Arrayed in an arc roughly 30 miles off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, the Bay Islands of Roatán, Utila and Guanaja are known for spectacular diving, white powdery sand and turquoise waters. The islands have a colorful history of pirate raids and remained in British hands for more than 200 years before being ceded to Honduras in 1859. Surrounding these picture-perfect islands is a magnificent reef second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. For experienced divers the islands’ draw is obvious, but for non-divers like me it’s also one of the world’s least expensive places to get certified.
A visit to the Bay Islands has been on my List for years and on this trip through Central America, it was tops on my priority list. The original plan called for 3 nights on Roatán and 2 on Utila (4 hours away by boat). But after researching the many things to do on Roatán, I decided to devote the entire 5 nights there not wanting to lose an entire day commuting between the two.
In my search for accommodations on the island, alert reader, Suzan, told me about a place she’d been dying to visit called Anthony’s Key Resort. The resort is home to a dolphin research center and offers a dolphin “Trainer-for-a-Day” program that sounded amazing and is something I have always wanted to do. So, I booked my first two nights and the Trainer-for-a-day program at AKR and then decided to branch out a bit by booking my last 3 nights at Infinity Bay Resort on Roatán’s best beach, West Bay.
When I finally touched down on Roatán, I wasn’t in the best of moods. After finishing a 10-day corporate event the day before departure and packing into the wee hours, I was admittedly a little tired and possibly slightly cranky when we touched down at Roatán’s tiny airport. Possibly was quickly promoted to definitely when the flight attendant announced that we’d be deplaning from the stairs at the tail of the plane turning my 4th row seat into the new back of the plane.
When I finally deplaned under cloudy skies I found myself at the end of a very long and disorganized “bundle” of immigration lines. As I felt my level of irritation rising, it suddenly occurred to me that everyone here was clearly on island time while I, still in city-girl mode, was the one who needed to make the attitude adjustment. So, I took a deep, cleansing breath (inhale peace, exhale love) and tried to flip my internal switch to vacation mode.
Forty-five minutes later, Honduras entry stamp occupying the latest place of honor in my passport, I headed for the baggage carousel certain that after all this time my bag would be waiting. It wasn’t. Just when I was convinced that this day was about to get a LOT worse, my bag finally emerged last…priority-tagged side first just to mock me.
(Sidebar: I know what you’re thinking, “Since when does Jenny check bags?” Well, since the itinerary of this trip necessitated non-travel-size liquids like enough sunscreen and insect repellant to cover the crew of Survivor, I had to make a few adjustments. Though my bag is carry-on size, the extra liquids will mean checking it for the first few legs of the trip. Here’s hoping the baggage Gods are with me on this one.)
After emerging from the airport, I found the shuttle to Anthony’s Key Resort and caught it just before it left. The all-inclusive retreat on its own private key, known simply as AKR, has been showcasing Roatán’s easily-accessible underwater world to divers for more than 40 years. The dive center offers diverse experiences from wreck dives to shark dives as well as a full range of courses and certifications. On land, 56 bungalows ranging from hillside hideaways to overwater retreats offer comfortable amenities and spacious decks complete with ocean-view hammocks. But the resort’s real claim to fame is its dolphin research center, the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS), which offers a variety of ways to interact with these naturally-curious mammals.
When we arrived at the resort, our group of 20 or so shuttle passengers was ushered upstairs to the lobby and given a “summer-camp” style orientation. We filled out registration cards and were given our room keys & wristbands and then invited to have lunch in the restaurant before heading to our bungalows. I wasn’t crazy about this group check-in process as I had specific questions relating to my stay that I didn’t get to ask so I had to come back to the front desk later. The whole arrival process made me feel a bit like I had accidentally signed up for some kind of group tour but I called upon my newly acquired island-girl frame of mind and decided to forego lunch for the moment and take the water taxi over to check out my new bungalow.
Luckily, things began to look up once I arrived at my “Key Superior” (code for “has A/C”) bungalow, #23. Though fairly basic, it was clean, neatly-furnished, well air-conditioned and very comfortable. Overhanging the water was a lovely deck with a table and two hammocks. I dropped my stuff, grabbed my camera and set off to explore.
