From reefs to treetops, finding thrills in Roatán

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Roatán, a well-known destination in the scuba diving community, is an undiscovered jewel in most other circles. Part of Honduras’ Bay Islands chain, which consists of three islands and 60 islets and cayes, Roatán is the largest island, situated in the Caribbean 35 miles north of the Honduran mainland.

Adventure begins

In January ’05 my husband, John, and I flew on Grupo Taca (phone 800/400-8222 or visit www.taca.com) from San Francisco to San Salvador, continuing to Roatán International Airport; the flight cost us $625 each, round trip. We cleared Immigration and were met by Sherry, a rep from Anthony’s Key Resort, or AKR, which would be our home for a week. Once we identified our luggage, we didn’t need to handle it again until we arrived at our room.

Sherry moved us through Customs effortlessly and we were transferred by bus to AKR, a brief 15-minute drive to the west end of the island. (AKR provides this courtesy for all their guests.)

We had left behind cold rain and wind at home only to be met by warm rain and light breezes. “Oh, well,” I said to John. “At least it’s 80°.”

Getting comfortable

Once we arrived at AKR, we were directed up an intimidating flight of stairs that zigzagged up a hillside. The foliage was so lush and dense, it seemed we were ascending into a tropical tree house. Reaching the top, we were welcomed into a rustic lobby filled with bamboo and teak furnishings.

After a brief orientation that included details about mealtimes, happy hours and available activities, we adjourned to the dining area for lunch. If this meal was an indication of what the rest of the week would be like, there would be no fear of going hungry!

We climbed those zigzagging stairs three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For breakfast, we could choose a buffet with cereal, fruit and pastries or order from a fixed menu. Lunch and dinner offered two main entrées — either local, fresh fish or a beef, chicken or pasta dish — as well as soup or salad, bread and dessert. Mid-week, a fiesta barbecue dinner was held on the key, where we were treated to live music, a cultural dance performance and a fire-dance show.

What to do

Since we flew in on a red-eye flight, we weren’t ready to tackle anything more strenuous than a nap the first day, but we knew a week of fun activities awaited.

I am an avid scuba diver and, with over 80 dive sites just minutes from Roatán’s shoreline, there was plenty for me to do.

The on-site dive operation utilizes a fleet of 10 dive boats with plenty of room to spread out, avoiding the sardine-can feeling. I was assigned a tank number and a boat for the duration of my stay, thus avoiding duplication of dive sites and allowing me to get to know fellow divers over the course of the week. We were instructed how to sign up for any or all of the three daily dives, specialty courses and twice-weekly night dives.

A freshwater rinse tank and gear storage area were available for us to wash and house our gear, eliminating the hassle of lugging it back and forth. Tanks and weights were provided for those who brought their own gear; however, complete gear rental was available.

Due to the unfavorable weather conditions on our first three days, divers were bused to Coxen Hole, where AKR had temporarily relocated their dive boats. From there, each boat visited a variety of sites on the south side of the island, something usually reserved for those who stay on that side.

One of the most impressive sites was Mary’s Place. At a depth of about 120 feet, this channel in the reef affords spectacular views and a magnificent swim-through. Carmel- and orange-colored tube sponges and lavender vase sponges reached out from their anchorages on the wall, luring us to peek inside to discover brittle stars, shrimp or juvenile fish. Every bend revealed a new delight: a porcupine fish, a turtle, a nurse shark, a school of blue tangs, even a sea horse (when I looked closely).

If the daily dives and night dives aren’t enough, AKR has a designated shore diving spot off the key where guests can explore the reef.

Interested guests can earn their diving certification cards at AKR by taking a PADI Open Water Certification course or any of several other specialty courses, since AKR is rated by PADI as a 5-star Gold Palm resort. In conjunction with the training classes, guests can attend a marine life identification slide show offered early in the week so they can see what they might find on their underwater adventures.

AKR does cater to divers but also offers activities for those who have not yet grown gills. For anyone still tempted to explore what’s below the surface but not wanting to tackle the training required for scuba diving, two guided snorkel trips are scheduled daily.

