Coxen Hole, the largest city and capital of the department of the Bay Islands, isn't the idyllic beach paradise that you might expect to find in Roatán. It's more of, well, a hole. Like it or not, though, chances are you are going to pass through the city, which is home to the airport and functions as a transportation hub for buses and taxis, as well as the setting for the new Port of Roatán cruise terminal and shopping center, which is only functional when a cruise ship is in town. Apart from a few small hotels and restaurants, there isn't much in the way of tourist amenities -- you're probably better off basing yourself in another part of Roatán.
This newly redeveloped seaside community is where a large percentage of visitors to Honduras first set foot. While there was a ferry terminal here already, the town became home to a brand-new cruise ship terminal in 2009, in which Carnival Cruise Lines has invested heavily. Most passengers will hightail it to other parts of the island upon arrival, though new developments make it harder to leave Mahogany Bay (the newly minted name for what was formerly known as Dixon's Cove), including 8 hectares (20 acres) of white sandy beachfront, a giant chairlift that runs between the pier and the beach, and a large shopping and entertainment complex with the same cruise ship shops and restaurants that are found at every port (and are open only when a ship is at port).
While this Afro-Antillean community lacks beach, it does have large unobstructed stretches of rocky-bottom clear waters, though there is quite a bit of trash. For the foreign tourist, Flower's Bay is perhaps best known when driving at night for the literally thousands of crabs that move across the coastal road by the dozens, many of which are seen plastered to the cement the next day. A fascinating ride on a scooter.
Sandy Bay is a tranquil town on the North Coast that has become a popular stop on many cruise ship tours, which come to experience the cultural highlights of the islands. Standout attractions here include the Roatán Museum and Institute of Marine Sciences, and a dolphin encounter. Sandy Bay is also home to one of the island's most popular resorts, Anthony's Key Resort . Note that while the beaches in the reserve are stunning and surrounded by some of the most dramatic coral formations in Roatán, the beaches in town are murky and scruffy.
West End, so-called because it is on the west end of Roatán, is the tourist center of the island and is home to the most hotels, restaurants, bars, dive shops, tour operators, and general tourist amenities. From the highway, the town hugs the road and the beach in both directions for just a kilometer or so. The town itself is quite small and has a sort of thrown-together feel to it, since buildings are scattered about with no apparent order. Prices tend to be cheaper here than in the West Bay, thus attracting plenty of backpackers and diehard divers, although it is still more upscale than anywhere on Utila.
About 2km (1 1/4 miles) southwest of the West End sits a 1.5km (1-mile) stretch of powdery white sand, set against the mellow tides of a perfectly turquoise sea. This is West Bay, the finest beach in all of Honduras and one of the top beaches in all of the Caribbean. If your ideal vacation is to lounge around in the sand and sun with a continuous rotation of tropical drinks being brought your way, look no further. The focus here is less on diving -- although diving is still a big deal -- than general beach-going activity. When you decide to move from your palm-fringed slumber, you can ride jet skis, take a boat tour, or browse the souvenir stands sprinkled across the beach. If you want to snorkel, you can rent gear almost anywhere and walk a couple meters into the water where all sorts of colorful fish are swimming around a good tract of coral reef.
Almost the entire beach is chock-a-block full of hotels and condos, the majority of which have no more than a few dozen rooms. West Bay has so many new hotel and condo projects in the works that it sometimes feels more like a construction site than a resort area. The town used to be sorely lacking in restaurants and other tourist amenities, but the kinks are slowly being worked out. Come when a cruise ship is in town, and the place can be downright crowded, but for much of the week, West Bay is still an idyllic beach resort.
French Harbour was once better known as the home of one of the largest fishing fleets in the western Caribbean, but is quickly becoming engulfed by the onslaught of tourism and residential developments aimed at foreigners. While the compact town and port hold most of the town's population, the area as a whole is more spread out and less self-contained than West End and West Bay. Most of the hotels are fairly isolated and have their own private beaches, dive centers, and restaurants, so most visitors find little reason to leave their individual compounds or venture into town. A Megaplaza Mall, the first on the islands, with many chain restaurants and stores, opened in late 2009 on the highway.
The East End
Past Oak Ridge on the south shore and Punta Gorda on the north shore, the main paved road ends and becomes a bumpy dirt path. Small cars make their way here in only the best conditions; large trucks and 4X4s are the preferred vehicle of choice, after boats. Some villages lack road access and hug the coastline. These are some of the poorest communities on the island, and some even lack electricity and plumbing. It is like a step back in time.
Two of the best beaches on Roatán, Paya Bay and Camp Bay ★★ (the largest beach still undeveloped on the island), are known only by locals and visitors at the one small resort on this end of the island, Paya Bay Beach Resort . Here, just to the east of Punta Gorda, the hills grow larger, and the small coves become more dramatic. Getting around and to these beaches isn't easy unless you have four-wheel drive, but the payoff is worth it: Clean white sand and clear waters are backed by lush jungle. They are the hidden paradises that everyone thinks were bulldozed off the island decades ago.
Little more than an historical footnote, in the 17th century Port Royal was a base for pirates, as well as the British military. The remains of two British forts at the edges of the harbor, Fort Frederick and Fort George, can still be seen, though a house has mostly covered Fort Frederick. Fort George, on the cay, is slightly more visible, though only the foundation remains. The area has seen an increase in recent years of private development, mostly houses of expats and wealthy Hondurans, who prefer the isolation, wild surroundings, and cheap property to the more commercialized West End.
Past Port Royal is Old Port Royal, the site of a failed Providence Company settlement in the 1630s, though little remains. Heading east, Roatán breaks apart into three small islands: Santa Helena, Barbareta, and Morat. The islands lack any infrastructure and are populated only by a few small fishing communities. Pristine reefs that are often visited on dive excursions surround all. There are a few rarely visited beaches here, as well as loads of sea caves in the limestone cliffs that are believed to hold artifacts from the Payas and possibly pirate booty. Beyond these islands sit the Pigeon Cays, tiny spits of land much like those in the Cayos Cochinos. All three islands and the cays are reachable by boat from Oak Ridge.
Oakridge & Jonesville
The last communities reachable by a paved road on the south side of the island, Oakridge and Jonesville are connected to each other along the coast through canals in the mangroves. The people are mostly of Afro-Antillean descent, and many of the houses are built on stilts in a traditional style. Investment here is lacking, compared with the western end of the island, though tourist visits here are not unheard of, and many prefer this atmosphere that is considerably more authentic than the West End. While you won't find luxury here, there are a few good places to stay and eat.
The village of Punta Gorda stands where the paved road ends on the north side of the island. It was here in 1797 that the British dropped approximately 5,000 Garífuna ashore, after they began to rebel against colonial rule in St. Vincent, about 1,600km (994 miles) to the southeast, off the coast of Venezuela. While many Garífuna went to the mainland and settled on the coasts of Honduras and Belize, some stayed around and settled here. The village is the only almost entirely Garífuna settlement still on the island. There is little in the way of tourist amenities here, and the town is quite poor. Houses are built on stilts over the water, and those on the shore are made of cement blocks with tin roofs and are painted in bright pink or turquoise. Each year, a festival is celebrated on April 12, the day the original Garífuna settlers arrived on the island, and features lots of dancing, drumming, and drinking.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.