The resort is separated into 3 parts, the mainland where the restaurant, bar, front desk, dive shop,etc are located, Anthony’s Key where most of the bungalows and the pool are located and Bailey’s Key which is home to the dolphin lagoon and a quiet beach. By far, my favorite part of the resort was Bailey’s Key. Each day I took the water taxi over to the key during the quiet lunch hour or late in the afternoon and sat on the dock and just watched the dolphins at play in the lagoon. They were so fun to watch and I felt like I often had them all to myself.
The resort grounds are lovely and supremely relaxing. Meals and dives are part of the all-inclusive daily rate and the food in the restaurant turned out to be quite good, lots of fresh seafood. Since the weather was decidedly overcast, I spent most of the first afternoon mastering the water taxi system and planning out my itinerary for the next few days.
The next morning I woke up early to sunny skies (hooray!), had breakfast overlooking the water and then headed across the street to the Carambola Botanical Gardens. I’d read that they had a hiking trail up a mountain with panoramic views over the resort and the photographer in me couldn’t miss that (plus, it had been a full 2 years since my last tumble down a damp mountain hiking trail in Samoa…surely I was due). The hike wasn’t bad (though it was a bit slippery from the rain the day before) and in 30 minutes I was enjoying the view from the top. It was a great vantage point to see the entire resort.
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Anthony’s Key offers a free dolphin show at 11:30am so that was next on my agenda for the day. I figured it would be a good chance to check out the dolphins I’d be working with in my Trainer-for-a-Day program the next day. A good crowd had assembled for the show and we were not disappointed. The show was terrific and I was more excited than ever to meet the dolphins in the morning. After the show I had lunch and took the water taxi over to Bailey’s Key to watch the dolphins and enjoy the small but lovely beach. Other than a few trainers, there wasn’t a soul on the key since most of the resort’s guests were either at lunch or on a dive and the afternoon dolphin encounters didn’t start until 1:00pm.
The next morning I awoke excited and ready for my once-in-a-lifetime experience as a “Dolphin-Trainer-For-a-Day” at one of the world’s premier dolphin research facilities. More than two dozen Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins make their home at the 2-acre Bailey’s Key natural lagoon facility that is part of the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS) within Anthony’s Key Resort. The range of dolphin activities offered is among the most unique in the world from a simple beach encounter with photo op to snorkeling or diving with the dolphins, summer camp for kids, specialty education courses and, of course, the Trainer For-a-Day program I’d come here to do.
What separates the RIMS program from many other dolphin centers around the world? A lot, actually. But most importantly, the dolphins here are not captive in a man-made pool but free to roam the expansive lagoon. Some even leave the facility regularly to participate in the resort’s dolphin show or accompany dive groups but they always return of their own free will. And, as I later learned, one wild dolphin (Han) showed up one day and wouldn’t leave until they finally let him in. That spells “good dolphin home” to me.
When I arrived at RIMS, I was introduced to dolphin trainer, Christine, who would be showing me the ropes for the day. I’d seen her high-flying act in the show yesterday and briefly wondered whether I’d be learning that trick in the morning or the afternoon? Ha! Christine (who is from Boston) and I hit it off right away and she put me straight to work. First, we went out to the lagoon to meet the dolphins who were clearly happy to see Christine arrive. As we stepped down to a platform, several of the dolphins came up to greet us but Christine had decided that we’d begin our day with a dolphin named Tony so when he popped up to greet us he was rewarded with a fish (this is how the dolphins find out who they’ll be training with for the day, when they pop their head up to the right platform they get rewarded with a fish). No fish, on to the next platform.
Once we had Tony in place and ready to go, I watched as she guided them through a series of behaviors using various hand signals. Then it was my turn to try my hand at the signals she’d taught me. While we worked, Christine explained more about the care of the dolphins, how they are trained and what a typical day for them is like. Next, it was time to head back over to the RIMS center to learn a little more classroom information and prepare for the 3rd feed. The dolphins are fed 4 times a day and each has a specific diet including vitamins and any medications they may need. I helped sort fish to make sure that only the best quality fish made it into each dolphin’s individual cooler (all are labeled with their names – kind of like a kid’s lunch box…so cute!)
