Roatán – Coral Reef Paradise

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.