Travel & Leisure

Roatán: A Caribbean Beach Paradise

By Sandrine Champigny

If you want to luxuriate in the comfort of an all-inclusive resort without enduring crowded beaches, check out Roatán, an island off Honduras that has hung onto its authenticity.

When it comes to sun destinations, Honduras may not be the first spot that comes to mind, but Roatán is perfect for a stay in the south.

Located in the Caribbean off Honduras’s northern coast, Roatán is the largest of the Central American country’s Bay Islands. We set down our suitcases at West Bay Beach on the western tip of the narrow island, which is 77 kilometres (48 miles) long and less than eight kilometres (five miles) across at its widest point. West Bay is Roatán’s most popular – and most beautiful — beach, and it’s where the main resorts are located. You won’t find kilometres of beach as you would in Cancún, Mexico, or crowds like Varadero, Cuba—only a handful of hotels share a beach that is more than a kilometre long, so you won’t have to compete for your place in the sun.

Alive with street vendors and the comings and goings of boats carrying divers to and from the shore, West Bay Beach is nevertheless a pretty tranquil place. If you don’t like crowds, avoid the main area from late morning to early afternoon, which is when the passengers of the many cruise ships that visit disembark.

The only downside to this beach paradise is sand fleas. They’re sneaky pests: they can easily bite several times before you notice them. Just bring insect repellent (several hotels advise choosing DEET-free brands) along with a high-SPF sunscreen—the sun is strong. But you can always chill out in the shade of the palm trees along the beach.

Sunsets in western Roatán are magical. Relaxing on a lounge chair as the sun goes down is an experience in itself.

Under the Sea

A diver’s paradise, the island attracts thousands of underwater enthusiasts every year—and for good reason. It’s home to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest coral reef in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the reef critically endangered, mainly due to pollution, over- fishing, and the use of fossil fuels. It’s therefore essential to follow the instructions of the guides when you dive there.

Whether you dive with a tank or explore marine wonders while snorkelling, giant turtles, colourful fish of all kinds, and sea sponges that are hundreds of years old abound in the coastal waters. If you want to try scuba diving, you can get certified at several places on the island, most notably the Mayan Princess Beach & Dive Resort, where a few days of classes in the pool and on the beach allow you to become comfortable diving in a group. Diving is something that almost everyone can do—it’s just a matter of mastering the breathing technique.

On the Town

Known for its lively nightlife, West End, a 10-minute taxi ride from West Bay, is a must-visit destination for those who prefer a festive atmosphere day or night. This little town is perfectly safe: it’s bordered by the beach and offers plenty of patios where you can enjoy a cock- tail while watching the sunset. Stop in at the Beach House Roatán boutique hotel for a delicious appetizer on one of the two patios open to the public, both of which offer breathtaking views of Half Moon Bay.

If you visit West End hoping to do some shopping, you might be disappointed: while there are a few souvenir shops here and there, most of the shops are on the road along the beach. But people usually go to West End for the dining and the ocean views or to stock up on diving equipment.

Lush Vegetation

With its vibrant natural setting, the Honduran island teems with fascinating animal life. At Arch’s Iguana and Marine Park, hundreds of iguanas live protected in their natural habitat, as the species is endangered in the region. It’s an incredible sight when the iguanas gather to feed—if you’re afraid of reptiles, you might want to give this a miss.

Roatán’s ecosystem is amazing. On either side of the only road through the island is virgin jungle that is home to dense vegetation and an impressive number of species. While most tourists stick to the western part of the island, the eastern part is of particular interest to nature lovers. There you can visit the Garifuna community, which has been on the island since 1797. Mixed-race descendants of West and Central African slaves and the Indigenous Igneri people of the Caribbean, the Garifuna found refuge from slavery on Roatán, where they have maintained their language, music, and dance. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Garifuna culture a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity—one more reason to get off the beaten track and pay the community a visit.

If You Go…

Where to stay: The Mayan Princess Beach & Dive Resort is a small all-inclusive resort, ideal for those seeking calm as well as quality.