Updated: Mar 25, 2022
We spent two years away from Roatán, an unexpected pause due to a worldwide pandemic, border closings, and extra work at home keeping two businesses alive through it all. It's pretty amazing how clear what you really miss and what you really like can become when you can't have it!
As we spent more time away from the island we thought about, and talked about, everything we missed about our home in Port Royal. We talked about the people and places we’d only started to get to know over the couple years since we bought our home. We talked about the food we missed, the things we can’t get at home. Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder. While we had plenty going on to keep us busy in the States, we really missed the island - to the point of trying not to think about it for a vast majority of our time away.
When we finally made plans to return we thought back to those conversations we'd had - what were our “must-do’s” while there? What had we missed the most and what did we want to make sure was on our agenda, especially in just one short week? To add to that we were bringing family. Joey’s brother Jimmy and our sister-in-law Jennifer were going to be joining us. Not only did we want to revisit the places & see the people we’d missed so much, we were introducing them to this beautiful, culturally diverse island as well. So we planned a week highlighting our favorite spots, the things that made Roatàn special to us.
What were our must-do's?
Our plans included an East End Tour; Camp Bay Beach, dining at La Sirena, Jerlene’s in Helene, Jade Beach, a couple days lounging in Port Royal, a day on Fort Morgan Cay, an afternoon at Big French Key, a visit to Daniel Johnson’s Sloth & Monkey Hangout, Punta Gorda & the Garifuna Cultural Center, a couple days in West End, dinner at the Argentinian Grill and drinks & dancing at Sundowners. That was it in our mind - a perfect week in Roatán! Time on the East and time on the West - the Best of Both Worlds.
Roatán is such a diverse place given its’ size. The island isn’t tiny by any means, at just over 30 miles long, but the differences between the West End and East End are fairly dramatic. The west side is much more developed with a tourist focused vibe. Expansive resorts, family friendly activities, beachfront bars, seaside restaurants and mom & pops shops can be found on the west end as well as the cruise ship ports. The further east you go the more open spaces, jungle covered hills and lightly developed (or completely secluded) beaches you'll find. On the west side you can get stuck behind a caravan of tourist busses leaving the cruise ports, on the far east side we've gotten stuck behind cattle being herded from one field to another by actual cowboys on horses. The further east you go the more likely you'll be driving on dirt roads instead of the new concrete roads of the west side.
Where our home, located in Port Royal Harbor which spans only a few miles from end to end but has a few dozen homes and a couple of small eco-resorts. Homes are located on acres, not lots. Only one road comes in to part of the bay and electricity is non-existent. Most properties, including ours, are off-grid and can only be accessed by boat.
The east side is also home to the towns of Punta Gorda, Oakridge, Jonesville and a few other spots that aren’t much more than beautiful seaside villages. Most are working towns with fishing being the historic industry - traveling inside the reef on the south side you still see shrimping trawlers and lobster boats docked and waiting for their next trip out to sea. Life for many in these towns isn’t a lot different than it’s been for decades.
Above - boating inside the reef through Oakridge & Calabash
On the west side you’ll find the beach towns of West End, West Bay, Sandy Bay and a handful of northside resorts. The beaches are lined with restaurants, shopping, and little hotels and hostels. While developed, it’s Roatán scale, nothing like most Caribbean islands - buildings are, at most, a couple stories high and the commercial activity along the beach is more mom-and-pop.
When we were visiting more frequently we discovered what we loved about both sides of Roatán and would spend most of our time on the East Side, but finish our trips with a couple days and nights on the West. On this trip we did the same, 5 days east and 2 west.
This past trip is what we feel, at least for now, makes the best week on the island. Our top spots and favorite activities.
First, of course for us, is time at our home. Port Royal is so serene and tranquil. Because no road is near us it’s entirely quiet other than the passing of a boat here and there, the waves on our shore, the breeze through the palms and the sounds of the birds and other life in the jungle around and behind us. We always spend a day or two doing nothing but enjoying our place, taking in the views, spending time out on the dock, along the shore & snorkeling out front. We cook, especially when one of the dorys from Helene comes by, selling fresh caught snapper and lobster.
