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8 Exotic Adventures in Roatan

Roatan, Honduras is one of Central America’s hottest travel destinations. Known for its great beaches, the small Caribbean island has plenty to offer adventurous family travelers and snowbirds, from reefs to rainforest to ruins. Here are 10 highlights you won’t want to miss.

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1. Dive with Sharks

Being circled by a dozen beautiful Caribbean Reef Sharks is a once in a lifetime experience! Sure, it’s heart pounding, but scary? Not really. It’s time we put the image of the man-eating shark to rest. Sharks need our help if they are to avoid extinction. Sitting in awe, as these 9-foot-long predators swim elegantly around you, is a rare privilege, and possibly the best half hour of your life.

Mayan Divers can co-ordinate transportation to the dive site and sign you up with Waihuka Dive Center, which hosts the dive off Insidious Reef, near the French Harbour area of Roatan’s south shore. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter sharks at any other dive site in Roatan, as they prefer the deep waters just beyond this site over the fringing reef that hosts most of Roatan’s 40+ dive sites. (Photo courtesy of Tim Blanton/SharkDiveRoatan.com)

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2. Kick Back on the Beach

Roatan boasts several gorgeous, picture-perfect white sand beaches, and West Bay is one of the best, due to its soft sand, gentle waves and readily available amenities, from restaurants to water taxis.

Maximize your beach time by staying at a waterfront resort like the Mayan Princess, which sits smack in the heart of West Bay Beach.

Generously sized apartment and condo suites make the resort a great family choice. Our daughter loved the winding, lagoon-style swimming pool. We appreciated having reliable babysitters available on overnight notice (ask nicely, and your sitter may even bring her kids to play with yours).

Other perks: a small onsite spa, and a nearby gourmet shop so you can stock your fridge. Best of all: amazing reefs just a short swim from shore. Rent a snorkel and fins on the beach, or from the onsite dive shop.

Other beaches to hit include West End (right off the main restaurant strip) and Sandy Bay. (Photo courtesy of Mayan Princess Beach Resort)

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3. Explore the Reef

Second only in size and scale to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the 900-km-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef stretches from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula past Belize, Guatamala and the Honduran Bay Islands. Roatan sits on its southernmost end, and enjoys mindboggling underwater biodiversity, with healthy coral gardens and reef fish galore.

Best of all, there are dive shops abound. For us, Mayan Divers, based out of the Mayan Princess Beach Resort, is the only way to dive or boat-snorkel. A 5:1 diver/divemaster ratio, and comfortable, uncrowded boats ensure a positive experience, especially for newbies. Snorkelers will be brought to safe, boat-access reefs inaccessible from the beach.

Finally, for family travelers, Mayan Divers offers the too-cool-for-school PADI Bubblemaker program, allowing your kid to scuba dive with a private dive master. No, not in the resort swimming pool, silly! In. The. Caribbean. Awesome, right? Our 9-year-old was in heaven!

Can’t-miss Roatan dive sites include Mandy’s Eel Garden (for hundreds of little garden eels poking their heads out of the sand and sea turtles, too), West End Wall (for a great drift dive and eagle rays) and the wreck El Anguila (a sunken ship). (Photo courtesy of Mayan Divers)

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4. Stroll Through the West End

West End combines small, picturesque public beaches with a vibrant bar and restaurant scene, souvenir stands and street food. Be sure to dine here at least once during your visit (we skipped our resort’s all-inclusive and dined here nightly).

Must-try restos include:

The Noodle Shack, for big heaping bowls of rice, with a choose-your-own-sauce-and-protein approach.

The Lighthouse, for just-caught fish and made-from-scratch desserts.

Tong’s, for a beautiful dock patio and authentic Thai menu.

Creole’s, for rustic surroundings complete with wandering land crabs, friendly cats and dogs, and a mini rainforest hike to get to the bathrooms. Oh, and the island’s best rotisserie chicken and to-die-for fish tacos. (Photo courtesy of Ernie Ourique)

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5. Go for a Swing

What better way to get a bird’s eye view of Roatan’s awesome rainforest-to-Caribbean vistas, than by whizzing through the treetops 100 feet above ground?

Although not for the faint of heart, Ziplining is fun for adventurous kids. My daughter first tried it at age six, at Roatan’s Gumbalimba Park. At that time, she was too small to Zipline independently and had a guide strapped in beside her to handle braking. Different canopy tours may use different safety harness and brake systems, so check for minimum age requirements.

Gumbalimba Park is also home to free-roaming capuchin monkeys and has a monkey and macaw wildlife rehabilitation centre kids will enjoy checking out, as well as snack bar and beach with lockers and showers.

Roatan’s South Shore Zip-Line Adventures is another option with value-added. Their Zip N Dip combo includes dedicated beach time après canopy tour. (Photo courtesy of South Shore Zip-Line Adventures)

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6. Tour the Ruins

Roatan-based tour operators can whisk you on a two-day trip to the famous Mayan ruins of Copan, which date back to 1,000 BC. Once home to 20,000 Mayan people, Copan wasn’t the largest Mayan city, but it was one of its cultural centres. The Copan ruins include temples, plazas, ball courts and sculptures, and are well worth the trip to the mainland, if you have the time and budget.

If not, head to Roatan’s Maya Key which boasts reproductions of key Copan highlights, including a ball court and hieroglyphic staircase. Maya Key’s other attractions include an interpretive centre, artisan plaza, art exhibit, as well as swimming pool, beach and animal rehabilitation/rescue centre. (Photo courtesy of Mayan Key)

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7. Hit the Shops

Described by guide books – even the ones geared at backpacker types – as a dusty town best visited only if you need to get to the bank or load up on cheap groceries, Coxen Hole rewards its intrepid travelers.

Visit Sun Grocery (formerly known as the H.B. Warren supermarket) for a great array of souvenir hot sauces and bags of Honduran coffee, for a fraction of what you’d pay at tourist boutiques.

Pick up cortisone cream from one of the many farmacias (trust me, you’ll need it by Day 2 of your vacation, after you’ve become acquainted with Roatan’s copious mosquitoes and sand flies).

Pop into Super Jugos for fresh-squeezed lemonade soda on ice.

Enjoy baleadas (demi-lune shaped fried-dough packets filled with a mixture of meat, cheese or fish) or fried chicken served with rice and beans from one of the modest food stands or shacks. (Photo courtesy of Yuki Hayashi)

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8. Dine at a Hole

No trip to Roatan is complete without a trip to the floating wood shack/restaurant called Hole In The Wall.

Getting there takes some work. You’ll need to take a cab to the tiny fishing community of Jonesville, then hitch a boat ride.

As your boat pulls up to the restaurant, you’ll be greeted by exuberant dogs, a cranky parrot and friendly old timers who’ll share anecdotes with you.

Go on Friday or Sunday for their famed all-you-can-eat BBQ, another time if you want to avoid the crowds. We enjoyed tasty lobster sandwiches, while our daughter approved of their homemade burger.

If you hire a boat, the operator can give you a tour of the nearby mangrove ecosystem, if you’ve got an hour to spare and a few extra dollars. (Photo courtesy of Yuki Hayashi)