Many divers treat Roatan like a longtime friend-they arrange to visit often, and happily spend their hours doing familiar things. In fact, it's not uncommon for divers to plan multiple trips every year to the same resort, blowing bubbles on reefs that they know as well as their own backyards. In the evening, guests can kick off their sandals and enjoy local entertainment-from fire dancers and bands to barbecue fiestas and beach picnics-on the resort's property. Nighttime shore dives on house reefs are extremely popular island-wide. Roatan's size-the island is about 33 miles long-and the location of its dive resorts-some of them are on private keys and accessible only by boat-make it challenging but not impossible to squeeze in time for topside touring. Most dive resorts arrange transportation for both day excursions and evening outings, including dolphin encounters, zipline canopy tours, West End shopping excursions and trips to a number of excellent restaurants and bars. Whether you want a low-key, stay-at-the-resort-all-week vacation or a high-energy, pack-it-all-in trip, Roatan delivers.
The grassroots effort by local dive operators to put some teeth into the regulations governing Roatan's Sandy Bay and West End Marine Park paid off when the park was officially established in January 2005. Though the park-which shelters the reef along Roatan's most heavily used stretch of coastline-was first created in the 1980s, enforcement of rules was nonexistent, says Julio Galindo, Sr., owner of Anthony's Key Resort since 1979. "We now have patrols to enforce no-fishing rules. Mooring buoys have helped minimize impact." Spearfishing has been eliminated, and lobster and conch populations are on the rise. Next, says Galindo, "we want to address waste management issues and establish universal standards for dive operators." www.roatanmarinepark.com
Dive Site Sampler
It's no wonder divers adore Roatan: Dive sites ring the entire island. The shallow fringing reefs along the north shore slope down to a vertical wall starting at 40 feet, while the drop-off on the south shore starts in 25 feet of water.
Herbie's Fantasy The rumpus of schooling grunts, angelfish, triggerfish and parrotfish at this site make you feel as if you're in a giant aquarium. The topography is a maze of sand chutes, tunnels and coral spurs that begins in 40 feet of water and spills into deeper water.
Odyssey The massive 300-foot-long Odyssey is developing into a living reef and a hangout for patrolling barracuda and jacks. Start at the mast, which rises to within 40 feet of the surface, and make your way down to the bow at 70 feet. You can swim through the bow hatch and into the cavernous cargo hold. You'll find the stern resting on the sand at 120 feet and the superstructure rising above you.
Spooky Channel Just east of Bay Islands Beach Resort, this channel is hollowed out of the reef. You'll slip into a narrow crack to find a cave-like opening in the reef.
Verde Grande A photographer's favorite, this site is on the inner reef with a max depth of 35 feet. The highlight is a tunnel that's jammed with silversides during the summer.
Half Moon Bay Wall Schools of creole wrasse flow over the drop-off while groupers drift in the current. Look for a tunnel that empties onto the wall at 70 feet among forests of deepwater fans and sponges.
Pablo's Place A laid-back drift dive that starts at Herbie's Place, just to the west. The wall starts at 40 feet and plunges to more than 180 feet. The barrel sponges grow really big here.
Mary's Place A deep crack that is decorated with rope and tube sponges, seafans and black coral. Depending on the time of day when you dive here, the fissure can be illuminated by streaming sunlight or be eerily dark.
Calvin's Crack Another canopied fracture in the reef popular with divers leads to an opening on the wall at about 70 feet.
Prince Albert A few fin kicks off CoCo View Resort, this sponge-coated island freighter in 85 feet of water is a popular night dive, when octopuses skulk nearby and morays come out to hunt.
