Roatan, Honduras – A Fabulous Place of Contradictions
His beady black eyes pierce my retinas as his honey-orange over-comb bobs and weaves across his head. Spidery arms reach for my glasses and, when he misses the target, the creature lets out a scream that could surely raise the roof. Meanwhile, I nervously stand out on a precipice looking down over the forest canopy, my fear of heights intensifying as I scan over the trees and out toward the ocean. Knees shaking, I contemplate how to get myself out of the mess I have gotten myself into when, suddenly, that squirrelly monkey takes another swipe at me. That’s all it takes … eaten alive by a monkey or die hitting a tree going 50 mph. Suddenly, the answer becomes obvious and I jump, freaking just a little, as I skim the tops of the trees over the jungle forest. And when I arrive at the next tree … surprise … the monkey is waiting!
This is the way of life on the island of Roatan off the northern coast of Honduras. It is a place where the simple marries the complex, the obvious becomes less so the longer you stay, and the unexpected pops up so often that it loses its pizazz. But with all its contradictions, Roatan is a fabulous place to slow down and melt into an island experience. It is also where to go when you want to find a little peace and tranquility while celebrating a 30th anniversary.
Getting to Roatan is a fairly easy process. It is only a two-hour flight from Houston to this western Caribbean delight, where U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. After going through passport control, the majority of visitors can hardly wait to slip into their dive suits to discover the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere. Make no mistake about it; this is a place where some of the most dedicated divers in the world come to explore one of the planet’s richest marine ecosystems with its vast coral reefs. Divers are almost sure to see Hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, spotted moray eels, octopi and a multitude of vibrantly colored fish swimming by to check out the newest tourists. Expect to pay $35-45 USD per dive if you are a certified diver and, if you aren’t, West End Divers can do the job for about $250. Night dives, shark swims and lion fish hunting vary in price depending on the tour company.
We stayed at Las Verandas Hotel & Villas. Upon arrival, a glass of fresh and fruity rum punch was slipped into our hands, and we were introduced to the resort by Mali. The first day there, we were the only guests at the place. I’ll make no bones about it; the juxtaposition of beautiful villas and half-constructed buildings, which sunk into obscurity during the recession, is a little hard to wrap your head around. Yet with those occupancy numbers, the service was superb, while the rooms were large, airy and bright. With spacious verandas overlooking the sea, the views were sweeping and magnificent, but especially so while standing on the hill overlooking the resort. From there, you could take in the majesty of just about the entire island.
Prices on the island are comparable to what you would pay in Visalia. A good steak dinner runs about $22, while a pasta entree will relieve your wallet of $15. You can count on spending about $45 per day to rent a car and, on this island, it is worth doing because there are a variety of ways to spend your time. But when driving, beware of the potholes that litter the roads. If you are lucky, an enterprising young man will fill those ahead of you for $1 a hole, thus sparing you a blown tire, which appears to be as common as the lizards that line the roads and the machine gun-toting security guards who appear to be just about everywhere.
One activity at the top of our bucket list was to swim with dolphins. We chose the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences at Anthony’s Key because of the strict policies that are in place to protect these magnificent animals. The dolphins only visit with guests twice a day and are taken for a “walk” at the ocean, where they can choose to stay or return. There is also a small but informative museum that is free, with displays featuring pre-Columbian artifacts and educational exhibits that highlight the Caribbean Sea, regional marine life and indigenous peoples of the area. All in all, it is a good place to spend an hour expanding your mind.
From the museum, we took a five-minute boat ride out to meet “our” dolphins, during which time we were schooled on how to interact and be the perfect guests while in these splendid mammals’ habitat. The two males, Bing and Bong, explored us noses down, making clicking noises as we reached out to pet their sleek yet velvety-hard skin. One at a time, guests were taken to the middle of the natural enclosure, and the dolphins raced toward and then behind us, and we were instructed to gently grab their dorsal fins as they raced us through the water at breathtaking speeds. The experience was like water skiing without the skis and with a lot more water going up your nose. Later, our new friends flipped and danced, reaching toward the sky as their trainers guided them through a typical dolphin routine.
Another “animal” stop was Arch’s Iguana Farm. For a small donation, you can feed the iguanas, which appear to be very serious about getting to their favorite leaves and will run over you to do so. You can also feed the tarpon, which, I have to admit, is a little freaky. Losing my hand to a hungry tarpon was not on my bucket list, so after trying it once, I had had enough.
Tip: “When feeding tarpon, do not try to hold on to the fish!”
For those who like the rush that comes from gathering with people the world over, I would recommend a visit to the West End. This is the place to come to purchase art created by local artisans, shop at small tourist stores and eat fresh, high-quality food. And this is also where the late-night bar scene thrives. We had two superb meals while at the West End. One occurred at Thai Place, which was recommended by several tourists, and I can say that we were not disappointed as we dined on some of the best Thai food we have ever eaten outside of Thailand. A huge bonus was the on-dock dining, which added a romantic ambience to our evening with the sound of gentle waves lulling us into our “peaceful place” after our gigantic food orgy. While fairly expensive, you can count on good service and a memorable meal.
Also at the West End, we gorged at the moderately priced Foster’s West End Bar & Grill, which extends over the water. Dave’s fresh catch from the sea was delicious, flaky and moist, while my coconut shrimp managed to skim that narrow divide of a batter that is too “coconutty” to be able taste the meat of the shrimp and fried too long where all you taste is the oil. It was a great choice.
After dinner, we made our way to Nova, which often features a live DJ. It is a vibrant and youthful place like many of the dozen or so bars in the area. If dancing isn’t your thing, Frank’s Cigar Bar is a great place to relax if you are into fine cigars and, for a good laugh, karaoke at the Blue Marlin is a hoot. Whatever your desire, be warned that the evening will start warm but often after 10 p.m., the trade winds begin to howl and blow, creating a breeze that would make even Marilyn Monroe’s dress blush.
Kayaking is another much-loved activity on the island. The seas surrounding the water’s edge are often smooth as glass, so paddling is easy, safe and fun, but remember the sunscreen, which I failed to do and, after only 30 minutes on the water, was crisply fried like the fish tacos we ate from a local food stand. For those who find dock fishing too mundane, West Bay Tours offers a four-hour deep-sea fishing adventure for $160 USD, with the catch often including such species as blue marlin, sailfish, white marlin and yellowfin tuna.
While the awakening of Roatan has been gradual, these days, cruise ships are now invading the port of Coxen Hole (don’t go to this city after dark) and, with it, comes increased pressures on the island’s infrastructure. However, the tourist traffic was recently decreased when a ship my friend was on took out the cruise ship dock, making access to the island’s treasures temporarily in favor of the airborne set. So before the cruise ships once again invade, now is the ideal time to pack your bags and get to know the locals because everyone needs their own “peaceful place” and Roatan is the perfect place to find it.