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 50,000 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 1830s.
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, hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and snorkeling there is like watching high-definition television, with fantastic visibility.
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 wakeboarding 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.
--By Susan Jaques, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ashley Kosciolek, Editor