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Imagine a place where lobster is a common lunch fare, traffic lights don't exist, and you can hail a taxi on the water. Welcome to Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, 30 miles north of Honduras. Almost 40 miles long and just 2.5 miles at its widest point, the remote island boasts white-sand beaches, pristine bays and spectacular coral reefs.
Roatan is a true melting pot. Its 40,000 people are a mix of Spanish, British, Paya Indian and African, the result of a stormy history that includes conquistadors, pirates and slave-traders. In the mid-17th century, the Spanish relocated the Paya Indians in an unsuccessful attempt to rid the island of British pirates. In the late 18th century, the island was repopulated when British troops deported thousands of Black Caribs who had sided with the French during a battle over St. Vincent. Another group of immigrants arrived from the Caymans in the 1830's.
Today, tourism has overtaken commercial fishing as Roatan's top industry. Part of the world's second-largest barrier reef system, Roatan's waters are teeming with colorful coral and sponges. Divers and snorkelers swim alongside schools of fish, as well as whale sharks, barracudas, mantas, dolphins and turtles. The water feels like what you'd find in a bathtub, averaging 80 to 84 degrees, and snorkeling there is like watching high-definition television, with visibility a fantastic 80 to 120 feet.
Dozens of world-class diving and snorkeling sites are accessible from sandy white beaches around the island and through numerous operators, congregated on West End village, the hub of the island's activity. Marlin, tuna and wahoo lure anglers year-round, particularly for the annual fall bill-fishing tournament. Roatan is also a mecca for water sports. Kayaking, water-skiing, sailing and wake-boarding are popular activities.
The former pirate haven offers travelers unspoiled charm and exceptional marine life. Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, the island is in transition. Expensive new homes and resorts stand in sharp contrast to clapboard tin-roofed houses. In addition to cruise ships, direct flights from Miami and Houston and weekly charters from Milan are bringing large numbers of tourists.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Houston • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
One of the best drinks on the island is Salva Vida, a famed local beer. It can be found at just about any bar or restaurant. If you're not the beer-drinking type, pina coladas are always a sure bet.
Locally made handicrafts are great souvenirs. You can pick them up at stalls located throughout the areas surrounding port. You'll find everything from clothing and jewelry to cigars and chocolate -- all at decent prices. In Coxen Hole, the most authentic offerings can be found if you head beyond the immediate port area, which is a bit more commercialized. Don't worry: it's easily walkable.
Though Spanish is the official language of Honduras, most people on Roatan speak both Spanish and English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the Lempira (named for a martyr who fought the Spanish). U.S. dollars are widely accepted, as are credit cards and traveler's checks. In Coxen Hole, Banco Credomatic (open Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to noon) provides cash advances on credit cards and features a 24-hour ATM. An ATM is also available at Mahogany Bay in the center of the main plaza. For the most up-to-date conversion rates, check out www.xe.com.
Where You're Docked
You'll be anchored on the south side of Roatan at one of two places.
Coxen Hole, the largest city and capital of the Bay Islands, is located just west of the airport. This busy gateway is named after the pirate, John Coxen.
Mahogany Bay, a 20-acre $62-million Carnival-sponsored area specifically for cruise passengers, opened in 2009. It's located just east of the airport, and it has room for two ships.
Coxen Hole: Besides Internet access, an ATM, a small shopping mall and a handful of restaurants, there's little for tourists. It's a good place to buy cold drinks and sandwiches before venturing east toward French Harbour and Oak Ridge, and west toward Sandy Bay and the West End. You can also easily walk past the port gates onto the local streets, where you'll find authentic food and souvenirs.
Mahogany Bay: Just off the pier, you'll find a strip mall-type central plaza, featuring souvenir shops, restaurants, a general store, jewelry kiosks, shore excursion information, car rentals, an ATM and, often, live music. There's also a chairlift that will give visitors unlimited rides to and from Mahogany Beach -- a nearby 10-acre private beach -- for $5 per day.
A paved road runs north from Coxen Hole to West End and east to French Harbour. An unpaved road continues east to Paya Bay and Camp Bay. Taxis, rental cars, motor bikes and buses are available in West End, Coxen Hole and French Harbour.
Renting a Car: Captain Van's in West End rents vans, mountain bikes and scooters. Caribbean Rent a Car is located along the main road near French Harbour (504-455-6950). A car rental booth is also available off of the main plaza in Mahogany Bay.
By Taxi: Some unscrupulous cab drivers have taken advantage of cruise passengers. Before entering a taxi, confirm the fare. If the driver says 20, make sure he's quoting Lempiras, not dollars. Most cabbies accept both U.S. dollars and Lempiras.
By Bus: Mini-buses run in either direction from Coxen Hole. Flag down a bus, and pay the driver's assistant -- about one U.S. dollar on most routes.
Watch Out For
Coxen Hole: If you travel beyond the immediate port area, be prepared to deal with pushy locals, often children, who will offer everything from cab rides and excursions to local wares. You may also be asked for money. It's also important to know where you're headed before venturing inside; we were told by two young children that certain bars along the main street, just outside the port area, are actually brothels in disguise.
