Columbus found the Bay Islands on his fourth voyage in 1502, and Britain held them from 1643 until they were ceded to Honduras in 1860. On the three principal islands – Utila, Roatan and Guanaja – English is the first language, but the true lingua franca is scuba diving.
They sit on the Bonacca Ridge, surrounded by reefs which form part of the biggest system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef. Furthermore, the Cayman Trench flanks the islands, creating spectacular drop offs from the coral walls, some just 100 m (328 ft) from the shore.
Typically amazing is ‘Spooky Channel’, one of 50 major dive sites on Roatan’s 62 km (40 mi) length – you navigate from a dock on the beach through huge coral formations that open to cathedral size before narrowing over your head in a long channel that emerges the other side of the wall. Adventurers go back and swim it at night.
Utila is smallest and flattest, wonderfully safe for children to learn watercraft. Roatan, the biggest, has a lush green mountainous backbone and the most developed infrastructure for visitors to its staggering coves (called ‘bights’) and beaches.
Guanaja’s mountains go higher still, and are covered with Caribbean pine trees; it has no roads, and its development appears to favour super-luxury resorts at odds with its largest community, Bonacca, which is a tiny, crowded cay next to the main island, criss-crossed with canals full of colourful boats and canoes and nicknamed ‘Little Venice of the Caribbean’.
You pay more to stay closer to Guanaja’s forests, rivers and miles of unspoiled beaches, but Bonacca itself, like Roatan and Utila, is where backpackers and billionaires can meet on the equal terms of enthusiasm for crystal waters, marine menagerie and the blossoming corals of the living reefs.
Population: 43,000 (2005) (Total for all 8 inhabited Bay islands)
When to go: Year-round. Come for the Sun Jam, two days of music and dancing on Water Cay, the definitive deserted tropical island near Utila, in August.
How to get there: By air to Coxen Hole, Roatan, from Houston or Miami, or via Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula; by air to Utila and Guanaja from Roatan or Ceiba; by ferry boat to all three from La Ceiba on the mainland.
Highlights: Conch fritters and coconut bread at Punta Gorda, the only Garifuna settlement on Roatan, with a dynamic culture unchanged since the late 1700s.
12-18 m (39-59 ft) long whale sharks, eagle rays, Creole wrasses, groupers, octopus and reef crabs – among the pillar corals, seafans and barrel sponges on the spectacular precipice of West End Wall.
The forest waterfalls of Guanaja, 90 per cent of which is protected reserve. Dropping in to exclusive hotels on private beaches for a drink and a dive – it’s the accepted culture for meeting new people and creating parties.
You should know: It was from Roatan that 17th century buccaneers and pirates launched their famous collective raids on Porto Bello and Cartagena.