Isla Spud Hilton, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005
Roatán, Honduras -- From the deck of our ship, the island is a dead ringer for St. Thomas. Or St. Maarten, or Jamaica -- but 30 years ago, before the duty-free baubles and booze, before the armies of ravenous tour guides and before the view out to sea was as packed with vessels as Normandy on D-Day.
In the streets of Coxen Hole, a Honduran Mayberry near the port, the illusion continues: I find brightly painted seaside taquerias, shop owners sweeping up mud from the morning's rain, a public park the size of a travel trailer (complete with statue of Honduran hero Jose Santos Guardiola) and the HB Warren, a grocery store with a steamy lunch counter around which local life seems to revolve.
What I don't find is a Hard Rock Cafe.
At a time when most popular ports have become little more than tourism hubs (as many as 13 large cruise ships call in at St. Thomas daily), new and emerging cruise destinations in the western and southern Caribbean -- including Roatán, Belize City, Mexico's Progreso and Costa Maya (Majahual), and Isla de la Margarita off Venezuela -- offer more, and more authentic, local culture, less commercialism and a peek at what islands such as Cozumel and Grand Cayman were like in a quieter time.
Why now? Cruise lines want to offer exotic new ports to the millions of passengers who have already done the more common Caribbean circuit. More ships are crowding into the region than ever before and, frankly, they need somewhere to go. Which is why you may want to see these ports now, before they become St. Thomas for real.
Are they picturesque Caribbean? Two of the three seasons of reality show Temptation Island are set on Belize and Roatán.
There is a little work involved: Not every little convenience has been set up for cruise passengers and not everyone speaks English fluently, but these ports will appeal to those who'd rather eat conch soup and fried plantain from a Garífuna shrimp shack than a chicken caesar salad pizza at an air-conditioned Planet Hollywood.
Small ports, big ship
Comparing sleepy Coxen Hole to bustling Charlotte-Amalie, St. Thomas, is akin to comparing a comfy sailboat with the new 2,974-passenger Carnival Valor, the ship I boarded recently to visit and explore Roatán and Belize City.
At 110,000 tons and 951 feet long, Valor is roughly the size of New Hampshire, but with better weather and more swimming pools. It shares the title for Carnival's largest vessel (but is still a quarter smaller than the record-holding Queen Mary 2).
Valor and its passengers this trip were vintage Carnival, a floating block party where tank tops and flip flops counted for more than afternoon tea and strolling the promenade (I had trouble even finding the promenade), and where the most overworked employee onboard seemed to be David, the guy air- brushing temporary tattoos by the pool.
The decor is a glowing juke box with the greatest hits of Carnival's deafening style, with rooms, hallways and venues dedicated to patriotism, bald eagles, nationalism, bald eagles and U.S. heroes from Betsy Ross to Charles Lindbergh, with passing nods to ancient Greece (the library) and Josephine Baker (the karaoke lounge). Oh, and bald eagles.
Oddly, one of the most elegant venues onboard is Rosie's, the sprawling buffet dining room in green tile and brushed aluminum that honors U.S. women during wartime. A 20-foot-tall tile reproduction of the famous Rosie the Riveter "We Can Do It!" poster is the centerpiece -- a proud message that many passengers seemed to interpret as "We Can Make a Third Trip to the Buffet Line!"
While the ship is fresh out of the box (it entered service in December), very little is of it is novel. There are the standard diversions -- pools, sports deck, a host of themed bars and lounges, bingo -- but not much you can't find on most other big ships, albeit in more subdued colors.
Alas, where this ship excels is in the number of ways to give Carnival more money. After I passed nine separate formal portrait stations one night, one of the photographers confessed that if I posed at every opportunity on and off the ship, I would have more than 200 images in the photo gallery -- all of which I could buy at $8 to $25 apiece.
That said, Valor is shiny and new. While the food was about average for Carnival, which is about average among large cruise lines, I found little to fault involving service or accommodations and instead spent the initial day at sea thinking about our mystery ports.
Tubing a lazy river
Packed into a tour van with a Chilean family of five and our guide from Belize, I relied on my mangled Spanish without too much trouble -- until the guide casually blurted the word for "crocodile."
