You know a destination has “arrived” in savvy travel circles when people refer to it only by its first name. “We’re heading to Roatán,” someone confides, and everyone nods knowingly. That would be Roátan, Honduras, and if you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will: It’s the Caribbean in an unspoiled state, with pristine sugary-sand beaches and lush coral reefs. It also has some of the best diving, offered at the cheapest prices, anywhere in the world.
This beautiful tropical island is the argest of the Bay Islands (which include Utila and Guanaja) off the Caribbean coast of Central America. It’s 65km (40 miles) long and comprises 127 sq. km (49 sq. miles). Roátan is a serious dive and snorkel destination, with warm, diamond-clear waters that are protected as a marine park. It sits on the second-largest barrier reef in the world, a magnificent necklace of coral that is alive with sponges, turtles, eagle rays, and fish in a paint box of vivid colors. The diverse underwater topography is one of dramatic ridges, channels, and vertical walls.
The island has several dive shops that can get you onto the reef in under 30 minutes. On West End—home to the island’s best beaches—Ocean Connections is a PADI-certified dive center that offers recreational diving, diving courses, and dive packages on Roátan. Its dive center is just 15 minutes away from the coral reef.
On land, the vibe is laid-back and refreshingly unpolished. Visitors shouldn’t be surprised if the electricity goes out for a few hours, and the nightlife essentially consists of hanging out, barefoot and sunburned, with new island pals over sundowners. If you get bored with the water activities during the day, you can hit the iguana reserve just outside French Harbour—it holds 2,500 iguanas of four distinct species; or go horseback riding through the Gumbalimba Nature Park, a forested jungle reserve filled with colorful tropical birds like parrots and native macaws. You can even take a Jungle Canopy Tour along several platforms in the park, where the views of forest and sea are superb.
The lodging scene here largely comprises small inns and hostels—and a few diving resorts like Anthony’s Key —and there is only one spa on the island (at Parrot Tree Plantation, a planned development). But Nikki Beach is opening up one of its upscale resorts in 2010. Roátan also has been targeted by not one but two major cruise lines (Royal Caribbean and Carnival), which are greatly expanding their Roátan presence—by 2010, the island could be visited by some 200 ships and around 700,000 cruise passengers annually. And airlines are now offering direct flights from Miami, Houston, and Newark into the international airport at Coxen Hole, the island capital. Prices and crowds on this lovely, supremely relaxed Caribbean outpost remain reasonable for now—but I recommend diving in as soon as you can, before that changes.