Dedicated snorkel boats take passengers out for about an hour to nearby locations filled with myriad fish splashed in exquisite colors and patterns. Snorkel guides point out camouflaged crustaceans and other well-hidden creatures.

Alternative activities

After becoming adequately waterlogged, guests can participate in other activities such as the following:

Canoes and kayaks are available on the key. The calm, protected channel that divides the main island from the key is a wonderful place to paddle the hours away.

Horseback riding is offered three times a day; signup sheets are available in the lobby. Participants must have closed-toe shoes and long pants, for safety reasons. Guides lead riders down beach trails and past wonderful ocean views.

If island exploration is your desire, the front desk can arrange for a taxi to pick you up and deliver you to either Coxen Hole or West End. Both towns are about 15 minutes away, in opposite directions, and offer quaint shops, local fare and the opportunity to mingle with friendly islanders.

Other options include hiking through the tropical jungle or taking a thrilling canopy tour. There’s also the option of setting a record for time spent lying in a hammock.

Located just across the road from AKR is Carambola Gardens (phone 504/445-1117). The admission price of $5 will get you a wonderful walk amongst beautiful tropical plants, including various species of ferns, orchids, palms, cocoa trees, huge bird-of-paradise, crotons as large as small trees and flowering plants of all colors, shapes and sizes.

If you want to take a walk in the woods, you can hike the trail to the top of Carambola Mountain for a bird’s-eye view of the island. It’s a moderate-level hike through some steep terrain, so sturdy shoes are advised.

For a heart-stopping thrill, the canopy zip-line tour at Gumbalimba Park (www.gumbalimbapark.com) is a must ($35). When the weather finally allowed AKR to plan their weekly barbecue on Tabyana Beach, guests were given the opportunity to swing through the treetops.

From the beach, we were bused to the top of the hill, where we were ushered to a rustic-looking building seemingly built into the treetops. There we were each fitted with a harness and issued a helmet and gloves. Once we were all fitted, a guide provided instruction on how to properly orient ourselves once we were hooked to the cable.

This particular zip line had 11 sets of cables zigzagging through the jungle, taking riders from the hilltop all the way down to the beach.

One at a time, riders were hooked up and sent on their way, flying through the canopy to the next platform. Riders were unhooked from one safety cable and hooked to another, remaining securely attached to a cable at all times.

Braking instructions were given at each platform. One stretch of cable was so long, the instructions were “Don’t brake. Just let ’er fly!” By the time I reached the bottom, I was out of breath. It was an exhilarating ride.

Island history

Spanish and English conquests, swashbuckling pirates, Carib Indians and African slaves have made up the fabric of Roatán’s history. This deep, rich culture within the Bay Islands chain is on display at the Roatán Museum, located on the grounds of AKR but open to all island visitors.

The museum chronicles the Bay Islands’ history in great detail with several illustrated murals and artifacts, including a collection of Spanish olive jars that were recovered from Port Royal between 1968 and 1973.

Over the years archaeologists have uncovered residential, ceremonial and burial sites, and islanders are still unearthing “yaba-ding-dings,” the local name given to broken clay pottery and figurines.

The cultural history of the Bay Islands dates back to the Paya Indians, a group related to the ancient Maya. Numerous pre-Columbian artifacts left by the Paya have been recovered from over 50 sites throughout the islands.

RIMS

Anthony’s Key Resort is the site of the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS), founded in 1989 by Julio Galindo, the owner of AKR. RIMS has become a dedicated teaching institution because of its ideal location, which allows the study of over 30 miles of fringing and barrier reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and shoreline that is home to a profusion of marine life.

The facility is visited by college, university and high school students from abroad who come to study tropical marine ecosystems and the bottlenose dolphins housed there. Many programs are for academic credit, some are in conjuction with other field research stations and others are introductory courses to the ecology of coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Instruction is very much “hands on,” with students spending as much time in the water as possible. Research is another important aspect of RIMS, and long-term reef-monitoring programs are ongoing.

Dolphin encounters

One experience many people love to participate in is interacting with dolphins, and AKR is one place where you can do just that.

