On this sleepy island off the coast of Honduras, the main tourist drag is a sand road lined with coconut trees and hand-painted signs touting $2 beers. Backpackers in flip-flops and scuba divers still wearing wet suits wander between dive shops, colorful souvenir stalls and fruit stands. Restaurants with thatched roofs are cooled by ceiling fans, and a seafood dinner can be had for $10 -- about the cost of a single cocktail in pricier parts of the Caribbean.
This quaint vibe may soon change. Though most Americans have never heard of Roatan, the place is well on its way to becoming the region's next "it" spot. Cruise companies, airlines and foreign real-estate investors are moving in, bringing new construction projects -- and potentially hundreds of thousands of tourists -- with them.
Royal Caribbean just inked a deal to build a $30 million extension to the island's cruise terminal, while Carnival is spending $50 million on its own port of call, which it says can handle as many as 7,000 passengers daily when it opens in 2009. Following the lead of other Caribbean islands, Roatán will become a duty-free zone next month -- a huge draw for hotel developers. Last winter, Continental launched a nonstop flight from Newark, N.J., cutting a 10-hour-plus trip with several connections to about five hours.
For now, Roatan remains a throwback. There are no major chain hotels. Most resorts have two dozen rooms or fewer, and many are locally owned. Stay on the island more than a few days and you'll probably start to recognize the people huddled around Sundowners beachside bar around 6 p.m., drinking frozen Monkey La Las, a blend of Kahlua, ice cream, coconut cream and usually vodka.
A visit to Roatan requires some flexibility and tolerance for the unexpected. Electricity goes out in spurts, so be prepared to eat by candlelight in restaurants or to sit in the dark until a backup generator kicks on. During the fall wet season, it can rain for days. And malaria medication is advisable, as mosquitoes can carry the disease -- a problem that has long been eradicated almost everywhere else in the Caribbean.