Conches. Big, spiky conches are everywhere in Roatán. I saw the first while walking along a deserted beach and could not believe my luck. You just don’t find sea shells like this on the beach in Los Angeles. I held it up to my ear and examined it all over in childish delight. Then with a sigh, I responsibly nestled it back down into the warm, white sand for another lucky traveler to come across and enjoy. A few yards later I found another… and then another… and another. Each one was beautiful, each one a testament to the unspoiled magic around every corner of this extraordinary island.
We arrived in Roatán on the evening ferry and were met by Adi, the owner and operator of Land’s End Resort. But his beautiful ocean-side property was not our destination. Rather, we were renting one of his tricked out Jeep 4x4s with the goal of seeing the whole island. Our cherry red Jeep took us a giant step further than the various sedans available, allowing us to traverse any road we found in any weather without hesitation. Besides, it was incredibly fun to drive.
Just as Adi handed me the keys, a thunderstorm rolled in. It was one of those big tropical storms that takes up the entire sky and whose rolling peals of thunder you could feel in your teeth. We headed east toward the less populated end of the island, with the Jeep’s headlights and bolts of lightning the only thing to illuminate the dark highway. Rain poured down as I exhilarated in navigating the twists and turns of jungled hills and valleys. Eventually we found the small dirt road that led to the village of Milton Bight, our home base for the next few days as we explored the less traveled side of Roatán.
The morning was bright and inviting. Armed with a map loaded with handwritten suggestions from Adi, we packed a bag with the usual beach necessities, snacks, and a bottle of local rum, and set off for an adventure. The first destination: La Sirena. Regarded by those in the know as the best restaurant on the island, it nevertheless requires some determination to get there. Located on the far eastern end of the island, there is nothing around it but beaches and to get there takes nearly two hours of driving, including forty minutes of unpaved road. But, please, do not let that stop you.
Driving across the island in itself is a real treat. The one main road straddles the peaks providing astonishing views of the north and south shores, dipping into deep jungle now and then to create lush canopies. Uniformed children walking home from school– children always seemed to be walking home from school no matter what the hour– laughed and waved at us as we passed. We smiled back as a few tried racing the Jeep and others jokingly called out asking for a ride.
Still we drove on and just as I really started to feel that were in the middle of nowhere our stomachs began to growl, the dark green jungle opened up once more onto a view of a perfect white sand beach and crystal blue ocean. A small dock lined with conches led to a thatched roofed hut on stilts, emblazoned by a painted mermaid sign. Underneath a shaded structure and just a foot above the water were a few tables, calling our names.
La Sirena was exactly what one could ever hope for in a Caribbean restaurant perched above the ocean. As we walked in, slightly giddy, a man behind the small bar greeted us warmly. When we asked what they had on the menu, he turned to a woman sleeping in a hammock and asked, “What do we have?” For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with eyes still half closed, in a thick creole accent, she slowly began to list: “Ceviche, lobster, lionfish fingers, burrito…”
Ceviche and lobster, of course! While we waited, we fed the restaurant’s resident turtle and enjoyed an ice cold beer on the end of the dock, our legs swinging in the warm ocean waters. Our incredibly fresh, delicious, lionfish ceviche arrived in a tall glass along with hot homemade chips and was quickly devoured. Following soon after, three lobster halves dripping in butter were served with flash pickled veggies and some of the best garlic mashed potatoes I have ever had. Yes, the drive was worth it.
After being fully satisfied, thank you La Sirena, we continued driving down the road past the “do not enter” signs, urged on by Adi’s map. We were rewarded with a truly spectacular view of the eastern tip of the island, with mangrove forests fading out into the turquoise ocean. Following our instructions, we stopped at the “blue house and a tree with no leaves” to turn left… but there was no road! I paused only a moment before grinning wildly at my husband and turning onto the narrow beach. We were really off-roading now; just what the Jeep was meant for.
Down the shore, perhaps a hundred yards, a small path opened up leading into the jungle. I took it, dodging around trees and low hanging branches. We came across a family lugging firewood on their backs who looked surprised to see us, but stopped to smile and wave at us as we passed. A little while later the path opened up to the beach and we were completely alone with the white sand and countless mangroves. There were no buildings, no signs of humans. I felt completely removed from emails, phone calls, and social media. We spent some time there not speaking, just soaking in nature and the beauty of the day. It was exactly the break from civilization we had been craving since we left LA.
On the way back, we spotted a cove in the Camp Bay area and couldn’t resist stopping to check it out. As we drove down to the beach, our Jeep was swarmed by hundreds upon hundreds of butterflies. Arrow shaped black beauties splashed with iridescent markings flew gracefully all around us. We looked at each other in amazement as if to say, “Is this really happening right now?”
Walking out onto the crunchy white sand, we surveyed our temporary kingdom with pleasure. Here the ocean was extremely shallow and we waded into the warm sea for hundreds of yards before needing to swim. Long sea grass gave the impression of an underwater prairie. We found a coconut and busted it open on some rocks, laughing heartily as we drank the fresh juices.
The next day we rented snorkeling gear from nearby Turquoise Bay Resort and spent our morning relaxing on the beach near Milton Bight. There, underneath the dock, amid flowing sea grass, I explored an unexpected microcosm bursting with life. I found dozens of huge conches, one of which housed a small, flustered octopus who slipped quickly back into the sea. A slight breeze washed over us as my other half napped in a hammock and I snapped photos of all my finds.
Finally hunger drove us to move, and once again Adi’s map led us in the right direction. Down a bumpy gravel road we headed towards Jonesville and a restaurant with an irresistibly quirky origin. Hole in the Wall was founded when the owner, Bob, crashed his boat into the shore where it promptly sank. To commemorate this event, a restaurant was built atop the wreckage. Hole in the Wall is accessible only by boat, and the man to get you there is Clyde. You will know it’s him because he will have a big brass belt buckle unmistakably stamped CLYDE. He is a tenth generation Roatán resident and has plenty of stories to fill the time it takes to get to your destination.
I didn’t want to leave Hole in the Wall. It wasn’t just the incredible conch fritter, the friendly service, or the peaceful atmosphere, but something uniquely Roatán that flowed about, knitting everything together into harmony. We delayed, asking Clyde more questions about his youth and experiences growing up on the island. Each answer built a rich history, growing higher and deeper, both funny and heartbreaking.
On the boat ride back, gliding past colorful wooden houses dotting the shoreline, I contemplated my new found peacefulness. Roatán had thus far exceeded my expectations in every way.