In conjunction with RIMS, guests can participate in various dolphin programs. At the time of my visit, there were 18 dolphins in residence at AKR, housed in protected enclosures at the adjacent Bailey’s Key.

Guests are allowed access to dolphins by wading into waist-deep water with a trained staff member who facilitates hands-on interaction with a dolphin. Guests can also choose to snorkel and swim with the dolphins or scuba dive with them.

I chose the dolphin dive ($75). Eight of us were taken by boat to a location about 60 feet deep where we adjourned to the sandy bottom and waited for the dolphins to appear.

As if from nowhere, one dolphin zipped in from the deep blue, darting in and out between divers, allowing us to touch his sleek, suede-like skin. We were able to interact with two dolphins for about 30 minutes, watching their playful behavior as they swam about. Because the water was so clear, we could see them from below as they leapt from the water and splashed back in.

As we surfaced, one of the trainers was leading our two “dive companions” back to their enclosure by boat, the dolphins leaping through the water all the way.

This same manner of transporting the dolphins is employed when it’s time for the twice-daily dolphin shows. Trainers lead two dolphins from Bailey’s Key about a quarter-mile to a viewing area where visitors can learn about and watch natural dolphin behaviors. This narrated 30-minute show illustrates the graceful beauty of these marvelous mammals and their impressive intelligence.

Those who want even more interaction with dolphins may want to consider becoming a trainer-for-a-day or taking a 2-day dolphin specialty course. There is also a dolphin scuba camp for kids ages five to 14.

Accommodations

At Anthony’s Key Resort, guests who choose hillside accommodations don’t need to travel far from the hilltop lobby to find their rooms. Those who have bungalows on the key take a brief water-taxi ride across the channel; the taxi operates 24 hours a day. Since I wanted to be over the water, we chose to stay on the key instead of the hillside.

I had seen the rooms on AKR’s website, but there’s nothing like seeing one in person to really appreciate the simple elegance of these rustic accommodations. Quaintly decorated and with adequate space, these have ceiling fans and screened- in floor-to-ceiling louvered windows that allow the trade winds to breeze through.

When we reached our bungalow, a key superior room, we were pleasantly surprised with the décor and layout. In contrast to the key standard rooms, ours had a king-sized bed, a double bed, a large closet and storage area, ample bathroom space, air conditioning and a small refrigerator. Our covered patio was ideal for extended periods of relaxation with two hammocks and several chairs plus a beautiful view of the ocean.

All key accommodations have a covered patio, some being shared decks. What won’t be found in any of the rooms is a telephone, radio, clock, television, room service menu or hair dryer. A safe-deposit box is available to secure guests’ belongings.

AKR does offer hi-tech communication options. There is 24-hour DSL Internet access available in the lobby, and wireless Internet connections are available throughout the resort (two hours for $10).

A gift shop offers locally made crafts and jewelry in addition to the usual types of souvenirs.

Arranging a stay

Seven-night package rates at Anthony’s Key Resort range from $599 per person, double, for a standard hillside room to $825 for a key superior room in low season (Jan. 1-29, Aug. 27-Nov. 19 and Nov. 29-Dec. 17) and $725 to $999 in high season, depending on whether you choose a dive or snorkeling package.

The all-inclusive rate includes accommodations; three meals daily; daily dolphin presentations; Tabyana Beach picnic; island fiesta night; horseback riding; kayaking and canoeing; entrance to the Roatán Museum, and airline transfers.

For snorkelers, the package includes fish and coral I.D. cards, two guided snorkel boat trips daily and one dolphin encounter. For divers, the package includes tanks, weights and belt, three single-tank dives daily, two single-tank night boat dives, a buoyancy-control workshop and unlimited shore diving.

For more information, contact Bahia Tours, Inc. (699 S. Federal Hwy., Hollywood, FL 33020; phone 800/227-3483 or 954/929-0090, e-mail akr@anthonyskey.com or visit www.anthonyskey.com), the main booking office/reservation center for AKR.