"Los cocodrilos? Dónde? En el río?" I asked, the look on my face sending the Chilean family into hysterical laughter. I didn't see what was so funny. It seemed prudent to worry about crocs, considering what we were about to do: float through river caves in a Central American jungle with our hindquarters wedged through the bull's-eye of an inner tube.
"Relax, señor. There are no crocodiles in this river," our guide said, smiling.
"Um, how do you know?"
Cave tubing is among the more popular excursions in Belize (formerly British Honduras), a vertical wedge of land no more than 65 miles wide at the foot of Yucatan Peninsula, tucked between Guatemala and the Caribbean. Belize City is on a rounded peninsula that juts from the coast, a door knob to this part of the Yucatan. It's rapidly attracting more cruise traffic (50 percent more in 2004 over 2003), as well as resort tourists, mostly because of the nearby Mayan ruins, low-key adventure such as the tubing, and a stunning menu of snorkeling options along the second biggest barrier reef in the world.
The city built a small cruise terminal in 2001 that, already, seems to be outmatched against passengers from three ships the day I was there. For the adventurous, the historic district near the terminal is small and a little threadbare, but has a few quaint restaurants and Baron Bliss Park and Lighthouse. The latter are dedicated to an Englishman from Portugal who sailed into the harbor in 1926, got sick and died, but not before leaving $2 million to the city (which he never actually made it to), because of the kindness of the locals.
Other popular excursions include guided tours of the Mayan cities of Altun Ha to the north and Xunantunich near the Guatemala border, as well as a trip to Belize's astonishing zoo, which has no bars, only jungle compounds set up to be as similar to real habitats as possible.
I was still thinking of croc habitats as we floated down the Caves Branch River, lamps strapped to our heads, winding through several inky black stretches of Belize's unique limestone river caves.
It turned out that my rear was safe from other crocodiles, but not from the occasional gravel bars when I beached myself trying to amuse the Chilean kids.
Island of surprises
Along with Belize, Roatán is among the most attractive destinations on the planet for divers and snorkelers. The island and its two Bay Islands siblings, Utila and Guanaja, are 20 to 30 miles from the Honduran mainland, and 75 miles from the same barrier reef that fronts Belize and much of the Yucatán Peninsula. At 49 square miles, Roatán is the same size as San Francisco.
Cruise traffic, however, is a novelty. There is a pier, but thankfully it's only big enough for one large ship at a time. Coxen Hole is a short walk east on the main road that circles the island.
After exhausting the quiet, relaxed pleasures of Coxen Hole, I looked for any sign of the minibus to West End, a village and several bays that are the backdrop for the island's lively, diver-heavy nightlife.
Even after asking three people, including the English-speaking police chief, I was no closer to locating the bus stop than I was to finding a Hard Rock Cafe. I flagged down Antonio, a cheerful, round-faced man with wavy hair and a paper-thin mustache who was driving Cab No. 89. After some negotiation - - in U.S. dollars, not the local lempiras -- we were off for West End.
The village doesn't rise early, and certainly not before the morning overcast burns off. It was easy to see why the partying is focused here, with its wide choice of funky beach bars and quaint restaurants. But it wasn't until el sol brushed off the cloud cover that I understood the attraction for beach lovers and divers. The larger bay, farther from West End Village, is more about private sailboats and water taxis to other points on Roatán; the smaller bay right at the village is pure Caribbean postcard fodder -- the whitest sands, staggeringly beautiful coral and water that is a clear margarita with floats of blue Curaçao.
On the deck of well-worn Eagle Ray's Bar & Grill, Garífuna dancers (descendants of shipwrecked African slaves who intermarried with the local Carib Indians) swayed and gyrated for a crowd from the ship when a slender woman in flip-flops stepped from the audience. Unlike the other volunteers, she matched the dancers' every move, swiveling and thrusting her hips as if flinging an invisible Hula-Hoop into space.
The audience watched dumbfounded, the dancers cackled and the musicians howled at the unexpected, unscripted display -- one that surprised both tourists and locals.
One you probably won't find on St. Thomas.