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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 Roatan’s Bay Islands has been on my List for years. So on this 30-day trip around Central America, it is 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. Losing an entire day commuting between the two didn’t seem like the best use of my limited time.
The Two-Part Plan for Roatan
In my search for accommodations on the island, alert reader, Suzan, told me about a place she’s 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 sounds amazing and is something I have always wanted to do.
So, I booked my first two nights and the Dolphin 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.
Arrival in Roatan
When I eventually touch down on Roatán, I’m not in the best of moods. After finishing a 10-day corporate event yesterday and packing into the wee hours, I’m admittedly a little tired and possibly slightly cranky when we land at Roatán’s tiny airport.
Possibly is quickly promoted to definitely when the flight attendant announces that we’ll be deplaning from the stairs at the tail of the plane. Which turns my 4th-row seat into the new back of the plane.
When I finally deplane under cloudy skies I find myself at the end of a very long and disorganized “bundle” of immigration lines. As I feel my level of irritation rising, it suddenly occurs to me that everyone here is clearly on island time. And perhaps I, still in city-girl mode, am the one who needs to make the attitude adjustment.
I take a deep, cleansing breath (inhale peace, exhale love) and try 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 head for the baggage carousel. I’m certain that after all this time my bag will be waiting.
Just when I’m convinced that this day is about to get a LOT worse, my bag finally emerges 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 necessitates non-travel-size liquids. Like enough sunscreen and insect repellent to cover the crew of Survivor. So 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.)
Anthony’s Key Resort
I emerge from the airport and quickly locate the shuttle to Anthony’s Key Resort.
This 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.
My bungalow at Anthony’s Key Resort
When we arrive at the resort, our shuttle group of 20 or so is ushered upstairs to the lobby and given a “summer camp” style orientation.
We fill out registration cards and are given our room keys & wristbands. Then, we’re invited to have lunch in the restaurant before heading to our bungalows.
The whole arrival process seems a bit impersonal. It makes me feel a bit like I have accidentally signed up for some kind of group tour. But I call upon my newly acquired island-girl frame of mind. I decide to forego lunch for now and take the water taxi over to check out my new bungalow.
Luckily, things began to look up once I arrive at my “Key Superior” (code for “has A/C“) bungalow, #23. Though fairly basic, it is clean, neatly-furnished, well air-conditioned, and very comfortable.
Overhanging the water is a lovely deck with a table and two hammocks. I drop my stuff, grab my camera and set off to explore.
The resort is separated into three parts. The first, on the mainland, is where the restaurant, bar, front desk, dive shop, etc. are located. The second part is Anthony’s Key, where most of the bungalows and the pool are located. And finally, Bailey’s Key, which is home to the dolphin lagoon and a quiet beach.
By far, my favorite part of the resort is Bailey’s Key.
I take the water taxi over to the key during the quiet lunch hour and sit on the dock to just watch the dolphins at play in the lagoon. They are so fun to watch and I feel like I have them all to myself (I would repeat this afternoon communal time with the dolphins each day of my stay).
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 turns out to be quite good featuring lots of fresh seafood.
Since the weather is overcast, I spend most of my first afternoon mastering the water taxi system and planning out my itinerary for the next few days.
Day Two at Anthony’s Key Resort
The next morning I awake early to sunny skies (hooray!). I enjoy breakfast overlooking the water and then head across the street to the Carambola Botanical Gardens.
Rumor has it there is a hiking trail up the mountain with panoramic views over the resort. The photographer in me can’t pass that up. Plus, it’s been a full 2 years since my last tumble down a damp mountain hiking trail in Samoa…surely I am due.
The hike isn’t bad (though a bit slippery from yesterday’s rain) and in 30 minutes I’m enjoying the view from the top. It’s a great vantage point to see the entire resort.
The Anthony’s Key Dolphin Show
Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Anthony’s Key offers a free dolphin show at 11:30am. That’s next on my agenda for today!
I figure it’ll be a good chance to check out the dolphins I’ll be working with for my Trainer-for-a-Day program tomorrow.
A good crowd has assembled for the show and we are not disappointed. The show is terrific and I’m more excited than ever to meet the dolphins tomorrow morning.
After the show I have some lunch and take 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 isn’t a soul on the key. Most of the resort’s guests are either at lunch or on a dive and the afternoon dolphin encounters don’t start until 1:00pm.
Dolphin Trainer for a Day
The next morning I awake excited 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. The facility 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. They also offer a summer camp for kids, specialty education courses, and, of course, the Trainer For-a-Day program I’ve come here to do.
What separates the RIMS program from other dolphin centers around the world?
A lot, actually. But most importantly, the dolphins here are not captive in a man-made pool. Instead, they are 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 learn, 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.
How to be a dolphin trainer for a day
When I arrive at RIMS, I meet dolphin trainer, Christine. She’ll be showing me the ropes for the day. I’d seen her high-flying act in the show yesterday and briefly wondered whether I’ll be learning that trick in the morning or the afternoon? Ha!
Christine is from Boston and we hit it off right away. She wastes no time putting me straight to work.
First, we head out to the lagoon to meet the dolphins. They are clearly happy to see Christine arrive. As we step down to a platform, several of the dolphins come right up to greet us.
Starting the day with dolphin Tony
Christine begins our day with a dolphin named Tony. So when he pops up to greet us he is 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 have Tony in place and ready to go, I watch as she guides him through a series of behaviors using various hand signals. Then it’s my turn to try my hand at the signals she’s taught me.
While we work, Christine explains more about the care of the dolphins, how they are trained, and what a typical day for them is like.
Dolphin Feeding Time
Next, it’s 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. Each one has a specific diet including vitamins and any medications they may need. I help sort fish to make sure that only the best quality fish make it into each dolphin’s individual cooler. Each cooler is labeled with their names – kind of like a kid’s lunch box…so cute!
