MOST VISITORS to Roatan arrive in the cruise port of Coxen Hole, a rather unfortunate name for a fairly unprepossessing dock, dominated by chain-link fences and swarms of tour buses.
Things improve the further you get from the harbour, and that’s something (with no disrespect to the quirky Afro-antillean charms of Coxen Hole) that’s true of the whole island.
The waters are incredibly clear, with visibility up to 50m.
As part of Honduras, the original banana republic, Roatan is at the heart of the country’s belated attempt to jump on the Caribbean tourism bandwagon.
That laidback attitude might have handicapped its progress so far, but it remains its greatest attraction to those wanting to get off the beaten track.
Well, that’s not strictly true; its best attraction is undoubtedly Roatan’s position on the edge of the Honduran continental shelf, making it a paradise for fish and one of the best diving destinations in the world.
Almost every known species of Caribbean marine life, from microscopic organisms to the mighty whale shark, inhabit its waters. Temperatures never drop below 25C (77F) year-round, encouraging coral, sponges and every kind of reef life.
The waters are incredibly clear. Look one way and you see massive shoals of tiny, colourful fish flash by. Look the other way, towards the drop-off, and you see cruising sharks, manta rays and dolphins. And the reefs are a short distance offshore, accessible to snorkellers as well as divers.
If you don’t have a close encounter with dolphins on the reef, Roatan has a dolphinarium of its own. Anthony’s Key Resort is home to the Roatan Institute of Marine Sciences, which preserves 13km of reef.
After watching a show of dolphin acrobatics, you get the chance to swim in shallow waters with these intelligent mammals, under the close supervision of their handlers. Whatever stresses you arrive with, you’ll leave them behind here.
It’s perhaps no surprise to discover that a Caribbean island’s greatest attraction is its waters, and Roatan is ringed with hotels and guest houses providing all sorts of sporting activities.
Swimming, jet skiing, sailing and water skiing offer the sort of hectic backdrop that makes a quiet rum punch by the pool all the more enjoyable.
If the rum does bring out the Hemingway in you, you could try a bout of sports fishing. There are fighting bonefish just offshore, and blackfin tuna, wahoo and trophy-size marlin lurk in deeper waters.
The interior is a lush tropical forest of palms, ferns and orchids which, again, is being opened up to tourists and particularly ecotourism.
Carambola Botanical Reserve offers winding trails through the sheltering trees, and a sheer cliff that is a protected area for iguanas and parrots. A good guide is essential to get the best out of the island and to be able to read the book of nature around you.
For example, Roatan is a source of the noni fruit, hailed as a wonder cure for colon cancer. The vile smell it gives off when it ripens makes you think even better of the scientists working on the drug.
If walking is not really your thing in the tropical humidity, try a horse ride, either along a forest trail or along a glorious white sand beach. It takes quite an effort to get to this former pirates’ retreat, so indulging in Caribbean clichés such as galloping along a beach at sunset seems well deserved.