Plenty of Caribbean islands have been labeled with the daydream-inducing word: paradise. If your definition of paradise includes empty beaches, no crowds, and not having to dress for dinner, consider packing your bags for an easy-access option you might not have considered: the Bay Islands of Honduras.
These islands give visitors a taste of what the Caribbean was like before development surged: a laid-back getaway with turquoise water, lush tropical vegetation and an easy transition into island life with no high-rises, no traffic and no stress. The Mesoamerican reef system that rings the Bay Islands like a jeweled necklace is second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef.
There are direct flights from Houston, Atlanta and New York to Roatán (RTB), with flight times of 2 hours and 40 minutes, 3 hours and 25 minutes and 5 hours, respectively. The next-best option is flying to San Pedro Sula (SAP) on the Honduran mainland, which tacks on perhaps 30 minutes to the international flight. National flights connect from there to each of the three islands.
Honduras mainlanders often refer to the English-speaking Bay Islanders as caracols, or conchs—a shellfish found in local waters. Islanders consider the label a reference to their relaxed lifestyle. The islands have a mañana culture: businesses close for siesta, posted schedules sometimes mean nothing and nobody rushes around. If you’re a Type-A person, you have no choice but to chill out.
Roatán is the largest of the islands, with the widest variety of hotels, restaurants and activities. Water adventures cover everything from fishing, kayaking, diving and glass-bottom boat tours. Towards the eastern end of Roatán is the fishing village of Oakridge, where motorized canoe tours of deep mangrove tunnels allow views of island wildlife. Nearby, in the Garifuna community of Punta Gorda get a taste of freshly made cassava bread and shop for traditional handicrafts from these descendants of Carib Indians and West Africans.
With more than 60 different dive sites to choose from, it’s no wonder that Utila, the smallest of the Bay Islands, is a diver’s destination. It's also one of the least expensive places in the world to get scuba certification. You may even get a chance to swim with the world’s largest fish – the whale shark. This docile member of the shark family can be spotted year round in the waters off Utila.
You don’t have to be a diver to enjoy life on the island, however. Other sports, like snorkeling, kayaking and boating allow equal time in the piercingly blue water. If chilling near the sandy beach is your goal, plenty of affordable restaurants, bars, and hotels will be happy to accommodate you. Backpackers especially love Utila and its inexpensive options.
For an off-the-beaten-path experience, hop a water taxi from Utila to nearby Water Cay. The uninhabited island is an ideal location to spend your day snoozing in the shade or snorkeling along the coral reef.
Of the three islands, Guanaja is the least developed and the most pristine. Locals say it’s what Roatán and Utila looked like 25 years ago. With only one paved road, most transportation is by foot, bicycle, or boat. Guanaja is beloved by adventure travelers that are more interested in the outdoors than shopping and restaurant hopping.
On Guanaja, it’s easy to pretend you’re at the end of the world, although opportunities for wildlife viewing and sport abound: hiking to crystal-clear waterfalls to view parrots, agouti and iguana; diving or snorkeling among Crayola-colored fish; kayaking in the warm water; bone fishing in the shallows; or just wandering miles of unspoiled beaches.
Guanaja’s fringing reef is a protected marine reserve – an ideal spot for diving and snorkeling. Top dive sites include pinnacles, vertical walls, lava tunnels and wrecks. There are plenty of snorkeling spots for non-divers too; some are accessible right from the beach.
Whether you prefer hiking the many trails, swimming in the turquoise water, or just rocking gently in a hammock stirred by the trade winds and hearing kids chatter with native yellow-naped parrots – this remote island feels lost in a pleasant tropical time warp.
This article was refreshed in August 2017.