The Next Place in the Sun
Roatán has palms, peace, blackouts -- and big
By CANDACE JACKSON
November 24, 2007; Wall Street Journal Article
On this sleepy island off the coast of Honduras,
the main tourist drag is a sand road lined with coconut
trees and hand-painted signs touting $2 beers. Backpackers
in flip-flops and scuba divers still wearing wet suits
wander between dive shops, colorful souvenir stalls
and fruit stands. Restaurants with thatched roofs
are cooled by ceiling fans, and a seafood dinner can
be had for $10 -- about the cost of a single cocktail
in pricier parts of the Caribbean.
This quaint vibe may soon change. Though most Americans
have never heard of Roatán, the place is well
on its way to becoming the region's next "it"
spot. Cruise companies, airlines and foreign real-estate
investors are moving in, bringing new construction
projects -- and potentially hundreds of thousands
of tourists -- with them.
Royal Caribbean just inked a deal to build a $30
million extension to the island's cruise terminal,
while Carnival is spending $50 million on its own
port of call, which it says can handle as many as
7,000 passengers daily when it opens in 2009. Following
the lead of other Caribbean islands, Roatán
will become a duty-free zone next month -- a huge
draw for hotel developers. Last winter, Continental
launched a nonstop flight from Newark, N.J., cutting
a 10-hour-plus trip with several connections to about
For now, Roatán remains a throwback.
There are no major chain hotels. Most resorts have
two dozen rooms or fewer, and many are locally owned.
Stay on the island more than a few days and you'll
probably start to recognize the people huddled around
Sundowners beachside bar around 6 p.m., drinking frozen
Monkey La Las, a blend of Kahlua, ice cream, coconut
cream and usually vodka.
Quiet, for Now: Roatan's Palmetto Bay Plantation
A visit to Roatán requires some flexibility
and tolerance for the unexpected. Electricity goes
out in spurts, so be prepared to eat by candlelight
in restaurants or to sit in the dark until a backup
generator kicks on. During the fall wet season, it
can rain for days. And malaria medication is advisable,
as mosquitoes can carry the disease -- a problem that
has long been eradicated almost everywhere else in
But the scenery is in many ways similar to other
Caribbean islands, with white-sand beaches, turquoise
water and hammocks strung between palm trees. There
are densely forested parts of the island, too, and
rolling hills covered in palm and fig trees. At Gumbalimba
Park, you can take jungle canopy tours and explore
houses are perched on stilts, with lines of laundry
hung underneath. Locals are a mixture of black Caribbeans;
a growing number of American, Canadian and European
expats; and Spanish-speaking Hondurans from the mainland
who have moved to the island looking for higher-paying
work. Still, much of the population here lives in
poverty, with the average monthly wage about $185.
The island's diversity comes from its colorful past.
The first permanent settlers were the Paya Indians.
Then, during the 1700s, pirates controlled the island,
followed later by Carib-African Indians, or Garifuna,
from St. Vincent. In the 1800s, freed black slaves
came from the Cayman Islands. The descendants of each
group populate the island today, and most locals speak
English, as well as Spanish. Roatán and the
other Bay Islands officially became a part of Honduras
Since the 1960s, Roatán has been a hub for
scuba divers attracted to its well-preserved barrier
reef, the world's second largest. Though he has been
to many places in the Caribbean and Polynesia, Gary
Peck says the reefs in Roatán are some of the
best he has seen. On one dive during a recent visit
here he saw king crabs and a fish that looked "like
a Christmas tree collapsing," says the New Orleans
The current wave of changes was set in motion back
in 1998, when the region was hit by Hurricane Mitch.
The storm devastated mainland Honduras and scared
off divers. Local tourism leaders decided to diversify
beyond the dive market and started targeting small
cruise-ship companies. A few years later, companies
like Royal Caribbean and Carnival followed.
It helps that cruise lines these days are constantly
in search of new ports of call. As cruising has grown
in popularity and competition from newer destinations
like Europe and Asia heats up, cruise companies have
added more off-the-beaten-track stops to draw customers
back to the Caribbean region.