In the water with the dolphins!
After a break for lunch (ours, not theirs) we head back out to Bailey’s Key to join in with the 1pm dolphin encounters.
I’m excited to join the group and get my own “dolphin kiss photo” with Christine’s favorite dolphin, Margarita (don’t tell Tony). Margarita is great and really wows the group assembled to have their picture taken with her.
After the encounter pictures, I’m also lucky enough to join in on the dolphin snorkel. This is not typically included in the trainer-for-a-day program but since I’m the only one today they let it slide.
It’s so much fun to be in the water with them swimming all around me.
For the last part of our day, I get to try what they call an “action swim.”
Basically, this is the portion of the day where I get 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 do some hand signals in the water and even manage a decent foot push without drowning or injuring an otherwise innocent dolphin.
Wrapping up an amazing day with the dolphins
All in all, it’s been a truly a remarkable day that I will remember for the rest of my life. So remarkable that, to this day, I still consider it one of my 30 most extraordinary travel experience around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
The care and attention the dolphins receive at RIMS is amazing. It makes me feel good to spend my money on a dolphin experience where these beautiful dolphins are truly loved and appreciated.
Each dolphin we work with seems 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. 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’s time to switch hotels and check out what I’ve heard is Roatán’s most perfect stretch of sand, West Bay Beach.
The Infinity Bay Resort has great reviews and looks absolutely beautiful in the pictures online. It’s almost dark when I check in and too late to fully appreciate the beach so I head straight to my room to unpack. I’m happy to be in one place for 3 whole nights.
My studio room has modern décor and handy kitchen facilities. I booked one of the cheapest rooms (traveling on a budget this month!) so it doesn’t have an ocean view but it does have a nice view of the pool. Overall, a good value and a great location.
Exploring West Bay Beach
The next morning I’m excited to check out Infinity Bay’s premier attraction, its spectacular beach.
Often called the most perfect stretch of sand in Honduras, West Bay Beach Roatan rivals many of the Caribbean’s most phenomenal beaches. And as I walk its silky white sands, I have to agree. It is just as beautiful as the pictures I’ve seen. Actually, that’s not true, it is even more beautiful.
I’m anxious to plant myself in one of the beachfront chairs for the rest of the day. But first, there is one more thing I need to do. And it involves a quick visit to the resort’s dive shop, Infinity Divers.
Is Roatan the best place to learn to dive?
Roatan is one of the least expensive places in the world to become a certified diver. Another perk of learning to dive in Roatan? The reef is just a short swim from shore allowing rookie divers like myself to reach it comfortably while also providing easy access for snorkelers.
I’ve put off this diving thing long enough. It’s time to finally see if it’s something I want to learn.
I opt 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, it’s hard to find a better place to do this kind of introductory dive. After booking my course for tomorrow morning, I head to the beach for the rest of the day.
An afternoon on West Bay Beach
West Bay Beach is lined with a relaxed blend of casual beach bars and high-end resorts. But it’s the reef system and the crystal clear turquoise waters that really lure visitors to these sandy shores.
Interestingly, there is a navy boat full of armed soldiers parked at the end of Infinity Bay’s dock. I wonder if that much security is really necessary on this beach or if there is something going on I should know about. (I never did get an answer on that.)
A multitude of conspiracy theories abound 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).
Whatever the reason, the soldiers aren’t too serious about their mission because they stop me on the beach to ask for a photo. (What am I gonna say, no? They’re armed!)
I enjoy the rest of the afternoon firmly affixed to a lounge chair on the beach. It’s a lovely way to spend the day but I do find the constant parade of beachfront entrepreneurs annoying. They sell everything from massages and mahogany to jewelry and banana donuts and they are persistent.
I get that they’re just trying to make a living but I’m also spending my hard-earned money on a vacation. I believe that gives me the right to sit on a beach and read a book in peace. (We ultimately agree to disagree on that point.)
But even that slight annoyance can’t take away from the beauty of this marvelous beach.
Learning to Dive in Roatan
The next morning it’s time to dive!
I meet up with my instructor, Ricardo, sharply at 8:30am. After filling out a health evaluation and some paperwork, he begins the classroom part of the course. When he’s done, I take a quick test, and then we head for the pool.
Ricardo loads me down with the latest in diving fashion accessories –this stuff is way heavier than I imagined – and into the pool we go. He teaches me about all of the equipment I’m now wearing. I take my first few breaths underwater and learn a few hand signals and then it’s time for the real thing.
We walk 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’m getting the hang of it.
We go down to about 60ft winding through narrow crevices in the coral. I’m amazed at this whole new world unfolding around me.
I’m trying to take it all in while at the same time focusing on breathing normally. The very unnatural new skill of breathing underwater and clearing my ears every 10 feet or so takes some getting used to.
A diving dilemma
About halfway through the dive, Ricardo and I are skimming comfortably along the floor of the ocean. 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. 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) he writes, “Dinner in West End tonight?”
Here I am, 60 feet underwater for the first time in my life just trying not to die. Meanwhile, my man Ricardo over there is totally focused on his love life.
I don’t know what to say and I certainly can’t write back on the slate board while trying to remember to breathe and trying not to die. So I simply shake my head and laugh as if he is being silly and we continue on.
Flattering, I suppose, but honestly, I would prefer he focus more on keeping me alive and less on how I look 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 dive in some of the amazing diving locations I’ve visited (like Thailand or Australia).
Wrapping up a week on Roatan
That night, the resort held their weekly free sunset happy hour for owners and guests. I met a member of their sales team and several of the owners (Infinity Bay is part hotel, part condo development).
Roatan really does seem like a terrific place to own gorgeous beachfront property for a reasonable price. After all, 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!