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Heavenly Honduras

Written By: Janine S. Pouliot
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008

Roatan Island in Honduras is more than just a geographic location. It's a state of mind.

On your worst days when you fantasize about escaping to a movie-set-perfect tropical island, Roatan would do nicely. Still largely undeveloped for tourism, it's a laid-back, pristine, breathtaking speck of Earth that attracts backpackers, divers and, increasingly, mainstream Americans as it begins to make it onto the vacation radar.

So, undoubtedly, it will change. But for now, it's still an amalgamation of privately owned small beachfront inns with mosquito netting suspended over the beds, ceiling fans languidly distributing the balmy air and the transparent aquamarine Caribbean Sea just feet away.

Roatan, 33 miles long and 4 miles wide, is one of three islands making up the Bay Islands. It is 30 miles off the coast of Honduras. Despite the lack of commercialism, it's surprisingly accessible from the U.S. in just less than three hours.

On a brilliantly sunny day when the color of the water resembles a swimming pool -- only with a coral reef and tropical fish -- I'm sitting in a palapa-covered restaurant shack that is supported on stilts above the water in the funky town of West End. I'm plenty hot, and that crystalline water is looking awfully good.

But I've forgotten my swimsuit. So fully clothed, I pad down the wooden stairs and drop into the tranquil sea; nobody seems to notice or care. Eventually, I pad back up the steps and, dripping seawater on the wood floor, head out onto the one-lane dirt road to a pastel-colored hut that's selling T-shirts and shorts. Within minutes, I'm outfitted in dry clothes for $15 and ready for a lunch of just-caught steamed red snapper, rice and beans and fried plantains for $5. An ice-cold bottle of beer is 50 cents. It doesn't get any better than this.

An easy 10-minute water-taxi ride away is the town of West Bay and what some consider the most beautiful beach in the world. There is a smattering of the more traditional resort-style hotels, such as the Mayan Princess, one of the few accommodations on the island to have a swimming pool.

I meet Oscar Escobar, a tour operator who runs day outings to the mostly deserted out islands. I sign up for a tour. The next day, we leave in an eight-person motorboat pointed into open ocean, past splotches of land sticking up above the sea, to Cayos Cochinos. It is made up of two densely palm-and-fern covered islands and 13 cays, all declared a biological reserve.

After snorkeling and swimming, we have lunch on a blip of land inhabited by the Garifuna people, a separate ethnicity from the Latin population of Honduras.

The Garifuna derive from Africa, where they were captured as slaves intended for the New World in 1635. Their ship, however, wrecked on the reefs near the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Survivors fled and mixed with Carib Indians, creating a culture and language. Generations later, they were forced off the island by the British and relocated in and around Roatan.

Lunch provided by this group of about 20 occupying the island consisted of a lobster just plucked from the ocean for each visitor and several side dishes served on wooden tables at the edge of the water. The meal runs around $6.

For another side trip, I take a 15-minute flight aboard a puddle-jumper to the mainland of Honduras for a stay at the eco-lodge Pico Bonito. It is at the rim of the national park by the same name, a wild primordial rain forest filled with foliage, birds and wildlife. The Lodge at Pico Bonito is a member of the upscale Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and each of the 22 cabins is constructed of mahogany jalousie windows, varnished hardwood floors and wooden vaulted ceilings harvested from the surrounding jungle.

It is, appropriately, raining when I arrive at the rain forest. Giant banana leaves drip water, trees pregnant with cacao pods drop their fruit, sumptuous red bromeliads glisten in the muted light, and the whole place smells earthy and exotic.

The next morning, the sun is shining. I eat breakfast at the lodge house and sit on the wide veranda in an oversized upholstered rattan chair, taking in the view before hiking into virgin mountainous rain forest.