You'll swear you hear Jimmy Buffett singing as you step off the ship onto Roatán. The flavor is decidedly Margaritaville, but with all there is to do on this island off the north coast of Honduras, you'll never waste away here. Roatán is the largest and most important of the Bay Islands, though at a mere 40 mi (65 km) from tip to tip, and no more than 3 mi (5 km) at its widest; "large" is relative here. As happened elsewhere on Central America's Caribbean coast, the British got here first-the Bay Islands didn't become part of Honduras until the mid-1800s-and left an indelible imprint in the form of place names such as Coxen Hole, French Harbour, and West End, and of course their language, albeit a Caribbean-accented English. The eyes of underwater enthusiasts mist over at the mention of Roatán, one of the world's premier diving destinations, but plenty of topside activity will keep you busy, too.
Coxen Hole. The largest town on the island serves as the gateway to Roatán. It's also where most cruise ships dock. Here you'll find the airport and the ferry terminal, as well as the island's only ATM. Although it would be a stretch to call this cluster of clapboard houses attractive, the town's rich heritage lends it a unique atmosphere. The Main Street Mall, east of the cruise-ship pier, is the best bet for shopping in town.
French Harbour. One of the island's most bustling communities, French Harbour is home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the Western Caribbean.
Arch's Iguana Farm. West of French Harbour you'll find this farm where you can get a close look at hundreds of indigenous reptiles. There are tropical birds as well, and a marine viewing area where you can see many species of fish and live lobsters from the dock. French HarbourAdmission charged.
Carambola Botanical Gardens. With one of the country's most extensive orchid collections, this is home to many different varieties of tropical plants. It is also a breeding area for iguanas. There are several trails to follow, and many of the trees and plants are identified by small signs. The longest trail leads up to the top of the hill, where you find an amazing view of the West End and Anthony's Key Resort. Sandy Bay, across from Anthony's Key Resort Admission charged.
Maya Key. One of the premier day excursions for cruisers visiting Roatán is this small, private island near Coxen Hole. The park offers a wide variety of amenities and activities, including sandy beaches, tropical gardens, a museum with cultural displays, and an animal rescue center, where you can meet the animals. Carnival and Norwegian cruise lines offer this option as a shore excursion, or you can book independently on the park's Web site. This is a great place for families with children. Maya Key is operated by Anthony's Key Resort, which is one of the oldest and most famous resorts in Honduras. 3-min water shuttle ride from the shuttle pier 50 yeards east of the Terminal de Cruceros near Coxen Hole .
Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences. One of the attractions at Anthony's Key Resort, the Institute is an educational center that researches bottlenose dolphins and other marine animals. There are dolphin shows twice a day, which are free to the public. For an additional fee you can participate in a "dolphin encounter," which allows you to interact with the dolphins either swimming or snorkeling. There are also programs for children ages 5 to 14, including snorkeling experiences, and the "Dolphin Trainer for a Day" program. Anthony's Key Resort Admission charged.
Roatán Museum. Well worth a visit is the tiny museum, which has been called one of the best small museums in Central America. The facility, at Anthony's Key Resort, displays archaeological discoveries from Roatán and the rest of the Bay Islands. Anthony's Key Resort Admission charged.
West End. One of the most popular destinations for budget travelers, West End offers idyllic beaches stretching as far as the eye can see. One of the loveliest spots is Half Moon Bay, a crescent of brilliant white sand. A huge number of dive shops offer incredibly low-price diving courses. West End.
At the cruise ship dock in Coxen Hole you can find craft vendors, who set up shop outside the cruise-terminal gates; a small number of souvenir shops are scattered around the center of Coxen Hole, a short walk from the docks. Few of the souvenirs for sale here-or anywhere else on the island for that matter-were actually made in Roatán; most come from mainland Honduras. The new cruise-ship dock in Mahogany Bay has a shopping area as well. If you get as far as West End, there are a variety of souvenir and craft sellers in small shops lining the main sand road that runs parallel to the beach.
Beaches. You almost can't go wrong with any of Roatán's white-sand beaches. Even those adjacent to populated areas manage to stay clean and uncluttered, thanks to efforts of residents. Water is rougher for swimming on the less-protected north side of the island.
Half Moon Bay, Roatán's most popular beach, is also one of its prettiest. Coconut palms and foliage come up to the crescent shoreline. The beach lies just outside the tourist-friendly West End. Crystal-clear waters offer abundant visibility for snorkeling.
Roatán is famous for the picturesque West Bay Beach. It's a de rigueur listing on every shore-excursions list. Once there, you can lounge on the beach or snorkel; on cruise days, most ships offer an excursion to nearby Gumba Limba Park, which offeres close encounters with monkeys and birds, as well as canopy zip-line tours and other activities; to visit on a cruise-ship day, passengers must purchase an excursion from their ship that includes the park.
Diving and Snorkeling. Most of the activity on Roatán centers on scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as the newest sensation, snuba, a cross between the two, whereby your mask is connected to an air tube above. Warm water, great visibility, and thousands of colorful fish make the island a popular destination. Add to this a good chance of seeing a whale shark, and you'll realize why so many people head here each year. Dive sites cluster off the island's western and southern coasts. Competition among the dive shops is fierce in West End, so check out a few. When shopping around, ask about class size (eight is the maximum), the condition of the diving equipment, and the safety equipment on the dive boat.
Fishing. Roatán has traditionally had a sea-based economy, and many of the small towns and villages look better from the vantage point of a boat.