UTILA Isla de Bahia-The Authentic Island Experience Still Exists
UTILA Isla de Bahia-The Authentic Island Experience Still Exists
This tiny island is not the Caribbean of the $16 piña colada or the orchestrated see-only-what-the-cruise-operators-want-you-to-see routes. There are no behemoth ships in port here because the islanders (approximately 2,500) don’t want them. Head to sister island Roatan for mainstream tourism, canopy tour excursions and higher prices.
Visit Utila if you crave hints of Hemingway’s old Key West or Grand Cayman before chain hotels obliterated the view of Seven Mile Beach. Prepare to be charmed by this rustic knoll, pack a kernel of adventurous spirit and a yearning to experience true island life. Be warned: you may not want to leave.
Eighteen miles off the coast of Honduras but a world away, getting to Utila is part of the experience. The ferry, Utila Princess, runs twice a day from the port in La Ceiba on the mainland. For a more leisurely route, travelers can come by catamaran from Roatan with possible snorkel stops and dolphin or whale shark encounters on the way. By air, there is a limited schedule of commercial flights, or find your inner-Indiana Jones and charter a Cessna 182 to the island’s ribbon-thin airstrip.
However you arrive, your first destination will be Town, the central C-shaped seaside hub of activity. With less than a dozen cars on the island, golf carts, quads, bikes and scooters loaded up with families of five navigate the narrow streets. You can rent any of these during your stay, hire a three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi, or simply wander on foot.
Walking the length of the waterfront from one public beach to another takes less than an hour. Along the way, you’ll discover restaurants, thatch roof dock bars snaking out over the turquoise water, dive shops, tiendas, options for lodging and a cast of characters straight out of Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival.
There is a distinctly small-town feel to Utila. If the island’s Internet server goes down and the repair part is coming on the eleven o’clock ferry, coconut wireless spreads the word and the news may beat you from Babalu to Driftwood. Good news travels equally fast — if Zorro catches a big yellowfin tuna, you’ll know to pick up at Bush’s for stew before the fish stops swimming. When the power company changed their scheduled line maintenance outage due to a wedding, one local exclaimed, “Utila is like Lake Wobegon.” Smiling, she added, “Lake Wobegon, with reggaeton.”
Continuing your wander through Town, refresh with a chilled coffee liquado at Munchies Cafe. Sit in the back under the breadfruit tree and observe the highlander and endemic swamper species in the hillside iguana garden. While the primary language is an eclectic English, visitors wanting to practice their Spanish will find plenty of opportunities. As one resident said, “Everyone speaks a little Spanish and a little English, and neither of it very correctly, but we try.”
If you’re craving fresh produce in Town, walk west to the Ultra Light Café where beneath the shade of a bright green house, you’ll find Ronnie Ramon’s family and his crates of exotic fruit. Buy a bag of finger-sized bananas, juicy Honduran oranges or hairy red lychees for a dollar — peel and enjoy them as you explore.
For SCUBA enthusiasts, tucked in the curve of Town you’ll find boat docks and dive centers dotting the waterfront like the houses of fraternity row. Each has their own unique vibe, and woo you with the intensity of rush chairmen. Once you have pledged loyalty, you become part of a micro-community. Dive centers not only provide certification courses and access to some of the most pristine diving along the Mesoamerican coral reef at over ninety diverse sites, they also organize social events like Underwater Vision’s popular Friday night pizza and regular beach clean ups.
Out in the ocean, hopeful snorkelers and photographers can encounter the whale sharks that first put Utila on the destination map. Spring months are some of the best times to catch these gentle giants in their natural migration around the Bay Islands, but Utila is one of the few places where whale sharks are seen all year. Just dropping in with a snorkel and fins reveals vibrant coral heads between sandy shallows and a teeming, diverse underwater community. Avid snorkelers can check off everything on their fish card in the first hour.
Travelers will find there is more to Utila than diving and wildlife. Stand-up paddleboard and kayak tours offer a new perspective on the water and horseback riding on Pumpkin Hill leads to caves and stunning views. Enjoy sunset yoga classes on the Deep Blue Divers dock where your focus drishti can be the lighthouse or the jagged point of Pico Bonito across the ocean. After dark, the waterfront bars promise a scene where drinks are cheap and backpackers, eco-tourists, divemasters-in-training and locals party by moonlight.
For a uniquely relaxing experience, try Float Utila, the world’s largest sensory deprivation floating chamber, located on the waterfront in the iconic yellow Cay House and run by John Arne and Amanda Løken. While their cherubic blonde children play in the yard, enjoy disappearing into nothing but the sound of your own heartbeat. This hour long escape into bliss can be enjoyed alone or with a partner. On your way home, be sure to look down as you cross back over the wooden drawbridge — you may see baby barracuda, eels or other marine inhabitants of the stingray nursery in the mangrove shallows.
Just up the hill from Town, Jade Seahorse owner and artist Neal Keller has created a stone grotto of folk art and recycled whimsy throughout his restaurant and twisting, mosaic-dotted staircases up to the Treetanic bar. Winding bridges and rope swings lead to the hotel’s unique private rooms. Lit up at night, the effect is an enchanted glass, ceramic and stone work-in-progress wonderland.
For an island that acquired twenty-four hour power less than ten years ago, there is a wealth of burgeoning culture. Stop in at the museum just off the main street to get the lowdown on painting classes, book clubs, workshops and puppet shows for kids. Every night at seven catch a movie at the sixty-seat cinema, and downstairs, pick up beach reading from Funkytown Library. Local artisans display their wares at Fancy Fish Gallery. After taking in the craft displays, head to the canary yellow Mariposa building on the waterfront and call up to Jean — he’ll lower down margaritas in a tin bucket from El Picante Restaurant on the second floor.
Escape the hustle of Town on the tranquil South Shore where breezes rustle the palm trees and some of the best shallow dive sites are right outside your front door. Coral Beach Village is a new eco-luxury boat-access-only beach and canal community where Neptunes, the island’s only air-conditioned restaurant opened in 2012 and host of the annual Caribbean Cowboy concert event, Footstock.
To escape deeper into peaceful paradise consider the Cays, a cluster of small islands a thirty-minute water taxi away. For a day trip, Water Cay, the home of the famous SunJam concert is the quintessential deserted isle — thick with white sand, snorkel sites and nothing but hammocks slung between palm trees. If the owner is around, he may send a boat to collect the visitor’s day fee of 50 lempiras ($2.50). For overnights on your own private island, the cottages at Little Cay and Sandy Cay rent for less than $150.
If you fall in love with the charm of Utila and want to join the growing community of expats, find Brad Ryon in the Utila Realty office under the umbrella of the big mango tree. He brews strong coffee and has exclusive listings on the wide variety of rentals, homes and land; oceanfront lots can still be yours for under a hundred thousand dollars.
At the end of your stay, be sure to save a few lempiras ($37.41 worth, to be exact) to pay your exit fare, or you may find yourself on a dock under the stars sipping Flor de Caña and trading ‘how I ended up in Utila’ stories with the rest of us.
Chandra Hoffman recently escaped to Utila with her family. To learn more about her writing, novels or adventures in La Vida Tranquila, visit www.chandrahoffman.com.
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