The Perfect Island Getaway...Most of the Time

Just don’t try drinking on Sundays.

By Catherine Matusow April 7, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Bottom right, courtesy Las Verandas; everything else, Shutterstock

The scene before us certainly wasn’t what we’d imagined. During the two-and-a-half-hour Sunday flight from Houston to Roatán—a 30-mile stretch of Caribbean island paradise in the Bay Islands off the northern coast of Honduras—Jenn and I had come to an agreement: the first order of business on our girls’ getaway would be relaxation. We’d shake off city life over a long weekend and get into the laid-back island spirit with a bite, a frosty cocktail, a chair under a coconut tree, a toe in the turquoise water, maybe even a little nap before heading out to explore. And so, after checking in at a resort called Infinity Bay and throwing on swimsuits and sarongs, we headed to La Palapa, the hotel’s restaurant on the beach, for a late lunch.

The place was, in a word, packed—and not just the restaurant, where we got one of the last tables. There were probably over a hundred lounge chairs around Infinity’s gorgeous pool, just about every one of them taken. Still, we eventually corralled one of the hotel’s valiantly sweating staffers and ordered some margaritas, leaned back in our chairs—our unwinding was about to start—and turned to survey the magnificent turquoise ocean mere steps away. 

But then, something else started: the most horrific version of “La Bamba” I’d ever heard. It was coming from somewhere behind us, emanating from a singularly tragic guitar-keyboard duo, and absolutely earsplitting.

Conversation was impossible. We fled to an open table in the distance, but it was no use. Nothing, not even my fish, fried whole to delicious, caramelized perfection, could save the experience. Dizzy from the drinks and cacophony, we paid the bill and stumbled onto the sand. Naturally, every one of the hotel’s beach chairs was taken. Only later did we learn that Infinity, billed as a nice place for families, regularly throws parties on Sundays for which they sell day-passes to the public. It felt like a hostage situation, which may explain what happened next. 

“Taxi?” an official-looking man in a blue shirt who was patrolling the beach asked us, referring to the water taxis that ferry tourists to different parts of the island. No, we said. He persevered. “You like snorkeling? Now is the very best time for snorkeling. We’ll take you to the best place.” Jenn looked skeptical, and it was true that I’d never gone on such an expedition in the afternoon, but the thought of escaping the sonic terrorism was irresistible. Soon we were swanning toward snorkel heaven to the tune of “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot” fading into the mist. 

Our taxista guide, the potbellied Jesús, gamely took us out to a nearby channel and dug out some snorkel gear. After exchanging a few squeamish looks, Jenn and I put our masks on, jumped in, paddled around with our guide, and saw some swaying grass, a bit of reef, and about seven fish. I surfaced. “When is the best time to snorkel, Jesús?” I asked.

“Right now,” he said. Pause. Guilty look. “Or early in the morning.” I laughed and dived down again. Suddenly, Jesús excitedly tapped us, pointing to a sea turtle elegantly swimming through the grass and off into the distance. As we climbed back into the taxi, I thought I saw him quietly thanking the other Jesús for the gift. 

(Our initial experience aside, there is first-rate snorkeling and diving to be had on Roatán, which is home to one of the largest barrier reefs in the world—in fact, from Infinity Bay, one need only swim out and start snorkeling. And a couple of days later, in a channel off Pristine Bay, we would see loads of fish in every color of the rainbow, and dozens of huge starfish dotting the ocean bottom like an otherworldly inverted sky.)

Returning to Infinity, we dressed for evening and hopped into a cab driven by a man both larger-than-life and larger than most people. His name, he told us, was Big Daddy. 

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Courtesy Las Verandas

“You like Pitbull?” Big Daddy asked us. Yes, we said. This put us in a certain category for Big Daddy, apparently, one which required him to declare all of our former plans wrong. “Gumbalimba Park is for tourists,” he told us. “You’re not tourists, you’re travelers.” And Big Daddy knew what he was doing. By the time he dropped us off at Tong’s Thai, a highly rated spot in the village called West End, we’d made plans to meet up with him the next morning. 

