Diving on a Dime in Utila

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Off the coast of Honduras is an island offering the cheapest high-quality scuba diving on earth -- but get there before the developers do

Although it's been nearly 300 years since Blackbeard sailed these turquoise waters with the pirate's crimson banner flying from his topmast, red flags still flutter over the sunken treasures of Utila. But these days they signal the exploits of more fun-loving adventurers -- scuba divers exploring the underwater bounty that surrounds this island off the north coast of Honduras. Unlike many Caribbean dive destinations -- including its larger neighbor Roatan--Utila is not an island of fancy resorts or expensive restaurants. There's no beach scene, not a single Jet Ski buzzing across the harbor, and you can count the number of private yachts on one hand. But this 21-square-mile island's spectacular reefs, rustic charm, and low prices are luring travelers -- mostly Europeans -- by the boatload. From the crowded backpacker hostels of Central America to the message boards in cyberspace, the word is out: Utila is one of the cheapest places to dive in the world, and one of the best.

"It's the perfect place to learn to dive," says Jeff Van der Hulst, a Dutch dive instructor who teaches on the island. The water is warm, the visibility good, and many interesting dive sites lie only a short boat ride from the harbor. And though global warming has been killing reefs around the world at an alarming rate, Utila's are still, for now, largely pristine. Bizarre corals, exotic sea creatures, and nearby shipwrecks keep divers coming back here year after year.

Competition between dive shops--there are 11--keeps prices low. Although the cost of a PADI open--water course can dip to $99, the most reputable dive shops charge $171 for a four--day course -- including insurance and (humble) accommodations. Superior equipment, bigger dive boats, smaller classes, and better instruction account for the difference.

Although many divers who come to Utila are already experienced, most of those who step off the ferry have never strapped on a scuba tank in their lives and can barely tell an octopus from a depth gauge. But after a couple of hours of instruction on land, classes shift to the ocean floor, where passing schools of fish seem oblivious to the nervous, bubbling newcomers.

Perhaps because diving is a sport that demands an unusual degree of trust -- in yourself, in your diving buddy, and in your equipment -- confidence and camaraderie bloom quickly here. To the syncopated beat of Spanish--language reggae booming from the dive boats, students from a half--dozen countries are soon dancing on deck between dives, and swimming together in water so blue it seems electric.

Kicking back, apres dive

Later, as the sun sinks behind distant palms, divers gather on the dock of the Tropical Sunset Bar to swap stories and down cold bottles of Honduran beer whose name, Salva Vida, means "lifesaver." And at ten lempiras a bottle (65[cents]), nobody goes thirsty. Friends old and new just savor the evening breeze and watch soaring pelicans dive for fish, becoming mesmerized for long moments that seem impossibly, gloriously perfect.

It's a lifestyle that has drawn people to Utila for centuries. Paya Indians, notorious pirates, freed slaves, and British colonists have all, at various times, called this island home. And although Britain signed Utila over to Honduras in 1859, the place still retains an odd Anglo flavor. Longtime residents speak a lilting English that blends Caribbean rhythms with strangely archaic expressions. In fact, they still refer to people from the mainland as "Spaniards," a relic from centuries past, when English privateers hunted Spanish galleons lumbering home to Europe laden with pieces of eight.

Despite the quiet presence of a few cybercafes, Utila still has something of a lost--in--time feel, untouched by ATM machines, cell phones, or the modern trappings of convenience. Utila Town, as the community is called, flanks one long street that hugs the harbor. This narrow road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass abreast, is lined with a few small stores, dive shops, restaurants, and old wooden houses -- many with broad porches draped in flowering vines.

Island feasts

Utila's spirit of simplicity is perhaps best captured in a little restaurant called Mario's -- a dozen tables under a corrugated roof -- that despite its humble appearance serves up a mean barracuda, shark, tuna, wahoo, conch, or calamari -- whatever the fishermen happen to catch that day. And when the power goes out, as it often does, the waiter just lights some candles and keeps on serving. No meal at Mario's tops 75 lempiras ($5), except for the greatest lobster tail ever prepared. Grilled with garlic, olive oil, salt, and black pepper, it's simple and sublime, and only 180 lempiras ($12).

RJ's BBQ Grill, at the other end of Main Street, also serves excellent seafood, but is only open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. If all you want is a quick snack, stop by the baleada stand facing the bank, where the baleada lady will pat a ball of dough into a corn tortilla and cook it right in front of you, adding cheese, beans, and marinated onions for about five lempiras (35:). A warning, though: Her baleadas are so good it's hard to stop at just one.

Another place with character that's off the beaten track but worth the 20--minute boat ride is Susan's, perched on stilts in the shallows of Pigeon Cay, a traditional fishing community just off the western tip of Utila. If you round up a group of four, the boat ride comes out to 100 lempiras ($6.50) each, and Susan's 25--lempira ($1.65) fishburgers -- the specialty of the house -- are great. On Saturday nights, she clears out the tables for dancing.

In fact, if you like nightlife, there's action all week on Utila. One of the best places to make the scene is a thatch--roofed bar called Coco Loco's, whose crowded dock doubles as a dance floor, and whose light show -- the glittering night sky itself -- is truly stunning.

Diving into bed

Hotel rooms on Utila are almost always available, except around Easter and during the town fair in July; most charge in U.S. dollars. A complete list of accommodations on the island -- and elsewhere in Honduras -- is available through the Honduran Institute of Tourism (see box).

Competing for your business, many dive shops will include bunkroom accommodations in the cost of their dive packages, but finding a clean bathroom in this category can be hit--or--miss. Generally, it's worth upgrading to the $10--to--$15--per--night range, which will generally get you 24--hour power and water, as well as a private bath with towels. Not all hotels offer hot water, but this being the Tropics, it isn't really necessary.

