Wedged between Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Honduras is Central America's crooked elbow, jutting into the Caribbean with 400 miles of banana- and palm-lined seashore. Many Americans associate this steamy land, once known as the Banana Republic, with political instability, voodoo and malarial swamps. But adventurous travelers willing to look beyond the stereotypes and Honduras' checkered past will find many tropical wonders ripe for exploration. Some of the finest treasures lurk in the warm aquamarine waters just offshore. The tranquil island of Roatan is a scuba-diver's dream, an endearing hodgepodge of Caribbean culture and a getaway that's increasingly easy to access. A couple of centuries ago, Roatan and the surrounding smattering of Bay Islands were the bastion of pirates, shipwrecked African slaves and colonizers from England, Spain and France. These days, locals simply call themselves islanders, and most of the 40-mile-long mountainous strip is an uninhabited jungle, peppered with fishing villages full of shrimp boats nestled inside their small, tranquil harbors. The potential promise of cruise ships, real estate speculation and development is undeniable; however, for now, a visit to Roatan is still an intimate, unhurried adventure. An untold fortune teems below the sea around Roatan. Therein lies a healthy, world-renown coral reef, and Islanders are determined to keep it that way. Devoted local dive-shop owners and dive masters took reef protection into their own hands a couple of years ago with a grass-roots revival of the Sandy Bay and West End Marine Park. The marine park now shelters the stunning reef along Roatan's most heavily used stretch of coastline -- including West Bay, West End and Sandy Bay -- and includes a patrol staff that organizers say has virtually eliminated poaching on the reef. When you're ready to start diving (or learning how to dive), find Islander Alvin Jackson and his 30-year-old Native Sons Dive Shop . It's in the heart of Half Moon Bay, with two fast dive boats tethered out front. Jackson grew up on this very beach, and having seen a lot of change, helps spearhead efforts to make development more sustainable here. His spirited dive masters are undeniably knowledgeable and passionate about the fragile environment they call home, and the atmosphere is truly familial.
Sunset on Half-Moon Bay
Roatan's underwater visibility is outstanding. The variety of soft and hard corals is immense and vibrant, and there are two fine wrecks to dive just offshore. Wherever you swim, the variety of fish is astounding, from bitty coral-banded shrimp to elegant spotted drum fish, chummy grouper, turtles, eagle rays and even whale sharks (the world's largest fish). Some of the best dives, though certainly not all of them, include Texas, Pablo's, Spooky Channel, El Aguila and the Bear's Den. Night dives feature the globally rare phenomenon called "string of pearls" -- imagine tiny strings of light, each a lightning bug floating in the dark sea as far as you can see, like a 3-D version of the introduction to Matrix or the twinkling tails of a gigantic firework. Phosphorescence is lovely, but Roatan's string of pearls is even better. Above the water, Roatan's mangrove-thick shores are dotted with idyllic, palm-studded beaches. Tranquilo West End is travelers' central if you aren't headed for one of the island's few isolated resorts. The main drag is a one-lane, white sand path, busy with minitruck fruit stands selling giant avocados, pineapples and the juicy ripe mangos that generally dangle out of reach. Fat maritime ropes lie across the road as speed bumps. The scene is festive and truly international. Buy a baleada (a fresh, warm tortilla smeared with black beans, crumbly white cheese and some fresh cream) from a beachside vendor, or dine al fresco at one of the dozens of restaurants that serve up a slew of seafood, chicken and island-style rice and beans. Among the tastiest spots are The Argentinean Grill, Dian's Garden of Eat'n, Foster's (on a dock over the bay) and Velva's Roadside Restaurant. Don't miss the mouthwatering rotisserie -- just ask for directions and get in line. Days end at the Sundowner, a beachside palapa that's the perfect place to stretch your sunset cocktail into a late-night party.