Diving the Best of Utila in the Bay Islands
Laguna Beach Resort
Text and Photography by Rick Frehsee, Nov. 1997
One of diving's best kept secrets is the island of Utila; the third largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras (after Roatan and Guanaja) and the least populated of the trio. European backpackers and budget travelers began to 'discover' Utila's underwater charms about five years ago, which spurred the frenetic and sometimes haphazard development of a local dive industry. Soon diver down flags and dive logos lined the narrow coastal main street of little Utila. Very little of this influenced North American dive travel and, fortunately, the island's laidback local atmosphere has not been affected. Wander down to the Bucket of Blood Bar around happy hour and you will find island fishermen talking about their latest catch. It is obvious the island hasn't changed that much since Hemingway visited here in the 1930s. Utila today is one of the safest and most authentic island experiences in the entire Caribbean.
Within this gold rush mentality of recreational diving activity, a golden thread of quality also developed. Where can a diver find a truly charming and comfortable dedicated dive resort, with a professional full service dive operation, on Utila? The answer is the Laguna Beach Resort. In fact, everything associated with island ambiance, resort comforts and a superb dive holiday are readily available at this picturesque retreat. The Laguna Beach Resort officially opened in February of 1996. It is owned and supervised by Troy Bodden, a Utilan who grew up around boats and the ocean. His company, Utila Watersports, has provided dive training and tours for the past seven years.
The Laguna Beach Resort is on an eight acre peninsula of sand and palm trees facing the Caribbean Sea. Directly in front of the resort is a fringing reef that runs the length of the island's southern coastline. Immediately behind the resort is a scenic mangrove-lined lagoon. The resort is constructed of natural wood from the Honduras mainland; the carpenters were islanders with a long tradition of boat building. The island-inspired design is a modern version of local architecture. The property is a network of sand and crushed coral trails that lead from guestrooms to mainhouse to dive house dock; walkways are lighted at night. The mainhouse is a spacious two story lodge capped by a navigational beacon that can be seen for miles. The basic floor plan is four wings that radiate from a central room. Jaloussie windows, ceiling fans and an island inspired interior provide a tropical mood for the restaurant, bar and social areas. Upstairs is a game and social room.
Guest cabins are spaced along the backside of the resort peninsula; their porches face the lagoon. A sand walkway leads from the main lodge past the gift shop/boutique to the cabins. There are presently six bungalows, four duplexes and two single units; ten guestrooms in total, all mounted on stilts. Two additional single units are under construction. Guestrooms are spacious and furnished island style in natural wood. In addition to jaloussie windows and multiple overhead fans, every room is air-conditioned.
Three excellent meals are served buffetstyle each day in the restaurant. The menu features seafood, local fruit and vegetables and tasty desserts prepared by a professional chef. The resort has its own electrical generators and a desalinization plant that provides clean fresh water throughout.
The dive operation is housed in its own ranch-style building on the lagoon behind the main lodge. Huge rinse tanks, wet storage and full rental gear are available on the dock. Laguna Beach Resort's two primary dive vessels are showpieces; they are among the very finest dive boats found anywhere in the Bay Islands. One is 36 feet long and the other, which just arrived during our visit, is 42 feet in length. They are very wide and stable boats with excellent custom appointments and design for divers. The vessels are U.S. Coast Guard equipped with marine radios, oxygen and first aid. Considering the maximum number of guests at the resort, the Laguna boats are a luxury.
Morning dives are usually two tank boat trips; a single tank dive is scheduled in the afternoon except on days when night dives are offered (twice each week). The dive operation is staffed by island professionals with excellent local knowledge and experience.
Utila offers a truly varied dive environment, a result of its unique geography. The closest of the Bay Islands to the Honduras mainland, Utila rests on Central America's continental shelf. This presents an exaggerated variety and contrast of bottom topography. The south side of the island faces a shelf that is lined by a shallow fringing reef. Out on the shelf are dozens of mid depth reef pinnacles rising toward the surface from 200 feet. Among the shallow reefs along the south coast are numerous day and night dive sites that feature excellent and unusual macro critters such as clusters of Bluebell Tunicates, seahorses and Big-eyed Toadfish.
The north side of the island faces the abyss and here offers some of Utila's most dramatic dive sites. Just seaward of the crest of the north fringing reef you can find a varying topography of heavy spur and groove formations, reef pinnacles, a mini wall formed by an ancient wave notch and a vertical drop-off that plummets to seemingly infinite depths.
The north side of Utila in particular is known as one of the most prolific Whale Shark corridors in the entire world. Up to 50 Whale Shark sightings are recorded in Utila each year. As a result, often and especially during calm weather, a technique has been developed for seeking out Whale Sharks. Between dives, the Laguna dive boats will patrol this corridor, keeping a sharp eye out for seabirds and schools of baitfish, activities that may signal a cruising Whale Shark, the largest fish in the sea.
Diving, eating and sleeping at Laguna Beach Resort will provide you with very little spare time. However, you shouldn't miss a town walking tour that includes warm homey images of small town life; a sort of New England in the tropics atmosphere. Also a lot of fun is an island exploration of beaches and/or the jungled interior. The resort has sea kayaks and small boats for sojourns in the lagoon or along the coast. Or, plan a whitewater rafting tour or a visit to the ancient Maya city of Copan on the mainland. The resort's in-house travel agency can make all the arrangements.
The Laguna Beach Resort will provide you with a discovery dive holiday on a charming, unspoiled tropical island.
For more information, contact Laguna Beach Resort at (800) 668-8452, fax (318) 893-5024 or, on island, phone/fax 011 (504) 45-3239.