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Honduran island offers beaches, diving, solitude

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West Bay Beach on the Honduran island of Roatan has a range of oceanside accommodations and access to scuba diving resorts. Most of the best dive areas are less than a five-minute boat ride from the beach.

West Bay Beach on the Honduran island of Roatan has a range of oceanside accommodations and access to scuba diving resorts. Most of the best dive areas are less than a five-minute boat ride from the beach.

Wilson Ring, Associated Press

ROATAN, Honduras — At dark just after 6 p.m. most days, backpackers from across the world walk into the village of West End having grabbed the late afternoon flights to the Caribbean island of Roatan from the Honduran mainland.

They arrive in a bustle of taxis and head for a series of cheap hotels and open-air bars searching for an undiscovered Caribbean ideal of turquoise waters, cold beer, scuba diving, lobster tails and minimalist tan lines.

But during the day, the docks of West End are water taxi stands where people can grab a boat for the five-minute ride to the milelong West Bay Beach, the only expanse of sandy beach on the island. There, a series of ever-expanding luxury hotels caters to the other extreme of the tourist trade — high-end visitors who travel with luggage sets instead of day packs.

Offshore, yachts from throughout the world anchor just outside the coral reef that protects the beach. A few days a week, massive cruise ships sail by on their way to or from the port at Coxen Hole, on the island's south side.

While the West End of Roatan offers tourists the amenities of civilization, undeveloped parts of the island haven't changed much in 50 years — except for the scuba diving resorts. Here, you can relax after a day of diving, fishing or just sunbathing, by listening to the wind rustle the palm leaves.

I first visited Roatan in 1985. I was living in Honduras and looking for a cheap weekend. I flew into a dirt airstrip on a creaky old plane and traveled in the back of a pickup truck over a rutted dirt road to a tiny, underused hotel in the town of French Harbor, a fishing community in the center of the island.

But that was before the Honduran government upgraded the airport, paved the road that runs the length of the 40-mile island and made the effort to attract tourists.

They've succeeded. Now there are direct flights to Roatan from Miami; charter planes bring tourists from Europe. Corner pay phones can be used to make instant calls to anywhere in the world and Internet cafes keep the island's tourists connected to their e-mail accounts or hometown newspapers.

French Harbor now features roadside convenience stores and gas stations that would fit at any interstate exit in the United States.

Tourists go to Roatan for the ocean. Almost all the beachfront hotels at West Bay have their own scuba diving shops that offer lessons, snorkeling and boat dives.

My family and I rented a three-bedroom beachfront home in the middle of West Bay Beach. The house stood among the palm trees, next door to an all-inclusive resort that caters to Italian tourists, brought to the island in weekly charter flights from Milan.

I took a scuba refresher course from Lebir Garrido, a Cuban who, with his German wife Anja, manages the Bananarama Resort and Diving Center. I remembered the basics of scuba — always breathe out when going up — but equipment has changed dramatically; I was glad I got some updated advice.

Most of the dives they offer are less than a five-minute boat ride from the beachside Bananarama shop. Floating in 60 feet of water at the edge of an underwater wall off the point at the western tip of Roatan, I could see too many varieties of fish to even begin to name them. It was spectacular.

Carnival Cruise Lines of Miami began making stops in Roatan in 2003. "We have a diversity of ports of call on our itineraries," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. "We look for a balance between the well-known locations that everyone has heard of like St. Thomas. We try to mix them with lesser-known locations that appeal to people on a different level.

Places like Roatan are "less developed and provide a different experience," she said.

A generation ago, Spanish was almost never heard in the islands; a Western Caribbean English-Creole was the language of the islands. Now people from mainland Honduras are filling the islands with the taxi drivers, government workers and others. Spanish is beginning to predominate.

Still, almost everyone speaks English with a heavy Caribbean accent. When native islanders speak among themselves, they are likely to use a Western Caribbean Creole dialect that is understandable and fascinating to listen to, yet impossible for the outsider to mimic.

On the northeastern edge of Roatan is Punta Gorda, the spot where 5,000 Garifuna were put ashore by the British in 1797 after rebelling against their colonial rule in St. Vincent, about 1,000 miles to the southeast off the coast of Venezuela.

The Garifuna are a composite group made up of Arawak Indians from the Amazon, Caribes from the Caribbean and escaped slaves. They speak their own language, which, unfortunately, is disappearing.