by George Oxford Miller

I CLUTCH THE GUNNELS OF OUR MOTORBOAT and grimace as waves pound me in the face. This isn’t a theme-park splash zone, it’s the rolling Caribbean one day after a force-five hurricane skidded past Honduras. With today’s five-foot, bucking swells, we have to run a splash-and-crash gauntlet to reach Cayo Gallo, an isolated island in Cayos Cochinos National Marine Monument.

Located 15 miles off the coast of Honduras, the archipelago of two large islands and 13 tiny cays straddles the second longest coral reef on the planet. We beach on the spit of sand shaded by three palms. Beyond the protection of the reef, the surf intensifies, yet on the lea side calm water greets us. We snorkel toward one of nature’s grandest masterpieces.

Finding a pristine bed of coral so close to the surface is a snorkeling dream. For the next hour, we float a few feet above hundreds of red, purple, and orange sea fans swaying in synchrony to the silent symphony of the currents. Technicolor fishes dart in and out of crevices and schools of blue tangs and yellow fins cruise around us. Nature’s creative powers dwarf the human imagination.

The Bay Islands of Honduras, Roátan, Utila, Guanja, and Cayos Cochinos, are considered some of the best dive sites in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, pollution has damaged many of the reefs accessible from the hotel beaches in Roátan, the largest and most popular island, just as it has in hotel zones throughout the Caribbean. Most of the reefs in deeper water and small islands remain pristine.

Hotels weren’t the first to develop the Bay Islands. In 1797, the British conquered St. Vincent and deported the 4,000 resident Garifunas, descendents of slaves who had survived a ship wreck 150 years earlier and local Amerindians. Only 2,000 survived and settled on the Bay Islands and Belize.

Today, three communities of Garifuna live on tiny cays in Cayos Cochinos. After our snorkel, we motor to Chachaguate, a two-block-long, sugar-sand cay crowded with frame and thatch houses. The Garifunas welcome visitors to their corner of paradise and serve a traditional fried-fish lunch.

The centuries have little changed their lifestyle. A tribal social structure still dominates the families and villages, and their distinctive Punta music and dance closely resemble the call and response patterns common to West Africa. UNESCO includes the Garifuna culture in its Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

When we arrive, the women are scaling fish and preparing lunch for visitors. The men, who fish for a few hours in the morning, have already retired to their hammocks. The women clean the nets and cook, the kids sell seashell beads. Every few weeks, they boat to the mainland for water and supplies.

We sit at beach-side tables shaded by coconut trees and order lunch through a little window in a hut. The woman delivers plates of pan-fried yellow fin, the fish we saw on the reef, with rice and beans, coleslaw, plantains, and cold beer and sodas.

Pelicans wade in the surf a few yards away, colorful dugout boats rock with the gentle waves, and everyone goes for a swim every now and then just to cool off. No deadlines, traffic jams, mortgages or utility bills, no frustration when computers go down… no wonder tourists stop for a day on their sparkling beach and aquamarine surf. Yet even this remote cay is close enough to the mainland for cell phone service.

The next day, we catch the ferry for Utila, another escapist Bay Island known for diving, dropouts, $15/night hotels, and an old-style Caribbean atmosphere. The one-street  business section takes about 30 minutes to walk. Pedestrians share the 16-foot-wide pavement with speeding hoards of motor scooters, golf carts, bicycles, and an occasional truck.

Dive hotels, mini-marts, Internet shops, and bars and cafes with outside tables line the narrow byway. Beards, long hair, and sun dresses adorn residents and visitors alike. Some old-timers look like they blew ashore in the 1960s and never left the closest bar.

We stay at the Jade Seahorse, operated by Neil Keller, a former Los Angeles art teacher and glass artist who came to Utila so often to dive that he decided to stay. His six-bungalow garden hotel is one of the eccentric highlights of the island. With mosaic-covered arches, tunnels, bridges, and curving walls, the imaginative design looks like the combination of a Buddhist temple and an acid dream.

Neil describes his process as applying a glass skin over a skeleton of steel and concrete. “I try to keep it simple,” he says. “Simple for me at least. I see an empty space and want to add more detail, but I don’t.”

I search and find few spaces not filled with his abstract glass art, carved wood, and ceramic creations. Every corner tells a story, and somehow they all unite to create a magical space that thrills and inspires the imaginative child in us all. I wander through the garden of glass with the same amazement I felt snorkeling the coral reef.

In contrast to laid-back Utila, Roátan, the largest and most developed Bay Island, is home of non-stop flights from the U.S., four-star resorts and dive centers, canopy zip-line tours, and romantic waterfront dining. Yet, the main town and cruise ship terminal, Coxen Hole, is thoroughly third world. Tiny storefronts line narrow streets and rivers of pedestrians flow along crowded sidewalks.

Most of the resorts are on the west end if the island close to the airport. We stay at the Mayan Princess with apartment-style rooms and postcard-perfect beaches. Another popular resort, Anthony’s Key, offers dive programs, snorkeling, kayaking, children’s activities, and a dolphin experience. We sign up for the dolphins and meet on a small offshore key. A two-acre, fenced off inlet contains the dolphins.


One Island...

        Three Trees

Honduras Bay Islands offer pristine reefs and arrested time.

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The trainer, Nadia, takes us waist deep into the turquoise water. “We have five males, five females and a two-week-old baby in the lagoon,” she tells us. She blows her whistle and Anthony, born last year, torpedoes towards us. For the next 30 minutes, Anthony, who only occasionally loses focus, tail-walks, flips, lets us give him back and belly rubs, and as a finale, gives us each a kiss on the cheek.

After the demonstration, it’s photo-opt time. I focus my camera and Anthony poses right in front of me head up with his perpetual dolphin smile. I move to the side for a profile and he turns to face me. “He’s such a ham, he loves cameras,” Nadia says. I suspect it’s more the fishy reward she tosses him.

Though often overlooked for higher profile resort destinations, the Bay Islands of Honduras offer pristine reefs, uninhabited keys, budget and all-inclusive accommodations, and travel-poster beaches. Best of all, the islands are only a two-and-half hour flight from the U.S. gulf coast.