We fix coffee and coladas for breakfast, sip on Salva Vida or Port Royal beer all day, and watch the stars above us all night - a sight we can’t really get in Charlotte with all the man-made light around us.
EAST END TOUR
We always like taking a boat tour or two, this trip we did the East End tour with Tyller of Eastender tours. He also brings us back and forth to our home from Oakridge and generally anywhere we need to go by boat when we are there. The tour we took starts at our dock and heads east, through Old Port Royal, and then through the mangroves over to the north side of the island. The mangroves are one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, no homes or anything on either side and crystal clear water. On the north side we go to Camp Bay Beach, relax in the surf on the longest beach and arguably the most beautiful beach on the island. The day we were there no one else was in sight.
Below - lounging in the surf at Camp Bay Beach
Next stop was La Sirena, a little thatch roofed bar / restaurant over the water in Camp Bay. We had a couple rum punches, some shared snacks from the kitchen - all the while being buzzed by dozens of hummingbirds. Since we’d been there last, at least I don’t recall from our past visits, they'd added a few hummingbird feeders and the place was filled with the little flyers.
Next came Jade Beach on the little isle of Barbarat (Roatán has a string of smaller islands to the east, all just a short hop between - Helene, Morat, Barbarat & Guanaja). Barbarat is privately owned and very undeveloped other than a few buildings for caretakers and security and the owners large cliffside home on one end. Jade Beach has huge cliffs of serpentine, green hued and amazingly beautiful. We’ve written about our previous trip there so I won’t rewrite all of that, you can find it HERE.
From Jade Beach we headed to another small island, Helene, and the little village Sico. A few dozen wooden homes on stilts line the shore and a couple docks head out over the water. On one of those is a small open-air restaurant known as Jerlene’s. There we had a late lunch of fresh caught seafood. We’ve also written about our past trip to Jerlene’s and you can read that one HERE.
Jerlene’s was our last stop for the day, we headed home slowly motoring along the coast back to Port Royal. Video below
FORT MORGAN CAY
Fort Morgan Cay is a small 30+ acre private island in Port Royal. There is a small 8 - 20 person off-grid eco-resort there. It’s also home to the remains of British fortifications built in 1700’s and used by the British military as well as buccaneers and pirates over the years. The place is incredibly beautiful with long beaches, manicured landscaping, a pool, open air dining and a bar. The views back into Port Royal or out to sea are pristine and our day there was fantastic - sorry to keep referring to previous posts, but HERE is another about our day there!
PUNTA GORDA & GARIFUNA CULTURAL CENTER
Roatán is host to a great diversity of communities. Punta Gorda is one of the oldest and most historic communities on the island and one of the most distinct and unique. It's the traditional home to the Garifuna, the descendants of a blend of Arawak natives and West Africans. They originated on St. Vincent island but after years of war were forcibly removed by the English and brought to Roatán in 1797. From Roatán they dispersed and Garifuna communities can be found up and down the mainland coast in Nicaragua, Guatamala, Belize and Honduras. We met the founders and family of the Garifuna Cultural Center on a visit a couple of years ago and were eager to stop by and say hello and share a shot of Gifiti with them, plus we wanted to introduce their culture to Jimmy & Jennifer.
The culture in Punta Gorda looks and feels very West African, from rich and colorful clothing to the drumming and dancing as well as the food. It's Caribbean fare, for sure, but with roots in African cuisine. They are best known for Machuca, a coconut & fish based broth with fresh caught seafood and plantain dumplings. Again, read about it HERE from our previous visit!
We spent the day in Punta Gorda, visiting our friends and strolling the shoreline road, taking in the sights and sounds of this beautiful place. We dined at Tomato, over indulging in the food we'd missed so much, including a huge bowl of Machuca, peas & rice, fried plantains, lobster tails and whole snapper.
BIG FRENCH KEY & SLOTHS AND MONKEYS
We chose a visit to Big French Key on the day we left Port Royal for West End. It’s located in the area known as French Harbor and is about mid way down the island. To get there we could take a boat to Oakridge, hop in a car or van and drive down island, but we prefer go the entire trip by boat. The route itself is a coastal tour and includes the towns of Oakridge & Jonesville, Pandy town, Carib Point, another mangrove tour, and a slow drive past few small developments and resorts. It’s beautiful, with coves & bays (or "bights" as they are known there), shorelines dotted with modest traditional homes or large modern mansions, or pristine stretches with nothing at all.
