2000-09 Roatan--Where East Meets West
By Michael Lawrence
“East side, west side, all around the town.” Well, in the case of Roatan, the largest island of the Bay Islands of Honduras, we are definitely not talking about the city of Manhattan. On Roatan, the highest skyscrapers are the tallest trees and the brightest lights are the stars and moon in the sky. This is an island whose spirit embodies the sea, and both sides of the tracks converge where east meets west.
We all have different tastes in vacation styles. I prefer small, rustic and basic accommodations. Other folks prefer more personal services, international cuisine, modern telecommunications and a slightly more elegant atmosphere.
We are talking about a feeling, an attitude and a way of life, not an actual geographic orientation. Despite being the largest of the Bay Islands, complete with a jet capable airport and some excellent and distinctively upscale resorts, Roatan combines this contemporary access and service with the same down-home, old-style island feeling divers encountered when the only way to get there was by a DC-3 prop plane or by boat.
There isn’t a single road encircling the island. While a paved road does run a good bit of the way along the southern and western coasts, and you can get almost all the way from the west end to east end down the center; the majority of the secondary roads are unpaved.
Roatan is so close to its past that electrical service only came to some remote communities within the last decade, and many are still self-sufficient. I’ll never forget stopping in a small town and having the children run out to greet me, grab my hand and pull me over to the new, still un-working streetlight standing in the center of the village. I could only imagine the profound changes it would have on a community oriented around the rising and setting of the sun and the cost of generators.
Today’s Roatan straddles the line between past and present, with the east and west regions of the island representing each respectively. This accommodates the needs of a wide variety of dive travelers.
The dive sites vary to some degree but hold several common themes. Shallow reefs are a given, and vertical coral walls surround the island. There is an abundance of marine life, including some species considered unusual, and even rare, in most parts of the world. Large fish such as Black Groupers (up to four feet in length) are found in groups of a dozen or more on some sites. While somewhat unusual, Whale Sharks and Manta Rays are also regular visitors to the island.
It goes without saying that every resort is on the water. Many have distinctive sites within shore diving
access. In addition, if you like shore diving in conjunction with macro photography, this is your paradise.
Great diving is not the concern here—put your face in the water and you’re there. But the lifestyle and the type of accommodations you prefer requires some consideration.
East End Dive Resorts: If you want extra personal service, in-house dining, shops and the like, there are several fine resorts. They range in style from multi-level contemporary
hotels to rustic bed and breakfast-style dive resorts. The latter are often
simple cottages or a combination of cottages and stilt homes built in the classic Bay Islands-style—perched above lapping lagoon waters.
At many resorts, nature is a byword. It seems that parrots are mascots or pets almost everywhere. At one resort, we were awakened each morning by one of the resident parrots sitting just outside the window.
Roatan’s Must-do Dives
Mary’s Place—A classic Roatan site. Closed for several years, now open again, access is limited. A narrow crevice cuts through the wall, the result of a section of the wall splitting away and sliding slightly down the wall. The delicacy of marine life inside this crevice is the reason for restricting access. Book ahead.
Spooky Channel—Accessible from shore, this site is a huge cut in the reef that creates a canyon. It varies from narrow swim-throughs to areas 100 feet wide and opens onto a vertical wall. Adjoined coral structures form overhangs. Reaching nearly to the surface, it is great for snorkelers as well.
French Cay Cut—Begins in 30 feet of water with a gorgeous bed of healthy Staghorn Coral. A small shipwreck is adorned with Deepwater Gorgonians and sponges. Around it sprout massively tall Barrel Sponges. On the outside edge, the wall drops to extreme depths with overhangs, crevices and tons of sponge growth.
Valley of the Kings—The vertical wall meanders along forming canyons and overhangs. Sponge growth is truly outstanding, with large Yellow and Brown Tube Sponges, Elkhorn Coral and Orange Elephant Ear Sponges.
Calvin’s Crack—Seaward of the mooring in 30 feet is a three-foot-wide tunnel formed by an overgrowth of coral. This swim-through eventually slopes down to a 15-foot wide opening in about 90 feet of water. This whole area is well decorated by sponge growth.