After a break for lunch (ours, not theirs) we headed back out to Bailey’s Key to join in with the 1pm dolphin encounters. It was great because I was able to join the group and get my own dolphin kiss photo with Christine’s favorite dolphin, Margarita (don’t tell Tony). Margarita was great and really wowed the group that had come to have their pictures taken with her. After the encounter pictures, I was also lucky enough to join in on the dolphin snorkel (not typically included in the trainer-for-a-day program but since I was the only one that day they let it slide). It was so much fun to be in the water with them swimming all around you.
For the last part of our day, it was time for me to try what they call an “action swim.” Basically, this was the portion of the day where I got to try a few of the things I’d seen Christine do in the show the day before…albeit on a much smaller scale. I did some hand signals in the water and even managed a decent foot push without drowning or injuring an otherwise innocent dolphin.
All in all, it was truly a remarkable day that I will remember for the rest of my life. The care and attention the dolphins receive at RIMS is amazing and it made me feel good to have spent my money on a dolphin experience where these beautiful animals are truly loved and appreciated. Each dolphin we worked with seemed eager to interact and excited to practice behaviors with Christine and with me. At RIMS, if the dolphins don’t want to interact, they don’t and no one makes them. All of the dolphins are free to do as they please which makes it all the more special when they want to interact with you. Huge thanks to Christine and all of the trainers for putting up with the rookie for the day and making it such a terrific experience!
Roatan Part 2: Infinity Bay, West Bay Beach
Still basking in the glow of my day with the dolphins, it was time to switch hotels and check out what I’d heard was Roatán’s most perfect stretch of sand, West Bay Beach. The Infinity Bay Resort had a top-notch rating on Trip Advisor and looked absolutely beautiful in the pictures online so I had high expectations. To top it off, they were running a 60% off online special when I booked so I practically stole my studio suite room for just $79 a night.
It was almost dark when I checked in and too late to fully appreciate the beach so I headed straight to my room to unpack, happy that I’d be in one place for 3 whole nights. I was a little disappointed when I got to my room. Though it did have a small kitchen area (hence the classification as a studio), it was small, ground level (which I don’t like for safety reasons), didn’t have a view of anything but a wall and didn’t have wifi as advertised on the website. It also had sort of a strange smell that I couldn’t place. It was definitely new and modern in décor but didn’t look anything at all like the pictures of the studios I’d seen on the website. I was tempted to go back to the front desk and see if they had anything else but I was tired and figured if I was still unhappy in the morning I’d deal with it then.
Not surprisingly, I woke up the next morning still not quite satisfied but thinking (to be fair) I’d probably gotten exactly what I paid for. But I was still bothered by the wifi issue and the fact that the room didn’t look anything like what I’d seen online so I decided it couldn’t hurt to go to the front desk and just mention my concerns. They were very nice and offered to move me to an upgraded studio (which I did appreciate because I definitely did not pay for that – though that room looked more like what was pictured on the website). So, the moral of the story is if you book a studio at Infinity Bay, remember that there is more than one kind of studio. And also remember that the wifi is only in the restaurant and bar and definitely not in the rooms (at least not in the studios).
Pleased with my success at a room change and looking forward to my new and improved accommodations, I decided it was time to check out Infinity Bay’s premier attraction, its spectacular beach. The beach did not disappoint, it was just as beautiful as the pictures I’d seen…actually, that’s not true, it was more beautiful. I wanted to plant myself in one of the beachfront chairs for the rest of the day but there was one more thing I needed to do – a quick visit to the resort’s dive shop, Infinity Divers. You see, I’d decided I’d put off this diving thing long enough and it was time to finally see if it was something I wanted to learn.
I’d actually considered doing the course work in Atlanta and the in-water certification part in Roatán, something a lot of people do since it’s one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified. But I was worried that I might not like it and it would be a waste of time and money. So, I opted for something called a “Discover SCUBA” course. The course involves a short classroom instruction, followed by instruction in the pool and then a shallow dive with the instructor off the hotel’s beach. Luckily, with one of the world’s great reefs just offshore, there was hardly a better place to do this kind of introductory dive. After visiting the dive shop and booking my course for the next morning, I headed to the beach for the rest of the day. It was the last day I wouldn’t have to share the island with cruise ship passengers and I wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet of the beach.
