Pick Your Paradise
Once they were among the most hotly contested locations on the Spanish Main. Spain viewed them as an important place from which to safeguard treasure fleets, and England saw them as a place from which to make sure those fleets were anything but safe. Nor were theirs the only cannon on the water; like countless generations that followed him, Blackbeard was more than happy to spend his winters here.
But today, you're far more likely to see a dive flag than a Jolly Roger around the Bay Islands. Stories of buried treasure still abound, but visitors agree that the real wealth here lies beneath the glittering sea — in the form of ghostlike whale sharks gliding silently out of the mists, and mazelike dive sites that invite you to explore the next turn. Now part of Honduras, the Bay Islands nonetheless have an international personality, attracting expatriates and vacationers from all around the world. Climate is part of the draw, and great diving is another. But an under-explored asset of the place is variety — among the three principal islands here, you will find three distinct personalities.
PageRoatan: A Bay Island Classic
So close to the Honduran mainland that you can see the mountains from the island's southern tip — and imagine ancient Maya priests staring back at you from those mountaintops — Roatan is the most developed of the Bay Islands. It's also the one best-known to divers.
Partly that's because, when it comes to the Bay Islands,"developed" is very much a relative term. Here it means not neon signs and mega-hotels, but the fact that the island has several communities connected by paved roads, and that, for several years now, electrical power has been available from a single, central provider. The vibe is still very much tropical and tranquil, but all of the essentials — from a choice of dining and accommodations to a plethora of stunning dive sites — are here in abundance. Yet entire communities here still revolve around fishing rather than tourism, and one town, Punta Gorda, was the first Garifuna settlement in Central America. The Garifuna, or"Black Caribs," originally came from the Orinoco delta in what is now Venezuela, and are descendants of shipwrecked African slaves and native Caliponan people. Marooned here by the British in 1796, they took root, and now celebrate their forced transplanting every year on April 12.
Roatan, like its two major Bay Islands neighbors, has an extremely strong sense of place, a cultural identity that virtually compels visitors to return again and again. And for visitors who blow bubbles, it doesn't hurt that the diving is legendary in every possible sense of the term.
Take Mary's Place -- probably the best-known dive in Roatan. A set of mazelike underwater canyons, thick with gorgonians, it's home to a cast of thousands, and it seems custom-designed to accentuate the quintessential diving sensation of moving effortlessly in all three dimensions. Cruising between walls that plummet to perhaps 100 feet below, you want to explore each nook and cranny, but the twisting path draws you forward. Everyone, it seems, comes up from this dive with a different analogy, a comparison that has nothing to do with diving – Luke Skywalker making his final strafing fun on the Death Star, Spiderman threading through the streets of Manhattan, an out-of-body experience in a slick-rock canyon.. But one thing all the descriptions have in common is a dreamlike, surreal quality. It's that sort of dive that can unleash the imagination.
Another name you'll hear a lot when experienced divers talk Roatan is Spooky Channel. Lying directly off the end of the Sunnyside Pier on Roatan's West End, it's easily done as a shore dive, and it too offers zigzagging canyons and swim-throughs. It's especially attractive to travelers with non-divers in their parties because, although an advanced diver can reach depths of nearly 100 feet on this dive, there's enough interesting fish and reef life very close to the surface to keep a snorkeler happy for hours. Many Roatan visitors will dive Spooky Channel at least twice on a dive trip — once from a boat on the outer moorings and then, later in the week, from the end of the pier. There's enough variety that it's like doing two different dives. And even though this site is very close to shore, whale sharks have been spotted cruising through from time to time.
At PADI Dive Resort Fantasy Island Beach Resort, located on its own private island, guests have a choice of diving from one of the resort's six custom 42-foot dive boats or shore diving from the resort's"Dive Gazebo" -- just a short kick to the airplane, the wreck of the Prince Albert or CoCo View wall.
CoCo View Resort, with its PADI Five-Star Dockside Dive Center is set up so guests can even dream about diving -- every room is either on or over the water. The resort has a fleet of four 50-foot dive boats, or guests can opt to shore-dive CoCo View Wall, the wreck of the Prince Albert, or Newman's Wall 24/7 from CoCo View's"Front Yard."
PADI Gold Palm IDC Anthony's Key Resort has seven custom Pro 42-foot dive boats that can whisk you away to all the top dive sites in Roatan, and those looking for a marine-mammal experience can find the last word in such encounters. Groups of no more than eight divers are taken for a supervised dive in open water with the resort's dolphins, which are free to interact as they wish. It's just one of a plethora of dolphin educational experiences available at AKR.
All told, Roatan has nearly 200 recognized dive sites — enough to keep even a three-tank diver going for more than two months without ever visiting the same site twice. The West End (which has the greatest concentration of resorts and dive operators) offers more than two dozen sites. The vast majority have low current, with easy access. This is the sort of place that's perfect for your very first Caribbean dive vacation — or your 500th.
And because the island is 33 miles long — nearly three times the size of the next largest Bay Island — and long-settled, there's plenty to do here during surface intervals (or to keep non-divers so engrossed that they, too, will be eager to return). Those things that everyone daydreams about when they think"tropical island" — like riding a horse along the surf line — can be done here. And because Roatan was an English colony far longer than it was a Spanish colony, shore activities can be arranged quite easily, without ever having to resort to your Berlitz phrasebook. Spanish may be the language of Honduras, but English is the language of Roatan (and of the rest of the Bay Islands as well).
You can hire a cab for the entire day here for less than 50 bucks, browse for Garifuna masks and colorful handmade hammocks at shops and galleries all around the island, enjoy island-style dining at places such as BJ's Backyard or Hole in the Wall, or (on non-diving days), enjoy a Port Royal beer in the city it was named after. Take a walk in the backcountry and search for colorful wild macaws, or take to the trees for a zip-line tour. Boredom's just not a possibility on Roatan. With world-class diving and a plethora of topside activities, your only problem will be narrowing down the possibilities.
Roatan Must Do: Zoom the Canopy
Unleash your inner Tarzan with the any of four zip-line tours of the Roatan's rainforest. A harness, helmet and leather gloves prepare you for a breathtaking glide from platform to platform or from a jungle-thick crest to the beach.
Roatan Must Dive
The Prince Albert
Valley of the Kings
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication