The Bay Islands: Old-School Caribbean

Want to see the Caribbean the way it used to be? Put on your flip-flops and get away to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

The Bay Islands of Honduras give visitors a taste of what the Caribbean was like before development surged: a laid-back paradise with clear turquoise water, lush tropical vegetation and an easy integration into island life with no high-rises, no traffic and no stress. The barrier reef system that rings them like a jeweled necklace is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef. Pirates and buccaneers once took rum-influenced breathers here; Captain Henry Morgan frequented the islands as well. Modern-day folks who want to escape the rat race (like me) are building vacation homes here.

I’ve been traveling to the Bay Islands—Roatán, Utila and Guanaja—since 1997. While I’ve seen an increase in development since that time, the islands are far behind the pace of the rest of the Caribbean. As more people discover the easygoing vibe these gems have to offer, the Bay Islands face the challenge of how to grow without losing paradise. Special attention is focused on Roatán—the darling of airlines, developers and cruise ships. A new $50 million cruise ship port facility, a partnership between Roatán and Carnival Corporation, will open in late 2009. In five years, the island expects to host 225 cruise ship calls annually.

Accommodations on the islands range from backpacker hostels to all-inclusive resorts. Restaurants serve a variety of styles—from pizza to barbecue to seafood to Honduran typico breakfasts (eggs, beans, chorizo and fruit). Prices for meals can vary, depending on whether you dine at a small beachside restaurant or a large, fancy resort. A lobster dinner can range from $8 in a local restaurant to upwards of $20 in the swankiest of spots.

The Bay Islands were once a British colony, and most folks speak a lilting English, so while you can ask for that cerveza, you don’t need to break out the Spanish dictionary.

Roatán: Something for Everyone

Roatán is the most family-friendly of the islands, with the widest variety of hotels, restaurants and activities. Water adventures cover everything from swimming with dolphins at Anthony’s Key Resort to fishing, kayaking, diving and glass-bottom boat tours. Visit the Roatán Butterfly Garden or the Iguana Farm to check out native island wildlife.

It’s easy to spend an entire day at Gumbalimba Park—with its animal preserve, botanical gardens, history tour, pirate’s cave, arts and crafts center, horseback riding and water activities (such as kayaking, snorkeling, snuba and catamaran tours). The park’s zip-line rides through the jungle canopy are closed until May 2008 to install a more secure system, as a result of a March 2008 fatality. The park is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. General park admission is $20 for adults, and $10 for children 12 years and under. Various combination packages are available, such as the park and canopy ride combo ($55); or the park, canopy ride and horse ride combo ($85). Combination packages as well as activity only (without park admission) prices are not discounted for children. It can get crowded when the cruise ships are docked, so check in advance with your hotel to make sure you can get tickets on your preferred day.

West End and West Bay have the largest selection of restaurants—you can try a new place to eat for every meal during your stay. Kids from Germany, Italy and the United States play with local children all along the beach and scout out shells and flotsam. Towards the other end of the island is the Garifuna community of Punta Gorda. The Yubu center exhibits traditional handicrafts, dancing and food from these descendants of Carib Indians and West Africans.

Where to Stay

Anthony’s Key Resort. Comfortable wooden cabanas line the resort’s hillside and lagoon. Leisure packages from $89 per night (meals, diving and snorkeling are extra). Dive packages from $129 per night. Children’s programs include dolphin summer day camp ($850 per camper for a 7-night stay) or a variety of diving classes. Tel. 800-227-3483. 

Utila: Aqua Paradise

With more than 60 different dive sites to choose from, it’s no wonder that Utila, the smallest of the Bay Islands, is a diver’s destination. It's also one of the least expensive places in the world to get scuba certification: as little as $259 per person. You may even get a chance to swim with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark. This docile member of the shark family can be spotted year round in the waters off Utila.

You don’t have to be a diver to enjoy life on the island, however. Other sports, like snorkeling, kayaking and boating allow equal time for the family in the piercingly blue water. If chilling near the sandy beach is your goal, plenty of affordable restaurants, bars, and hotels will be happy to accommodate you.

For an off-the-beaten-path experience, hop a water taxi to nearby Water Cay. The uninhabited island is an ideal location to spend your day—whether you choose to snooze in the shade or snorkel along the coral reef. Water taxis can be hired throughout the main town, but ask at your hotel or a dive shop for the best recommendations.

Where to Stay

The Utila Lodge. Relax in an over-water room and enjoy your private view of the Caribbean. Rates begin at $149 per night for non-divers. Dive packages include meals, 3 daily boat dives, and airport transfers ($1,049 per person for a 7-night package). Babysitting is available for about $2 per hour. Tel. 800-282-8932.

Guanaja: Natural Island Adventure

If your vacation fantasy includes hiking to crystal-clear waterfalls, wandering miles of unspoiled beaches and swimming among Crayola-colored fish—look no further than Guanaja. The island has no paved roads; all transportation is by foot, bicycle, or boat. Here, it’s easy to pretend you’re at the end of the world, and I like to remind myself what that feels like at least once a year.

The north side has the majority of the island’s dive sites and the longest stretches of powdery beaches. I’m not a diver (yet), but I enjoy snorkeling on the north side. The south side is more populated and includes Bonacca, Guanaja’s main town, which straddles two nearby cays. Whether you prefer hiking the many trails, kayaking or diving in the turquoise water, bone fishing in the shallows, or just rocking gently in a hammock stirred by the trade winds and hearing kids chatter with native yellow-naped parrots—this remote island feels lost in a pleasantly tropical time warp. Locals tell me this is what Roatán and Utila looked like 25 years ago.

Where to Stay

Graham’s Place. Bungalows on the beach look from Graham’s privately owned cay across the water to Guanaja. Rates begin at $100 per night, and include meals (the conch fritters are my favorite) and airport transfers. Tel. 305-407-1568.

Destinations: Honduras, Bay Islands, Guanaja, Roatán, Utila

Themes: Beach Vacations, Family Travel

Activities: Hiking, Kayaking, Scuba Diving, Snorkeling, Boating

User Comments

Guanaja has a paved road! Just got back from a trip to Guanaja, and the road from Mangrove Bight to Savannah Bight is now paved. Still very few cars, though.

Hmm... Info box on the side is a nice touch, please keep it up