Interestingly, there was a navy boat full of armed soldiers parked at the end of Infinity Bay’s dock and I wondered if that much security was really necessary on this beach or if there was something going on I should know about. I never did get an answer on that. A multitude of conspiracy theories abounded among guests, everything from visiting dignitaries to a drug sting operation to Paris Hilton’s in town (why that would involve the navy, I’m not sure). I don’t know what the truth was but the soldiers obviously weren’t too serious about their mission because they stopped me on the beach asking to take photos with me. (What am I gonna say, no? They’re armed!) They were nice enough but one of them persisted in asking me out so I had to make a graceful exit after our photo session was done.
I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon on the beach but did find the persistent parade of beachfront entrepreneurs annoying. They were selling everything from massages and mahogany to jewelry and banana donuts. I get that they’re just trying to make a living but I’m also spending my hard-earned money on a vacation and I believe I have the right to sit on a beach and read a book in peace. (We ultimately agreed to disagree on that point.) But even that slight annoyance couldn’t take away from the beauty of this marvelous beach.
The next morning it was time to dive! I met up with my instructor, Ricardo, at 8:30am and after filling out a health evaluation and some paperwork, he began the classroom part of the course. When he was done, I took a quick test (passed with flying colors, of course!) and then it was time to get in the pool. Ricardo loaded me down with the latest in diving fashion accessories –this stuff is way heavier than I imagined – and in the pool we went. He taught me about all of the equipment I was now wearing and after taking my first few breaths underwater and learning a few hand signals it was time for the real thing.
We walked into the sea and after one early mask mishap (where I may or may not have panicked a little and signaled to go back up) I think I got the hang of it pretty quickly. We went down to about 60ft winding through narrow crevices in the coral and I was amazed at this whole new world unfolding around me. I was trying to take it all in while at the same time focusing on breathing normally and adjusting to the very unnatural new skill of breathing underwater and clearing my ears every 10 feet or so.
About halfway through the dive, Ricardo and I are skimming the floor of the ocean and I can tell he’s trying to signal something to me but I have no idea what it is. I give him a quizzical look and do a quick check around for sharks since I’m pretty sure he didn’t teach me that signal. Whatever he’s trying to tell me, I’m just not getting it and while I’m trying to figure out what signal I apparently decided wasn’t important enough to remember in the classroom he pulls out a diver’s writing slate and (I swear to God) writes, “Dinner in West End tonight?”
Seriously!?!?!? Here I am, 60 feet underwater for the first time in my life just trying not to die and my man Ricardo over there is totally focused on his love life. I didn’t know what to say and I certainly couldn’t write back on the slate board while trying to remember to breath and trying not to die. So I simply shook my head and laughed like he was being silly and we continued on. Flattering, I suppose, but honestly I would have preferred he be a little more concerned about keeping me alive and less about how I looked in my dive gear. What is it with the guys on this island?
Anyway! I do have to say that (ill-timed flirting aside) I really enjoyed the dive. Ricardo was obviously a skilled instructor and I do think I’ll take the plunge and get certified now. I don’t know that I ever want to get too adventurous with the diving thing but it sure would be great to have the option to do it in some of the amazing diving locations I’ve visited (like Thailand or Australia).
That night, the resort had their weekly free sunset happy hour for owners and guests and I got to meet a member of their sales team and several of the owners (Infinity Bay is part hotel, part condo development). Honestly, it does seem like a terrific place to own gorgeous beachfront property for a reasonable price and there must be a reason Islands magazine recently named Roatán one of the best islands to retire to.
Overall, I thought Infinity Bay was fantastic and West Bay is definitely one of the top beaches I’ve seen anywhere in the world. I had a terrific time on Roatán and I can absolutely see myself returning here again, especially with Delta’s convenient direct flights from Atlanta. In fact, I might just return when I’m ready to finish that scuba certification.
Next stop, El Salvador!