Road Test, S.A.L.T. Experiences: In Roatán, a Caribbean Gem You Don’t Know But Should

Offered on Silver Moon and Silver Dawn (and expanding to Silver Nova in winter 2023), Silversea’s S.A.L.T., which stands for Sea and Land Taste, is an innovative program celebrating the culinary arts of the places we’re traveling. 

Today we are in…Roatán, Honduras

Maps by iStock Photos

Roatán, 37 miles off Honduras, is one of the less-heralded corners of the Caribbean. Although the island exhibits many of the attributes we expect of outposts in the eastern Caribbean–beaches, snorkeling, diving and fishing among the list of diversions–it also has an interesting heritage, thanks to the local Garifuna culture. The Garifuna, also known as Black Caribs, are a mix of the West and Central African and the Arawak people of the Lesser Antilles. This tour promises a glimpse into a culture that still goes its own way in an increasingly connected world.

Why did S.A.L.T. Adventures choose culture and cuisine of Garifuna in Roatán?

The colorful houses of Roatán, Honduras. Photo by David Swanson

“For a lot of travelers, myself included, in the Caribbean we’re very used to eating homogenized luxury resort buffet versions of Caribbean food,” says S.A.L.T. director Adam Sachs. “Our job, our challenge and inspiration, is to show that this is not one type of cuisine or one standard, homogenous Caribbean or Latin American food.”

On this voyage the food of Central America is showcased nightly in S.A.L.T. Kitchen. On this day’s cruise, the evening menu offers Honduran-inspired chicken skewers marinated with fresh chiles, cilantro and lime, served with coconut rice, allowing a deeper dive into the food of one of Central America’s more distinctive outposts.

Roatán exposed a white lie I’ve told myself for years: As a writer who has traveled in the Caribbean for more than 35 years, I often say I’ve visited every Caribbean island with a bed. In truth, I have never stepped foot on Roatán, an inconvenient factoid I managed to reconcile with this island’s distinctly Central American location, set aside from the Greater and Lesser Antilles.

The tour

On cayuco boats, the roof provides cover from the Caribbean sun . Photo by David Swanson

The half-day excursion can be divided neatly into three distinct sections. The first involves a 45-minute minivan trip from the port at Coxen Hole through the pine-spiked hills of Roatán, barely a mile wide, to Oakridge, a small settlement lining the shoreline. The long and winding drive is surprisingly beautiful. The island’s east end is said to have been a hangout for Henry Morgan and other pirates; today it is home to a vanishing vocation.

The community lives in brightly painted wooden houses, many perched on stilts. It’s nicknamed the Venice of Roatán because of its canal-like infrastructure. For getting around, most residents use rustic cayuco boats, which have the size and girth of a Venetian gondola but are topped with a long-slung roof for shade.

Our group piles into one of the cheerfully wobbling, motorized cayucos for a tour of the fishing village, then aimed at Calabash Bight, a neighboring settlement. Coursing through mangrove tunnels and shallow lagoons, the shrimp and lobster boats around every bend hint at a life that larger commercial operations are gradually eroding.

As a newcomer to Roatán I am enchanted by our cayuco ride. It’s distinct from anything I’ve tried in those more famous islands to the east. Not only have I checked off a destination from my Caribbean to-do list, but I’ve also found an attribute that makes it distinct.

Disembarking the boats, we made our way over a hill to Punta Gorda, our principal destination.  and a few dozen people, young and old, welcome us.  All wear pandemic-appropriate masks this moment calls for and, on arrival, we are pointed toward hand sanitizers positioned around the beachside dock.

Compared with the slicker commerce of the island’s west end, Punta Gorda has  a rich history: It was Roatán’s first settlement, dating to 1797, when the British Army exiled about 3,000 Garifuna from St. Vincent to this cove. Today, Punta Gorda is the de facto hub for the Garifuna culture, and its heritage is celebrated annually on April 12, the anniversary of its founding.

Dancers help visitors learn more about the Garifuna culture. Photo by David Swanson

We wander out to the thatch-roofed pier, where the second part of our tour begins. It’s a feast of dancing and music, featuring the punta, a traditional dance of seduction between a man and woman, against a song of call-and-response patterns and rhythmic drumming. The women wear bright magenta skirts, the men a painted wire mesh facial mask and a cascade of colored ribbons dangling to the knees.

It’s not a S.A.L.T. Experience without a great meal

A meal for guests who are exploring Roatan isn’t just a meal; it’s a S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste) experience. Our main course. Photo by David Swanson

Roatán-born chef Astel Samuel summons us to the third leg of the tour: a meal at to his restaurant, Jalisco’s Place. Gathered at picnic tables under a yellow and orange wooden canopy, we are served tapado, a fish and shrimp stew thickened with coconut milk, yucca, plantains and green bananas, plated alongside a flat crispy tortilla called casaba, made from the starchy tuber cassava. This is filling enough, but the main course is fried yellowtail snapper, served head-on and so fresh it was almost still snapping, with rice and beans, and tostones (fried plantain chips).

Desserts come next: pumpkin cake, coconut bread and yucca cake.

When his kitchen duties are complete, Chef Astel shares his surprising story. When he was young, he left Roatán to become a maritime hand, eventually employing the cooking skills he learned from his mother.  He found his way as a chef for high-end yachts and later was the personal chef for a Greek tycoon. But he longed to return to Roatán and now, he shares with us his favorite dishes and family recipes to try to keep the island’s Garifuna traditions alive.

Inside tips

Plan on a light breakfast. A Central American lunch is nothing if not hearty. Carry a camera (or fully charged phone) to capture the scenery of Oakridge and Calabash Bight, and the colorful energy  of the dance performance.

More info

S.A.L.T. is built around four pillars: S.A.L.T. Kitchen, a restaurant dedicated to showcasing food and wine from the region in which the ship is traveling, offers a regional menu  that changes daily, based on the port of the day. S.A.L.T. Lab allows guests to enjoy the challenge of cooking regional dishes. S.A.L.T. Bar celebrates cocktails made with local ingredients. All aim to bring the experience of life onshore, onboard. S.A.L.T. Experiences, meanwhile, moves in the opposite direction. This exclusive-to-Silversea series of shore excursions, hand-curated by local experts in cuisine and wine, creates personal connections to the places we visit. In this series of stories, we share our experiences on S.A.L.T. Experiences as we travel through Central America.

S.A.L.T. Adventures Culture and Cuisine of Garifuna in Roatán lasts a little more than four hours. The shore excursion is available on winter sailings aboard Silver Moon, Silver Dawn and Silver Nova.