Debi Shank’s stay at Anthony’s Key Resort was complimentary while John Shank’s portion cost $528. Their expenses included an additional $145 for Debi’s dolphin dive and canopy tours for both. Airfare was also extra.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Roatán, a well-known destination in the scuba diving community, is an undiscovered jewel in most other circles. Part of Honduras’ Bay Islands chain, which consists of three islands and 60 islets and cayes, Roatán is the largest island, situated in the Caribbean 35 miles north of the Honduran mainland.

Adventure begins

In January ’05 my husband, John, and I flew on Grupo Taca (phone 800/400-8222 or visit www.taca.com) from San Francisco to San Salvador, continuing to Roatán International Airport; the flight cost us $625 each, round trip. We cleared Immigration and were met by Sherry, a rep from Anthony’s Key Resort, or AKR, which would be our home for a week. Once we identified our luggage, we didn’t need to handle it again until we arrived at our room.

Sherry moved us through Customs effortlessly and we were transferred by bus to AKR, a brief 15-minute drive to the west end of the island. (AKR provides this courtesy for all their guests.)

We had left behind cold rain and wind at home only to be met by warm rain and light breezes. “Oh, well,” I said to John. “At least it’s 80°.”

Getting comfortable

Once we arrived at AKR, we were directed up an intimidating flight of stairs that zigzagged up a hillside. The foliage was so lush and dense, it seemed we were ascending into a tropical tree house. Reaching the top, we were welcomed into a rustic lobby filled with bamboo and teak furnishings.

After a brief orientation that included details about mealtimes, happy hours and available activities, we adjourned to the dining area for lunch. If this meal was an indication of what the rest of the week would be like, there would be no fear of going hungry!

We climbed those zigzagging stairs three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For breakfast, we could choose a buffet with cereal, fruit and pastries or order from a fixed menu. Lunch and dinner offered two main entrées — either local, fresh fish or a beef, chicken or pasta dish — as well as soup or salad, bread and dessert. Mid-week, a fiesta barbecue dinner was held on the key, where we were treated to live music, a cultural dance performance and a fire-dance show.

What to do

Since we flew in on a red-eye flight, we weren’t ready to tackle anything more strenuous than a nap the first day, but we knew a week of fun activities awaited.

I am an avid scuba diver and, with over 80 dive sites just minutes from Roatán’s shoreline, there was plenty for me to do.

The on-site dive operation utilizes a fleet of 10 dive boats with plenty of room to spread out, avoiding the sardine-can feeling. I was assigned a tank number and a boat for the duration of my stay, thus avoiding duplication of dive sites and allowing me to get to know fellow divers over the course of the week. We were instructed how to sign up for any or all of the three daily dives, specialty courses and twice-weekly night dives.

A freshwater rinse tank and gear storage area were available for us to wash and house our gear, eliminating the hassle of lugging it back and forth. Tanks and weights were provided for those who brought their own gear; however, complete gear rental was available.

Due to the unfavorable weather conditions on our first three days, divers were bused to Coxen Hole, where AKR had temporarily relocated their dive boats. From there, each boat visited a variety of sites on the south side of the island, something usually reserved for those who stay on that side.

One of the most impressive sites was Mary’s Place. At a depth of about 120 feet, this channel in the reef affords spectacular views and a magnificent swim-through. Carmel- and orange-colored tube sponges and lavender vase sponges reached out from their anchorages on the wall, luring us to peek inside to discover brittle stars, shrimp or juvenile fish. Every bend revealed a new delight: a porcupine fish, a turtle, a nurse shark, a school of blue tangs, even a sea horse (when I looked closely).

If the daily dives and night dives aren’t enough, AKR has a designated shore diving spot off the key where guests can explore the reef.

Interested guests can earn their diving certification cards at AKR by taking a PADI Open Water Certification course or any of several other specialty courses, since AKR is rated by PADI as a 5-star Gold Palm resort. In conjunction with the training classes, guests can attend a marine life identification slide show offered early in the week so they can see what they might find on their underwater adventures.

AKR does cater to divers but also offers activities for those who have not yet grown gills. For anyone still tempted to explore what’s below the surface but not wanting to tackle the training required for scuba diving, two guided snorkel trips are scheduled daily.

