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May 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Royal Playa Resort, Roatán, Honduras

this basic East End place offers the most pristine reefs

from the May, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Years ago, I spent a week at a resort in Guanaja, one of Honduras’ Bay Islands. I have vivid memories of miserable welts and endless itching after being assaulted by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. So for my February trip to Roatán, I brought Buzz-Off socks, an Insect Shield cap, lots of DEET, and Benadryl spray, pills, lotion, and cream. But at Royal Playa, the critters surprisingly left me alone. Either my preventive arsenal did the job, or the gentle breezes and cooler than normal 80-degree temperatures kept the bugs at bay. The remote location and lack of guests also didn’t offer much of a feast, compared to the more populated resorts on the western half of the island. Better yet, this hidden gem doesn’t offer the same ol’, same ol’ Roatán diving. It’s tucked away on the east end in remote Port Royal, so there is no road accessibility. That means few divers, no published dive sites, one dive operator -- and pristine reefs. Much of the Caribbean lacks the fish population of years’ past, as does Roatán, which could have advanced divers saying ho-hum but here, the swim-throughs, overhangs, cracks, caves and chutes, all covered with soft coral, are exquisite.

Royal Playa’s Main Lodge and Dock

Royal Playa’s Main Lodge and Dock

I lucked into finding the place. I was on Roatán for bone and tarpon fishing at Mango Creek Lodge and when I asked about diving, they neighborly referred me to Royal Playa, a minute east by boat. Owners Matt and Corinne Cavanaugh welcomed me dockside, joking that it was “friends and family week.” Like other Roatán resorts, Royal Playa has been hard hit economically; a couple from the Pacific Northwest overlapped my stay by one day and then I was the only guest. Royal Playa Resort, Roatán, HondurasWhen they left, Matt offered them a 10 percent discount for a return trip.

We took advantage of our day of togetherness on a trip to remote Pigeon Caye. The 90-minute run on a fiberglass seat in a 19- foot, 40 HP outboard panga with no shade cover was cozy, but at least there was no fuel surcharge. Tyron Bodden drove the boat, Terran Mattute was our divemaster. The 22-year-old kids live in the village of Oakridge, an eight-mile one way walk through the jungle to work for them. Terran’s dive briefings could be defined as brief (“Wall to your left or right”) but he was great at finding critters. The first descent was Barbaret Wall, with an abundance of sponges -- elephant ear, azure, tube, large barrels jutting out. While an occasional school of snapper, blue runners and grunt showed up, the scenery was more like a lobster and clinging crabs over here, a moray eel and juvenile spotted drum gliding by over there. Upsidedown jellyfish lying on shallower bottoms had algae growing in their frilly tentacles. A school of Caribbean squid welcomed us back at the surface.

Stopping for lunch on the sandy beach of tiny, uninhabited Big Island, we found a couple from one of Roatán’s West End resorts rafting in the gentle surf. Then while picnicking on chicken salad sandwiches, coleslaw and watermelon, a float plane brought in a second couple. These were the most people I saw all together during my stay, and we still had the reefs to ourselves. Back on the panga, Tyron and Terran assembled our gear, helped us don it, then we backrolled into the water. Moret Wall was stunning, with 100-foot visibility of the steep dropoff into the deep blue. The underwater botanical garden at 60 feet was so lush and studded with corals and critters, I forgot the 79-degree chill piercing my pair of skin. Despite its beauty, the dearth of schooling fish and pelagics was noticeable. An hour later and after a safety stop, I climbed the wide, sturdy ladder to board the panga. As we passed a crumbling pirates’ fort on the ride back, Terran poured a glass of fresh, pulpy pineapple juice and handed us each a pack of cookies.

The Port Royal region is quiet and isolated now, but steeped in a history of battles between British troops and buccaneers (Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte were famous visitors). As many as 5,000 pirates inhabited the area in the early 19th century. The slave trade also played a major role in Bay Islands history. The Garifuna, of Caribe Indian and African ancestry, established the first permanent settlement here. Ruins of forts and walls, along with an occasional anchor, bottle and other treasure are still being discovered in various cayes.

Open since 2006, Royal Playa is on 12 acres, surrounded by the Roatán Nature Reserve jungle. Five thatched-roof, two-story cabanas of Honduran pine, built by Matt himself, are scattered among mango trees on the lawn, with a distant view of the Caribbean. Being the only guest there would have been very dull if the Cavanaugh’s family and friends weren’t so nice and interesting. They ranged from their 15-month-old son Archer to Matt’s 88-year-old stepfather Tommy, who regaled me with stories of flying the Himalaya hump from India to Burma and China. Everyone seemed to have a dog. When I realized I had forgotten my alarm clock, Matt and Corinne looked at each other, then Matt said, “You won’t need one here.” When the staff arrived daily at 7 a.m., the dogs howled and barked, a cacophony louder than any alarm clock.

