The luxe Infinity� Bay Spa and Beach Resort.
Courtesy Infinity Bay

“Thank goodness development here has slowed down,” says Samir Galindo, general manager of Anthony’s Key. “If it was going at the rate that it was, I think things would spiral right out of control.”

Today, Roatán hosts some of the mightiest­ ships afloat: cruise liners dock in Coxen Hole, the biggest city on the island, and in Mahogany Bay, the newer and sleeker of the two ports. But during the age of European exploration, the Bay Islands saw visits from both Christopher Columbus and, later, the pirates of the Caribbean.

Colorful West Bay beach.
Richard Broadwell/Alamy
Columbus actually made landfall on Roatán’s sister island of Guanaja. Later contact with Europeans, with their slave raids and diseases, were sufficient to wipe out the ­indigenous people of the Bay Islands. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, both law-abiding mariners and pirates — including such famous names as Blackbeard and Morgan — used the island for resupply and refuge.

The islands gradually came under British control and began to be settled more regularly, if sparsely; the majority of the islanders were English speakers of African descent. In the 18th century, the British brought to Roatán a group of people known as the Garifunas, who had both indigenous and African

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ancestry and who spoke an indigenous language. They descended from shipwrecked slaves who came to the island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Lesser Antilles north of Venezuela and married with the Carib-Arawak people living there. When the British took over St. Vincent, the Garifunas fought them but were defeated in 1796 and deported to a small island south of St. Vincent. Later, some 2,500 of them were sent to Roatán.

Alfred Arzu, a presenter at Yübü — The Garifuna Experience center in Punta Gorda in the eastern part of Roatán, explains that though some stayed on Roatán, many Garifunas were allowed by the Spanish colonial government in the early 19th century to settle on the mainland, where they flourished and spread throughout the Central American coastline. Their unique way of life has remained intact to this day, and Roatán is their most important cultural touchstone.

At Yübü, local Garifunas perform traditional music and dance for visitors, sell Garifuna handicrafts and demonstrate the arduous process for making the signature Garifuna cassava bread. Yet maintaining perhaps the most important cultural signifier, the Garifuna language, is difficult on Roatán, with the inundation of the majority languages of English and Spanish. Anthony’s Key’s Samir Galindo, whose father is the current mayor of Roatán, grew up speaking both English and Spanish on the island and notes that while some Garifunas have kept their ways, others adopted English.