Dedicated snorkel boats take passengers out for about an hour to nearby locations filled with myriad fish splashed in exquisite colors and patterns. Snorkel guides point out camouflaged crustaceans and other well-hidden creatures.

Alternative activities

After becoming adequately waterlogged, guests can participate in other activities such as the following:

Canoes and kayaks are available on the key. The calm, protected channel that divides the main island from the key is a wonderful place to paddle the hours away.

Horseback riding is offered three times a day; signup sheets are available in the lobby. Participants must have closed-toe shoes and long pants, for safety reasons. Guides lead riders down beach trails and past wonderful ocean views.

If island exploration is your desire, the front desk can arrange for a taxi to pick you up and deliver you to either Coxen Hole or West End. Both towns are about 15 minutes away, in opposite directions, and offer quaint shops, local fare and the opportunity to mingle with friendly islanders.

Other options include hiking through the tropical jungle or taking a thrilling canopy tour. There’s also the option of setting a record for time spent lying in a hammock.

Located just across the road from AKR is Carambola Gardens (phone 504/445-1117). The admission price of $5 will get you a wonderful walk amongst beautiful tropical plants, including various species of ferns, orchids, palms, cocoa trees, huge bird-of-paradise, crotons as large as small trees and flowering plants of all colors, shapes and sizes.

If you want to take a walk in the woods, you can hike the trail to the top of Carambola Mountain for a bird’s-eye view of the island. It’s a moderate-level hike through some steep terrain, so sturdy shoes are advised.

For a heart-stopping thrill, the canopy zip-line tour at Gumbalimba Park (www.gumbalimbapark.com) is a must ($35). When the weather finally allowed AKR to plan their weekly barbecue on Tabyana Beach, guests were given the opportunity to swing through the treetops.

From the beach, we were bused to the top of the hill, where we were ushered to a rustic-looking building seemingly built into the treetops. There we were each fitted with a harness and issued a helmet and gloves. Once we were all fitted, a guide provided instruction on how to properly orient ourselves once we were hooked to the cable.

This particular zip line had 11 sets of cables zigzagging through the jungle, taking riders from the hilltop all the way down to the beach.

One at a time, riders were hooked up and sent on their way, flying through the canopy to the next platform. Riders were unhooked from one safety cable and hooked to another, remaining securely attached to a cable at all times.

Braking instructions were given at each platform. One stretch of cable was so long, the instructions were “Don’t brake. Just let ’er fly!” By the time I reached the bottom, I was out of breath. It was an exhilarating ride.

Island history

Spanish and English conquests, swashbuckling pirates, Carib Indians and African slaves have made up the fabric of Roatán’s history. This deep, rich culture within the Bay Islands chain is on display at the Roatán Museum, located on the grounds of AKR but open to all island visitors.

The museum chronicles the Bay Islands’ history in great detail with several illustrated murals and artifacts, including a collection of Spanish olive jars that were recovered from Port Royal between 1968 and 1973.

Over the years archaeologists have uncovered residential, ceremonial and burial sites, and islanders are still unearthing “yaba-ding-dings,” the local name given to broken clay pottery and figurines.

The cultural history of the Bay Islands dates back to the Paya Indians, a group related to the ancient Maya. Numerous pre-Columbian artifacts left by the Paya have been recovered from over 50 sites throughout the islands.

RIMS

Anthony’s Key Resort is the site of the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS), founded in 1989 by Julio Galindo, the owner of AKR. RIMS has become a dedicated teaching institution because of its ideal location, which allows the study of over 30 miles of fringing and barrier reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and shoreline that is home to a profusion of marine life.

The facility is visited by college, university and high school students from abroad who come to study tropical marine ecosystems and the bottlenose dolphins housed there. Many programs are for academic credit, some are in conjuction with other field research stations and others are introductory courses to the ecology of coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Instruction is very much “hands on,” with students spending as much time in the water as possible. Research is another important aspect of RIMS, and long-term reef-monitoring programs are ongoing.

Dolphin encounters

One experience many people love to participate in is interacting with dolphins, and AKR is one place where you can do just that.

