Exploring Roatan Island
Exploring Roatan Island
From the white sands of West Bay to the fishing docks of French Harbor, from the pirate coves of Port Royal to the vibrant walkways of Coxen Hole, Roatan Island is as diverse as it is enticing, as varied as it is inviting. While most visitors and expats invariably come for the pristine waters – plunging gaily beneath the undulating waves of the turquoise Caribbean – many find life onshore equally as captivating. And compelling. Each of Roatan’s eleven quaint communities offers its own unique charms. Taken together, they paint a lush portrait of a laidback lifestyle, far from the madding crowd and as close to nature as rolling waves and swaying palms.
On the east side of The Island, picturesque Jonesville, the oldest established community on Roatan, offers tourists a nostalgic reminder of what island life was like centuries ago. Punta Gorda is home to the Garifuna, whose traditions and dialect trace the steps of their African culture.
The west side of Roatan boasts both its most modern enclave and its most classically Caribbean community. West Bay, just 15 years old, is defined by its cosmopolitan flair, with Americans, Canadians, and Europeans gathering at sidewalk cafes to while away the carefree hours under the caressing sun. And Coxen Hole, named for the famed pirate John Coxen, sways to the rhythmic beat of the ever-present reggae rumbas.
The Island’s central region houses French Harbor, a thriving business center hosting the largest fishing fleet in Latin America. From the French Harbor port, massive vessels sally forth to haul in the sweet, succulent lobster, shrimp, and exotic game fish that find their way to the finest restaurants throughout North America.
Though only 40 miles long and five miles across at its widest point, Roatan offers a rich variety of marine and on-shore experiences unrivaled elsewhere throughout the Caribbean. For tourists, residents, and resettlers alike, the sun never sets on this enchanting, idyllic island.
The waterfront community of Oakridge has been called the “Little Venice of Roatan.” And visitors to this quaint fishing community soon learn why: if you are coming by car, be prepared to park on the outskirts – because much of the town in built on stilts, and you will traverse its corridors by sea-faring vessel!
It’s the way they have always done it. And if the citizens – many direct descendants of the town’s European founders – have their way, it’s the way they always will. There are no pungent fumes from passing autos. No need to look both ways before crossing. And no need to be in a hurry to get where you’re going. Because wherever you’re going in Oakridge, you’re only going to get their as fast as the current will carry you.
The waterfront restaurants of Oakridge serve only the freshest seafood, often pulled from the sea only hours earlier. The store clerks provide you their undivided attention (in English, no less; the language of their forbearers). And you’ll watch the sun set over the water’s edge from the cozy confines of your hotel room for less than the cost of a good stateside meal.
Imagine the copacetic Cabin Cove of “Murder She Wrote” fame – without, of course, the cloak and dagger – and you have quiet, quaint Oakridge … the Little Venice of Roatan.
Perhaps Roatan’s most distinctive community, Punta Gorda has its own customs, its own cuisine – and even its own language. Populated for centuries by brightly garbed Garifuna (pronounced gar-rif-ǔ-na) natives, Punta Gorda is as near as most visitors will come to getting a true taste of African culture without traveling half way around the world.
Founded in 1797 by some 3,000 Garifuna refugees from San Vincente stranded on Roatan by the British, Punta Gorda, in the words of the Moon Travel Guide, is “a sleepy seaside town — dozens of cayucos pulled up on the beach, a steady breeze blowing in the palms, and Garífuna residents moving at a very deliberate pace, usually happy to spend a few minutes or hours chatting with a visitor.”
In short, Punta Gorda is a serene, even surreal, escape from churning miasma of the modern whirlwind. It is a place to sample a simple way of life most others will never have the opportunity to enjoy. And to savor the delectable food and unfettered friendship of a people who have long since embraced their own unique pace and place in the sun.
The tiny twin towns of Jonesville and Port Royal are traditional island communities in the finest sense of the term. Clean, compact, unfettered, and unspoiled by the outside world, neither will likely ever draw hordes of souvenir-hunting tourists (they’re far too isolated and unaffected). And both maintain their small town ambiance by design of the warm and friendly residents.
Most of the residents in each of the towns are islanders or strongly independent expats. Those who have a need to work usually hold jobs in the fishing industry. But, few consider the work-a-day world the center of their lives. And pausing long enough to share their zest for a laid-back life of leisure is more than worth your stopping by.
Port Royal, long a safe haven for marauding pirates who found its harbor all but impenetrable, was also the home in the 1740s to not one, but two British forts: Fort Frederick and Fort George. Though Fort Frederick has long-since given way to more modern housing, the ruins of Fort George with its 17 ramparts can still be explored by those attuned to the glory days when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Jonesville, population 270, is the oldest established community on Roatan. Picturesquely perched on the water’s edge, it is, perhaps, most famous for its Hole in the Wall restaurant. Arrive on a Sunday, and you can gorge yourself on “The Hole’s” lobster, shrimp, BBQ, filet mignon, homemade coleslaw, world-famous beans, home baked bread, and the coldest beer on The Island. Nothing fancy – just fun!
On the far western end of Roatan, West Bay is The Island’s newest and most recherché locale. Just over a decade old, West Bay’s well-travelled residents hail from across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Orient. Each brings his or her cosmopolite essence; all luxuriate in the easy ambiance that is uniquely Roatan.