Fly like Tarzan on a tree-to-tree jungle canopy zipline. Gumbalimba Park, between West End Village and West Bay at Tabyana Beach, www.gumbalimbapark.com; Pirates of the Caribbean Canopy Tour, Plan Grande (east of CoCo View Resort and Fantasy Island Beach Resort), roatancanopy-pirates-of-the-caribbean.com
Feed veggies to giant iguanas at the Roatan Iguana Farm located on the main paved road in French Key, just past the turnoff for French Harbour if you're driving west. www.roatanisland.net/iguana_farm.htm
Play Capt. Nemo for a day and take a 2,000-foot dive in a deep sea submersible with the Roatan Institute of Deepsea Exploration. www.stanleysubmarines.com
Hole in the Wall restaurant located in the east end fishing community of Jonesville (take a cab and then a boat shuttle to the small island the restaurant is located on). The Sunday all-you-can-eat dinner includes lobster and/or shrimp, barbecue filet mignon and homemade cole slaw for about US$15 (and the beer is ice-cold and cheap). www.roatanonline.com/moreroatan/images_east/hole.htm
Chill on the beach at the Sundowners Bar in West End Village, a beach bar serving steaks and lobster. www.roatanonline.com/sundowner
The Blue Parrot in Sandy Bay near Anthony's Key Resort is a cozy restaurant and bar that specializes in grilled chicken, steaks and great salads. www.roatanisland.net/blueparrot.htm
If you're staying on Roatan, plan a mask-to-snout encounter with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences' dolphin program at Anthony's Key Resort (part of the package if you're a guest at the resort; other resorts arrange day trips). A dive guide, dolphin behaviorist and videographer take up to eight divers to a shallow reef (max depth is 60 feet), where divers spend 45 minutes playing with the dolphins ($84 per guest; $112 per nonguest). The 30-minute snorkel encounter takes place off a nearby sand key in 20 feet of water (snorkelers must be at least 13 years old; $73 per guest; $84 per nonguest). Kids aged 5 to 14 can sign up for AKR's Dolphin Summer Scuba Camp. Included are encounters with the dolphins, diving and snorkeling lessons, and other outdoor activities. The cost includes accommodations, three meals daily, all dolphin camp activities, equipment and materials. The 2007 rate is $999 per child, based on one child per adult staying in the same room. Contact: www.anthonyskey.com.
Some divers encounter a bit of culture shock when first being driven into Utila Town after landing on the island's small airstrip. Tucked alongside East Harbour, Main Street is a funky, noisy jumble of shacks, dive shops, hole-in-the-wall cafés, scraggly chickens, dogs of questionable breeding, locals whizzing by on bikes, ATVs and scooters, backpacking college-age kids, and music blaring from nearly every nook and cranny. If you can't embrace eccentricity, Utila's not for you. But you'd be missing something pretty special. Utila's the kind of place where the divemaster on your morning boat dive doubles as your nighttime bartender at a local watering hole. Where by the end of the week, everybody knows your name. And where you might encounter a one-inch blenny and a 40-foot whale shark on the same day.
That's how spectacular and diverse the diving is off this tiny island: Dramatic drop-offs and gently sloping walls, open-ocean seamounts and small sandy cays, sun-dappled coral gardens and fish-filled valleys. Spend one week here, and you'll dive your heart out, experiencing everything Utila has to offer. Reefs in the south start in 20 feet of water, then gently slope away to 200 feet. In the north, the reef drops off abruptly from 25 feet to more than 1,000. Just offshore, dome-shaped seamounts rise from the depths to 45 feet below the waves, attracting pelagics including schools of jacks and sea turtles.
Added bonus: If you're not a diver yet or traveling with someone who wants to get certified, Utila is recognized around the world as one of the most affordable places to get certified.
Dive Site Sampler
Utila offers miles of fringing reefs, dramatic walls, small cays and seamounts, plus chance encounters with whale sharks.
The Great Wall An incredible deep blue drop-off that disappears into the Cayman Trench. Clear water and a vertical landscape can easily seduce you deeper than desired-keep an eye on your depth. The reeftop has a unique spine-like ridge that runs parallel along the apex of the wall. It drops 20 feet to a large sandy plateau on the other side.
Jack's Bight This maze of cracks in the reef provides shelter for juveniles to set up cleaning stations.
