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The beach life is the best life on Roatan Island in Honduras

"Ba-na-na dough-nut! Ba-na-na dough-nut!" Every afternoon, Milton's singsong call drifted down the beach and started me drooling.

A tub of warm, sugar-sprinkled banana doughnuts, freshly made from scratch, was tucked under an arm of this genial man with a Santa Claus beard and funky tropical hat.

Milton was one of a carnival of colorful characters we got to know as they plied a staggering selection of offerings up and down white, sandy West Bay Beach in front of our condo on Roatán Island. Among the items for sale were handmade wooden toys, carved conch shells and fresh fruit dished out from bowls balanced atop the heads of modern-day Carmen Mirandas.

My trip in December — a week on Roatán, the biggest of Honduras' three Bay Islands 35 miles off the coast — was a surprise present from my friend Michel to ease the pain of a big birthday.

Roatán, once the domain of Spanish conquistadors and British pirates, lies in the Caribbean at the southernmost tip of the 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef, the second biggest barrier reef in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It's a small, skinny island, about 45 miles long and barely 5 at its widest.

Though Honduras has, according to the U.S. State Department, "one of the highest murder rates in the world" (see the State Department travel warning at www.lat.ms/1PMCwcC), the Bay Islands are known to be much safer. All resorts and businesses have security staff, and there is a tourist police force. Although locals sometimes reminded us not to walk in certain areas with cameras exposed or suggested we take a taxi instead of strolling, we never felt unsafe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has identified the Zika virus in Roatán, so protect yourself from mosquitoes, and if you are pregnant you may want to save this trip for another time.

Our plan for the week was to hang out on our beach and explore the local town of West End, a short water taxi ride away. Then, when we got restless, we would rent a car for a day and head eastward along the length of the island to explore mangrove forests, funky seaside towns, wildlife refuges and remote beaches.

We landed in Coxen Hole, Roatán's steamy, no-frills main town on its western end. Freddie, a local taxi driver, picked us up for the 25-minute drive to West Bay Beach. Because we had a condo with a kitchen and love to cook, Freddie stopped for groceries at the Coxen Hole supermarket. He volunteered recommendations for local products, including beer — Salva Vida ("life saver," which it was) — chocolate made from island cocoa and Pirate's Grog rum.

We bumped across the island on a winding jungle road, popping out onto the coast at mile-long West Bay, Roatán's biggest beach, reclaimed from mangrove forests that fringe much of the island. It was lined with a pleasant jumble of luxury resorts, beachside casitas, condos and casual cafés and bars. A small "mall" provided most of seaside life's essentials, including gourmet goodies at Mangiamo, a well-stocked deli.

The next morning I took Freddie's advice and sampled the baleadas, a Honduran dish that begins with a flour tortilla. The kitchen at a rusty corrugated shack off the beach was already hopping in the light of dawn, with locals chatting to the rhythmic slap-slap of fresh tortillas being handmade, then flipped onto a hot stove.

I lined up for the Honduran take on tacos — warm, soft tortillas filled with refried beans, cheese, shredded chicken and fresh avocado — then took the breakfast wraps back to our patio overlooking the beach, something that would become a routine before we started each lazy tropical day in Roatán.

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You won't believe the sea life you'll find in just six feet of water

Roatán is encircled by a lush underwater garden of corals and sponges teeming with marine life. Although it's best known as a stellar scuba-diving destination — and I've been an avid diver for decades — I quickly found as much to love about Roatán's jungle, retro-Caribbean towns, beach-shack menus and friendly folks.

I had signed up for a dive, but meanwhile, I headed into the shallows at West Bay Beach to snorkel with my friend Michel, who is not a diver.

We had flippered only 10 yards offshore when we reached an astonishingly healthy shallow reef busy with cleverly camouflaged flounder and scorpionfish, pods of squid, filefish and pucker-lip spotted trunkfish.

A blue cloud of fish — tangs — surged in a feeding frenzy among purple sponges, Elkhorn coral, sea fans and anemone. When two green sea turtles drifted past, I dived to follow them, gulping a mouthful of saltwater because I'd forgotten I wasn't diving, and no wonder — I'd never seen this diversity of underwater life in 6 feet of water.

Much of the island, including its west and east ends, is part of Roatán Marine Park, a grass-roots, community-based, nonprofit organization formed in 2005 when concerned dive operators and local businesses united to protect the island's fragile coral reefs.

My dive the next day was spectacular for its sea life, such as massive spotted eagle rays as well as nurse and reef sharks usually spotted in deeper water. The flexibility of beach-front snorkeling (especially with a nondiving buddy) made me happily pass on future dives. Michel and I settled into a relaxing routine of snorkeling every morning and late afternoon for the rest of the trip.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO ROATÁN ISLAND, HONDURAS

From LAX, Avianca, United and American offer connecting service (change of planes) to Roatán Island. Restricted round-trip airfares from $545.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 504 (the country code for Honduras) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY

Mayan Princess Beach Resort, West Bay Beach; 9934-2298 or (877) 587-4131 (U.S.), www.mayanprincess.com. Luxury beachside resort with four restaurants and five-star Professional Assn. of Diving Instructors dive center. From $160 a night with breakfast. All-inclusive available.

Las Rocas Resort, West Bay Beach; 2408-5760 or (877) 379-8645 (U.S.), www.lasrocasresort.com. Casual seaside bungalows and dive center on a small beach off the main strand. From $89 per night for two. Seven-night package for two with breakfast and airport transfer: $419.

WHERE TO EAT

Beachers Bar & Grill, West Bay Beach; 3287-2228, www.beachersroatan.com. Popular beachside eatery featuring fresh seafood. Live music often in the evening. Dinner for two from $40.

Thirsty Turtle and Pizzarama, West Bay Beach; 2445-5005; (727) 564-9058 (U.S.), www.bananarama.com. Casual side-by-side beachfront bar and eatery, part of Bananarama Resort. Brick-oven pizza is great. Lunch for two from $20.

Luna Maya, West Bay Beach; www.mayanprincess.com/restaurants. Steak and seafood fine-dining restaurant at the Mayan Princess Resort. Dinner for two from $60.

Creole's Rotisserie Chicken, West End, Roatán Island; 2445-4275. Casual Honduran meals with great roast chicken, tortillas, potato salad, key lime and coconut pies. Lunch for two from $15.

WHAT TO DO

Gumbalimba Park, West Bay; www.gumbalimbapark.com. Popular animal reserve with almost tame monkeys and tropical birds, a rainforest canopy zip-line, café and beach activities. Admission fee $55, includes zip line and other activities

TO LEARN MORE

Roatan Marine Park, www.roatanmarinepark.com

Roatan Travel Guide, www.roatanet.com

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