The Margaritaville Beach Hotel (425-3366, e-mail: margaritaville@honduras.com) at the west end of town costs $12 for a spartan double with a fan, private bath, and cold running water.

A better value is the two--story Bay View Hotel (425-3114, e-mail: bayviewinternet@hotmail.com). For $14, its sunny doubles with private bath and cold water let you lie in bed and listen to the waves lapping the shore. The mix--and--match linens -- perhaps a Star Wars pillowcase with an NFL bedsheet -- give the place a quirky, unpretentious charm. While there, keep an eye out for the eagle ray that sometimes glides through the boat slip after dark.

Another great deal is Rose's Inn (not to be confused with Hotel Rose) on Mamey Lane, a five-minute walk from the harbor. For $15 a night you get a double with fan, private bath with hot water, and access to a kitchen. If you're feeling lazy, you can lie in a hammock on the porch and chat up the expat dive masters who rent rooms there by the month for $150. You can reach the proprietor, Martha Rose, at 425-3283.

The nearby Mango Inn (425-3335) on Monkey Tail Road offers doubles with a fan, private bath, and hot water for $25, and all the rooms open onto a long, shady porch (guests who dive with the Utila Dive Center get the same room for $17.50).

If you can't live without cable TV and air--conditioning, try a room at the Cross--Creek Hotel (425-3134, www.ccreek.com). Doubles with private bath are $40--reduced to $25 if both guests sign up with the hotel's diving program. Be sure to check out the Cross--Creek dive shack, with its larger--than--life mural of Bob Marley and Che Guevara, one with a doobie and the other with a rifle.

A still fancier option is the Utila Lodge (425-3143, e-mail:ulodger@hondutel.hn), built on stilts over the water. Here, doubles with all the comforts run $58 per night. When making reservations, inquire about weeklong dive/hotel packages; dive boats from the Bay Islands College of Diving leave directly from the hotel.

Catch it while you can

Although Hurricane Mitch left Utila largely unscathed in 1998, the winds of economic change are now starting to buffet the island with even more potentially profound effects. A new airport designed to handle international jet traffic was scheduled for completion at year's end. It will eventually replace the dirt airstrip that now handles daily service via twin--engine puddle-jumpers from the Honduran port city of La Ceiba.

Marley Howell, a fifth-generation islander who is a community leader as well as office manager at the Utila Lodge, says the new airport will help attract tourists with more money, spur local development, and generate better employment opportunities for islanders. Utila has also secured foreign aid to revamp its sewer and water system, which is currently inadequate to support the island's 5,000 residents. "We want to see the island progress," says Howell. "Do we want uncontrolled growth? No."

But some Utilans worry that's exactly what will happen. "The new airport, when it opens, will completely change the island's culture," says Shelby McNab, unofficial town historian and the director of the Utila Chapter of the Bay Islands Conservation Association. Already, developers are seeking permits for 37 beachfront vacation homes, scouting land for new resorts, and recruiting foreign investors.

For the moment, though, a visit to Utila is much the way it has always been -- idyllic. Crabs scuttle across the floor of a restaurant, a man pedals through town with a scarlet macaw riding his handlebars, kids play baseball with a scrap of lumber, and -- just offshore -- darting fish glint amid surreal canyons of coral.

Knowing and going

Note: To call all numbers in Honduras from the U.S., first dial 011--504. Prices are based on a rate of 15 lempiras to the dollar.

Before leaving home, get information about tourism in Honduras at 800/410--9608 or www.letsgohonduras.com. A query on any major travel search engine will generate fares to Honduras on a half--dozen major carriers. A cheap round--trip ticket from Miami starts at about $425, and from Houston at $525.

If traveling to Utila from the United States, fly into the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, where daily connecting flights through La Ceiba to Utila are available for $50 each way on Sosa Airlines (668-3223) and Atlantic Airlines (440-2346).

The bus/boat combination is much cheaper. Viana (556-9261) offers the best bus service, running between San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba in 21/2 hours for 110 lempiras ($7.50). Then from La Ceiba -- a gritty city with a reputation for crime -- the express ferry MV Galaxy leaves for Utila daily at 9:30 a.m., takes about an hour, and costs 195 lempiras ($13) each way. It departs Utila for La Ceiba at 11:30 a.m.

If your schedule compels you to overnight in La Ceiba, try the Gran Hotel Par¡s (443-2391, fax 443-1662, www.lanzadera.com/hotelparis), where a spartan but air--conditioned double with cable TV costs 510 lempiras ($34) and the pool is great. Smaller and with more character is the Posada de Don Giuseppe (tel./fax 44--2812, e-mail: pgiuseppe@laceiba.com), whose doubles with private bath run about 465 lempiras ($31). If you really want to rough it for just 75 lempiras ($5), try the Hotel San Carlos on Avenida San Isidro between Calle 5 and Calle 6 (443--0330).

Regarding money on Utila, there is a bank, but no ATM. Generally, you can pay for dive courses and accommodations in dollars, although surcharges apply if paying with credit cards (which are not universally accepted). Plan on paying for meals and the ubiquitous bottled water in lempiras.

Dive-shop shopping

Shop around before choosing a dive course. Get to know a shop's instructors, ask to see equipment, dive boats, and first aid resources, and don't forget to smell the air in the tanks. Just in case, there's an emergency decompression chamber on Utila, the use of which is covered by insurance costing $3 per day. Recommendable dive shops include Utila Dive Centre (425-3326, www.utiladivecentre.com), Bay Islands College of Diving (425-3378, www.diveutila.com), and Cross--Creek Dive Center (4253134,www.ccreek.com).

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