Tercek, vice president of commercial development for
Royal Caribbean, says a major factor for the company
was that other ports in the western Caribbean, like
Cozumel, are nearing capacity, with 15 ships on busy
days, compared with one or two in Roatán. Also,
he says, "people like to be able to brag at a
cocktail party, 'I've been to some place that you
A real-estate boom is being led by second-home owners
and retirees from the U.S. and Canada snatching up
beachfront property for a fraction of what it costs
in other resort areas. In December, the Infinity Bay
Spa & Beach Resort will open with furnished condos
that have stainless-steel kitchen appliances and Wi-Fi.
Phil Weir, a real-estate agent from Aspen, Colo.,
first came to the island in the 1990s as a scuba diver.
He has since married a local woman, had children and
started one of the largest real-estate companies in
Roatán, in part by reaching out to his contacts
in Aspen. "There have always been divers who
came here," he says, sitting in his office as
the windows fog with mosquito spray. "Then the
cruise ships started coming, and now people are buying
In the West End, upscale condos are under construction,
along with a new suburban-style shopping plaza with
air-conditioned shops. There's talk that an indoor
shopping mall with an Applebee's is coming. Driving
along Roatán's hilly roads, many of which have
only recently been paved, it's not unusual to be stuck
behind a truck full of cinder blocks chugging slowly
up a steep incline spewing diesel fuel.
Schadegg of Rhode Island purchased a second home near
Sandy Bay, a town on the island's west side, a year
ago. The natural beauty, lack of chain hotels and
low prices drew him. "You get a whole lot there
for your money," says Mr. Schadegg. Thanks to
a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta, if he leaves
Providence, R.I., at 6 a.m. he can be on the beach
by noon, he says.
On most days, the island's largest town, Coxen Hole,
is a crowded commercial hub filled with nondescript
banks and cheap electronic-goods stores. When a cruise
ship docks, hundreds of tourists wander around its
streets, shopping for trinkets, or crowding into bars.
Though considered safer than mainland Honduras, crime
can be a concern in Roatán. The U.S. State
Department warns of thefts and break-ins; since 1998,
seven Americans have been murdered on the island.
It advises tourists to avoid isolated beaches at night,
as well as Coxen Hole.
is bringing a new set of problems. Many locals and
divers are concerned about the impact of cruise-ship
traffic and construction on the coral reef. Pablo
Allonca moved to Roatán from Uruguay to work
as a dive instructor. On a recent dive trip he swam
back to the boat carrying a Sprite bottle and a framed
picture of a girl with a dolphin. Still, the real
problem isn't the trash, he says, it's construction
debris settling on the reef. "The sediment falls
onto the bottom."
Local Tina Nelson can see the cruise-ship dock from
her home, but says she doesn't mind the influx. Last
winter, she started selling Christmas-themed painted
seashells on days when ships pull into port, laying
some out on a card table and hanging the rest from
a plastic Christmas tree. "When I see a ship
pulling in, I come down," she says. On a sunny
day a couple of weeks ago, she made more than $70.
"People make that sometimes in a month here,"
Write to Candace Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trip Planner: Roatán
to Get There: Take a nonstop flight to Roatán
on Taca Airlines or American from Miami; Delta from
Atlanta; or Continental from Newark, N.J., or Houston.
If you rent a car while there, make sure it's a four-wheel
drive -- some side streets are still made of dirt
Where to Stay: The Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort
will be the island's swankiest option when it opens
in mid-December. Condos will start at $190 a night
during high season (infinitybay.com). The Mayan Princess
Beach Resort & Spa, on West Bay beach, has spacious
rooms with front porches, kitchens and slightly outdated
décor. Beachfront one-bedroom condo prices
start at $219 during high season (mayanprincess.com).
For an upscale eco-resort vibe, Palmetto Bay Plantation
has Balinese-style villas with front-porch hammocks.
It's best to book by phone or email, and call a few
days before you leave -- the resort can close during
the rainy season. Rooms start at $195 a night. (email@example.com;
What to Do: Most resorts have their own dive shops
that also can set you up on snorkeling tours if you're
not certified for scuba diving. A typical half-day
trip on a boat costs about $25 for a half day, or
rent gear for $5-$10 a day and swim out on your own.
West Bay is one of the best beaches for both sunbathing
and snorkeling, with white sand and resorts and beach
bars nearby. There are several canopy-tour options,
including one at Gumbalimba Park that costs $40 and
includes a tour of old pirate caves and a visit to
see parrots and monkeys (gumbalimbapark.com).
-- Candace Jackson