(The following article first appeared in the Globe and Mail on February 11, 2012)
ROATAN ISLAND, HONDURAS - Unlike the notorious pirate Henry Morgan, who stashed his plunder in Roatan's hidden sea caves, golf architects Pete and Perry Dye have left a treasure that's easy to find.
Called the Black Pearl, Roatan's first golf course is the centrepiece of Pristine Bay Resort, a massive $102-million development that is helping transform this once largely unknown Honduran island favoured by scuba divers and expats into one of the Caribbean's emerging destinations.
Tourist arrivals in Roatan, about 65 kilometres off the north coast of Honduras, have jumped to 1.2 million annually from about 250,000 just a few years ago – impressive numbers at a time when most Caribbean islands are struggling to recover from the recession. By far the biggest boost has come from the free-spending hordes deposited almost daily during the winter high season by cruise giants Royal Caribbean, Princess and Carnival.
Visitors discover a lushly tropical island of white-sand beaches lapped by translucent waters warmed to a year-round average temperature of 27 C. Just off shore is the world's second-largest coral reef, offering spectacular diving among old shipwrecks, shallow terraces and deep undersea fissures.
Despite the march of progress, the island's vibe remains welcoming and laid-back. A single pot-holed road connects the main towns of French Harbour, Coxen Hole, Sandy Bay, West Bay and West End, Roatan's party central. Locally famous among the raucous open-air bars along West End's ramshackle waterfront is Sundowners, home of the frozen Monkey La-La, a mind-bending blend of Kahlua, ice cream, coconut cream and vodka.
Most among Roatan's population of 70,000 – a spicy mix of English-speaking Caribbean blacks, expats from North America and Europe, and a growing wave of Spanish-speaking Hondurans from the mainland seeking work – appear to welcome the fast-food outlets, giant cruise-ship terminals and other recent changes for the jobs they bring to an island where the average monthly wage is about $200.
One of the last of the Carib-bean islands to embrace golf, Roatan made a splash with the announcement that the now 86-year-old golf legend Pete Dye and his son Perry would design the island's first course in a gorgeous jungle landscape just outside the town of French Harbour. The elder Dye, acclaimed for his innovative, often radical designs at TPC Sawgrass and other world-famous courses, is widely regarded as the most influential golf architect of the past half-century.
Though opened last January, the Black Pearl will make its real debut Feb. 25 to March 3 when it hosts the Central American Golf Championship, a prestigious event established in 1944. February will also see the soft opening of 10 to 15 rooms in the first of two beachfront hotels planned for Pristine Bay Resort, by far Roatan's biggest-yet luxury resort development.
Scheduled for completion in phases over the next several years, the 164-hectare resort, financed by local and Guatemalan partners, will eventually include condos and villas, a beach club, dive centre, a 125-slip marina and a spa. Already available for rent at what is still a massive construction site are 17 two- to four-bedroom villas.
The Black Pearl rambles like an emerald oasis through the confusion, starting almost at the ocean's edge before gradually climbing into hills covered in tropical oak, evergreen palms and gumbo-limbo trees. Visual drama is introduced on several holes by strategically placed waste bunkers (strips of unmaintained sand) contoured to repel inferior approach shots. A far more pleasant distraction is provided by the sweeping ocean views from no fewer than 14 holes.
Pete Dye cemented his reputation with his diabolical island-green par three 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass – and he has repeated the trick here. The green at the 157-yard par three 11th sits in the middle of a small lake routinely buffeted by trade winds. The only hope for errant shots is if they catch the thin bunker that rings the green.
But the best hole at the Black Pearl might be the 13th, a double-fairway par five where the small and wildly elevated green is protected like a swaddled newborn by more than a dozen bunkers.
The Dyes have built a 7,064-yard course that's the match of almost any in the Caribbean for challenge and beauty. But no matter how popular the Black Pearl becomes, golf is unlikely to supplant scuba diving, snorkelling, fishing, kayaking and other water sports as Roatan's big draw.
Within wading distance of many beaches is a prime stretch of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site that extends over 1,000 kilometres south from the Yucatan Peninsula. Divers have long been drawn to Roatan, as well as to the less developed nearby Honduran islands of Utila and Guanaja, for the glass-like clarity of the water, the gentle currents and an astonishingly wide range of dive sites that offer everything from mazelike canyons to steep vertical walls, shipwrecks and volcanic tunnels.
Just as good is the fishing. Wahoo, mahi-mahi and yellowfin tuna are all abundant in these waters, as well as larger sport fish such as sailfin, blue marlin and barracuda.
It was both the natural bounty of the reef and the hidden sea caves, perfect for stashing their ill-gotten booty, that brought Morgan, Captain John Coxen and other brigands to Roatan in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fortune hunters still search for their abandoned treasure. Perhaps the most priceless of all the artifacts thought hidden somewhere on Roatan is the golden chain of Huayna Capac, seized from the Inca ruler by the Spanish.
For golfers, the real prize is the Black Pearl, one of the Caribbean's rarest jewels.
IF YOU GO
Sunwing Airlines offers direct flights from Toronto to Roatan. Continental Airlines and others serving the island most often connect in Houston, Miami, New York and Atlanta.
The Black Pearl, Roatan's first golf course, is a challenging 7,064-yard beauty designed by Pete and Perry Dye. Green fee: $145. pristinebayresort.com
Where to stay
Pristine Bay Resort currently offers accommodation in 17 two- to four-bedroom villas, starting at $295 a night. pristinebayresort.com
Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort is a stylish and recently expanded property on a prime stretch of beachfront in West Bay that offers one- to three-bedroom condos from $150 a night. infinitybay.com
Mayan Princess Beach & Dive Resort offers comfortable suites and condos on the beach in West Bay from $169 a night. mayanprincess.com
Where to eat
Vintage Pearl Restaurant is a fine dining restaurant on the beach in West End. It offers international cuisine with a focus on local seafood, as well as the island's most extensive wine list. 504-2445-5005; roatanpearl.com
Gio's Restaurant, a seafood spot on the waterfront in French Harbour, is famous for its king crab al ajillo (in garlic sauce). French Harbour; 504-2455-5214
What to do
Dive shops are as ubiquitous as seashells on Roatan's beaches. Two that come highly recommended: Barefoot Divers in Barefoot Cay ( barefootdiversroatan.com) and Mayan Divers, operated from inside the Mayan Princess resort in West Bay (mayandivers.com).
Snorkelling and kayak tours are the specialty at Upachaya, an eco-lodge and wellness retreat at Man O'War Harbour, a short drive from Coxen Hole ( upachaya.com).
Ziplining in Gumbalimba Park is a big hit with kids. The park near West Bay includes a small island zoo and a private beach. gumbalimbapark.com
Carambola Botanical Gardens, in Sandy Bay, is home to an extensive orchid collection, a breeding area for iguanas and several well-marked walking trails. carambolagardens.com
The Roatan Institute of Deepsea Exploration, in West End, offers the unique experience of viewing marine life from as much as 915 metres below the surface in a small two-passenger submarine. stanleysubmarines.com
For more information, visit roatantouristinfo.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail