ROATAN, Honduras — Not long after the Norwegian Epic was backed into place and properly secured to one of two piers on the crystal-clear waters of this Honduran island, we opened the curtain and walked onto the balcony for our first look at a place we had seen described as “a dumpy town.”
This photo was our first glimpse of Roatan. Hardly looks dumpy, does it?
It was 8 a.m. and the sound of bongo drums and maracas 12 floors below was our wake-up call that tourism starts early in Roatan. It begins when the ship docks, as it does everywhere cruise ships dock, and we’d decided to ad-lib our way through eight hours on an island that’s 144 square miles — 36 long and four wide, and 36 miles from mainland Honduras.
In the midst of the rainy season, it was a gorgeous day, sunny and somewhere in the 80s. It was easy to get burned. That was to become a Freudian turn of phrase.
We were looking for a local tour that would give us a feel of the island and not a specific location. We found it, first for $30 each, which was reduced to $25 when eight others joined us in a mini-van. They were going to the beach and after they were dropped off, Rafael the tour pitchman assured us, we would be driven to both sides of the island with a guide who spoke English.
Then, at the beach, we discovered Rafael had neglected to tell Joshua (left), the unpaid “I-live-on-tips” tour guide who has been trying to make a career of this since he was 15, three years ago. Since 80% of his clientele would be left behind if he took us for a ride, Joshua was reluctant to provide what we had paid for, and said so in two languages. It was understandable. Joshua Carter, a nice young man, really is paid ONLY in tips.
After much haranguing, he agreed to an abbreviated tour. The point here is that, even when you’re cautious about making tour arrangements with the locals — and we were, sometimes you still get burned. Mark that…one for cruise company shore excursions.
In the end, Joshua’s shortened tour was fine because we did get a taste of the island and its people. English is Roatan’s first language and Spanish is second, but its English sounds heavily influenced by what to our ears was a Jamaican accent. Again, difficulty in understanding a tour guide doesn’t usually happen on shore excursions, which are pricier.
The mini-van was another story. It has seen better days, it had no seat belts, it was air-conditioned by Mother Nature and there were times when it strongly resisted climbing a hill of average incline, of which there are many. At one point, the mini-van over-heated and had to be topped up with water from a Coke bottle, the kind of situation that also can come with taking local tours. The good news was when the engine over-heated, we could see the ship…a long walk away.
Roatan is a paradise for beach people, and for swimmers and snorkelers and divers. Since we don’t fit any of those demographics, we did the next best thing, and found a seafood restaurant. Well, restaurant is a stretch. It had no name (“Fry Fish?”), four tables and a cat that jumped on yours once your meal was finished, to work on the scraps.
The fish (snapper) was excellent, as were the shrimp, and the $22 bill was reasonable. The tour had cost us $63 (yes, we tipped) and we met only friendly people on an island that depends first and foremost on tourism. When the day ended, at the “restaurant” we were just a short walk from the pier, where we bumped into Rafael the tour pitchman. We explained what happened and he, like Joshua, pleaded innocent. He also played the religious card — “I have 350 Mormons coming here next month and your business is important” — and promised he’d make it up to us.
On our next visit.