West Bay’s white sand beach is considered by many to be the most inviting in all of Roatan. Waterfront hotels and restaurants offer delectable beachside dining. The rolling waves provide the rhythmic background resonance. And overhead, the panoramic Caribbean sky melds with the turquoise sea to create an azure mosaic as far as the eye can see.
A walk or jog along the shore quickly transforms into an exquisite eco-event. Seashells adorn the sandy expanse. Starfish float only a few feet out from the water’s edge. Don’t be surprised to see the occasional stingray idling by. And a quick glance out to the horizon may reveal pods of dolphin playfully leaping from the placid sea.
The West Bay restaurants and sidewalk cafes offer everything from deli delights to gourmet cuisine. And the hotels and resorts allow you to choose from typical beachfront walk-ups to the most luxurious of accommodations. But, be prepared: with West Bay’s diverse appeal, you may come prepared to spend the night – and decide to stay for good!
Not to be confused with West Bay, West End is the most popular tourist center of Roatan Island. With its sand-covered corridors, its pristine shores, its thatched-roof palapa bars and restaurants, and its plethora of colorful, clapboard dive shops, West End defines the rustic character of the Caribbean.
If you are looking for high-rise hotels with button-down doormen, you won’t find them on the West End. Nor will you find posh restaurants with pricey cuisine. But, you will find swaying palms and picture-perfect beaches. You will find sandal-clad confederates lounging laconically in breezy cafes where the standard fare is the freshest of sea foods. You will find a vibrant nightlife where you can party hearty until the wee hours. And you will find what many consider the finest diving in all of the Caribbean.
Simply put, West End is like one great diving resort. Its dive operators offer competitive pricing for their wall, wreck, night, and other exhilarating underwater adventures. The living coral reef is so close to the shore you can swim or snorkel out to it. And the shore diving is equally as captivating. In short, it’s a diver’s dream come true – with the added advantage that there’s also more life to the shore life than almost anyplace else on The Island!
If West End is where you go to party and West Bay is where you go to vacation,
Sandy Bay might well be where you end up setting down roots to set up living. Its miles of untrammeled beaches offer peaceful relaxation in an uncrowded environment. Consider it the “untourist center” of Roatan Island.
In Sandy Bay, you can stroll the beaches for hours on end in splendid solitude, or in the quiet company of those you cherish most. You can wade out in shallow water to your dock’s end, or swim out to snorkel the reef within easy sight of the shore. Your nearest neighbors may a mile away, or a sea shell’s throw. It’s up to you.
And when you decide to socialize, the restaurants of Sandy Bay offer some of the finest dining on The Island. Whether your palate craves brick oven pizza, island-style food, or fresh fruit frescoes, you’ll find great food and good company at every venue.
Nearby Flowers Bay was once the “Farming Capital” of Roatan Island. Its lush coconut and banana plantations supplied the U.S. with fresh fruit nurtured by the wellsprings of its underground waters. Today, the descendants of the fruit field workers popular the beachfront community. And their quaint restaurants offer some of The Island’s most delectable Caribbean fare.
Coxen Hole was named for buccaneering pirate captain John Coxen, who lived on The Island from 1687 to 1697 (and whose fate is still unknown). It is the capital city of Roatan and along with Mahogany Bay, the primary port of entry into the Bay Islands. Here, the major cruise ships dock, so you will find a variety of shopping venues and convenient restaurants.
The town was founded in 1835, when several families set sail from the Cayman Islands and settled on the harbor. Still a compact (population 5,000) conclave of weather-beaten homes and shops, some say Coxen would still recognize it today should he fashion a return. But, that is likely an overstatement, because the town’s brightly painted walls and cottages set it apart as a pulsating community with all of the upbeat earmarks of Caribbean culture.
Central Roatan Island is dominated by two major towns, each with its own distinctive appeal. Brick Bay, located within easy driving distance of The Island’s most popular spots to both the east and the west, is an oceanfront community where fishing, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and simply basking in the sun on the white-sand beach dominate daily life.
Two small islands just off of the Brick Bay coast assure a tranquil swim in the crystal clear channel. And an abundance of papayas, bananas, mangos, almonds, grapefruit, and oranges assure you a full-flavored smorgasbord ripe for the picking, fresh from the trees!
Sharing the shoreline with Brick Bay is the commercial and banking center of French Harbor. Its broad, busy streets suggest a thriving city of international import. And, indeed, it is, hosting as it does the largest fishing fleet in Latin America.
The massive fishing ships, their towering masts piercing the crenulated sky, are a rarefied spectacle to behold. Particularly when you realize that this massive fleet accounts for hundreds of thousands of tons of lobster, shrimp, and deep sea fish sold and served in the North American marketplace each and every year. Hence, no visit to Roatan would be complete without stopping by the French Harbor docks to watch the direct descendants of the ancient mariners ply the trade and play out the lines much as their forbearers did a century and more ago.
But, don’t leave yet – because French Harbor also boasts some of the finest restaurants on Roatan Island. Its Manhattan-style sports bar features a treasure trove of baseball and football memorabilia rarely seen outside of the states. Its steak house rivals the finest throughout the U.S. And, of course, when it comes to seafood, there is none fresher, or finer, than French Harbor’s catch of the day – straight from the dock side to the table top!
On Roatan Island, there is something from everyone. And more on the way! From its quaint towns to its luxurious resorts, from its island flavor to its international flair, it is the crown jewel of the Caribbean. And, it is cordially awaiting your arrival!