Though many restaurants on Roatán offer simple Honduran food—beans, rice, plantains, and fish—it’s the international fare that’s truly special. (All credit there to the expats, who make up a good portion of the former British colony’s population of about 30,000 islanders, almost all of whom speak English.) This is why we’d come to Tong’s Thai, and why we were already congratulating ourselves on the choice when we sat down at our table on a picturesque pier. Then I asked for the wine list. 

“Oh no,” said the waiter sternly. “We cannot serve alcohol.” Just our luck, a new liquor law had gone into effect that very day on the orders of the Honduran president. No alcohol could be sold between 5 p.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. Monday.  

The waiter seemed alarmed/amused by our slack-jawed reaction to this news, as if booze had been the very definition of Honduras for us. We eventually recovered, ordering Diet Cokes and spicy plates of papaya salad, shrimp curry, and chicken with basil—all fresh and very tasty, all not the same without a glass of wine. After dinner, strolling along the West End and feeling unusually … sober, we came across a pizzeria serving alcohol, seemingly unaware of the law. We joined them, grateful for the chance to reestablish vacation equilibrium even as we stared down a president.   

“Come on, you bastard,” Big Daddy called good-naturedly the next morning as he steered around a slow driver on a two-lane road, which happens to be the only one that traverses the entire island and courses through mountains that run the length of it (and where at some points, you can view the sea from both sides of the car). He’d promised to take us to breakfast at a place where the islanders ate, which turned out to be a PetroSun gas station serving Honduran baleadas—tortillas folded over black beans and salty, crumbly white cheese—and spectacular coffee. Both hit the spot. We then drove into the town of Coxen Hole, Roatán’s largest, where Big Daddy repeatedly and enthusiastically pointed out his own green house on a nearby hillside.

Instead of Gumbalimba Park (an eco-park offering activities from kayaking to something called “power snorkeling”), he took us to a local one in his neighborhood called Mayan Eden, which was better, he’d claimed, with more monkeys and superior zip-lining. Before we knew it we were climbing a steep mountain, strapping on helmets and gloves, and flying through the air on a seven-line course over the trees. To be sure, we did not observe much in the way of jungle canopy (an establishment called South Shore is the place for that, I’m told), but it was a blast. Then it was off to another Big Daddy recommendation, a nearby shop that sold gorgeous, overpriced, local Lencan pottery. At last we returned to Infinity, having finally figured out Big Daddy’s game—driving business to his neighborhood. Not that we were complaining. 

Jenn and I spent the next night at another resort, the partially finished Las Verandas, on Roatán’s new golf course. It was like a little slice of home in the Caribbean, and not that little. To wit: the resort is the brainchild of Houston-based Lancaster Group and funded by a number of Bayou City investors, its interiors are by Houston-based Bordelon Design Associates, and its architect, Gui Trotti, possesses degrees from UH and Rice. Located on a quieter part of the island on the coast north of French Harbor, Las Verandas boasts dazzling white-stone buildings accented in dark wood.

Needless to say, the condo we stayed in was pure luxury, with its own private infinity pool and a view of the sparkling sea beyond, not to mention a virtually uninhabited sweep of beach, also known as the vacation nirvana we’d been craving since our first day in Roatán. In the evening, sipping margaritas and watching the sun go down from what we already thought of as our veranda, our only regret was the length of our stay.

 The following evening, our last, brought Jenn and I back to reality—if you can call the lovely western part of Roatán reality—and we found ourselves enjoying a nightcap at the very same table where we’d once been under siege. As we looked up at the stars and enjoyed the breeze at Infinity Bay, we laughed to ourselves, realizing that the place really had been quite wonderful, that “La Bamba” had been but a momentary annoyance that…. wait, wait—what was that? Oh no. A guy at the bar had pulled out a guitar and began strumming “Every Breath You Take” and “Ignition” for a bevy of ecstatic Canadians. 

Having spent a few days in a Roatán state of mind, however, we found ourselves less appalled than amused. Jenn and I frittered away the rest of the evening trying to pick which Canadian girl the guy would end up making out with. There was the requisite “Let It Be” sing-along, and then, after a while, the bar closed and the group began to disperse. One of the Canadians went to hug the guitar guy, who expertly maneuvered the moment into a high-five before sidling up to the girl we’d both guessed he would choose. I wanted to high-five Jenn too, but that didn’t seem very Roatán. Instead, we watched the pair stagger off and sighed in contentment. All, indeed, was right with the world. 

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