In conjunction with RIMS, guests can participate in various dolphin programs. At the time of my visit, there were 18 dolphins in residence at AKR, housed in protected enclosures at the adjacent Bailey’s Key.

Guests are allowed access to dolphins by wading into waist-deep water with a trained staff member who facilitates hands-on interaction with a dolphin. Guests can also choose to snorkel and swim with the dolphins or scuba dive with them.

I chose the dolphin dive ($75). Eight of us were taken by boat to a location about 60 feet deep where we adjourned to the sandy bottom and waited for the dolphins to appear.

As if from nowhere, one dolphin zipped in from the deep blue, darting in and out between divers, allowing us to touch his sleek, suede-like skin. We were able to interact with two dolphins for about 30 minutes, watching their playful behavior as they swam about. Because the water was so clear, we could see them from below as they leapt from the water and splashed back in.

As we surfaced, one of the trainers was leading our two “dive companions” back to their enclosure by boat, the dolphins leaping through the water all the way.

This same manner of transporting the dolphins is employed when it’s time for the twice-daily dolphin shows. Trainers lead two dolphins from Bailey’s Key about a quarter-mile to a viewing area where visitors can learn about and watch natural dolphin behaviors. This narrated 30-minute show illustrates the graceful beauty of these marvelous mammals and their impressive intelligence.

Those who want even more interaction with dolphins may want to consider becoming a trainer-for-a-day or taking a 2-day dolphin specialty course. There is also a dolphin scuba camp for kids ages five to 14.

Accommodations

At Anthony’s Key Resort, guests who choose hillside accommodations don’t need to travel far from the hilltop lobby to find their rooms. Those who have bungalows on the key take a brief water-taxi ride across the channel; the taxi operates 24 hours a day. Since I wanted to be over the water, we chose to stay on the key instead of the hillside.

I had seen the rooms on AKR’s website, but there’s nothing like seeing one in person to really appreciate the simple elegance of these rustic accommodations. Quaintly decorated and with adequate space, these have ceiling fans and screened- in floor-to-ceiling louvered windows that allow the trade winds to breeze through.

When we reached our bungalow, a key superior room, we were pleasantly surprised with the décor and layout. In contrast to the key standard rooms, ours had a king-sized bed, a double bed, a large closet and storage area, ample bathroom space, air conditioning and a small refrigerator. Our covered patio was ideal for extended periods of relaxation with two hammocks and several chairs plus a beautiful view of the ocean.

All key accommodations have a covered patio, some being shared decks. What won’t be found in any of the rooms is a telephone, radio, clock, television, room service menu or hair dryer. A safe-deposit box is available to secure guests’ belongings.

AKR does offer hi-tech communication options. There is 24-hour DSL Internet access available in the lobby, and wireless Internet connections are available throughout the resort (two hours for $10).

A gift shop offers locally made crafts and jewelry in addition to the usual types of souvenirs.

Arranging a stay

Seven-night package rates at Anthony’s Key Resort range from $599 per person, double, for a standard hillside room to $825 for a key superior room in low season (Jan. 1-29, Aug. 27-Nov. 19 and Nov. 29-Dec. 17) and $725 to $999 in high season, depending on whether you choose a dive or snorkeling package.

The all-inclusive rate includes accommodations; three meals daily; daily dolphin presentations; Tabyana Beach picnic; island fiesta night; horseback riding; kayaking and canoeing; entrance to the Roatán Museum, and airline transfers.

For snorkelers, the package includes fish and coral I.D. cards, two guided snorkel boat trips daily and one dolphin encounter. For divers, the package includes tanks, weights and belt, three single-tank dives daily, two single-tank night boat dives, a buoyancy-control workshop and unlimited shore diving.

For more information, contact Bahia Tours, Inc. (699 S. Federal Hwy., Hollywood, FL 33020; phone 800/227-3483 or 954/929-0090, e-mail akr@anthonyskey.com or visit www.anthonyskey.com), the main booking office/reservation center for AKR.

Debi Shank’s stay at Anthony’s Key Resort was complimentary while John Shank’s portion cost $528. Their expenses included an additional $145 for Debi’s dolphin dive and canopy tours for both. Airfare was also extra.