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.

A ferry ride between Roatan and La Ceiba, on the Honduran mainland, costs about $12 and takes less than two hours. Otherwise, an international airport now services Roatan, flying TACA jets directly from Houston and Miami or a puddle jumper from the large mainland city of San Pedro Sula. Travel, lodging and general Roatan information can be found here and here, while Lonely Planet's Honduran guide can be found here.

Dive packages are plentiful, and generally a good value, at the island's resorts. Some of the recommended ones include the well-heeled Anthony's Key Resort, CoCo View, Las Rocas and Fantasy Island. Otherwise, find yourself a cabana, house or room at one of the quaint inns along West End, West Beach or Half Moon Bay. Casa Calico, Posada Arco Iris or Chillie's are all exceptionally friendly choices. A slew of reputable dive shops located nearby will guide you on dive sites all around the island, train new divers in PADI certification and help experienced divers expand their education.

A single paved and pitted road runs along Roatan's mountainous spine, while winding dirt paths drop into cozy fishing villages. A day out of the water makes this a perfect shore-bound adventure -- complete with an island-top lunch stop at The View, and plenty of time for swim breaks. Start the morning at Anthony's Key Resort for a memorable frolic with the dolphins at the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences. Then check out real local Island life -- slowly. Travel down the island all the way to Punta Gorda, the oldest Garífuna settlement in the Caribbean, where traditional fishermen still travel far out to sea in their dugout canoes, then throw up a sail to speed their daunting trip home.

And if you mysteriously find yourself at Hole in the Wall, a peculiar and remote island bar dominated by paddle portraits of the islands' more infamous characters, you've discovered one of the coolest joints on the planet. The seafaring owner and his glorious scarlet macaw hold court over decadent Sunday afternoon suppers, while the lively waterside atmosphere is anything but sobering. You're likely to be served more lobster tails than you could ever possibly devour.

Jennie Lay writes about energy, the environment, land conservation and travel destinations all over the globe from her home in Steamboat Springs , Colo. Her stories appear in High Country News, Ski Magazine, Scuba Diving Magazine and various newspapers around the West. She spends her free time telemark skiing, hiking and performing with a local West African dance troupe.

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