Pinnacles The reef is cleaved by a large overhanging canyon that empties over the wall. Kick west to find a dramatic seamount rising off the ocean floor to within 20 feet of the surface. A cascade of silversides and bar jacks spill down the mount and disperse into hidden grottoes. Look for a chimney at 75 feet-drop in and you'll get ejected at 100 feet along the wall.
Black Coral Wall A wall that drops straight off the beach near Laguna Beach Resort. Sand chutes lead past coral outcroppings and drop over the wall to 80 feet. Clusters of bluebell tunicates are abundant here.
Little Bight A gradual slope with reef crevices and overhangs sheltering lobsters, crabs and squirrelfish.
Raggedy Cay The reef here drops into sand channels that spill over a gradual sloping wall to 130 feet. Check the shaded boundaries of the gullies for slumbering nurse sharks. You might encounter a hawksbill turtle or two; they nest on the small cays off this end of the island.
Don Quickset Two canyons split the reef at this site; bring a dive light to find crabs and lobsters in the crevices.
Black Hills One of the fishiest sites on the island, this underwater mountain rises from the seafloor to within 35 feet of the surface. Enormous schools of horse-eye jacks, yellowtail snappers and other pelagic species, including the occasional hammerhead or whale shark, are attracted to these plankton-rich waters.
Tour Utila Town's Jade Seahorse, an eccentric architectural art project. The entire complex (restaurant and bar) is covered in artistic mosaics of recycled bottles, glass and assorted scrap. After dark, this place rocks with the after-hours dive crowd at the Treetanic Bar, a treehouse built in the branches of mango trees. From the Municipal Dock, walk straight up Cola di Mico Road toward the new airport. About a six-minute walk on the left-hand side of the road. www.jadeseahorse.com
Rent a golf cart or a bike and explore the island. Hike to the top of Pumpkin Hill where pirates hid buried treasure. There are a number of golf cart and bike rental shops in Utila Town. www.aboututila.com
Order a thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven at the open-air Mango Café, located in the courtyard of Mango Inn on Cola di Mico Road. www.mango-inn.com
Don't miss the all-you-can-eat taco night (on Saturdays) and waterfront views at Café Mariposa. From the municipal dock, turn right onto the main street and walk to Banco Atlantida. The pathway to the café is on the dock side of Banco Atlantida. www.aboututila.com/barrestaurant
Bundu Café offers a full espresso bar, steaks and great Tex-Mex. In the center of town, to the right of the ferry dock, just past and on the other side of the street of Banco Atlantida. www.aboututila.com/barrestaurant
Whale Shark Encounters
Divers come from all over the globe to catch a glimpse of the plankton-gulping whale sharks that congregate around the banks north of Utila from March to April and August to September. The Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center has established encounter guidelines followed by the island's dive operators. You can participate in whale shark identification and migratory studies. For more info: www.wsorc.com or www.whalesharkproject.org.
During whale shark weeks at Deep Blue Resort, divers take photos during their encounters, which are then uploaded to Ecocean's online database. The all-inclusive price is $1,595. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. All-inclusive whale shark weeks at Utila Lodge (with the Shark Research Institute) were $1,350 in 2007; email email@example.com for 2008 rates.
Year-round temperatures are typically in the mid-80s, but can drop to the high 60s after a rain shower. The rainy season runs from October through early January with frequent, brief downpours.
Usually in the low 80s, but can drop to the mid-70s in winter.
Vis is usually around 60 feet, but can reach 100 feet and beyond.
A passport is required. Keep the tourist visa you'll be issued on arrival—you need to turn it back in when you leave. There are nonstop flights from Atlanta (ATL), Newark (EWR), Miami (MIA) and Houston (IAH) to Roatan (RTB). There are also nonstop flights from U.S. gateways to San Pedro Sula (SAP) on the mainland; from San Pedro Sula there are direct connections to Roatan and Utila. There is a $30 departure tax.