Swim With Whale Sharks in Utila

1. Where to Stay

JadeSeahorse is home to brightly painted cabins and lush foliage.Photo: Courtesy of JadeSeahorse

Unpack your fins at the stylish scuba-diving resort Utopia Village (from $224), located a 25-minute boat ride from town. Unlike the island’s other drab resorts, the nineteen rooms here are smartly furnished with accents that evoke both the Caribbean and Bali. There’s a private beach, and you can explore world-class purple coral gardens within a reef just 100 feet offshore.

Fall asleep to the sounds of the sea at Utila Lodge (from $159), an eight-room inn built over the water in the heart of East Harbor. Its location next to the Bay Islands College of Diving allows you to go straight from the boat to your room, making it the ideal place to stay if you’re looking to brush up on your scuba skills or take an underwater-photography course.

Book a room at one of Utila’s most unique hotels, JadeSeahorse (from $75), where six cabins sit on a whimsical property that’s part botanical gardens, part art installation. The property features a dazzling array of mosaics, brightly colored buildings, and ornamented fountains, but perhaps the most popular draw is the Treetanic Bar, a watering hole shaped like the bow of a ship that sits in the branches of three mango trees.

2. Where to Eat

The patio at Munchies is a place to escape the heat and meet international backpackers.Photo: Eric Chicas

Try Hondurans’ favorite snack at the baleada stands on Main Street, run by a few mainland women, which open in the morning and don’t close until after the bars empty out. A basic baleada ($1) is a flour tortilla slathered with refried beans and cheese, but it can be stuffed with additional ingredients like chicken or scrambled eggs. On an island catering to international tourists, this is likely the only chance you’ll have to taste something representing local cuisine.

Rub elbows with yacht owners at the Driftwood Café (near Chepes Beach; no phone), a bar and grill on a wooden pier known for its large portions of comfort food, like Texas-style BBQ pork ribs ($9). On Sundays, all-day happy hours attract a rowdy bunch of locals and expats who play impromptu dice games and drink Monkey Balls ($2), which are chilled shots of homemade Kahlua.

Eat fresh pastas at La Piccola (left of the Main Street pier, 504-2425-3746), an intimate candlelit restaurant with a dozen open-air tables. Chef Kate Viglio came to Utila from Italy more than a decade ago and opened the restaurant in 2002. She serves classics like filet mignon or red snapper in pesto sauce ($12) and regales customers with her stories of falling in love with the island.

Cool off with a fruity licuado ($2) on the patio at Munchies (Main Street; 504-2425-3168), located in the Island House, a wooden structure that dates back to 1864. Breakfast is the most popular meal here, served all day to a crowd of backpackers who get their fix from granola ($3) and breakfast burritos ($4).

3. What to Do

Spring is the peak time to get up close to a whale shark (left); the island's lagoon is best explored by kayak (right).Photo: Courtesy of Utopia Village; courtesy of Utila Realty

Go on a four-hour expedition ($85) with the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center that includes a short background lecture and the possibility of seeing the 20-to-40-foot-long fish up close in the water. After confirmation of a sighting, your driver will circle around and drop you off in the water. You’re not allowed to approach the gentle creatures as they glide beneath you, but they may rise and occasionally come close enough to touch. Though spring is considered the peak season, Utila is the only place on earth that has confirmed sightings every month of the year.

Arrange a rental from Kayak Utila (from $20 for four hours) to explore the dense mangroves surrounding the southern lagoon and traverse channels that cut through the inland to Rock Bay on the northern shore. Keep an eye out for wildlife like caimans, frigatebirds, and “monkey lalas,” Bay Island slang for basilisk lizards.

Explore the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest reef system in the world, which stretches from the Yucatán peninsula to the nearby island of Guanaja. If you’re not already certified, Utila offers some of the cheapest diving courses in the world; you can complete a course in a couple of days at the Bay Islands College of Diving (from $260 for PADI open water certification).

Explore the unspoiled and uninhabited island called Water Cay ($2.50 admission), where the beaches are nicer than Utila’s and the terrain is building-free. Water taxis ($25 each way) travel here, but book with Island Life Tours ($38) and let them prepare an open-pit barbecue for your group.

4. Insider’s Tip

The Nina Elisabeth II is the best way to get from Roatán to Utila.Photo: Flickr/apes_abroad

Getting to Utila can be a hassle since there are no nonstop flights, but now the easiest way to get there is also the most pleasant and inexpensive. In past years, you’d have to fly to neighboring isle Roatán or La Ceiba on the mainland and then take another flight or charter a boat. Now, simply fly directly to Roatán and take advantage of the new daily service on the Nina Elisabeth II (504-3346-2600), a 39-foot catamaran that shuttles between Utila’s East Harbor and Roatán’s West End ($55). The three-and-a-half-hour trip is gorgeous, and you’ll occasionally spot dolphins on the way.

5. Oddball Day

The Iguana Research and Breeding Station is home to the native endangered species and other wildlife.Photo: Courtesy of Iguana Research and Breeding Station

Have breakfast at Thompson’s Bakery (Cola de Mico Road; 504-2425 3144) where johnnycake sandwiches with ham, egg, and cheese ($2) are the most popular item. Afterward, walk to Red Ridge Stables (504-2390-4812) for a two-hour horseback tour ($35) of Utila’s inland jungles and Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on the island. For lunch, catch the cool harbor breeze at El Picante (next to the municipal dock; 504-2424-3244), where salty margaritas ($4) are served next to heaping plates of quesadillas ($8) and enchiladas ($8). Afterward, walk to the outskirts of East Harbour to stop by the Iguana Research and Breeding Station ($2), where you can see the endangered spiny-tailed iguana and other native wildlife. Next, settle into a lounger on Bando Beach ($2 admission), the nicest beach on the island. At sunset head over to Tranquila’s (west of the pier; no phone), an overwater bar where boats drop off divers for bottles of Port Royal, a Honduran pilsner. Grab a bite to eat at Evelyn’s BBQ (two doors down from Munchies on Main St.; no phone), where you can sit on their porch, listen to reggae tunes, and eat jerk chicken ($10) cooked on a streetside charcoal grill. Afterward, make your way inland to the Bar in the Bush (Cola de Mico Rd.; no phone) (no cover), the island’s jungle-surrounded late-night spot where dive instructors, hotel owners, crusty old sailors, and tourists let loose to reggae and classic rock, often until the sun comes up.

6. Links

The best of several online guides to the island, aboututila.com has complete listings of nearly every hotel, restaurant, and tour operator on the island.

Honduras’s official tourism portal has a fair amount of info on what to see and do on Utila, as well as detailed information on how to get there.

Read about island life at the Bay Islands Voice, an English-language magazine covering all of the Bay Islands.

Swim With Whale Sharks in Utila