Barefoot luxury

In Roatan, a relaxed atmosphere and barefoot luxury replace high-rises and large hotels

If you know Roatan at all, you know it for scuba. The Caribbean island, set 35 miles off the coast of Honduras, happens to be surrounded by the Belize Barrier Reef, the second-largest coral reef in the world (the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, Australia, is the largest).

Beyond that, there’s not much else to know about Roatan—and after Travel Agent visited the island this summer, our verdict is that this is just the way we like it.

Undiscovered Gem

The thing is, much of Roatan is yet to be discovered. There are no high-rises here and we’d be hard-pressed to recommend any large hotels. Mom-and-pop inns are more likely to be found here, adding to the relaxed, barefoot luxury that we grew to truly love over the course of our visit.

In fact, the lushly tropical island (imagine acres and acres of protected mangrove trees) is so non-commercial, it doesn’t even have a national cocktail, and you’d have to look high and low to find a fast-food restaurant here.

But don’t let this talk of lack of pretense fool you. Roatan is very cosmopolitan, filled with a sophisticated mix of expats who meld comfortably with the locals, who are of either Spanish or Caribbean descent. And there is plenty to do here, something the visitors who do come (most of them are day-trippers off the cruise ships that dock off Coxen Hole) will attest to.

The majority of the activities, of course, focus on the water that surrounds the island—sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving. Dive attractions include sea walls, shipwrecks and night diving. Sea turtles, dolphins, and whales swim in the waters off Roatan. On land, there’s ziplining, horseback riding and excursions to the Butterfly Garden, but visitors will find them amazingly informal. Parrots, iguana and monkeys also live in the wild on this tropical island. A farm, east of French Harbor, provides refuge to thousands of iguanas and is open for tourists.

Get a taste of the local culture at Punta Gorda, which has the largest settlement of the native Garifuna people. They beat African drums and still speak the unique and unusual Garifuna language.

Then there’s always lying about on the beach. West End is the tourist side of the island with beach facilities, restaurants, bars, boutiques and shops.

An Oasis in the Works

Of course, most undiscovered tropical Caribbean islands do not keep the status quo for long. It wasn’t long before Travel Agent was faced with this fact of life. We were in the Pristine Bay Resort, where, in the island that’s just about two miles wide and 35 miles long, a 400-acre resort development was quietly in the works.

When it opens, the resort will be home to The Black Pearl Golf Course, a Perry and Pete Dye design project. It goes without saying that this will be the island’s first golf course; nine holes are expected to be ready this fall and golfers should be aiming for all 18 by first quarter next year. This is a serious course; alternately hugging the coastline and weaving through the island’s foothills, the par-72, 7,157-yard layout will have 14 holes with Caribbean views and a Dye-signature, island-green par 3. We can’t wait!

Good news for travel agents, who, up to this point, may not have had much luxury hotel product to sell in Roatan: The 120-room, five-star resort and spa at Pristine Bay, to be managed by the Lancaster Hotel Group (a serious player in the hotel development industry), is scheduled to open along with the Black Pearl.

With any world-class golf course comes a few luxury villas and Pristine Bay is no exception. The first phase of villas is in the works; these fall in the $230,000-$700,000 price range. Two-, three-, and four-bedroom villas are going to cost $600,000 to $1 million; condominiums will be priced between $348,000 and $700,000.

There’s got to be a marina in a place such as this and there will be one—in the form of Pristine Bay’s Beach Club, which is slated for a March 2010 opening. We expect to see a few ultra-luxe yachts lined up here, as word of Pristine Bay, and Roatan for that matter, catches on in the affluent sailing market.          

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