Pick Your Paradise
Utila: Where the Whale Sharks Roam
Westernmost of the Bay Islands, Utila is also a bit left-of-center chronologically. It is still a place where the most ubiquitous form of luggage is the backpack, where accommodations come mostly in the form of hostels and small lodges, and where it's easy to find a cold beer for a dollar. It's an island where most of the lights literally go out at midnight when the central electrical generator shuts down (although the larger dive resorts make their own power). The slower pace here is seductive, and you get the feeling that walking past the Internet cafes and the coffee shops in anything other than flip-flops would be some sort of travesty.
People come from all over the world to learn to dive here — poke your head into a dive shop, and you're liable to hear a PADI instructional video going in any of a half-dozen languages. It makes sense. If you're going to learn to dive on (or bring your open-water referral to) an island, it might as well be an island where you can afford a few extra days for the lessons. And it doesn't hurt that, when it comes to hitting the blue, you're looking at dive sites that even travelers with thousands of logbook entries can appreciate.
While most Caribbean islands have a lee side (with most of the dive sites) and a wild side (rarely visited except in rare dead calms), Utila is a happy exception to this rule. The island is circled by regularly visited dive sites. So even if a wind does come up, you'll always have a place to dive.
At Blackish Point, on the north side, you can dive all the way down to the bottom of your recreational limits, and still have more than 850 feet of wall yawning darkly beneath you. Aquarium, on the east end, features a diversity of fish life worthy of the site's name — everything from trunkfish and flittering spotted drum to gliding southern stingrays. Black Hills, also on the east side, is an up-from-the-depths seamount and a veritable magnet for pelagics, pulling in horse-eye jacks, Atlantic spadefish, yellow snapper and more.
On one signature dive off Laguna Beach Resort, divers giant-stride in from the dive boat, dive a wall with drops as deep as 100 feet, and finish up by exiting right onto the beach, with a mouth-watering buffet and cold drinks only a few steps away. And whether or not divers have seen whale sharks on their dive — Utila is one of the best places in the Caribbean to see the world's largest fish — their non-diving friends probably have. Laguna Beach Resort's new pool (long enough to comfortably swim laps in) is made in the shape of a whale shark.
Between dives you can rent a bicycle and pedal the island (with fewer than half a dozen cars on the island, traffic isn't exactly a concern). Or climb Pumpkin Hill for a view of all of Utila; go to the beach at Blue Lagoon (there is a nominal entry fee); or stop by Gunter's Driftwood Gallery to shop for carved driftwood or local art. If you're feeling really ambitious, stop by the Spanish Language School to brush up on your español before heading over to the Honduran mainland.
Guests at Utila Lodge can even take a specialty course on operating the island's hyperbaric chamber (it's on-site at the resort). But the most popular after-dive activity at Utila Lodge is either relaxing in an oversize hammock (every room has one on its private balcony) or watching the sun set from the water-jet hot tub on the dock.
Utila Must Do: Kick Back With Primates
Spend an evening seeking refreshment amidst the foliage of the Treehouse Bar; and check out the neighborhood for the resident monkeys.
Utila Must Dive
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication