continental Airlines has regular flights from Houston to Roatan. TACA, the Salvadoran airline, also flies to Roatan from San Salvador. TACA serves many major US airports and if their schedule isn’t too inconvenient, you are better off flying with TACA (new planes, good service) than with any US airline (ancient planes, poor service).
Where to stay
Roatan is a long, thin island (length: 60km, width: 8 km) with a population of 30,000 people. The best town to stay in is West End. Although the beaches in West Bay are lovelier, West End has many more restaurants and bars. You can always walk to West Bay or take an inexpensive water taxi from West End.
In West End, I stayed a beautiful wooden lodge called Cocolobo which has large ocean-front rooms and self-catering cottages. The rooms have their own semi-private decks overlooking the ocean. There is a lovely pool close to the water, and a large deck where guests can hang out (equipped with Wi-Fi, too). All rooms have airconditioning, ceiling fans, hammocks, a fridge and TV. A room for two persons costs between $650 to $745 per week, breakfast included. I had a marvelous time at Cocolobo, thanks to the incredible hosts, Claire Marshall and Rory Bowen. They invited a yoga teacher to give a class on Sunday morning out on the deck and organized a private dinner for guests (with a three-course meal made by a retired chef from Canada). The best time of the day is at sunset when you can sit on the deck with a glass of beer or wine and watch the sun sink slowly into the ocean across the horizon. I checked out a few places to stay in Roatan and this is the only one I can recommend wholeheartedly.
I stayed in the West End and swam mostly in West Bay, which has the best beaches on the island. The water temperature is perfect: warm but still invigorating. The daytime temperatures are ideal, not too hot, not humid. The beaches on West Bay are as close to perfect as any beach can get. No waves, just clear blue water. There’s a lot of coral very close to the shore so you can snorkel without going to far out into the ocean. Close to the shoreline, there are so many varieties of fish (eels, angelfish, crabs) and beautiful coral.
The island is very clean. There’s hardly any trash on the streets or along the beaches. Every morning, one sees people raking seaweed and detritus off the shoreline. The beaches around West End and West Bay do not get crowded even when a cruise ship comes to the island. The only thing you have to watch out for is that in some restaurants, they raise the prices on “cruise ship day” and more people are trying to sell you trinkets and sunglasses. But they are never aggressive.
What to do
(1) Diving: Most people go on dives which are inexpensive and well-organized. I recommend Reef Gliders, which is in West End.
(2) Snorkeling: you can bring your own equipment or rent them at any of the dive shops. You can snorkel just about anywhere around West End and West Bay. There are fish right at the shore. You can also go on boat trips around the island, stopping for an hour or two near the Blue Channel to snorkel. The Blue Channel has an astounding variety of marine life such as barracuda, squid, grouper, etc.
(3) Yoga: I like the yoga classes at Earth Mama’s in West End, behind Paradise Computers (which has an Internet cafe). My favorite class is the one at sunset, which is very spiritual. Just bring mosquito repellent to prevent the bugs from attacking you.
Restaurants and bars
The local cuisine is simple and monotonous: rice, beans and meat or fish a la plancha (grilled or fried). As a result, after two days, I was craving something spicy and savoury. Fortunately there are two places where you can find spicy Asian food:
- The Noodle Shack: a tiny wooden shack across the street from Fosters (a huge nightclub/bar on the water), which serves noodles with spicy sauces. You can choose from Thai peanut, red curry, miso, and add beef, chickeh, shrimp or vegetables.
- Tong’s Thai restaurant: their curries are fiery and the spicy chicken stir-fried with basil is divine.
Other reasonable options:
- Mavis & Dixie’s: right on the water next to Reef Gliders (a diving club), they serve an excellent fish escabeche for lunch.
- Lobster Pot: a bit outside the West End, their lobster and shrimp dishes are very good.
- The Argentinian Grill: good steaks
- Cannibal Cafe: cheap Mexican food
The best lunch I had was at A Hole in a Wall (see photo above) outside the town of Jonesville, on the east end of the island. You need to rent a car to get there. Then, from the water’s edge, you take a small boat to a shack tucked away in the mangroves. It’s not open every day so you should ask your hotel about it. Run by friendly, eccentric “expat” retirees and locals, they serve a buffet lunch of all-you-can-eat lobster and steak. Drinks are cheap ($3.00 for a margarita) and cigars are free. The price for a lunch, two persons, including a margarita, two beers and a Coke: $60.
Food in Roatan is expensive compared to the Honduran mainland. Drinks are very cheap. You can buy a bottle of rum in the local store for $3.00. Cocktails cost no more than $3.50. Bars stay open till late.
From the Roatan airport, there are taxis to take you to West End. The price is US$20. US Dollars are accepted everywhere on the island although they give you change in lempiras (the local currency). No need to change money.