Once in French Harbor we headed over to Daniel Johnson’s Sloth & Monkey Hangout, which is located just across the harbor from the Key. We held sloths, spent a few minutes in the cages with the monkeys and parrots, then headed over to Big French Key. Joey and I were introduced to the Key and the manager there, Brad Martinez, while filming for Caribbean Life. We love it there, it’s a laid-back resort style private beach and cove with a restaurant and drinks delivered waterside. We were delivered by boat across French Harbor and hopped in a van late in the day to head over to West End for a couple nights there.
WEST END & THE BEACH HOUSE
We’ve made it a habit of staying at a small boutique hotel called The Beach House when we are in West End. It’s located right in the middle of everything, has great views of the beach and all the tour and fishing boats moored alone the shore. It's surrounded by great food options, though the little cafe at the hotel serves great fare itself. Since we were there last they’d completely remodeled and overhauled the place from top to bottom. While we liked it before, the changes were amazing. The lobby is open air from the street straight through to the beach.
When we are in West End we love dining out. The selection varies up and down the street, from small vendors selling street food (tacos, baleadas, roast chicken, etc) to international fair like Thai and Indian. We love grabbing dinner at The Argentinian Grill. Their open fire cooking imparts great flavor to steaks and seafood, and the cuts tend to be ones we don't see so much at the steakhouses in Charlotte. Flank and flap (or equivalent) are typically on the menu though they were out this past trip. We also tried a new place to us, Franks. A spot known for great tacos, and since we were out on a Tuesday night a Taco Tuesday just seemed like the right thing to do. We were joined by friends, Ana, Luca, Cisco & Jackie. We sat streetside, drinking, chatting, watching folks stroll up and down the avenue.
An evening out in West End is the perfect send-off: Friends, food, and bar-hopping after a few days in practical isolation on the far East End. For us, for sure, it really is the best of both worlds. The best Roatan has to offer.
Following dinner at Franks, we ended our last evening at Sundowners, a two-level open air bar and restaurant located right beside The Beach House. We love having drinks there and when we filmed our episode for Caribbean Life we had our "decision scene" there - with Ana our Realtor, who is now one of our best friends. Turns out they have live music on Tuesday nights - we'd never been for live music and didn't know the night would end with a jam session of all the musicians who showed up that evening. It was primarily rhythmic: drums, bongos, congas and a variety of hand held instruments. The drinks and shots at dinner did their job, and not long after we arrived Joey, Ana, Luca and I were sweating and dancing, completely carried away with the night and oblivious to everyone around us. It couldn't have ended better for me after two long years of waiting...the food, the humid tropical air, the ocean and everything we'd longed to see summed up with a final magical music filled night of dancing like I hadn't done in years.
We've just planned our next trip down but we haven't filled the days yet - I know there will be time in Port Royal and time in West End. I'm excited to see what we fill the rest with!
EDIT: I wrote this in January 2022, we'd been on the island in December 2021 and our planned trip down again was April 2022, and we'd been talking on the phone incessantly making plans for that next journey down - fishing, sailing, a trip to Cayo Cochinos.
Sadly this trip was the last time we saw our brother Jimmy. He died in an accident in Georgia February 26th and we are as stunned & heartbroken about it as can be. Before this trip he had never been out of the U.S. and he told us, over and over again, it changed his life and his perspective on life. It was the best vacation he'd ever had. He fell in love with Roatan, and with Port Royal, just like we had a few years ago. I'm so thankful we could give him that experience.
We had all never travelled together and Joey and Jimmy, growing up, had never been on a family vacation. While reading this post over again and thinking about that trip is very painful, we are also immensely grateful that we had this time together. It was such a wonderful week, we bonded like we'd never had the chance to before and we'll have these memories forever. I'll always see him waving goodbye to us after a big hug as we parted ways in the airport in Miami at the end of this trip, us heading to our plane to Charlotte and Jimmy & Jennifer to theirs to Atlanta. His "sign off" whenever he ended a conversation was "we love ya and we need ya" and he meant it. I still can't believe he's gone. But I know how much he loved us all and I know he knew the same from us.