My spacious cabana had a comfortable four-poster queen bed with mosquito netting that was definitely not ornamental, two nightstands without lights, a table with two chairs, a screened balcony upstairs and a screened area with two hammocks downstairs. Corinne has artistically painted the floor beneath a large beveled mirror, which was attractive but the resort is basic, without a single amenity. No dresser or closet; just one hook for hanging clothes -- definitely suitcase living. There’s an electric ceiling fan, plus a small fan on the bed headboard (if you don’t mind sleeping in a wind tunnel). The bathroom has a wood trunk that holds a red sink with a single bar of Ivory soap under a carved mirror. The tiled, oversized shower stall has scalding water but lacks a shower curtain. A sign politely states that the toilet doesn’t accept paper. Four 110-volt outlets were good for charging cameras and computers but a single light near the bathroom partition meant it was flashlight reading before bed. Royal Playa Resort, Roatán, HondurasStill, it was easy to sleep, lulled by croaking frogs, rooftop geckos and other jungle-critter noises, before the dogs howled their version of reveille.

The dive shop is adjacent to the lodge, with two rinse containers, a cold-water shower, bathroom, and wetsuits and ScubaPro gear for rent. Aluminum 80 tanks, always filled to more than 3000 psi, can also be filled with Nitrox. Matt will also repair gear if he can. When there are guests, the boat leaves promptly at 8:45. They offer three dives daily but the schedule is relaxed, and Matt is an accommodating guy who would arrange a fourth or night dive if asked.While the panga is used for long-distance fuel efficiency, Royal Playa does use a bigger boat, a 26- foot Mako with 250HP outboard Yamaha motors, for moored and drift-dive sites. Most of those are minutes from the dock. The Mako offers a small aft dive deck, side benches with tank holders, a sturdy stern ladder, a Bimini cover for shade, a first-aid kit and oxygen. Front Porch is less than a five-minute ride away, and the underwater approach to what could be considered Royal Playa’s “house reef” has a spectacular dropoff. The walls, plunging to 2,000 feet, were covered with a variety of colorful sponges, and black and soft coral. I admired a school of surgeonfish and a sculptured slipper lobster while finning about.

While various dives at The Point, Carlos and Charlie, and Ft. Morgan Cay had similar marine life, the rocky reef structures varied in size and marvel - - the multitude of swimthroughs, chimneys, sand chutes, caves and overhangs never ceased to amaze. We typically dropped to 90 feet and gradually worked our way up. On most dives, I saw large moray eels, adult and juvenile lobster, and large channel clinging crab. The swaying of soft coral, gorgonians, fans and rods in the gentle current was Zen-like. At Lime Key Wall, a lone eagle ray swam by -- it and a lone nurse shark would be my only sizeable sightings. Sting rays burrowed in the sand, and yellow-headed jawfish popped in and out of sandy holes. While I was burning off nitrogen at George’s Place, a school of spinner dolphin surrounded the boat. Some of these dives occurred in choppier seas, so grabbing the swinging ladder to board was a timing act.

Though I dived alone with Terran during the week, I spent much of my time with the Cavanaugh clan on the dock (the hotel doesn’t have much of a beach, so the dock’s swim ladder is for those wanting to swim, snorkel or kayak from shore). The main lodge is the family residence with a galley-type kitchen, with a dining table for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was served at the end of the pier, a scenic spot covered by a circular thatched roof and housing a table, couches and a bar. Meals are home-cooked, Honduran style, by friendly locals Loreen Merren and Eloise Gael. I particularly liked the fish head soup, called “fish tea” by locals, made with basil, coconut milk, and chayote squash. Empanada-like pastolitas stuffed with chicken or beef were another standout. A local fisherman brings his boat to the dock daily to sell fresh catch for $2 a pound, so the plentiful fish dishes meant I could have seconds of Wahoo, shrimp Creole, crab and lobster, served with red beans and rice. Even in roadless Port Royal, Saturday afternoon is party time. The few neighbors who live along the shore arrived by boat to catch up while nibbling on guacamole, chicken wings and California rolls.

Royal Playa is similar to the reefs it takes its divers to: relaxed, easy and going with the flow. The Cavanaughs and their friends welcomed me just like family, making it easy to forgive them the basic room amenities. With just five rooms on a big plot of secluded property, it’s a far cry from the close quarters of a liveaboard or a crowded resort like CocoView down the coast. While Matt will take divers farther out to coastal sites, from the popular Mary’s Place to as far east as Barbaret Island, I was perfectly happy with the pristine coral gardens and breathtaking steep walls on Roatán’s southern stretch, which I consider the best diving on the island. Combine that with an all-inclusive week package priced under $1,000, and Royal Plaza is a good choice for an off-the-beaten-path dive trip -- if you don’t feel lonely if you and yours are the only divers, which might be possible.

-- M.S.

Royal Playa Resort, Roatán, HondurasDiver’s Compass: A seven-night, double-occupancy package with all meals (not liquor), three daily dives, round-trip transfer to Oakridge, taxes and fees is $850 through November 30, then increases to $900 . . . It’s $50 extra for ground transfer from the Roatán airport for a 40-minute drive on an 18-mile, potholed road to Oakridge, where Matt arrives by boat for the 10-minute ride to Royal Playa’s dock . . . A 50 percent deposit is required at reservation, and the balance is due 30 days before arrival . . . Nitrox is $150 for the week, or $15 per dive; night dives are $50, and there’s an additional charge for a fourth dive . . . Continental, Delta and Taca Air fly direct to Roatán on weekends from Houston, Newark, Atlanta and Miami . . . Web site: www.RoyalPlayaRoatan.com.

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