Halfmoon Bay Wall—This ranges from shallows reefs to the wall itself. One large tunnel drops through the wall and emerges at 70 feet. There is also a cluster of large, healthy black coral trees in 100 feet of water. There are many other adjacent sites along the West Side Wall.
Jado Trader—A classic Roatan wreck, this 120-foot freighter sits in 110 feet of water lying on its side and is accessible from shore. Big fish, mostly groupers, are an earmark of the wreck. Sharks are sighted as is a resident Green Moray.
Anthony Key Resort’s Dolphin Program—Roatan’s Institute for Marine Sciences administers one of the few open ocean release programs in the world (and one of only two in the Caribbean). This program gives divers and snorkelers the chance to interact with Bottlenose Dolphins both in an enclosure as well as in the open ocean. An incredible experience! Book ahead.
Modern amenities such as air-conditioned rooms, on-site restaurants and in-house dive shops make the resorts on Roatan’s east end havens for the modern dive traveler. Yet, all of this convenience is packaged with simple tropical elegance. Open-air rooms, family-style meals, shore diving a dozen steps from your door and lush palm and mango trees help balance convenience with old Caribbean charm.
West End Budget Accommodations—A Mecca for Backpackers: On the other hand, if you prefer winging it, not being sure of where you are going to end up and always wondering what adventures the day will bring, there is another alternative. One of the more well-kept secrets of Roatan is the west end of the island, a small area known as Tabiyana Bay or West Bay.
A short strip of dirt road goes from West End Town skirting the shoreline southwest until it peters off into a path. This isn’t a four-wheel road. It is a nice flat road almost wide enough for two vehicles. Actually, it is a great demonstration of the fine art of negotiation between pedestrians and vehicles. Cars drive slowly, people say, “thank you,” and when trucks come by, everyone gets out of the way.
The joy of West Bay is the atmosphere. This is a haven for backpackers from around the world, most traveling on tight budgets. The crowd exhibits an abundance of tattoos, piercings and young curiosity. Homespun bars,
music seeping out into the streets, personal shops run by artisans and little restaurants create a feeling reminiscent of some of the coolest, out of the way spots I have ever visited.
Accommodations run from intimate, well-developed smaller hotels to hostels to very basic cabins/cottages. Prices are inexpensive, fitting right into the overall atmosphere. There is another big plus for divers who prefer smaller dive operations. The operations on the west end range from start-ups—a couple of people with enough tanks and gear for a half dozen divers, a local boat owner/operator and a dream—to a couple of well-established, professional dive operations. They access primarily west end sites, with many spectacular walls with fringing shallow reefs, though some do range farther afield.
Here’s the bottom line: If you love an exotic street scene and a funky atmosphere, you must spend some time on the west end. If you prefer something Bay Islands-style but upscale, look into the recognized resorts. Even if you do that, take time for a road trip or two. Roatan, as said before, straddles the line between then and now. Personally, the marriage of east and west satisfies me. But, you must find your own path to comfort and satisfaction.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
The Bay Islands enjoy perfect tropical weather almost year-round. September and October are hurricane season.
Average temperature ranges from 72°F in the winter to mid 80s(°F) in the summer with the highest temperatures in the mid 90s(°F) in August and September. The rainy season runs from November to December.
One U.S. dollar equals 14 lempira. The U.S. dollar is accepted almost everywhere. There is a 5 percent surcharge on credit card usage.
One hour behind EST; daylight-saving time is not recognized.
Honduran Institute of Tourism
(800) 410-9608 • e-mail: email@example.com
011 504 445-1552 • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sueño Del Mar/Sea Breeze Hotel
(800) 298-9009 • e-mail: email@example.com
Sunset Inn/Ocean Divers
011 504 445-1925 • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
West End Divers
011 504 445-1531 • e-mail: email@example.com
Anthony’s Key Resort
(800) 277-3483 • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bay Island Beach Resort
(800) 4 ROATAN • e-mail: email@example.com
Coco View Resort
(800) 282-8932 • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Inn of Last Resort
(888) 238-8266 • e-mail: email@example.com
Bonnebeach Fantasy Island Beach Resort
(800) 676-2826 • e-mail: fantasyislandresort.com
Crystal Beach Resort/Nautilus Dive