Curried by the Caribbean Sea
Vail, CO, Colorado
ROATAN, HONDURAS ” The best Indian food in the Western Hemisphere is a mere 1,500 miles away from Vail.
And if you are looking for beach vacation, well, you can find that here, too.
Up until three months ago, I had never heard of Roatan, had never thought of taking a vacation to Honduras and never expected to explore the second largest coral reef system in the world. But there I was, pleasantly roasted from a day spent in the sun, settling into a plate of crispy, fried onion bhaji and trading notes on the massive, purple lobster we had all seen scuba diving earlier in the day, when it hit me: This is the vacation I’ve always wanted.
For the uninitiated, Roatan is the largest of the three Bay Islands that sit off Honduras’ coast in the Caribbean Sea. This once-British colony is now home to a mish-mash of Black Caribs, Hondurans and a host of pink-faced, English-speaking ex-patriots. Similar to other Caribbean islands, like the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands, Roatan is a haven for sun-seekers, with an estimated 260,000 tourists visiting the island this year. And similar to the rest of the Caribbean, most of the shops and restaurants are run by English speakers. So don’t plan on using much of that Spanish you learned in high school here, though it is tremendously helpful when hailing a taxi.
Thankfully, though, Roatan isn’t yet as developed as those Caribbean isles to the north, so you can still get a sense of the local culture, instead of feeling you’re visiting an American colony. Cruise ships dock here just a few times a week, and there’s only a smattering of those fortress-like, all-inclusive resorts. But just like any Earthly paradise, Roatan is expected to grow by leaps and bounds, according to articles I read in the local paper, the Bay Islands Voice.
For now, though, the beaches usually aren’t packed with people during the offseason months, which happily falls during our offseason. That means dropping into a nice restaurant on a moment’s notice is possible and the prices, while no where near Mexico cheap, are somewhat reasonable.
The currency for Honduras is the lempira; the exchange rate while we were in Honduras earlier this month was roughly 20 lempiras to the dollar. But it was almost pointless to exchange our money in Roatan; every place we went to accepted American dollars and we were usually given a little bit better exchange rate if we used them.
What draws most tourists here is the scuba diving and snorkeling. Just off the coast of Roatan is the second largest living coral reef system in the world and most avid divers I spoke with say the reef is in incredible shape compared with other reef diving areas, like Belize. I wouldn’t know. It wasn’t until after we decided to join my brother-in-law and his girlfriend, both divers, on their trip that we called up Beaver Divers in Eagle-Vail to work on our scuba diving certification. Our first scuba diving experience since becoming certified was Roatan. I have a feeling I’ve been spoiled.
We set up our dives for the week with a West Bay dive shop called Banamarama (www.banaramadive.com), that was literally a short stroll from our house. Joni, our dive master ” basically the “tour guide” for all dives ” took us on five dives that revealed Roatan’s colorful reef, its abundant marine life and the Caribbean Sea’s clear, blue waters.
We dove Mary’s Place, perhaps the most popular dive spot, where you can swim through crevices and tunnels formed by the coral reef. Here, divers will be treated to purple and orange tube sponges, green brain coral (it looks like a brain), a rainbow’s array of fish and, if you’re lucky, sea horses.
But truly, my favorite dive spots were Half Moon Bay Wall and West End Wall. There we saw sea turtles swimming overhead, huge lobsters lurking under coral walls below and tiny, juvenile drum fish, with fins so out of proportion to their bodies they look skinny, floating mustaches when they swim. All of our dives took us to at least 60 feet deep; our deepest took us to 82 feet.
If you aren’t certified to scuba dive, you can get your certification in Roatan. Most of the dive shops offer classes, but you’ll end up using two days of your vacation working to get certified. And if scuba diving isn’t for you, try snorkeling. The reef is just a short swim from the West Bay beach, and on days we snorkeled we saw plenty of queen angelfish, butterfly fish, a small, spotted stingray and even a barracuda.
Culinary adventure is a required part of any good vacation in my book, and Roatan was consistently good, and on a few occasions, phenomenal in this regard. Fish is solid choice in any of the restaurants; our favorite nearby place was called Bite on the Beach. All of us had fish, each in a different way. I had the flavorfully unfishy hot and spicy wahoo, which was the table’s favorite.
We feasted on some of the best king crab of our lives at the Henry Morgan’s Resort, also in West Bay. The staff came out with the whole thing, front claws in all, steamed with a green paste of spices and no doubt cooked with heavy doses of butter. I usually think crab isn’t worth the effort, with all the cracking and prying of the outer shell just to pull out a sliver of meat. But this crab was sweet, buttery and meaty.
A fun lunch spot was Hole in the Wall, a funky, waterside joint in Jonesville that more resembles a prime picnic spot than a restaurant. They best way to get to this spot is by boat. The place is run by Americans who pour the rum and cokes tall and cook up the best spicy baked beans I’ve ever had. We bought the only thing on the menu, the all-you-can-eat lunch (they also serve dinner), and chewed on shrimp kabobs until we could barely get off our bar stools.
West End has most of the restaurants, though, and while we were less than impressed with some of our guidebook’s recommended eateries, we were floored by the Indian food we had at a restaurant called Ooloonthoo. Run by a Canadian chef and his Indian wife, the restaurant is little off the West End’s main strip, in a house, but well worth the walk. My brother-in-law’s girlfriend, a Londoner who used to eat Indian food almost daily, noted it was the best Indian she’d ever had. The table’s favorite was the dark and fiery pork vindaloo, with a curry so complex every bite seemed to offer something new.
We’re considering making dinner reservations for this time next year.
Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 748-2936, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most tourists head to the village of West End, with its quirky gift shops and abundance of hotels and restaurants. Even if you stay in one of the other villages on the island, you’ll eventually want to hit up West End if you want any sense of the nightlife.
We wanted some place a little quieter, so instead we headed to West Bay, which boasts the best beaches on the island. We weren’t disappointed. West Bay runs along a wide, white sandy beach that’s bordered by coconut palm trees and the aqua-blue Caribbean Sea. We rented a house in West Bay Village (www.westbayvillage.com) where you can pick among six vacation homes available for rent. Ours was about 100 yards from the beach, behind two other homes. So while we didn’t have a view of the beach, we were close enough to shuffle to it without shoes.
The house, like many of the rentals in West Bay, had all the modern amenities you’d expect in a place outside the U.S., with a full kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms, cable TV and A/C. We shared the house with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend, and split the bill, which was about $1,100 for the week. If that doesn’t suit your tastes, there are luxury condos, a few all-inclusive, resort-type places and some more affordable (and thus, more rustic places) all along the West Bay beach.
A good place to get information about hotels and vacation rentals is http://www.roatanonline.com.