I arrived on Roatán just as darkness settled over the sleepy tropical Honduran island. My taxi rattled down the main drag of West End, a village denoted by a dirt road and thick stretches of rope standing in for speed bumps. A group of young boys was just wrapping up a game of fútbol in a field. The taxi dropped me off at the Posada Arco Iris, which is tucked into a cluster of mangrove trees just a few metres from the beach. My airy bungalow smelled rich with sea salt, and from the window I could see the flames of tiki torches dancing around a cluster of chairs on the sand.
I set out at once to drink in some local flavour. At the appropriately named Sundowner, one of many beach bars, I ordered a Monkey La La, the island’s signature beverage: a frothy collision of vanilla ice cream, vodka, rum and coffee liqueur. As I sauntered across the sand, the warm waves lapping at my ankles, I understood Roatán’s allure: Here, you can power down your iPad, exchange your Louboutin heels for Kate Spade sandals and adopt what the locals call “island time.”
The landscape certainly invites relaxation. Roatán is a densely forested dash of land, 50 kilometres in length and a scant four kilometres at its widest point. Positioned almost 50 kilometres off the coast of Honduras, it’s the largest of a trio of islands that make up the Bay Islands. Roatán is also surrounded by the world’s second-largest barrier reef (after Australia’s), making it a mecca for scuba divers. Dive shops pepper the villages, and it was through one of them that I was able to rent a sailboat with a captain to take me snorkelling in the outer reefs.
First stop? Nearby West Bay Beach, which boasts silky white sand that rolls into translucent turquoise waters. The coral reef sits only a few metres away from the
beach, which makes an hour of snorkelling followed by a plate of fresh calamari and a round of ice-cold Imperials a tempting option. Back on board, with reggae piped in from the mastmounted speakers, we set anchor at Blue Channel, a more remote reef. The underwater world comes alive here with schools of fish in neon yellow and blue, fiery orange and regal purple. The fish are striped and polkadotted, opal white and inky black.
Roatán is also ideally suited to less active pastimes, such as stretching out on a chaise longue, book and cocktail in hand. I witnessed plenty of resort-employed masseuses offering their services right on the beach. While many visitors accepted the offer, the possibility of having sand accidentally rubbed into sunburned skin encouraged me to rent a scooter and zip over to Spa Baan Suerte in nearby Sandy Bay. The glass of minty ice water I received upon arrival was followed by a lovely eucalyptus-scented deep-tissue massage. Afterwards, I took a stroll in the spa’s garden, which bloomed with hibiscus in shades of buttery yellow and delicate peach. A pedicure palapa sits in the middle of the steep property, near the spa’s small private beach.
Over the island, the scent of ripe mangoes lies thick in pockets, punctuated by the sizzle of freshly grilled seafood from the open-air restaurants that line the main drag of West End. Locals and tourists alike gather at beachfront bars to share bowls of fried plantains and bob their heads to congo-heavy tunes. I grew enamoured with the fact that I could sit on a simple wooden deck over the bay and order a dish called the King Combo: a platter of justcaught crab, lobster and shrimp, a set of nutcrackers and a ramekin of sweet golden butter for dipping.
Afternoons found me scootering around the island, popping into roadside shops and cafés. In a country most famous for its coffee, many of Roatán’s shops also sell striking black-and-white native Lencan pottery, plus a variety of pretty woven textiles. The few clothing shops sell mostly bikinis—and, with the languid tropical heat, there’s little reason to pack much else.
I purchased bamboo wind chimes from Umbul Umbul, which also offered coconut-shell bowls and bed frames made from local mahogany trees. Lounging sleepily in his chair behind the desk, the shop owner stared at me when I asked for a receipt. Not wanting to get up, he offered a pad of paper and a pen so that I could create my own. Living proof, it seems, that “island time” includes doing a lot of not much— and loving every minute of it.
Roatán’s top hot spots
Cool hotel: Palmetto Bay Plantation (palmettobayplantation.com)
At this eco-friendly resort, you can explore a wide range of pleasures, from sunbathing at your private villa to visiting the on-site bird sanctuary.
Must-visit spa: Spa Baan Suerte (spabaansuerte.com)
Expat owner Nedenia Dye’s loving touch is present in every detail. Try the Mayan Mud Wrap, and then order from the spa menu: We love the grilled lobster with lime-garlic salsa.
It restaurant: The Vintage Pearl (roatanpearl.com)
This candlelit restaurant on West Bay Beach offers the largest wine cellar on the island and a daily menu. Enjoy the tuna carpaccio as the wind rustles through the sea-grape trees.
Top café: The Coconut Tree (westbaycoconuttree.com)
This open-air café resembles a large pagoda and nests over a general store of the same name. Come for the ocean views, the mango iced tea and the best calamari on the island.