Mahogany Bay: The whole setup is a bit of a tourist trap. If you decide to explore elsewhere and want to rent a car, be warned that the roads tend to be narrow, and traffic lights are basically nonexistant.
As you would in any unfamiliar place, keep all unnecessary valuables onboard in your cabin's safe.
Snorkeling and Kayaking: After paddling down the coastline at either Half Moon Beach or West Bay Beach, leave your kayak ashore to explore the magical coral reefs with your mask and snorkel. Snorkeling equipment is available for rent through tour operators, as well as dive shops, some restaurants and gift shops.
The Butterfly Farm: This fun attraction is located just before the entrance to West End. Hundreds of exquisite butterflies, representing 15 to 20 species, flit around in a 3,000-square-foot enclosure. It's also home to stunning hummingbirds, parrots and toucans. Guided tours are offered daily, except Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Don't forget your binoculars and camera.
Been There, Done That
Scuba-diving: Sueno del Mar Dive Center, voted best on Roatan by Scuba Diving magazine, offers introductory diving lessons. Certified juniors, ages 10 to 15 years, must dive with an adult.
Horseback-riding: Kids and beginners can join experienced equestrians in a memorable horseback-riding trip along the beach and into the hills at West Bay (Keifetos Resort) or between Calabash Bight and Paya Bay on the island's south side (Roatan Ridge Ranch).
Best Beach for an Active Day: West End offers beaches, coral reefs for snorkeling, eateries and water sports like sea-kayaking, diving and sailing. At the entrance to West End is palm-lined Half Moon Bay beach. Be prepared for large crowds on days when ships are in port.
Best Beach for Families: Best West Bay Beach, near the northern tip of the island, features clear, shallow water (about five feet deep) teeming with coral and colorful fish right offshore. With a dozen stations marked by buoys, the Natural Aquarium Snorkel Trail at the Bay Islands Beach Resort at Sandy Bay is a fun way for kids to see everything from eagle rays to sergeant majors. It's open daily from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.
Best Secluded Beach: Camp Bay Beach, past the village of Diamond Rock, is a two-mile idyllic stretch of white sand with swaying coconut palms -- perfect for snuggling. Rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the unpaved road, and don't forget a picnic lunch.
Editor's Note: Addresses in Roatan do not exist the way we know them. We've included pertinent location information; locals and cabbies will be able to point the way.
Casual, In-Town Joints: In the center of Coxen Hole, Eldon's Supermarket's cafeteria scrambles up eggs, along with fried beans and tortillas It's open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Lighthouse, located in West End on the south side of the point, offers some of the best fish tacos, grilled lobster and conch soup on the island. It's open 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Gourmet Lunching: Las Rocas, set on a rocky point at West Bay, is known for authentic Bay Island dishes like shrimp with rice, chicken in coconut milk, and beef in coconut milk. It's open for lunch and dinner, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Pura Vida, in the center of West End, cooks up homemade pasta, pizza and seafood. Visit from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Staying in Touch
Roatan is the only Bay Island with a telephone system, but pay phones are rare. To call home or check e-mail, try Main Street Mall in Coxen Hole, or check out the Rafi Stamp Company (also in Coxen Hole, on the main street, just outside the main terminal area), which offers three computer bays and Internet access. Rafi is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Best for Nature Lovers: The Iguana Farm on the outskirts of French Harbour is an unusual refuge for more than 2,500 reptiles. At lunchtime, hundreds of iguanas of all shapes and sizes duke it out for veggies. Roatan's iguanas have been hunted to near extinction for their meat. Visit daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gardeners will enjoy strolling through the lush Carambola Botanical Gardens in Sandy Bay, home to hundreds of exotic tropical plants, including chocolate trees, orchids and heliconias. It's open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Best Overall Tour: Bottle-nosed dolphins are the scene-stealers at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. The Institute uses Anthony's Key Resort in Sandy Bay to care for about a dozen dolphins. The residents put on a show (Monday through Friday) and swim with visitors. The popular marine mammals attract a crowd; it's best to make reservations at least three to four days in advance. Sharing a building with the Institute, the Roatan Museum features exhibits on the Bay Islands.
Best for Diving and Snorkeling: Roatan's central coast is off the beaten path, offering spectacular snorkeling and diving. Valley of the Kings and Parrot Tree are two outstanding snorkeling sites. Nearby, Mary's Place, with its spectacular black coral, is considered the Grand Canyon of wall-diving, and it's the island's premier dive site. A dive master leads visitors down one of two sheer-walled vertical faults cut through the reef. Subway Watersports offers private snorkeling and diving excursions.
Best for Families: For adventurous families with children ages 10 and older, the Tabyana Beach and Canopy Tour combines a great beach and snorkeling experience with the adrenalin rush of a zip line canopy tour. The Tarzan-like adventure starts at Creation Rock, where you are outfitted in a harness, pulley and gloves and attached to a cable. With 11 stretches of cable and 13 tree-top stations towering 18 to 30 feet above the ground, this is one ride the family isn't likely to forget.
For More Information
On the Web: Honduras Tourism Institute
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Roatan
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Traveler Boards
--by Susan Jaques, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor